Step Back

Posted: 4 November 2009 in observations
Tags: , ,

Personal space fascinates me.  Although my default preference is just a bit less than an arm’s width away, I don’t experience enormous discomfort if you stand too closely to me when talking.  (As an overview, Wikipedia captures the concepts of personal and social distance nicely.)  As if personal preference wasn’t enough of a problem with regard to space, the stereotypes about specific cultures and space requirements are vast.  We group proxemics right up there with judgements about personal warmth, extraversion and formality.  Close-talkers are loud, friendly and from warm places.  Greater personal space indicates standoffishness, professionalism and a cool personality.

We also take space personally.  Is there something wrong to make her stand so far away?  Is it my breath?  Or more commonly in the U.S.: Why is he standing so close?  What does he want?  Is he dangerous?  Sloppy social skills?  It’s an affront to my delicate sensibilities!  Doesn’t he know he’s so close?  Some folks drop their eyes, back up across rooms, and physically place objects in between a conversation in order to preserve space.  We want what feels comfortable to us, even at the expense of someone else’s comfort.

Generally, civility outranks preference.  Think of it this way, there are two people and two types of ice cream, creamy vanilla and fresh strawberry.  One person is mildly allergic to strawberry.  He can eat it, but it makes his tongue tingle uncomfortably.  Nothing else happens.  The second person loves vanilla ice cream but thinks strawberry is just okay.  Knowing about the first person’s allergy, I think the second person will pick the strawberry dish every time.  In the case of space, preference often outranks civility.

Maybe a change is afoot, many it’s generational or need driven, but in the library, students often crowd up against the desk without regard to space.  It’s not a problem keeping a queue.  They know exactly who is next and respect each person’s right to a turn but rather than form a physical line (which they never have) or stand the appropriate social distance away (more typical) they often huddle up against one another at the front.

The first time I saw it, I wondered if the two people were friends or classmates.  When it was obvious they didn’t know one another, I was surprised that neither looked particularly uncomfortable.  Since then, I’ve watched it happen again and again.  Whether the current student is checking out a book or defending a fine, folks will crowd up and around offering no privacy at all.  Typically, I think it bothers me more than it bothers them and I’ve got a solid 2 feet of oak between us.  I wonder at what point the commonly understood 12-18 inches of space between the person in front of you (line or no line) evaporated.

Where do you stand while waiting for service?  I’m willing to bet it isn’t at the elbow of the stranger being helped.

  1. Madeline says:

    I’m wondering about the public/private breech that happens with social media: FB, Twitter, texting, etc. Those who decry the problem of “this” generation — made of people who are accustomed to having constant overlap of me/them with incoming texts and etc — might actually be wrong: “this” generation has an uncanny ability to interact and flex in public situations because they have no sense for space as being “mine” and “theirs.”


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