October 4, 2009

There will always be people who cross that invisible line, which they must know is there, and invade your personal space. Last week this happened while I was waiting in the check-in queue at the airport. A woman who was standing behind me was so close, I could feel her breathing on my neck. It was human tailgating; where was her spatial awareness?

I turned around and gave her a look. It didn't work. The line moved forward; so did she. Finally I couldn't take it anymore and I snapped, "Can you take a step back please?" She glanced over her shoulder and shrugged - as if she had no room to back-up. But this wasn't the case. She had plenty of room. What I couldn't understand is that she had no problem at all with the situation. How could it not bother her? I decided not to confront her further because then, on top of standing too close, she'd be talking too close as well. And also, I might end up seated next to her on the plane for seven hours. With a broken arm-rest.

Even worse than neck-breathers are the close-talkers. Unless I'm about to kiss you, there is no other reason to be that close.

Recently, my Irish friend Richard had a cocktail party at his flat and invited me to attend. Since we live in the same building, this is the kind of party I don't mind going to. I enjoy knowing that as soon as I'm ready to leave, home is only a flight of stairs away.

His party was filled with Europeans and one in particular, a woman from Croatia, had no concept at all of the acceptable body space that needs to exist between two people. She seemed sort of interesting but I couldn't concentrate on anything she was saying because the entire time she was talking, our noses were nearly touching.

I took a step backwards and reversed away but as soon as I did this, she inched forward. It was like an unpleasant slow dance until eventually, I hit the wall. Literally and figuratively.

It's not like we were packed like sardines in a small space either. In a crowded pub, I get it; there's no choice. But at a cocktail party in a roomy flat with less than a dozen people? How do you rationalize it?

"It's an American complex," Richard said definitively. "Because most of America is empty so people get used to wide open spaces."

Really? I'm not so sure. The reason I need distance between me and the person I'm speaking to has less to do with the wide open plains of America and more to do with the fact that I don't want to be able smell what the other person had for lunch.

Also, you never know when someone is going to cough or sneeze. I need to have at least enough space to be able to suddenly move my arms to shield my face.

I'm curious what compels people to get so close in the first place. Were they born on a Tokyo Subway? Or maybe they're a twin. Once you've shared a womb for nine months, personal space might not be such an issue.

Obviously, when it comes to personal space, everyone has a different comfort zone. My own boundaries are dictated by the circumstance and what's necessary. When I'm in a romantic relationship, it doesn't bother me because I've sanctioned the space invasion. There are people where the closer they get, the better. For instance, my doctor, dentist, and optician - they can get as close as they want and I'll never feel uncomfortable.

I would never say, "Can you step back - you're looking too far down my ear canal."