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Protecting Personal Space

When personal space is encroached upon, we get acutely sensitive. Sitting on a train, a bus or an airplane, we devise our own ways to keep the crowds out. We bury our heads in the newspaper or a book. Plug our ears into music and tune the world out. Elbow digs into ribs are ignored, droopy heads lolling onto the shoulder are dodged with a quick forward movement. But the real war is fought for control of the armrest. It is all done surreptitiously. Pretending that both have no knowledge of what is happening. The moment the armrest is free, the other arm occupies it. You can’t push the other person’s arm off. That’s a foul. But everything else is fair game. All this has to be achieved without a single word being exchanged and without acknowledging that the other person exists. In practically every case, you won’t even remember the face of the person who was right next to you. But you have to win. Why do you have to dominate? No idea. But if the other person manages, either by sheer size or savvy to monopolize the space, you can’t shake the feeling of resentment easily.

The same thing happens in front of lifts. Coughs and shuffles, quick glances to see if there is an acquaintance. Everyone punches the lift buttons, even if they are lit and the lift is on its way. Inside the lift, there is a curious dance not to end up right at the back. Most take up positions midway on the side and make way for others. Then, eyes are riveted on the floor indicators as if a thriller is playing out. Conversations die out, people try and hold their breath or look vacantly into the distance as if they are contemplating something profound. The smallest rustle of fabric, sniffles and throat clearing sounds are amplified. There’s something about standing very close to strangers that make for awkwardness in behavior. The violation of personal space is tolerated just long enough to reach the floor.

Forced intimacy is awkward. Wherever we have to be in close proximity with strangers, there is a conscious attempt to build distance in the mind. Even when introduced, people step forward, shake hands and then instinctively withdraw to the boundaries they have set. The mobile phone offers the perfect excuse to get close mentally to those we want to and keep the current company out. At parties, gyrating on the floor we seem to drop our inhibitions. But even that needs a stiff dose of alcohol or other mind-altering substances.

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