How often have you found yourself in an uncomfortable situation where you are forced to break the unspoken rule about the invasion of the sacred bubble that surrounds us — our personal space? Those of you readers who live in New York can relate; during rush hour on the subway, you become very acquainted with the people around you — you can expect to reach second base with a perfect stranger on the A Train from the hours of 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Under normal circumstances, however, we generally prefer to keep a comfortable distance.

 

Our relationship with space in American culture is a very interesting phenomenon. When sitting on a park bench, or on the subway, for example, it is protocol for the newcomer to sit down a safe distance away from the other person. If a random stranger, say, decided to disregard the free space on the bench and shimmy right up to you, breaching the cultural code of conduct, you might question their sanity and be silently furious, all the while giving your best effort to ignore their unforgivable unnecessary closeness. However, you would have a much different reaction to this same proximity if it was a fuller subway car, or a more crowded bench. In other words, in our country, we only get close to people when we have to.

 

We are so used to our code of conduct in our culture that we barely think twice about it through the series of human interactions we face during the course of our day. When we speak to people we know or are being introduced to someone, we greet them with a firm handshake or even just a wave, maintain polite eye contact, appropriate responsiveness, and a comfortable arms-length distance. With strangers, we know not to stare, keep extended eye contact, or stand/breathe/exist too close to the other person at risk of being irritating and/or creepy. This all doesn’t seem too strange or unusual, until you consider the cultures in other countries.

 

In Europe, the rules are much different. Closeness is embraced in Italy, where they hug and kiss those that they are familiar with and tend to be more touchy-feely in regular situations where Americans would take a step back from each other. Public displays of affection are also more commonplace in places like Italy, Spain, and France. Additionally, in most of Europe the common greeting between friends is two kisses on each cheek; here, we would consider this gesture much more intimate than the standard hug or handshake. Maybe this cultural comfortability between humans lends itself to a more friendly and outgoing people. Or maybe kissing and being close in public is indecent and irritating.

 

Which culture does it right? Is it a negative aspect of our culture that we are so paranoid about our space? We all get frustrated with the guy at the party who gets all up in your grill when you talk or the couple that thinks it’s OK to make out in a restaurant, but are we missing out on human closeness and the importance of human contact when we keep people literally at arms length? Perhaps there is something to be recognized about the openness of European culture and their comfortability with one another. It has been said that physical closeness leads to emotional closeness — perhaps we are lacking in this arena. But then again, cultures and practices are all relative, so who is to say which practices are right or wrong on a universal level?

 

How do you feel about the topic of personal space? Do you sometimes find yourself wishing people would back off a little? Share your thoughts in the comments below or shoot me a tweet @JenksUOhMeASoda