Personal Space

How do we learn the concept of personal space? I’m sitting next to an elderly Chinese woman on United flight 869 who might as well be in my seat. As she eats, she props her elbows out so widely that they practically rest on my chest. I shift, trying to avoid her contact, to no avail. I would have to be not in my seat in order to not be touching her. And if I stand my ground? Doesn’t matter. She doesn’t appear uncomfortable rubbing elbows. So why does this make me uncomfortable? We’re in a small, confined space, an airplane. I realize, intellectually, that there’s limited real estate here. I’m not a particularly territorial person. Yet I don’t like her touching me. I sit here, trying to be okay with it. I’m not.

And yet. There’s something both endearing and incredibly irritating about her at the same time. Irritating because she waits until I am either asleep or deeply engrossed in work on my laptop to poke me and let me know she wants to go to the bathroom. I slowly rise from my aisle seat and let her out. And each time she comes back from the bathroom she pokes me, smiles, and then salutes me. That makes me smile. Until she starts rubbing elbows again.

2 thoughts on “Personal Space

  1. =How do we learn the concept of personal space?=Some decades ago (I almost said “many,” but restrained myself), during my brief stint in college, I took an elective course in Sociology (which was way more fascinating than my major), and we actually spent time on this subject. Many studies had been done (as I remember), and the conclusions seemed to be that the amount of personal space that people expected and gave depended on the population density of the culture they were raised in. Countries like China and India with very high popultion densities produced people who were comfortable with being, and expected to be, closer to people, and countries like ours with a lower population density resulted in people who wanted more space. As I recall, the countries whose people expected the <>most<> personal space were Scandanavian.I have experienced this phenomenon many times over those decades, especially since I work in an industry where there are many immigrants from India, and, lately, China. When I was younger, I often was standing in conversation with a co-worker who would step uncomfortably close to me, so I would step back. Then he would step closer. Then I would step back. This would continue until I was against a wall.I eventually learned to gently assert myself my stepping back the second or third time and raising a hand near the other person’s chest and saying, “Can we stay this far away, please? I can see you better that way.” If they continue to step in, I get less gentle and more assertive, though always of course staying polite.I’m surprised, world traveler that you definitely are, that you haven’t experienced this phenomenon. Regarding the lady on the plane, if it had been me, I would have been a little more forceful than with a coworker that I have to deal with every day. I would have gently pushed her elbow into her space and said, politely, “Would you please keep your elbow in your seat?” Third or fourth offense would escalate to, “Keep your elbow in your seat.” After that would be, “If you don’t keep your elbow in your seat, I’ll call a flight attendant.” Sorry to seem harsh, but your concept of personal space is just as valid and deserves just as much respect as hers.Regarding having the aisle seat, I can relate: I’m an aisle-seater, too. But, you know, if you’re going to enjoy the comforts of an aisle seat, you just have to accept the fact that if the people on the inside seats gotta go, they gotta go. It’s a price we have to pay.Where are you off to this time?

  2. The elderly lady didn’t speak any English and my Chinese isn’t so good. 🙂 I kind of also buy into the “respect your elders” thing, so wanted to be as polite as I could stand. I’ve definitely experienced this before, but usually not on planes, so it hadn’t bothered me so much. Off to Kathmandu for 12 days.

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