The bigger you are, the greater personal space you need. Sadly, this rule doesn’t apply on budget airlines, or if you’re pregnant. These days I keep bumping into things, like a cat that needs longer whiskers, because my inner compass is out of step with my expanding curves. And while my kicking baby invades my privacy, strange hands assail my belly. Worse, if I back off, the gropers look hurt, rejected. And annoyingly, they’re right. How I feel about their unsolicited pats tells me – with unprecedented clarity – exactly how much I like them. Or not.
Am I standoffish? Hormonal? Typical Brit? Perhaps. Perhaps other women adore admiring bump hugs. But my sensitivity to the boundary between intimacy and intrusion isn’t entirely personal. For a start comfort zones are culturally determined, influenced by habitat. In populous India, strangers stand closer than on the vast Mongolian steppe.
Yet social boundaries are as changeable as national borders. An Italian travelling in Tudor England noted in horror that if a visitor doesn’t ‘kiss the mistress [of the house] on the mouth, they think him badly brought up’. And it wasn’t the puritan Oliver Cromwell, but lusty Charles II who deemed kissing an unacceptable English greeting – because he was raised in France, which then considered face-on-face action vulgar!
It’s impossible to read the words ‘personal space’ without hearing an American accent, but the notion’s no more foreign than our cliché about not stepping on people’s toes. How you measure personal space is the problem. To solve it, 1960s anthropologist Edward T. Hall invented ‘proxemics’, a quasi-science, with diagrams of concentric rings, to divide social from personal space (4 feet and 1.5 feet from the body, respectively). But his yardstick’s too long for Japan, and totally impractical for the Tube.
There’s but one universal law of personal space: we perceive it via the psychological nervous system popularly called the emotions. It’s policed by the amygdala, part of the brain that hosts emotional memories. Hence you’ll experience a Pavlovian flinch when your smelly brother-in-law lunges for his annual New Year’s kiss. Luckily, you needn’t be a dog to retrain your amygdala. Move to Rome, you’ll soon learn to embrace acquaintances. And if social signposts are unclear, try my preferred marker of personal space: can you smell his breath? Then smile, step back. I guarantee he won’t be offended.
As seen in ES magazine