Posted by: foodtalker | February 13, 2011

cheek by jowl

There’s something about personal space:  it’s, well, personal.  But there are always people who will cross that invisible line, which they have to know is there. 

Recently this happened whilst I was waiting to check in at the airport.  A woman who was standing behind me was so close, I could feel her breath on my neck.  Not pleasant.  It was the equivalent of human tailgating: where was her spatial awareness?  Probably packed in her carry-on.  I’m sorry, if you’re a stranger I just don’t want to be that aware of you.

I turned around and gave her one of my special reserved looks.  It didn’t work.  The line moved forward and so did she.  Finally I snapped at her and said, “Can you take a step back please?”  She took a look over her shoulder and shrugged – as if she wondered if I was addressing her, or had no room to back up.  Neither was the case.  She had plenty of room.  How could it not bother her?  Maybe she came from a large family.  Anyhow, I decided not to confront her further because then, on top of standing too close, she’d be talking too close as well.  Besides, I might end up seated next to her on the plane for the next seven hours . . . .  with a broken arm rest.

Even worse than the space invaders are the face invaders.  There’s no need to be that in-your-face close unless I am about to kiss you.  And there haven’t been too many of those lately. 

Recently at a cocktail party attended by people from all over the world, I was cornered by a woman from Japan who had no concept at all of the acceptable body space that needs to exist between two people.  She might even have been interesting but I couldn’t concentrate on a thing she was saying because the entire time she was talking our noses were virtually touching.

It wasn’t as if we were packed in like sardines.  A crowded bar, I get it.  But at a cocktail party in a large spacious home with less than a dozen people?  How to make sense of it? 

“It’s an American complex,” my host said later.  “Because America is so vast and much of it’s empty, 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 with 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 to smell what the other person had for lunch or count their fillings.

Just as bad as the people who physically encroach into my space are the ones who, for example at the grocery, use their carts in the same way by shoving them hard up against me.   It’s a passive form of bullying, and I love the way they always grin and say “Ooops, sorry.”

I’m curious what compels people to get so close in the first place.  Maybe the woman at the cocktail party was born in a Tokyo subway?  Or maybe she’s a twin.  I imagine once you’ve shared a womb for nine months, personal space might not be a huge issue.

Obviously everyone has a different comfort zone when it comes to personal space.  My own boundaries are dictated by the circumstances and what is necessary.  When in a romantic relationship, it doesn’t both me because I’ve sanctioned the space invasion and the closer they get the better.  My gynaecologist, dentist, and ear, nose and throat doctor can all get as close as they like without bothering me.

In fact, I’d never say to any one of them, “Could you step back please – you’re way too close looking into that orifice.”


  1. Really giggled at twin/womb explanation. How did you think of that?
    Not sure I agree about the dentist, ENT being allowed to ‘get close’.
    I always find them a potential problem.

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