Dear Matthew Alice: This is a pretty strange question, but I just have to ask it. It’s been driving me crazy. Have you ever noticed that people from other countries sometimes are kind of pushy waiting in line? Maybe it’s just me, but sometimes they practically stand on your heels. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does I get really upset. Is it me? Is it them? I’m only five feet tall, and sometimes I feel like I’m about to be run over by a bus. I hope you’ll answer this question for me. — No Name, Please, North County
It’s you. It’s them. It’s more proof that the great American melting pot is more like a hearty beef stew than cheese fondue. To put a name to it, it’s proxemics. The idea of personal space. Birds do it, bees do it, we’s do it too. Here’s a basic example from the animal kingdom, snitched from the annals of the Alice clan’s vast and peculiar life experiences.
Aunt Mervin Alice one day acquired a kitten. Her next-door neighbor brought home a freshly minted collie pup. Within the week, the two were spotted dozing in the shade, Mervin’s kitten curled up between the collie’s front paws. The collie barked at Mervin’s back door each morning so she’d let the cat out to play. One legacy from the collie years was the cat’s lifelong habit of protecting its territory by charging dogs, cats, and squirrels that blundered onto Aunt Mervin’s lawn. So, proxemically speaking, all animals have definable, defensible spaces around them, but in the right circumstances, others will be allowed (selectively) into that space.
The papa of proxemics is a university professor named Edward Hall. He’s done the most extensive studies on how we human beans define “personal space.” And one of his most solid findings is that our cultural backgrounds strongly influence how close we’ll allow others to get to us before we yell, “Get outta my face!” Broadly, Hall found that North Americans and northern Europeans have much larger personal-space “bubbles” around them than do people of Mediterranean, Japanese, or Middle Eastern heritage. According to Hall, the average American (one not strongly influenced by a foreign culture, anyway) will start feeling uneasy, perhaps even hostile, when a stranger invades the invisible four-foot circle that defines Americans’ “intimate space,” reserved for lovers, family, and close friends. In situations where this boundary has to be crossed — waiting in line or in the ultimate pressure cooker, the dreaded elevator — we adopt lots of behaviors to protect our space, respect others’, and ease our rattled psyches. It’s a law that Americans in an elevator must stare only at the numbers above the doors. We know that eye contact with the stranger six inches away could cause hirh to snarl, “Whadda ya staring at, bub?” Hall says it all has to do with power, since Americans tend to see invasions of private space as intimidating or confrontational gestures.
According to Hall, we also have social distance zones. For Americans, 4 to 7 feet is about right for talking to a store clerk, 7 to 12 feet for the big boss at work, and more than 12 feet in public areas such as waiting rooms or lobbies. Hall speculates that even Americans’ penchant for roomy cars was part of our need to maintain our personal space, while the French and Italians are comfortable squashed together in their little sardine cans. At the top of Hall’s Gimme Shelter scale are the Germans, whom he found highly sensitive to invasions of personal space. He tells the story of one German executive working in the United States who got tired of Americans coming into his office and pulling the visitor’s chair up to his desk. He had placed the chair at what he considered the appropriate distance for business interaction. In desperation, he finally bolted the chair to the floor.
As much as Germans like body- and ego-protecting seclusion, Middle Easterners, according to Hall’s studies, like companionship and family closeness. For them, there is virtually no “private zone” outside the body. Like Mediterraneans, Middle Easterners can tolerate what we’d consider a crowded environment and in fact prefer it to physical privacy. The ideal house has living areas with few partitions and is filled with all members of the extended family. But it shouldn’t be jammed into a crowded neighborhood; they prefer lots of land and grand vistas. Hall cites a Lebanese man who built a “spite house” directly in front of his neighbor’s to block his view. It was the checkmate move in an ongoing family feud.
Hall’s findings, of course, are cultural generalizations, and, like Aunt Mervin Alice’s cat, people will break down some of their barriers depending on the situation and individual personality. But, Ms. No Name, proxemics does give you the most likely answer to your question. Two different people, two different ideas about personal space.
Next time you see a flock of sparrows on a telephone line, notice how evenly they’re spaced. Nobody standing on anybody else’s little feet, nobody crowding or pushing. One species, one idea of what distance is the right distance. Personally, I’m glad we’re not sparrows.