At my bank the other day, I was s tanding in a line snaking around some tired velvet ropes when a man in a sweat-suit started inching toward me in his eagerness to deposit his Social Security check.
As he did so, I minutely advanced toward the woman reading the Wall Street Journal in front of me, who, in mild annoyance, began to sidle up to the man scribbling a check in front of her, who absentmindedly shuffled toward the white-haired lady ahead of him.
until we were all hugger-mugger against each other, the original lazy line having collapsed in on itself like a Slinky.
I estimate that my personal space extends eighteen inches in front of my face, one foot to each side, and about ten inches in back—though it is nearly impossible to measure exactly how far behind you someone is standing.
The phrase "personal space" has a quaint, seventies ring to it ("You're invading my space, man"), but it is one of those gratifying expressions that are intuitively understood by all human beings.
Like the twelve-mile limit around our national shores, personal space is our individual border beyond which no stranger can penetrate without making us uneasy.
Lately, I've found that my personal space is being invaded more than ever before.
In elevators, people are wedging themselves in just before the doors close; on the street, pedestrians are zigzagging through the human traffic, jostling others, refusing to give way.
on the subway, riders are no longer taking pains to carve out little zones of space between themselves and fellow-passengers; in lines at airports, people are pressing forward like fidgety taxis at red lights.
At first, I attributed this tendency to the "population explosion" and the relentless Malthusian logic that if twice as many people inhabit the planet now as did twenty years ago, each of us has half as much space. Recently, I've wondered if it's the season:
T-shirt weather can make proximity more alluring (or much, much less).
Or perhaps the proliferation of coffee bars in Manhattan—the number seems to double every three months—is infusing so much caffeine into the already jangling locals that people can no longer keep to themselves.
Personal space is mostly a public matter; we allow all kinds of invasions of personal space in private. (Humanity wouldn't exist without them.)
The logistics of it vary according to geography. People who live in Calcutta have less personal space than folks in Colorado.
I would wager that people in the Northern Hemisphere have roomier conceptions of personal space than those in the Southern.
To an Englishman, a handshake can seem like trespassing, whereas to a Brazilian, anything less than a hug may come across as chilliness.