Space – This Time, It’s Personal


I’m a bit anal about my personal space. In public, I like to keep a nice distance between me and people I don’t know. The habit stems from my childhood. As your typical socially awkward nerd, I quickly learned that staying away from people was the best way to avoid embarrassment — not like it mattered. Sometimes it felt like everyone was pointing out how much of a loser I was. For a while I thought that billboard would never come down.

These days I’m more confident, but I still have a few of my old tendencies. You’ll see them if you ever come with me to a bookstore. Every so often some guy enters the aisle I’m in and decides that, out of all the books in the entire store, the one he wants to look at is right next to my feet. It doesn’t matter where I happen to be. I could be in the Kinky Backwards Sex aisle and this guy will think, “Hey, that dude looks desperate enough. Maybe he knows where to find that book about banging your coffee machine.”

He’ll decide to walk over and crouch right next to me. Now I don’t know what to do. I have to run through my options. Do I stay there and remain uncomfortable? It could build character after all. Isn’t that how it works? You build character by suffering? If that’s true, that guy who wrote Angela’s Ashes had enough character building to rewrite the Harry Potter series. There’s no way I can compete with that — I only have enough character for a pamphlet.


Maybe I could make a subtle move to make him back off. You know how it is. You’re standing in the checkout line and someone slaps their gut against your back, so you do a little stretch or flare out your elbows. You bump into him, he backs off. “I’m sorry!” you say. “I didn’t see you there!”

Of course in reality you’re wishing you had super strength and your poke knocked him to the back of the store. Really, is anyone going to believe you had to stretch right then and there? You just happened to, at that very moment, walk in line and think, “Wow, my shoulders are really tense. I better do some cardio while the lady rings up my Hot Pockets.”

The final option is to back out and move to another section. If I’m at the end of the aisle and I want to look somewhere else, I’ll walk out. No problem. But what if I want to look at something past the guy who’s reading about coffee sex? I can’t just swing past him. That violates the whole “personal space” thing we’re trying to maintain.

Instead I have to go around. I have to walk out the end of my current aisle, charge through the nearest aisle, then leave that and move to the other end of the aisle where I started. I’ll play this real casual too, even though I look like I’m surveying the area in case I want to tear it down. (But first, I gotta go to the dairy section and tell Welfare Smurf to pack his things.)

Now, I know there’s no reason to act this way. I only avoided people while growing up because I was afraid of rejection. It’s not like I’m alone — we all fuss over our personal space. Even if I was a popular kid, I would’ve probably picked up some of these habits anyway. That’s how our culture is wired. Granted, it broke in the mail, but God just never got around to sending it back.


Think about it. When you get a table at the library, what do you do? You sling your stuff over it. You claim it as your table. Nobody’s going to challenge that — they’d sit on the wall if they could to avoid landing near you or anyone else. Next time someone is forced to sit at your table, feel the tension that swells up. You pretend it doesn’t bother you and he pretends it doesn’t bother him, but it actually bothers you two way too much. Both of you are waiting for the other guy to leave so you can feel safe again. After all, no one must know that I’m still trying to find Waldo.

When you go into a restaurant, do you hate it when the waiter plants you in a booth next to one that’s being used? It’s really bad when the booths are empty, save for one, and the waiter wants me to sit across from it. Haven’t you ever wanted to ask if you can sit in a booth that’s farther away? We don’t do it because we don’t want to look selfish, but really, we’d all like to be the mob boss that rents out the booths around him. And if you’re American, there’s a good chance that your body parts need that space anyway.

Now, I’m not saying you’re bad for feeling this way. It happens to all of us. (Especially me, and I’m damn near perfect.) Still, we can bear to let strangers close once in a while. Heck, if we get used to that, maybe we can strike up conversation with someone who turns out to be a new friend. Sure, Facebook and MySpace are fun, but in the end man is a sociable creature. We have a lot to gain when we move past our boundaries and open ourselves to others. (Just remember — entering a crime scene and shouting “I’ll take it from here” doesn’t count.)

Join the discussion

  • I have always found that my shyness and awkwardness have always made me go out of my way to avoid confrontations – actual or made up in my head – or situations that I’m not in full control of my personal space which is about 2-3 feet. However, once I got into University I learned that one must stake their territory like an animal…I’m not talking about peeing on the nearest tree. No, what I mean is think like a caveman, a warrior, a soldier…the one most likely to survive and pass on their genes. Stake that spot your standing on and don’t budge…don’t be a jerk about it…but if that guy who waltz’s over and hovers around you and your personal space make sure you make it obvious you’re not happy with him being there but being determined and confident. I have found time and time again this has worked. I don’t feel self-conscious anymore nor do I feel like I should go out of MY way to rectify the situation. Remember, claim your space as your own.

  • This article feels like reading about myself. People never avoid contact with me – they like to stand close, sit next to me on the bus, browse the shelves of the store with me… Being a former geek and a social outcast, I prefer my comfort zone – so I grow angry and aggressive – shove my elbows into ribs of others if I have to, bulge my way with my purse held as a shield :(. I take my personal space far more literally – if someone plays loud music that leaks into my space, I am the first to call the police to file complain.

    What to do… *sigh*

  • you guys are freaking crazy. when someone is close to you… well he’s close to you… and that’s it.. and no the other dude does not feel the pressure rise and such.. only you feel that… why ?? because you are freaking crazy, when I sit at a table.. I don’t try to “OWN” the table.. it’s ppl like you that create frustration in our society. you write this article thinking everyone does these crazy habits of yours… but we don’t. normal ppl just accept to be in society, live with others and share space. You can’t live with this ?? well go see a doc and ask him for strong medicine.. with less people like you there might just be more pleasant encounters when we’re in public..

    oh and if someone is to close to you in a line at a store… just tell him to back off.. don’t put up a show that is going on entirely in your head.. just ask politely and the dude will back off… unless he’s a crazy fu*ktard like you…

  • I very much enjoyed the article.

    Some random dude is an obvious trolling douche. or a troll who douches? Either way is correct.

    To some random dude, I politely ask you to crawl back under your rock because when you open your mouth, sh*t spews out, no one likes sh*t…. no one likes you random dude. stop wasting air!

    Was that polite enough? And since I asked politely, you will go away now? Forever? Please? Because with less people like you… well… in everyway the world would be a better place.

    This article was a pleasant encounter and you ruined it random dude, not the blogger of the article or the article itself but you! And YOU need to seek professional help for your deep ugly insecurities that make you a bitter, useless and hateful person with absolutely nothing of worth to offer in your pathetic existence.

    Happy Holidays everyone 🙂

  • @some random dude: Yes, some people are completely comfortable with their personal space. But even if you are, have you ever been in a situation where someone puts their face very close to yours and keeps moving in? Or they keep inching closer during a conversation? That makes a lot of people, even confident ones, back off.

    And while I have deliberately done the things I’ve mentioned in the article, I’ve seen other people do it too. Perhaps subconciously. I imagine many people who sling their stuff onto a table don’t even think about the implications. But all the same, others see that and think, “Is there another table I can use instead?”

  • I still feel a deep sort of resentment when my “space” is intruded upon. But I try to get over it fast by remembering something that Benjamin Franklin said, “What begins in anger , ends up in shame.”

  • we were at a party
    his ear lobe fell in the deep
    someone reached in and grabbed it
    it was a rock lobster!

    rock lobster!

    rock lobster!

    we were at the beach
    everybody had matching towels
    somebody went under a dock
    and there they saw a rock
    it wasn’t a rock
    it was a rock….lobster!

    rock lobster!
    rock lobster!
    rock lobster!

    rock lobster!!