I was in a new city; a city I had just begun to call home. With directions in hand and cautions to calm my nerves memorized, I put on my “I know what I’m doing” face, ignored my rapidly beating heart, and boarded the bus for this unknown place.
I had been warned that the bus might be hot and crowded so it was comforting to see only a dozen or so people on board initially, all local citizens, mostly male, and one American, me. I settled in for the long ride near the front and my heart beat returned to normal.
At the next stop a woman boarded and she sat down next to me. An empty bus, seats available everywhere, and she chose the seat next to mine. After smiling a “good morning” greeting to her, I turned to the window to process what had just happened. I chuckled. I wondered. I thought. I squirmed. I pondered some more. I had no answers. In the world I had come from, people choose empty rows of seats before choosing to sit with people they don’t know.
My world had led me to believe that I own a little bit of space and that people enter it with some sort of spoken or unspoken permission, even on a bus. Of course permission is quickly granted to those you know and love but a stranger simply would not enter without a good reason. On that particular day, my mind was blank of good reasons.
So there I sat. I wasn’t grumpy about it; I was just baffled. Why would this woman choose a seat next to me when she could have had a whole row of seats to herself? What caused her to think that sitting next to me was her best option? What did she know that I did not know?
I learned a lot on that 1989 bus ride. It turned me into a people-watching junkie who loves watching people react to personal space issues. No words spoken, yet still you hear the whisper: “…you’re in my space.” Space claims happen all the time in small places, like elevators, as people adjust and readjust the size of their space.
What is this imaginary space? Why do some seem to have a huge need for it and others relatively little? Some state it’s pre-determined by cultural backgrounds. Perhaps. Those from the west tend to appreciate more space, while those in the east or south may appear comfortable with less; however, there are exceptions to all generalizations. Guess that’s why it’s called “personal” space; you define its need, its size, and who is allowed in.
Friends from this new city of mine suggested a few ways to view my day on the bus:
- “Your seatmate offered companionship on a long trip.”
- “By creating the appearance of two women traveling together, she offered safety to both of you.”
- “She could tell you were a foreigner, traveling alone. She offered hospitality.”
Not one of those gifts came to mind that day;
my personal space got in the way.