Too Close for Comfort

Surviving the people (as lovely as they may be) who rob us of our personal space (and can't take a hint)

Ever been attacked by a “space invader” — either someone in your family circle or among your group of friends and acquaintances?

Unaware of other people’s personal space, these folks edge closer and closer, oh-so-eager to talk. Most of us know someone like this, a person who seems oblivious to any squirming, flinching, backing away, or any completely obvious excuse we offer in a feeble attempt to get away.

A mother of three, I was on an airplane a few weeks ago and had the middle seat. As befits airline travel, I was displaying all the signs of a personal “no fly zone” of my own — a book open in my lap, earbuds dangling around my neck, eyes discreetly diverted. I was clearly not welcoming contact. Now I’m a friendly gal, but I’d had a long day and was going to nap or read the miles way between Raleigh, North Carolina, and Boston, Massachusetts.

Suddenly, my seatmate on the aisle slid into his seat.

“Hi,” he said, leaning in close to me. I jumped — then panicked. Was he going to kiss me?

“Oh, hi,” I stammered, trying to back away. But airline seats only go so far back. This is troublesome enough when you are trying to stretch out, but disastrous with a space invader.

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[lz_bulleted_list title=”Signs You’re a Space Invader”] You regularly touch noses with people in conversation.|The person you are talking to passes out because you’ve used up their oxygen.|When you approach, others go into awkward backbend contortions.

He leaned over as if he were sharing a secret. He cupped his hand around his mouth, which was still too close to the side of my face. “I paid for this flight entirely with reward miles,” he said, then chuckled conspiratorially.

I didn’t find this on-flight revelation on par with a secret like, “I’m an air marshal,” so I just smiled weakly and raised my book to my face as if I were extremely near-sighted. I also popped my earbuds, another layer of defense.

My new friend got behind my book with me, if that’s physically possible — it was — and tapped me on my shoulder. “Business or pleasure?” he boomed.

Was he a circus ringleader or a professional bingo caller? From across the aisle, a young woman shot me a look of sympathy as others looked at me and then quickly averted their eyes in pity. I think they were secretly praying they weren’t stuck in my predicament.

I decided to face this new space invasion head on. I dropped my book, pulled out one earbud and said, “Pleasure,” and bit my lip before saying “‘Til now.”

I was uneasy as I spoke — I could see each pore on my neighbor’s far-too-close face. I also had pretty certain knowledge he had, in the not-too-distant past, consumed a hot dog with a spicy pickle relish.

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I looked back at my book. Couldn’t they please start up the plane?

My friend returned to his own space as soon as the television screens came on and a March Madness game popped up in front of him. But first he leaned over and said, “I’m sorry, do you mind if I watch basketball now?”

“No, I insist you keep talking to me so I can check out more of your fine dental work!” I was tempted to say.

But didn’t. Soon he was completely absorbed in the game and I was off the hook, as it were. Free to be me.

A lack of personal space makes most of us uncomfortable. We need a little room, a little space to exist.

Imaginary lines drawn around each one of us advertise, “All the space here is mine. You respect mine, and I promise to respect yours!”

A lack of conversational etiquette is also the hallmark of a space invader. Conversation is supposed to be a two-way street, not a one-way highway at rush hour.

“We have an acquaintance who’s a close talker. No matter where we run into him — the train, the deli, the sidewalk — he talks everyone’s ear off and never seems to take a hint,” said one New York wife and mom. “This has been going on for years. He’s not a bad guy at all, but he seems completely clueless about personal space and about knowing when to back off a bit.”

Could this be you? If so, stay aware, and stay away, when talking with others.

Don’t get too far away, now — one to three feet is the average for Americans. But keep just the right amount of distance for everyone to enjoy your charm, appreciate all that you have to offer, and not find you a pain in the — personal space arena.

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