I recently went to my local cell-phone service provider to upgrade my phone. I signed in at the kiosk, and went to take a seat on the 6 or 7 foot long cushioned bench. I sat about 1/3 of the way in on the bench since it was empty. Shortly after I sat down, a gentleman entered, signed in, and sat down as well. Next to me – about a foot away from me. He sat there even though the rest of the bench – and the other bench was empty. I found my reaction to his proximity interesting. I was immediately aware that it felt too close. I was slightly uncomfortable, but it’s a public place, so it was not that bad – just noticeable. Not surprisingly, within 30 seconds he was talking to me.
I do not tend to talk to strangers much. I make eye contact, I smile, but I don’t tend to start conversations in a store or even sitting near someone at length. But after 23 years in Virginia, I can actually remember to respond to the person asking “how are you? with my own “fine, and you?” (Admittedly, it did take about nearly 10 years for this New Englander to notice that I was actually supposed to respond with the “and how are you?” part. I’m not sure if it’s my being an introvert or a “northerner” but it wasn’t intentional rudeness – honest!)
Back to the Close Sitter. He started with the weather, and quickly moved on to how he’d almost called the police about the teenagers wandering in his neighborhood at 1AM because they had no good reason to be out and what were these parents thinking and he lived on Route 3 and worked in DC and needed to help his neighbor with a car repair and he’d just come from a doctor’s appointment and …. and….I was nodding, making brief eye contact, and acknowledging him minimally. I didn’t really want to encourage him to continue into deeper confessions – but I don’t think he noticed.
I began to hope to hear my name called SOON. I was also wondering why I felt so uncomfortable. Just because a stranger sat close to me in a public place where I would not be threatened (presumably) and wouldn’t stop talking? Why did it even bother me?
But in our culture, there is a personal space that feels appropriate. When you sit in an airport – (as I am now) – choosing a seat in the waiting area right next to a stranger if many seats are available is just not done.
I am curious if my level of comfort is due to my culture or my personal reserve or the fact that I am an introvert. I wonder if extroverts in our culture talk to strangers immediately and I’d just never noticed? Do they pay less attention to personal space because their comfort level is different? Would this stranger have talked to me if I was with a friend? He was probably the type of person whose filters are a bit weak – not really recognizing my signals.
My name was called, the Close Sitter remained – and my comfort level returned to normal.
Life as a New Englander Introvert – is that a double dose?
For more about culture and personal space: Personal Space . For those who are wondering – a distance of 10 to 12 feet is the usual for casual contact with strangers. 🙂