Personal Space and Travel:  A Cultural War in Miniature

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Crowded NYC subway

By Mark Okrant, NH Travel Guru

 Anyone who travels on a bus, train, or plane approaches boarding times with a measure of trepidation. You silently pray to Mercury, the god of travel, that no one will sit next to you during the trip. Just in case it happens to be Mercury’s day off, you could present yourself as the least desirable of all potential seatmates: a scowling expression, unkempt hair, unshaven appearance, dark glasses, hoodie, or a pretense of sleep while clutching a wedge of Limburger cheese. Unfortunately, given the overbooking phenomenon on mass transportation these days, none of these guarantees that you’ll achieve your objective.

Mark Okrant

What is it about Americans that we have a monumental disposition against close contact with strangers? According to Amanda Erickson, writing for WorldViews, Americans are among the world’s “non-contact cultures,” a trait we share with residents of northern and eastern Europe, the rest of Anglo-America, and parts of east Asia. By way of contrast, the world’s “contact cultures” reside in Latin America, much of the Middle East, and the remainder of Asia.

So, if you are planning a trip to South America, be wary; strangers provide less personal space than we expect. Meanwhile, Romanians and Hungarians prefer to keep unfamiliar persons at arm’s length. Having visited the land of Dracula on two occasions, I highly recommend this as a vacation destination for the space-sensitive among us (more about Romania in a future column).

As a frequent traveler, I have found myself in a number of uncomfortable circumstances, having let down my guard. For example, years ago, I encountered a resident of Iran. When the young man heard me correctly describe his ancestry as Persian, he immediately embraced me. I’m sad to admit that, at a moment intended to be warm and fuzzy, the episode made me very uncomfortable.

As travelers, we often find ourselves in circumstances that involve being seated within close proximity of strangers. Years ago, I boarded a Greyhound Bus in New Orleans, bound for Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The young child seated behind me had a terrible cold, which manifested itself in the form of a loud, moist cough. Having endured several hours of hazardous mist, I finally turned around and offered the little boy’s mother a sucking candy for her child. The expression on the woman’s face was sufficient to tell me I had entered their personal space without an invitation.

Two months after 9/11, I was flying from Manchester to Chicago. The man seated next to me was clearly of Middle Eastern descent. I initially suppressed feelings of discomfort; however, when passengers were instructed to put away our electronic devices, he continued to type furiously on the keys of his iPhone. Several options went through my mind, the majority involving leg-irons. Finally, in the face of air pressure issues, I offered the man a stick of chewing gum. I’m happy to report that, one handshake and several smiles later, a delightful conversation lasted the entirety of the trip.

Travel is stressful enough these days without adding concerns about personal space to one’s burden. My recommendation is to be adaptable to your circumstances. I’ve flown across the country without exchanging more than a nod or a smile with the person seated next to me. On other occasions, I’ve been tendered free tour guide services, been offered a free stay at a tropical condominium, and received a wedding invitation while in transit. I must admit that those close personal encounters were far more interesting and memorable than the times that wedge of Limburger cheese repelled all comers.


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