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Breaking a Social Norm: Personal Space, Please

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    What if you are traveling on a bus, and once the bus makes its stop; another man walks in, past all the available seats, and takes a seat right next to you? He then falls asleep, leaning his head onto your shoulder.

    How bizarre would that be? If you are an American, then you are aware that the concept of respecting personal space is a social norm, making that scenario a bit out of the norm. On the contrary, if you are Chinese, it may be acceptable. Just place my boyfriend in the above scenario, traveling on a bus, in China, when a Chinese man walks in and falls asleep on his shoulder. I found it quite interesting that in China, the concept of personal space is nonexistent.

    Perhaps the following experiment I conducted would be nothing out of the ordinary norm in other countries. I decided to do a little experiment where I would violate personal space. This is a norm that acts as a mechanism of social control by teaching us to avoid conflict or confrontation. There are a variety of possible reactions that people can have to the violation of this norm.

    There are those who will walk, or inch away when they feel their personal space has been invaded. Some will turn and look directly at the “invader.” Others will ignore completely, and there are those who deliberately speak their mind, not hesitating to tell you that you have violated their personal space. I predict that the major reaction I may get will be individuals ignoring my act of violation and perhaps inching away and trying to get away from me, as I invade their personal space.

    I decided to conduct my little experiment at Wal-Mart with the help of my boyfriend so that I could observe the behavior of the individual(s) and he could observe the behavior of the onlooker/audience. We walked into Wal-Mart, and as I walked over to the sale rack, I noticed a teenage girl rummaging through the rack of sale items. I then moved close to her, and as I was behind her, peered over her shoulder to take a look at what she was looking at. She immediately moved, without making any eye contact.

    My boyfriend later told me that she turned around and looked at me in disbelief as I walked away. I then followed a mother and her toddler with their cart, being cautious to stay within close proximity of them. It wasn’t long before she turned around and looked at me and moved over to her right as if allowing me to pass her. There was a lady who looked to be in her late forties who was browsing through the aisle of towels.

    As this lady leaned over to pick a towel up, I leaned over and picked the same towel up. Surprisingly, she didn’t look at me. She then walked over to the floor mats, and I followed closely behind her. She stopped and stood to look at them when I followed her gaze, and grabbed the floor mat which she seemed to be looking directly at.

    She then turned her face to look at me, and I walked away with the floor mat in my hand with a smile. We later made our way over to the cash register to purchase two boxes of Betty Crocker’s brownies, when I noticed an older lady in her early fifties, ahead of me, paying at the register. The cashier gave her the total, and as she was peering over the card reader, looking at the total, I inched close enough to her so that we were standing elbow to elbow. This lady turned around and looked directly into my eyes and said, “Do you mind giving me my personal space?” I then responded, “Sure!” I took one step back; as she was watching me, she responded, “thank you.

    “During the duration of my experiment, I felt as if I was violating the norm. I felt a bit awkward, and was a bit skeptical, pondering on the thought of the various reactions I could face. I felt as if I was being rude by invading the personal space of another individual, especially being that I am not one to make eye contact with a stranger in any public place. I felt the need to apologize to the woman at the cash register.

    I felt that standing directly next to her was a bit confrontational. We are taught to act and carry ourselves a certain way by following societal norms. Violating another’s personal space can imply something negative. Especially as norms exercise social control by teaching us consideration, and teaching us to avoid unnecessary conflict, especially in a country where we have the freedom of democracy.

    I appreciate the fact that we have an understanding of the concept of personal space because it gives us a sense of security. I am simply comfortable with it, and couldn’t begin to comprehend if the situation in China was reversed, and I would have been in a place of my boyfriend!

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