Waste Of Space

Space: It is the one thing that we, as Americans, share in abundance.  Our public parks, malls and even our homes all reflect this wealth.  It is this space that lends itself to the unequally American idea of “personal space.”  Whether standing in line, speaking to a co-worker or approaching a stranger on the sidewalk, this “personal space” is, more often than not, respected.  It is a cultural phenomenon that has been uniformly franchised throughout our nation.

When this “personal space” is violated, it is not uncommon to act as if one has been robbed of some intrinsically valuable and irreplaceable object.  How we have come to this point, I don’t know, and will not attempt to answer.  It is interesting that we assume ownership in our “personal space,” this intangible personal property, over which we lack any control.

I am a commuter, and the reactions to perceived violations of “personal space” are more apparent here than perhaps in any other situation encountered in our society.  The reactions to these intrusions are a study in the human psyche itself:   ranging from aggressive behaviors to meek submission of the advances of another commuter.  The non-verbal communication is clear and sometimes offensive.  Oddly enough, this is accepted and welcome behavior.

Recently, I’ve had experiences with a gentleman who would choose to sit beside me rather than occupy an empty row of seats on the train.  My reaction to his behavior was bitter.  How rude!  After some reflection, I realized he had done nothing wrong.  His socially awkward actions were not egregious.  The only “wrong” in this situation was the slight I had felt, for this gentleman, who had paid the same fare as I, could very well choose any seat he desired.  I, too, could have moved if I had chosen to do so.  Also true was the fact that each seat would soon be filled anyway with the remaining throng of morning commuters.

 So today I embarked on a social experiment, so to speak.  In the least, I would be humored.  By chance, this same gentleman boarded my train and opted to take a seat on his own.  After the train had embarked, I alighted from my seat.  I firmly sank into the seat next to this gentleman.  With a perturbed look of disbelief and disgust, he pulled his eyes away from his paper and fixed his attention upon me.  Indeed I was more than surprised when he remarked, more as a command than a question, “Do you mind?”

To which I responded, “No, not at all.”

—George MacMillan