In my hometown, we had a community policeman named Officer Heinz. Throughout my childhood, he often visited our school to discuss topics like bicycle safety and bullying. He had a kindly demeanor, and represented the helpful face of the police force to the children in our small Connecticut community.
When I was in sixth grade, Officer Heinz made a visit to my homeroom class. Before sharing the reason for his visit, he said he needed a volunteer to help him with an experiment. I don’t think I raised my hand, but somehow I was chosen, and Officer Heinz asked me to step outside the classroom until he was ready to call me back in.
I stood in the hallway alone for about fifteen minutes, wondering what exactly might be going on behind that closed door. Although I was a relatively serious student–the kind who would never dream of skipping class without permission–I am sure I enjoyed the freedom of being out in the hall during class time, without a hall pass. Small things like that mean a lot to kids.
When Officer Heinz called me back into the classroom, he asked me to stand up front with him. Then he began to ask me, in a very friendly manner, personal information questions such as my name, where I lived, how many siblings I had, what ice cream flavors I liked–but as he was asking, he began to step toward me so that there was only about fifteen inches of space between us. I answered his questions, but there was a growing nervousness in my voice as I instinctively took a step backwards, in an attempt to open the space between us. As I did this, I heard my classmates begin to laugh. Officer Heinz continued conversing with me, and once again moved in to close the space between us. I backed away again. More laughter. By the end of the conversation, which probably lasted less than a minute but felt like an eternity, I was literally backed up against the wall.
That was when Officer Heinz ended the experiment and explained to me that while I was out of the room, he had been talking with my classmates about the concept of personal space. Then, he discussed the difference between intimate space, personal space, social distance, and public space, and warned us of what might happen if we fail to respect those boundaries in certain situations.
On that day in middle school, Officer Heinz gave me my first conscious opportunity to examine and understand my own sense of personal space. Though I was terribly uncomfortable while “the experiment” was happening, it is a lesson that has served me well during my travels, and which has come in handy in my work as an international educator and intercultural communication specialist. In time I would come to understand that although personal space is always context-sensitive and variable, group norms exist for all cultures, and Americans typically require more personal space than most.
For example, when presenting orientations to international students and visitors, I often need to explain to them the cultural practice of Americans not sitting next to another person on a bus or in a movie theater or at a cafe unless all other options have been exhausted, and then only after asking, “Is this seat taken?” as a way of seeking permission to enter what is understood to be “personal space.” Visitors from countries with more dense populations are often surprised by this, as they have been raised with a very different sense of personal space.
In 2013, I spent a month as a guest lecturer at a college in Atsugi, Japan. On the days when I was not teaching, I would often ride the morning train to Shinjuku Station in Tokyo. In order to shield myself from panic over the paralyzing press of human bodies packed into the train, I would try my best to stand where I could press my face against the glass of the window and look out at the landscape as we raced by. I also managed to read an entire novel on the small screen of my iPod, which I held in front of my face like a shield.
I soon came to understand the Japanese concept of pasonaru supesu, or personal space, which is a highly valued luxury in Japan. I started observing the many ways that the Japanese establish pasonaru supesu even in the most crowded conditions—by wearing masks when they have a cold, by napping in situations where it would seem unfathomable to me, or by reading books with covers that hide the secrets of the content inside, thus adding an extra layer of privacy.
Eventually, one of my Japanese friends introduced me to the joys of the “reserve train,” and I was happy to shell out the extra money to have my own seat, but I have kept those crowded train ride lessons with me as one of the many “gifts” of my travel experiences.