Thursday, September 6, 2007

538 Personal Space and Privacy

Message no. 538[Branch from no. 515] Posted by Thomas Culhane (1311520071) on Sunday, March 4, 2007 9:34am Subject: Re: I chose this because

Very interesting chaper, and very interesting relational summary Michelle! It was great to feel your personal indignation as you recalled incidents of personal space invasion triggered by quotes from the book! Well done -- I like the fact that you took personal initiative to explore the book, and carve out your own personal space from the chapter on... personal space!

You are all encouraged to do this!

Your posted discussion question reminded me of several difficult situations I've experienced abroad: "What happens when a person is sitting alone minding his or her own business with no intention of interacting with anyone, and a stranger comes over an sits down at an uncomfortably close proximity"?

In Indonesia, when I was 23, I fell asleep on a long boat travelling down the Kapuas River in Borneo through the jungle. The journey was over 30 hours. I lay down against my backpack and a sack of rice and fell sound asleep. When I woke up at night I suddenly realized I could not move. I was pinned down. In the dim light I could see that the reason I was pinned down was because four people had decided to use my body as a pillow! I didn't know the language and I felt helpless and claustrophobic. I tried to move but realized that the boat was packed with people and their was nowhere to go. To make matters worse, each time I moved, one of the Indonesians would wake up and yell something at me! I don't know what exactly they said, but from the tone it was something like "how dare you move -- you are my pillow and you are waking me up!". It was quite uncomfortable, but I laugh about it today. I have had many similar experiences since in these crowded countries where personal space is not considered important in public transportation. Last night I took my two American visitors (Andy and Michelle, students from my UCLA global environmental class) on the Cairo metro. They couldn't believe how packed it was, cheek and jowl with strangers, smelling of a hot days work, no ventilation.

I have gotten used to this total invasion of personal space, but for Michelle, who has never been out of the U.S. before, and had never been to a big city before moving to L.A. a couple of years ago, it was quite an invasion! Next time she will ride in the two "women only" cars in the front of the subway train.

Different cultures obviously have different personal space requirements; I am not sure yet how much is due to culture and how much to adaptative necessity. Here in Cairo the population pressure is so huge, and space so constrained, that you can have 15 people sharing one small room. This is true of slums all over the developing world. But when people can, they seem to move to spaces where they have more space.

For more on this, read the excellent book by one of my professors, Mike Davis, called "Planet of Slums":

There is a great review of it here:,,1853426,00.html

It details the kind of environments I work in. It may shock you when you read how little personal space half of the world's population has to make do with!

Glad you brought this topic up!


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