real life

How much personal space do you need?

I just can’t help it, I have personal space issues.

I remember exactly where we were sitting in the concrete undercroft in my primary school. “Imagine an invisible bubble being drawn around you” the less-intimidating of the two grade-one teachers explained. “Choose how big you want that bubble to be – it can be as close to you or as far away as you would like. This is your personal space, your special protective zone. Never let anyone break into that bubble that you don’t want to.”

This well-intended message provided great hysteria in the next class recess. Twenty over-stimulated six-year-olds deliberately running into each other’s imaginary bubbles, bouncing off each other and, of course, the bad boys menacingly pretending to break the bubbles of the quietest girls (some things never change, right?).  Although I joined in the fun at the time, it seems the message – and my protective bubble – became well and truly ingrained in my psyche because as it turns out, I have serious personal space issues.

For the most part, I consider myself to be a fairly warm and all-embracing kind of girl, but only metaphorically.  Emotionally I’ll open up to almost anyone who’ll listen (willingly or not). I’ll share secrets and divulge personal information you didn’t even want to know. Stand a little too closely behind me at the supermarket checkout, however, and chills go up my spine. I’ll go so far as to lose my place in line to grab a magazine I have no intention of reading if I can hear the person behind me breathe.

I cringe when someone sits next to me in a waiting room and their body makes contact with mine, even if it’s as something as mundane as an elbow on an armrest.  I have learnt to perform Olympic grade gymanstic manoeuvres to avoid strangers fondling my pregnant belly (seriously, it is still my skin!). As for airline travel – well that’s just a nightmare for me.  The mere possibility of someone falling asleep on my shoulder, or naked foot finding its way on top of mine has by skin crawling.

Before you assume I just have issues with the general public, I should clarify that my personal space problems go far beyond stranger danger. Even with good friends, I am a fairly useless hugger. My hands always find their way on some part of the other person’s body, whether it’s shoulders or their upper back in some form of football hug. I’ve even caught myself throwing in the odd man-hug “back pat”. I can never seem to comfortably bring my chest or torso to oh-so-casually make contact with someone else’s, no matter how well I know them.

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It’s not just because I have been either pregnant or breastfeeding for what now feels like a swollen eternity, either. I am just never going to be known for my hugs. On the contrary, one of my friends gives amazing hugs. She pulls you in closely and holds you in a way that makes you believe she is genuinely happy to see you, sad to say goodbye, or just that “everything will be OK”.  These are the hugs that can bring much needed smiles or tears to the surface when you most need it.

Surprisingly enough I have even found myself surrendering to her embrace.  I am not sure whether it has been a deliberate act on her behalf, but over the years she has gradually worn me down and literally opened my arms to her affection and compassion. I go into a hug with her knowing it will be a good one, and these days I squeeze her back as opposed to arching my back away from her.

The irony is, as much as she loves herself a good hug, I’ve never seen her partake in the confused world of air-kissing. I, however, give pseudo air-kisses out readily and inappropriately. To any male friend’s new female companion, to people I work with, or at Christmas to anyone who gets close.   I sure don’t give them out “properly”, though. A “peck on the cheek” from me is more like hovering my cheek in the vicinity of the recipient’s face.  Contrast this to a school friend who pecks lips on lips and I am back to my horrified state of bubble-burstingly inappropriate intimacy.

Being the diverse species we humans are, there are many different perceptions of what is or is not acceptable when it comes to issues of personal space, and there just aren’t any clear ground rules on what is appropriate or not. Am I some sort of germophobe or social freak for not wanting other people too close to me in public or am I entitled to keep my body brushing encounters to a restricted audience?  Are there differences between what is appropriate between greeting men or women? For example, am I too formal if I shake hands with a bloke and too familiar if I kiss his cheek?

It’s all too confusing for me. I think I am more comfortable compensating with genuine smiles and warm conversation for the time being!

Julie Alexander is a former lawyer, stay at home mum, documentary producer and wannabe Alpha Wife.

Do you have issues with personal space? Are you a hugger or a kisser?

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