Manners & Misdemeanors
The Invasion of Personal Space: How Close Is Too Close?
Many of us have grown up only vaguely aware of personal space, where the boundaries are drawn for people sharing something.
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Diagnosing our national state of affairs, the eminent writer Frankie Sionil Jose has lamented that we became a state before we could become a nation.

Indeed, we never lack for evidence to prove him right; that’s why I celebrate every step, however small, that I happen to have observed taken toward community living.

People lining up for public transport, for instance, is a big deal to me. And why not? It only happened under the threat of martial law, an absolutely unacceptable alternative. To be sure, reasonable consequences have been shown to inspire proper lessons. In fact, Filipinos transplanted in countries where personal space is granted as a matter, of course, have been quick to learn.

Here at home, we see it happening, too, although still inconsistently, but hopefully with a genuine appreciation of the principles behind it. Take, for instance, the first-come-first-served rule. It has certainly taken us a while to begin to consent to line up or pick a number that marks our turn, our rightful place in the simple sequential order that makes for basic equality. Precisely, it is a rule of order so basic that I am outraged when it is circumvented or violated altogether.

As it happens, it is the supposedly better off among us who circumvent and violate the rule, thus provoking a class issue. One popular trick involves a housemaid standing in line for a mistress who has not yet finished shopping. I myself have fallen victim to this practice.

It has certainly taken us a while to begin to consent to line up or pick a number that marks our turn, our rightful place in the simple sequential order that makes for basic equality.

I was sixth in line, right behind one such stand-in, unmistakable in her uniform. She had only a few items in her cart, but not for long. Every so often her lady, unmistakable herself in her demeanor, came to dump fresh purchases into her cart until it spilled over and she needed a second cart, which itself filled up fast and was then inserted in my line, demoting me to number seven. The maid gave me an apologetic smile, but her lady looked quite smug about being able to get ahead without having to jump the line.

Such loud fun, however, has no place in a restaurant, whether a family diner like Pancake House or an upscale one like M Dining. Here commonsense courtesy limits one’s space within one’s table, and not only physical space but audio space, too.

Until the real dangers posed by secondhand smoke to non-smokers were recognized by law, personal air space had been freely violated.

It was in fact at Pancake House that our audio space was invaded one Saturday morning by a group of young girls so boisterous at breakfast they made it impossible for us, a group of only four at the opposite end, to hear one another. At an especially loud explosion of shrieks, our lawyer friend rose, walked over and, keeping her disarming smile, told them she was happy they were having a good time but asked if they could please tone down their celebration. The girls apologized for the unwitting invasion and promptly and good-naturedly obliged.

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Until the real dangers posed by secondhand smoke to non-smokers were recognized by law, personal air space had been freely violated. An uncle of mine who loved to make money but hated to spend had his own idea, according to family legend, of violating airspace, and had to pay for it by natural retribution: Upon discovering the air he breathed was free, he began to inhale more than his share, causing his overworked snout to flare out of proportion, going far beyond our already generous family standards. He’d have probably thought twice and kept his proper nose if he’d heard and taken heed of the Eastern philosophy holding that a man’s lifespan is measured not in years but in the number of breaths he is allotted to take, a preordained number meant to be taken wisely, moderately, for optimal benefit. He’d also have probably lived beyond ninety-two and overshot another set of family standards.

As soon as we settled down to our meal, we began to behave as typical Filipinos, sharing each other’s orders and chattering and laughing as if we had the restaurant to ourselves.

Indeed, many of us apparently have grown up only vaguely aware, if at all, of personal space, of where the boundaries are drawn for people sharing something. My expatriate American friend Mary was shocked when fellow passengers in an elevator, all strangers to her but thankfully only women, started caressing her large tummy, sharing presumptuously in the celebration of her pregnancy. 

I don’t know that this lack of awareness has to do with the state and character of our nation. But even we who have been made aware can easily forget and require reinstruction. It, in fact, happened to us in France, of all places, where personal space is especially sacrosanct.

It seems to me that, for one to be able to respect someone else’s personal space, one must first respect one’s own.

As soon as we settled down to our meal, we began to behave as typical Filipinos, sharing each other’s orders and chattering and laughing as if we had the restaurant to ourselves. It was the one French in our company, my niece’s husband, who made us aware: he covered his face with both hands and jerked his head in the direction of a table of five men eating and having a conversation in just the right pitch, properly inaudible to us, and told his wife, “Remind me never to come here again!” The signal, to our small credit, was not lost on us.

Just as well, I try to stand my ground. I may not have been assertive enough at the supermarket, but I believe personal space must be defended. It seems to me that, for one to be able to respect someone else’s personal space, one must first respect one’s own.

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I take my cue from the simple, elegant wisdom of Robert Frost in his poem “Mending Wall”:

. . . Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offense. . .

Good fences make good neighbors.

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