Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Space Invaders

Our ride on the subway from the airport should have been the first clue. But we missed it. However, we have since that time slowly become aware that the French (at least those in Paris) have a different way of dealing with personal space than we do.

First of all, as North Americans, we like a lot of personal space. This is true not only when it comes to complete strangers, but even with people with whom we are friends. We avoid physical contact, and even close physical proximity, as much as possible. We generally make an effort to respect someone else’s personal space by walking around them, waiting until they move on, or sitting at the opposite end of the bench. If, for some reason, we feel the need to invade their personal space, we apologize for it (“Excuse me, but can I just get by you here?). We prefer to keep some distance, something that is almost always possible to have in our countries of wide open spaces, and relatively large vehicles, houses, and public spaces & buildings.

This is not the case in Paris. Streets are narrow, vehicles are small (even the tractor trailers seem small here), store aisles are narrow, parking is limited, and public & living spaces are crowded, requiring a creative use of space to get the maximum benefit from it (including the use of those narrow circular stairs). Thus people are frequently required to come into relatively close contact with each other. Yet, at the same time, Parisians are not a particularly warm and social people, at least outwardly. They generally don’t look at, smile at, or speak to strangers. They avoid any form of personal connection. What Parisians have managed to do is perfect the art of being personally impersonal. Of necessity, they are required to come close together to the point of physically touching others. But at the same time they are able to completely ignore those with whom they are in contact, behaving as if the others were not even there.

We first became aware of this in the stores. We’d be looking at something on a shelf and someone stocking shelves would come right up beside us to restock an item, reaching in front of our faces and sometimes even nudging or physically pushing us aside to do so! In North America, the stocker would normally work somewhere else until the customer moved on, or at least apologize for having to work in an area where a customer is trying to make a purchase. Another time I was checking product labels on a shelf, gazing intently at the products, when a woman walked right in front of me... without even excusing herself! There was plenty of room to go behind me, but she chose to walk between me and the shelf, even forcing me to step back to make room for her to do so! Walking down the Champs Ely√©es the other day to peruse the Christmas Market, Kathy was shoved aside numerous times by people walking along. Rather than making an effort to go around her, they just rammed her and pushed her aside, not even bothering to look up or apologize.

The other night at the Pink Flamingo, we were sitting in the dining room eating our pizza when an employee came in and began to make espressos in a machine on the window ledge right next to where Kathy was sitting. His butt was pretty well in her face and she had to move back to avoid yielding to the temptation to bite him for invading her personal space!

Of course, as North Americans, we first thought people were being incredibly rude here. But then we realized that they just have a different sense of space, one that is dictated by their physical and social environment. And they act accordingly, even when the situation makes it possible to give others a wider berth.

But knowing something in your head isn’t always enough. I’m still tempted to WHACK! the next person that walks in front of me when I’m looking at something in a store!

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