Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What on earth is personal space?

I read in many places and experienced myself that the US is a non-touch nation. If you're in an elevator, you stand as far from the other person as you possibly can and if you walk by someone too close at the grocery store you say, "excuse me". Each time I go to Moscow for a visit I'm amazed with how different everything is. It seems like that "bubble" almost doesn’t exist in that culture. When you're taking the subway during rush hour, people literally rub against you. They're not some sick perverts, but people who are limited to a small space and were not raised to think that the person next to you has his own "bubble". I believe that the oblivion of someone's personal space comes from childhood. As kids in Russia we were often surrounded by things and acts that we though were routine and normal, but if you look at them from a different perspective, awkward and disturbing.

The example that comes to mind is a humiliating medical test the girls got in 7th grade. The school nurse showed up at whatever class we were in and asked all the girls to come with her. In her office that was really just a small room with a bench, desk, chair and drawer, we were all told to come up to her one by one and take off our shirts. She'd measure each girl's chest and say "70 cm" or whatever the number was and ask if we got our periods. Coming up to a strange lady and taking your shirt off was weird, but not as embarrassing as waiting for her to tell you the measurements you'll be labeled with. If she says "next" you're normal and developing, as you should. I was one of the lucky "normal" ones, but I remember the unfortunate girl that came up to the nurse, took her shirt off and got: “I’ll have to call your mother and suggest a doctor that will figure out why your breasts are not developing normally". Poor girl was flat up to 9th grade and I'm sure she'd give anything to not get giggles about something she can't even control.

My point to the story is that after you take off your shirt involuntarily in front of fifteen of your classmates, you don't really have personal space anymore. I don't remember getting one single class in school that would tell me that I should respect other people's space or be uncomfortable with people getting into mine. My parents were the ones that told me those things, but none of that learning came from what is supposed to be the main source of education. I wish I could say that the breast measuring exam was the only medical procedure that the school nurse did not do in private, but there were multiple other ones, like flu shots in you rear end when you had to pull down your pants in front of the same fifteen girls. Add boys hitting puberty that are waiting for their shots behind door, daring each other to rush in and take a peek and you'll imagine the full experience.

I'm not trying to complain or say how bad my childhood was (it wasn't). It's interesting for me to try and figure out why such a little thing as personal space can be so different in two different countries. Luckily I'm not one of those people who rub against others on the train or talk inches away from your face. I'm also lucky I don't have insecurities about my body image or undressing in front of others. I got lucky, but I can't help but think if the slow-developing girl ever got over that embarrassing moment.

No comments: