How Much Space is Your Space? (Jan/Feb 2005)

Friday, 01 April 2011 07:52

OpenMind - Journal of the mental health association MIND

Jan/Feb 2005

How Much Space Is Your Space?

Dorothy Rowe

A few weeks ago I caught a train from Bristol to Paddington. I’d booked an aisle seat at a table for four. Two women sat opposite me. The window seat beside me was booked but still empty when the train, now packed with commuters, pulled out of the station. At Bath more passengers crowded in. A man leaned over me to read the booking slip above the window seat, and indicated that he wanted to sit down there. I stood up to let him in and, without a please or thank you, he hurled himself into the seat.

When the two women opposite and I had sat down each of us had been careful to take up no more than our quarter of the space. Small though the table was, when we placed our belongings on it we made sure they didn’t intrude into another person’s share of the table top and, if a danger of that happening arose, we apologised. But not this man. He was an average-sized, middle-aged man, yet his bum had no sooner hit the seat than he spread out of it, trying to take up all the space he felt he needed. His arm came across the middle armrest into my seat space and I shrank away. He forcefully kicked out his legs, and when they encountered the legs of the woman opposite him it was he who grunted and groaned in complaint. She pulled her legs back, trying to tuck them into a tiny space.

Then began the battle of the newspapers. I was reading the Guardian which I had folded so that it was no wider than I was. He opened his Daily Telegraph fully and so covered what I was reading. Silently I pushed his paper away. He grunted complainingly, turned the page, and covered my paper again. I pulled my paper out from under and put it on top of his. He pulled his paper away quite angrily and made a great play of folding it back to the size of a single page of broadsheet. In doing this he pushed his paper toward the face of the woman sitting opposite him. She held the magazine she was reading higher, and this action pushed his paper back towards him. He sighed loudly with impatience, shoved his paper aside and then proceeded to invade all our space by calling his wife on his mobile and in a posh, loud voice discussed their social arrangements for the evening.

This man confirmed all the prejudices women have about how men take up all the room, how they sit with their legs spread out and take both armrests. He also confirmed the political prejudices of at least one of us. But we three women had done what most women always do. We shrank away, giving up our rightful space, trying to make ourselves smaller and smaller. It was only when this man prevented me from reading that I got angry and fought back.

However, whether we occupy our own space, or intrude into the space of others, or, when intruded upon, shrink away, isn’t a matter of whether we’re male or female. For both men and women it’s a matter of how much we value ourselves and how much we considered the rights and needs of other people. The man on the train might have seen himself as having high self-esteem, but his complete disregard for others shows that his self-esteem was simply vanity. People who value themselves and are aware of the rights and needs of others will occasionally shrink away when they see that someone else’s need of extra space should be met as a matter of courtesy. Courtesy to one another is the oil that enables our society to operate smoothly. However, if we don’t value ourselves we can come to feel that we haven’t the right to inhabit our own space. We daren’t take up our rightful space and instead yield it to others and not protest when others intrude. Women who don’t value themselves will often try to be as thin as possible so as not to take up more space than they feel they deserve. Men who don’t value themselves can be very frightened of men like the man on the train, men who take up more than their rightful share of space and who, if intruded upon, will attack. To protect themselves from such attacks men who don’t value themselves develop defences such as a self-deprecating sense of humour which is a kind of giving up your own space.

Our sense of the space we need around us develops very early, before we’ve got language, and, unless we bring it clearly to mind and think about it, we can be unaware when we intrude into other people’s space and then wonder why we’re rejected, or we can be intruded upon and not understand why this make us miserable. It is essential that we know and value our own space.