Before I moved to Latin America I had a rather large, roomy personal bubble. Most Americans do. I didn’t like “close talkers” to use a phrase from Seinfeld. You know, a close talker is someone who stands uncomfortably close to you when they talk. And they may even unconsciously pursue you as you back away gradually. A close talker could easily creep me out or make me super irritated.
This past week at the conference I was basically chased around a table by a close talker. I kept backing up and he kept following me! I even tried throwing a few chairs in his path, but they didn’t deter him! He was WAY into my personal bubble.
But in Latin America, my personal bubble was completely burst. Here girlfriends often touch each other’s hair and clothing as they talk. Old ladies hold my hand or pat my cheek or rub my arm while they talk to me. Friends link arms as they walk along. Everyone kisses as a greeting. Closeness is part of the warmth of the culture. Sometimes I like it and sometimes I don’t.
When we lived in Mexico occasionally we would take advantage of our two oldest kids finally being in school and we would go to see an early movie. No parents in town meant no babysitters for date nights, so we compromised. Naturally because we are Americans we always bought our tickets early and arrived at the theater early enough to choose our seats. Being the first ones, we had the whole theater to chose from. But it never failed, the very next couple to enter the theater ALWAYS chose the seats RIGHT NEXT TO US with no buffer seat between us. (Have you noticed how Americans put their coats on the seat next to them as a buffer?) To our American sense of space, this was incredibly awkward to be sitting in an empty theater shoulder to shoulder with total strangers. Awkward!
But for the Mexican who were used to living in one of the most crowded cities in the world, it was nothing to be nearly on top of each other. More than likely they were thinking we had chosen the best seats and naturally they wanted the best view too. It’s kind of like how you can draw a crowd just by staring and pointing to something vague in the distance. (It’s kind of a fun prank, you should try it sometime.)
Here in Latin America touching and grooming and friendship all shrink my personal bubble. I have discovered that when I return to the United States I often freak people out by standing too close for comfort. I don’t mean to be a creeper, I just forget! One time I was in the grocery store in the meat section. There was only one other lady in the whole place. She was looking intently into the cooler case, examining some packages of meat. I thought because she was looking so purposefully that she must have found a sale item. So I slid over to her side and looked right where she was looking. She looked up in surprise and took a few steps to her right. Instinctively I followed her a few steps to the right. She gave me a dirty look. Then I realized what a creeper I was being. I apologized and headed to the bread section post haste! It was pointless to try to explain that Latin America had broken my personal bubble.