Let’s Get Real About Personal Space in Nicaragua

Four airplanes arrived in Nicaragua on the same day and at the same time. We were standing in an unusually long, disorganized line in customs. There was a small space in front of me…enough space for the man’s backpack to rest on the floor. Suddenly, a family of Nicaraguans rushed into the space in front of me. I glared at them and pointed to where the line ended. Yet, they didn’t move. I think they were trying to tell me, “My happy place is in your personal space.”

Cultural space: The final frontier. Invisible bubbles of space surround all of us and they vary according to the norms of the places where we live. Why do we have personal space issues and how do they differ from Nicaragua?

me on chicken bus

Me holding a stranger’s baby on a crowded chicken bus.

Let’s get real about personal space in Nicaragua with two important things to remember.

1. Without space there is no privacy

If you spend enough time in Nicaragua, you begin to realize that there is little privacy in most Nicaraguans’ lives. This could be due to the fact that extended family members live in very close quarters in small homes, perhaps because of economic reasons or simply because Nicaraguan families are very close to one another…literally.

For example, my neighbors have one dirt-floor bedroom. Depending on the situation, there are never fewer than two extended family members sleeping in the same room. Luvy shares Marina’s matrimonial bed with her baby and her teenage niece, Lourdes. Marina sleeps on the sofa couch with her other daughter and her seven year-old grandson.  Marina’s two adult sons share a single bed.

auto hotel

                                                 An autohotel in Nicaragua

Now, I understand the need for autohotels in Nicaragua. They are commonly called love hotels, where one can bask in complete privacy and discretion…a welcome change for many Nicaraguans.

There is always room for one more person, chicken, pig, bicycle, and vendor on a chicken bus. When riding a crowed chicken bus, you never know what will land in your lap… if you are lucky enough to have a lap. Several times, I have been lucky to have a quarter of an inch of butt room on a seat. Once, precariously perched on my quarter-inch seat, a family squeezed in the chicken bus with a sleeping baby. Without asking permission, the father gently placed the sleeping baby in my lap for the rest of the ride.

2. Leave No Space Behind!

Until I moved to Nicaragua and spent much time here, I didn’t like standing in front of someone in a line, where I could smell their gallo pinto as they breathed down my neck. I especially didn’t like people touching my hair. It was an invasion of my personal space, which I figured out to be about three feet in diameter. My intimate space was reserved for my family, pets, and close friends.

Yet, Nicaraguans have a smaller circle of personal space and think nothing of it. Standing in line at the bank, grocery store, or ATM, they press their bodies as close to the person in front of them as possible. I’ve learned the hard way, how to stand in a disorganized Nicaraguan line. Leave no space behind. My Nicaraguan motto! If I leave a space…someone will enter it and claim it as their happy place.

Our banks on Ometepe Island are beginning to look like Disney World lines, now. That’s a good thing for me! They must have had workshops on how to move crowds in an organized way because they have installed posts with elastic bands attached and arranged in a narrow maze leading to the bank teller. I can stand comfortably behind another person in line without feeling threatened.

What makes me feel threatened when my personal space is invaded? I suppose it has to do with an unspoken cultural norm in the United States. I can’t speak for other countries, but I did cherish my invisible circle and within its once impenetrable boundaries, I felt safe and secure.

My cultural bubble of personal space burst when I moved to Nicaragua. For whatever reasons, Nicaraguans have a very small diameter of personal space. They feel comfortable getting up close, a kind of ‘in-your-face’ body language that used to scare the hell out of me.

Personal space tells us a lot about different cultures and the nature of relationships across borders.  We may not always be aware of this phenomenon of personal space and we may easily misinterpret the body language Nicaraguans communicate if we look at it through our own cultural perspectives.

The article, Why do We Have Personal Space, suggests that if one feels threatened in an unavoidably crowded situation, then temporarily dehumanize those around us or pretend they are inanimate until you can spot an exit.

That, to me, sounds ridiculous! My recommendation is to understand that personal space  differs among the cultures. I used to fear infringement in my personal space…but no longer. I’m used to it and I have no fear of squeezing tightly into a crowded chicken bus, or standing closely in a long line. Actually, I’m beginning to like the feeling of more intimacy among strangers. Sometimes, I even want to turn around and hug the person behind me in line.

OK…I know that sounds kind of strange and I’ve gone a bit too far.  But, I can’t help but think that we are all more alike than different. If we can break down our barriers and our fear of intimacy by bursting through our cultural bubbles of personal space, we could be headed in a better direction as citizens of the world.

Cultural Space: The Final Frontier  It has a nice ring to it. 🙂

What are your thoughts on personal space issues in different cultures?

20 thoughts on “Let’s Get Real About Personal Space in Nicaragua

  1. We rode on chicken buses in both Guatemala and Nicaragua and I was absolutely dumbfounded at the mass of people who were crammed into every nook and cranny, with people kind of oozing up and around bodies as they moved down the aisles. I remember writing to a friend that I didn’t even have room for my hands to grip the seat in front of me! Anita

  2. Personal space is definitely defined by culture, as is touch and gaze (or gaze aversion). Even in the US, I’ve seen differences in personal space among people living in the country and people in the city. By necessity, city people are squeezed together more closely but their way of coping is by pretending to be in a personal capsule and totally ignoring those around them.

  3. In Panama an autohotel is called a “push button”. Once on a rural bus trip here in Panama I had an indigenous Ngabe lady hand me her baby as if we were the best of friends. When we arrived at the terminal she got off before I did. I handed her the baby and we went our separate ways. I thought to myself how could she trust a complete stranger.

    • I was trying to find a post that was written about Push Button hotels. I think Kris wrote about them on her blog. Someday, I would like to stay in one, just for the experience. haha
      I am not surprised to hear that you had the same experience when riding a bus in Panama. That’s what I love about Central America. The people are so trusting, even with strangers. Thanks for your sharing your experiences, Old Timer.

  4. That’s amazing about the baby on the bus, considering you were a complete stranger. I’ve been on those chicken buses in Mexico so I got a taste of what you’re talking about.

    Most of us probably hold personal space in a higher regard than we should. But I do like my personal space because there wasn’t any growing up in my household. Me and four of my sisters slept in the same double bed for several years. There wasn’t a lot of sleeping going on because there was no space to spread out and get comfortable. Yet I am adaptable to other things if that’s the way it must be.

    Interesting post. I haven’t thought about that chicken bus in a long time.

  5. While I can imagine the initial discomfort in someone handing me their baby, can you even imagine that someone would trust a complete stranger like that in the US? Wow.

    • I was looking for the Bristish word for line up. Thanks. I have to remember the word queuing. I’m a little more pushy, too…but I like to think of it as snuggling. I googled snuggling and do you know there are people that pay to be snuggled? Incredible. If they come to Central America and stand in any line, they can get it for free. 🙂

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