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?
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.
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?