I am by nature a sociable character. I enjoy big crowds, clubs and being one of many, witnessing a special moment. However, the feeling of social togetherness can sometimes be replaced by one of panic and invasion of privacy: a packed underground tube in London is a perfect example. Suffering someone else’s elbow, large protruding cameras (from tourists) or garlicky breath (shudder…) is enough to make the best of us wish for the ability to develop a superhuman force-field, zapping anything that comes within 6 feet.
Why does this feeling exist? When does this concept of “personal space” manifests itself? Is it natural? Does everyone feel the same way when someone is walking too close behind them, or your colleague’s face is too close to you for accepted social interaction (smooching at a Christmas party not included)?
As I have discovered in my travels, invasion of privacy (which I define as personal space) is seen and felt differently across various cultures. Our physical “area” depends on where you are in the world.
Interestingly, the boundaries of our personal space have been studied extensively in the past. The field of “proxemics” developed by E.T. Hall in the 1960s, studies the concept of immediate personal space surrounding a person. Indeed, as the diagram below shows, personal space can be separated into intimate, personal, social and public interactions.
Depending on the type of social situation, a projected “safe” distance was discovered as acceptable interaction between two individuals. If an individual has strayed too close to you, he has invaded your privacy.
As said above, this distance is seen differently around the world, and this may be due to various cultural and physical factors:
- National population densities: people who were brought up in low to medium population density countries will have been used to more physical space around them than highly populated countries. This seems obvious to me. We cannot compare the pressure of overcrowding between Olso, Norway, and rush hour in Manila, Philippines.
- Financial strength: people with greater financial clout will live with more luxury, meaning they have more exclusivity and privacy. For example, a chauffeur driven executive will be more aware of his personal space being invaded when using public transport than a worker bee who regularly uses it.
- Public infrastructure: On the other side of the coin, if local public infrastructure is modern and well maintained then they should better able to cope with large amount of people using it. These will be more comfortable and have a greater sense of liberty of movement, and more personal space.
- Existing cultural social interactions: All over the world, families, tribes, castes and neighbours interact differently. A large family in India will share a plot of land, members of the same tribe will share a room in Democratic Republic of Congo, and secluded regions of Europe, such as the Basque country or the Island of Corsica, will not integrate society as their social bonds are defended aggressively.
All the factors above force individuals to view privacy differently.
For example, in India, which has seen a 300% rise in population since 1961 (compared to 23% in England), their concept of personal space has been shaped by having to cope with a greater amount of people, especially the new generations. Rush hour at the train station in Mumbai truly has to be seen to be believed.
Do people who have been around crowds all their lives act like I do in the tube in London, between Oxford Street and Shepherd’s Bush on the central line (for those who don’t know, trust me it is a horrible adventure)? Not at all. They are passive and almost become one single organism, resting on each other, reading the newspaper together, one even buying chai for their neighbour. Do you imagine buying a can of coke for the dude who kept pushing his metal briefcase against your nether region?
I sincerely bow down to their stoicism and companionship. They know that if they acted selfishly, began to get angry and wanted more space, the sheer press of bodies would become a truly dangerous animal, ready to crush them all.
Indeed, in his fantastic book “Shantaram”, Gregory David Robert ‘s cynical French friend Didier stated: “If India was composed of a billion French people, the rivers would run red”.
We all are an individual, but sometimes we have to accept the inevitable consequence of being 7 billion on this planet. Life will get more busy as we are projected to reach over 9 billion. I accept that I have the right to my own space, but in certain situations, you have to forgive and forget, and become one with everybody around you.
Just not on the London tube… please…
taking your well worn and full passport out for inspection
using your penknife (using it on a beer bottle doesn’t count)
getting the emails from back home saying its raining and everyone is miserable
using your headtorch when the power cuts out
that first feeling of seeing the land at your destination, in a car, on plane or on a boat
that feeling of humid heat when leaving the plane
listening to a local song in a club and learning the lyrics to it with locals
counting from one to ten in the local language
getting complimented on your ability to withstand the climate / dreadful roads
seeing other travellers and helping them out
managing to understand how local public transport works
avoiding the tourist traps
finding out you have the right currency before going
finding out you don’t need any extra vaccines for the trip
finding out someone you know will be in the same random place at the same time as you
getting free accommodation (no questions asked)
visa applications are not complicated
realise you hardly need to pack for the trip, seeing as you were so lazy unpacking for the last one, everything is still in the suitcase
knowing your way around a strange city without the map
setting up your mosquito net perfectly; hearing them buzz aound outside your net, and knowing they are NOT coming in
getting upgraded to economy plus on your flight
seeing how cheap a cold beer is
knowing you have spent less than a fellow tourist because of your “amazing” bargaining skills
the sounds of the early dawn in a foreign city
the smell of coffee in the morning(no matter where you are, it’s a comforting smell)
taking a well worn and battered little booklet to write someone’s contact details
buying local fruits and sharing them with the locals on your bus journey
after the anxious and drawn out waiting in your bed, finally getting started on a long journey early in the morning
sharing a moment with an old local person
realising that your solar power works in sunny countries, as opposed to dark European skies
making a small child smile and become shy
listening to that song from back home which will give you such good memories when you hear it again
dozing in the heat at midday
being able to eat local food without getting an upset stomach
Those who have been to India or Bangladesh will almost certainly have told their friends and family that travelling by bus, car or motorbike constitutes an experience in itself. Actually, they would have undoubtedly included the words “crazy”, “death”, “loud” and “thankful to be alive” in their description. I definitely agree that my first impression of driving in India would match what you may have heard before. Most people will have thought this on the ride from Delhi or Mumbai airport!
However, during my two months backpacking trip with the indomitable Sophie, and 3 subsequent trips over the last 3 years for work, I think I have come to figure out how the system works. I will attempt to explain with the subsequent 3 laws (to be found in the Driving Test Aide-Mémoire)
First Law: the Law of the Bigger Engine
Scenario: You are in a small car with a driver behind a tuk-tuk that has missed his last 8 MOTs, spouting black smog in your face. Your driver wants to overtake, and has a look on the other side.
If there is a tuk-tuk or a motorbike in the way, no questions asked. He’s going for it. That other, lesser engined vehicle, will have to move over. Now that vehicle may be lucky if there is a gravel side track, or maybe a slip-road, but no matter, he will have to move. A higher powered vehicle has made it clear he HAS to move.
If there is a truck, van or high powered card on the side of the road, the driver will slow down and let them pass. Understandably, a 17 tonne truck would be favourite in a game of chicken. A van might just edge it, and a high powered vehicle, like a Mercedes, will almost certainly have rich tourists or a Indian politician capable of winning the trial. Best not to risk it.
If a taxi/old car is driving towards you on the other side of the road, this is where it gets tricky. Your survival might depend on the ability of your driver to understand how dangerous the situation would become if he tried to overtake. Pray you chose the right driver.
Exception: If a bus is trying to overtake a car who is trying to overtake a Tuk-tuk, then you are in a sticky situation, especially if the same is occuring on the other side of the road. In this case, the drivers will yield to each other according to the size of their moustaches (See page 17 of the guide for How to Grow a Long Moustache).
Second Law: Always Tell the Other Drivers Where You Are
Scenario: you are arriving into a highly populated area, and suddenly, people tuk-tuks cars vans trucks cattle donkeys lost dogs cats kids old tyre wheels dead buffaloes chai shops bumps on the road and monkeys are everywhere. How do you make sure you do not hit anyone?
In a car, you make sure you use your horn once every 3 seconds, or every time you breathe, whichever comes faster. In this case, people will know where you are all the time, even if they are not on the road. This technique is extremely important to put in place, as it seems that the majority of people, particularly in rural places, do not have the reflex to look when crossing the road, and will only stop if they hear the horn. Funnily enough, this is exactly what the horn was designed for in 1910 (thanks Google). In Europe we seem to have regressed, using the horn as a ritual in the road-rage courtship.
In a truck, you only need to use your horn once (truckdrivers, please do so especially at 4 or 5 in the morning when I am staying in a hostel near the roadside, really, I love it), on entry into a village or town. This is because their horn is so unbelievably loud that even Ganesh and Shiva statues are turning their heads to make sure they are not on its path. Their horns are not only loud, but it seems that they were tuned by an out-of-work classical composer. They seem to play the first notes of Vivaldi Four Seasons, badly, and for a really long time. I have been to many clubs, playing extremely loud (and most of the time, bad) music, but they have not even come close to the sheer anguish my system feels when I hear their hallowed sounds.
Third Law: Always Put Your Headlights on Full (Unless it Uses up Your Car Battery Too Quickly)
In Europe, we rarely use our full power beams, not only because we have many street lights, but we understand that the beam can blind the other cars on the other side of the road, thereby making it more likely for that car to swerve and possibly hit us. Oh, and it’s impolite.
In India, no such concept exists. Particularly with taxi drivers
You’d hope the driver is thinking: “I am putting my head lights on full beam. There are hardly any street lights here and it could be dangerous with the animals crossing the road or the huge potholes.” Seems fairly reasonable. I would have no problem if that was how they thought.
But they don’t! Their thought process is as follows: “I am putting my head lights on full beam. I want to see and I do not care if you cannot see where you are going. In fact, put them on, Let’s have blinding contest! I have just put a new set in. Come on I dare you!” This way of thinking scares me, particularly when they start to accelerate instead of slowing down…
The only person I have been in a car with who drove with light beams on medium was a colleague from Bangalore. When I mentioned this to him at the end of the drive, he merely said: “Oh I would drive with full beams, but it halves the horsepower of my car and my battery would run low in 10 minutes…”
That’s it, the three laws of driving in India. Can you relate to this? Do you have any similar experiences? Can you add a law for me?