Spaced out

Have you even seen a murmuration? A huge mass of starlings synchronising their movements as an enigmatic, contorting organism. It’s a graceful feat of mass cooperation, each bird turning and moving in time with the next. The starling shares its personal space with strangers well.

I wonder if animals might look upon the mass movement of people with such regard. Would they be awed by the way we arrange ourselves in metal boxes and scuttle from A to B, then stream out over the pavement in unison? Do we emanate the same poise?

I’m thinking about this on a humid train carriage, squeezed between two gentlemen with their legs spread wide and elbows out. There’s a spare seat across from me, but a woman has her bag on it. I have done poorly at staking a claim for my personal space.

It’s tricky. Regardless of our personal space preferences, we have to go outside sometimes. There, we are pressed against people we don't know – in lifts, on the footpath or on public transport.

So how do we cope? Simple: we pretend it’s not really happening.

In her book Watching the English, social anthropologist Kate Fox uses the “denial rule” to explain such interactions: “We try to avoid acknowledging that we are among a scary crowd of strangers, and to maintain as much privacy as possible, by pretending that they do not exist – and, much of the time, pretending that we do not exist either.”

Sociologist Erving Goffman coined the term “civil inattention” to describe the way strangers subtly acknowledge each other – for example, with a glance, a nod or a half smile – then disengage and pretend they’re not there. It seems cold, but it’s actually an act of respect for each other’s personal space: We have hereby employed the bare minimum of human interaction. Here endeth our fleeting relationship.

When we negotiate personal space with others in public, we can also rely, to an extent, on etiquette. We seem to just instinctively know these rules: apply maximum distance at the urinal, and don’t look down; fill a lift geometrically, starting with the two back corners; never, ever take an empty seat next to someone on the bus when there are still other double seats spare.

The problem is, sometimes people haven’t cottoned on to these rules, or they were brought up with different ones. Or they know them but don’t care. And the ensuing breaches in etiquette can really irk people, whether they’re directly affected or not.

A 2009 study in the journal Symbolic Interaction found that infractions of personal space etiquette in pools, such as swimming too close or socialising in lanes intended for serious swimmers, burst “the illusion that each individual exists in isolation and is not part of a group of people interacting”. The surface of carefully maintained social order is shattered, as though by an ungainly whale.

How do people react to whale-sized breaches of spatial mores? Well, they don't like to make a fuss, so they grumble – subtly and indirectly. The swimming pool study observed “morally indignant responses include tutting, eye rolling, and disapproving looks, often directed at third parties rather than the offender”. Strangers, suddenly aware of each other, will rally under the common banner of righteous, muted outrage; this tiny chain reaction of sociability helps to restore equilibrium, making “everybody else feel self-righteously conformist and even more inclined to follow the rules ‘to set a good example’”. Eventually the errant swimmer realises they’re in the wrong, apologises, and life at the pool returns to the status quo.

Sometimes, if the environment is unpredictable, people will be more proactive about keeping others out of their personal bubble. And pretty staunch about it, too. A 2012 study in Symbolic Interaction on American Greyhound buses observed that people will, for example: pretend to be busy or asleep (or lie and say the seat’s taken); shuffle to the aisle seat; rummage through bags; avoid eye contact; put stuff on the seat next to them; or “put on a ‘don’t bother me’ face or give the ‘hate stare’”. People behave in this way to “minimise instability” when they’re uncertain about strangers, deprived of personal space for long periods of time or exhausted. It’s survival of the spacious.

While commuting on the Kapiti train line isn’t as hostile as those buses sound (in 2008, someone decapitated the person next to them on a Greyhound), I can relate to the exhaustion. Sometimes your social energy is all but expended after an entire day of saying all the right words in the right way to people at work (so many words); what little is left I must preserve for my family at home, lest they eat me alive for being an insufferable grump.

When you’re travelling in a lift, however, you don’t need to worry about your energy reserves. You’re already not taking the stairs. You needn’t expect anything but a healthy dose of personal space awkwardness.

Conversations are out, for a start. A 2005 study in the Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour notes that lift chats are generally taboo because they violate etiquette not to turn people into “involuntary listeners”, entrapped by your conversation. Plus, in New Zealand buildings of modest height, you’ll only get two thirds into an anecdote before your audience has to get out.

Lifts can cause interpersonal strife because you can't avoid people. The study continues: “Encountering casual acquaintances in an elevator is embarrassing, because one has to choose between a silence that unmasks friendliness as a mere convention, and a talk that involuntarily deepens a relationship.” If we passed them on the street, we could just casually raise our eyebrows and keep walking, but here you're locked in a box. “So, ah, Lucy, was it?” “No. It’s Sherie.”

There are only two acceptable things to do in a lift. Firstly, you can watch the floor numbers light up, which according to the study “is even more boring than an aquarium”; in lifts people adopt “a short-sighted cage gaze, neither seeing nor communicating” (it’s all very dystopian). Secondly, you can make a bad-taste joke about falling to your death because the lift is overloaded.

There are, of course, circumstances where you willingly surrender yourself to close contact with strangers (in the non-intimate sense). Modern urban living isn’t all about being an island. When you decide to go crowd-surfing or moshing at a concert, you concede that people might need to lay their hands on you, a dreadlock might whip you in the eye, or you may be compelled to share the sweat of others. When talking in a crowded bar, you will both need to lean close.

Or maybe you’ll need to spoon. I was once stranded on a beach in Japan, sharing a tent with a woman I had just met. We only had summer clothes and we were freezing. Someone else had our sleeping bags. Like the starlings who group together for protection, we too had to come together to survive. Although we were virtually strangers – and not romantically entangled – we had to spoon to keep warm through that long, dark night. We remain friends.

Breaches I have known

Here’s a catalogue of violations of space and locomotion for you to observe – as the bird watcher observes – and tick off on your next jaunt. Some of these are rare birds; others more prevalent.

The Close-Talker (of Seinfeld fame): "Here, sample my breath when I’m talking to you."

The Halter: Stops dead in a stream of foot traffic to get something out of their bag (or whatever), piling everyone else up like dominoes

The Straight Walker: Obviously someone of considerable status, this person slices down the footpath like a shark through a shoal of fish, refusing to veer either way.

The Zig-Zagger: Perhaps an inner ear problem? You go to overtake them on the right, they veer right; you go left, they, too, go left.

The Albatross: When their arms are long, or their swagger requires elbows to be held outward, they spread their wings wide. Side passengers be damned.

The Manspreader: Similar to the Albatross, but with legs. A guy thing, obviously.

The Plodder: The pondersome, zen walker. You’re in a hurry, but they are most certainly not.

The Phone Zombie: The ones who text or play Candy Crush while walking – and when you’re definitely in a rush. (Cousin of the plodder.)

The Eye Locker: They hold your gaze for a wee bit too long, and not in a romantic way. You check again after a while. Yep, still looking. Caution advised.

This was originally published in Sunday magazine on 13 September 2015.