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Personal Space in Mexico

Personal Space in Mexico

One of the cultural differences you’ll notice here is that there is less personal space in Mexico.  People here are very comfortable with being close together in lines, on buses, and at home.  It’s all what you grew up with.  Takes some getting used to, though!

January 6, 2008

Mexico City subway crunch

Mexico City subway crunch

Do people from wide-open spaces stand farther apart in line than folks from say, Mexico City?  Or does the comfortable distance between you and the next person depend more on the size of the family you grew up in?  Can’t tell you.  What I do know, though, is that personal space—the distance you keep between you and others in line, at parties, and while talking on the street–is much smaller in Mexico than what I grew up with.

I used to let it upset me.  I’d be in line at the bank, and somebody would squish in ahead.  It isn’t poor manners. Well, yes it is if they don’t ask you if you are in line, but let’s rule out courtesy for now.  What happens is that I habitually stand about 20 inches behind the guy or gal in front of me.  I just measured.  And Mexicans generally stand much closer—about half that distance.  They aren’t exactly doing “spoons,” but they aren’t far from it.  So when someone sees a double-size break in the line, they feel free to scoot right in.  And lines are much more common in Mexico than in the States.  We often half to stand in line at the bank for a half hour, and anything involving paperwork—visas, passports, insurance—will require a lot of shuffling along and waiting.

People stand closer together when you are talking, too—I suppose that’s to make it easier to kiss and shake hands, two national pastimes.

All bets on personal space are off in buses and the subway, where you will often be cheek to jowl to other assorted body parts, and just have to suffer it with whatever dignity you can muster.  It can be fun if you are plastered all over someone you like, but as you rarely have any choice who is next to you, the luck of the draw usually isn’t usually very good.  Worse, our woman friends are always getting felt up on the subway.

The first time Bill—a seasoned New Yorker—came to Mexico City I met him at the airport and brought him downtown in the subway.  With his luggage.  About half way to the Zocolo Bill looked at me with a question in his eyes—“Where are all these people coming from?”  To Gringo eyes, the train was chock full.  I smiled and told him “Good thing it isn’t rush hour, or it would be crowded.”  By the time we arrived downtown we were each in intimate physical contact with three or four other passengers.  I shouted to Bill “Here’s our stop.  Push your way out.  They won’t stop for you.”

Now, I’m a pretty big guy, and I managed to squeeze through the sea of humanity to the door without crushing anyone and bucked the incoming tide of boarders to reach the platform.  There I turned around, expecting Bill to be right behind me.  He wasn’t.

Bill had made it to the door—I could hear him say “Excuse me!  Excuse me!”—when the incomers picked him and his luggage almost off the ground and were washing him backwards into the car.  I have a memory of Bill’s surprised face floating away into the distance on a sea of black hair.

Now, you don’t do that to a New Yorker.  Bill’s face hardened, his head and shoulders came down, and he shoved like a linebacker.  No one noticed.  A second push, and he was on the platform next to me.  Even in New York, you don’t often see the crush of humanity like you do in Mexico City.  Next time we’ll take a cab.

I was once on a chicken bus, a third class 1950’s school bus, traveling in the back woods of Guatemala.  On these buses I often counted a dozen people before the first row of seats—that’s in front of the white line–with 120 or so all together.  You really are crammed in like sardines—full body contact all around for hours on end.

I was standing, as usual, on my toes because there was no room to put my feet down flat.  My middle area was plastered up against a young Mayan woman’s shoulder, she having found a seat.  Unfortunately the road was bad, and as the bus went over humps, well, that’s what I was doing to her shoulder.  Very embarrassing.  It wasn’t on purpose, I assure you.  I was being squeezed from all sides, and there was just no place to go.  She was likewise pinned in place.  She occasionally gave me the cold eye, and I tried to look innocent and wholesome as I gyrated my hips on her upper arm.

Then the bus hit the mother of all potholes and tossed us all a foot into the air.  I came down plop and, to my horror, straddled the young lady’s shoulder.  In her shock she turned her head toward me and for an instant we had a very personal moment as she scraped my zipper with her teeth.  We managed to wiggle a few millimeters apart, and I finished the ride like a very large, white parrot perched unsteadily on her right shoulder.

People will also cut in front of you while you are walking, only to stop and admire the view or fish for their cell phone.  It happens all the time in markets.  You see someone coming toward you through a particularly tight spot, so you stop to let them pass.  Immediately four people will push ahead of you into the bottleneck, and everyone will look daggers at each other until they finally slip by and over each other.

I once had a rather large woman in pink sweat pants run puffing to get right in front of me as I was walking, stop dead, and bend from the waist to tie her sneakers.  I was moving right along, too.  We very nearly had intimate relations right there on Juarez Avenue.

I think it comes from growing up in large families.  Omar’s father has 9 brothers and sisters, and he can’t eat unless there is noise and bedlam and people reaching over your plate for dripping burritos while clay pots hiss steam and the parrot screams bloody murder.

It gives me acid reflux.

I like a calm atmosphere when I’m eating.  Omar wants more going on around him, but he’s gotten used to my style, too.  He even lets me read at breakfast.

People from large families are used to being in closer proximity.  When you are in Mexico, where large families rule, your choice is to get used to it, stay cool, and enjoy the cultural differences.

Dan and Omar

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Categories

A sample text widget

Etiam pulvinar consectetur dolor sed malesuada. Ut convallis euismod dolor nec pretium. Nunc ut tristique massa.

Nam sodales mi vitae dolor ullamcorper et vulputate enim accumsan. Morbi orci magna, tincidunt vitae molestie nec, molestie at mi. Nulla nulla lorem, suscipit in posuere in, interdum non magna.