Still a Culture Shock: Lack of Personal Space

I’d say there are many things that shock me about Germany. The things that I have learned over time have made Germany out to be some odd sort of ‘opposite land’, where everything is, effectively, just the opposite of what I had in America.

Take, for instance, German and American hypocrisy over Gesundheit. In America, everyone will talk to you about why you need to quit smoking, but they’d prefer to do it over a Big Mac and fries. On the other hand, in Germany everyone is so concerned about their Gesundheit that they regularly visit pools and saunas (much more than I ever witnessed from the Americans), but you can’t walk down the street without being in a near constant cloud of second-hand smoke.

To each his own, as they say. I’m a non-smoker, so I notice the stench.

The differences are all small things, and they’re everywhere. I love them, for many reasons, but mostly because I can really get a sense of where the grass might actually be the greenest (hint: it’s not). The difference that I was reminded of yesterday (and continually reminded of, as I am a regular user of mass transit in my Bavarian city) is the issue of personal space. Or, here, should I say, lackthereof.

I’m from Baltimore. I’m an American. As long as I’ve been alive, I’ve been taught that no one, and I mean NO ONE, should touch you without your explicit consent. Even then, it’s still up for a lawsuit. From the time we’re children, we’re raised to understand that we should not talk to or take things from strangers, that we should stop touching our sister, that just about any touch is a ‘bad touch’. We’ve grown up inside a literal and figurative bubble.

Yes, our family members touch us. So do our teachers and friends, and soccer coaches when they tell us ‘good game’. However, we NEVER touch strangers on the street, not EVER. And if we do, it is accidental and we always follow it with an ‘oh! excuse me!’, or something to that effect.

Enter: my first month in Germany, back in 2009. I’d just gotten off the bus and was walking down a major street in my city. By this time, it wasn’t totally new, but I was still getting to know all of the shops along the way to my Intensiv Deutsch Kurs. I slowed down to get something from my bag and was promptly body-checked by an old lady with a walker. With. A. WALKER. I wasn’t even in the middle of the sidewalk, I had moved (as we learn whether walking, driving or roller skating) to the far right of the sidewalk and was, I believed, out of the way of oncoming traffic.

Apparently, that was not the case.

That was my first month. I haven’t been fully body-checked since, but I have had some close calls and an uncountable amount of brush-bys. Without apologies, but that’s a different blog altogether.

Tonight, I want to talk about the bus and the S-Bahn. In another blog I’ll talk about the German lack of queuing. I still haven’t gotten the whole ‘lack of a line, but it’s a line if there’s an old person near you’ thing down yet. Another day.

I can’t figure what goes on on the bus out. I’ve ridden multiple versions of the subway in multiple American cities. In Chicago people were quite friendly and always willing to give you as much space as possible. In Baltimore, if someone was standing too close to you on an otherwise normally crowded Lite Rail, you could assume they were trying to steal something. The same goes for NYC, but you’re more likely to be groped than robbed (from what I’ve seen, at least). It’ll be interesting to see how the Japanese handle this, as I fly there in a few days for some training.

But in Germany, the bus ISN’T crowded and someone just has to sit RIGHT NEXT TO YOU. And when it IS crowded, there’s a minimum of one armpit right in your face. I don’t know how that even happens, as I’m relatively certain that there is an unspoken rule in the US that you don’t point your torso (or smelly armpit) at someone unless you find them hot enough to take home. Think about every crowded subway you’ve ever been on: unless it’s been to the point where, like a Lady Gaga concert or an train through India, there is literally standing room only, the only people that stand facing each other in close quarters are couples, families or friends.

I HATE being touched by people I don’t know. It might be a residual self-defense defense mechanism from living in a dangerous city, coupled with being relatively small and female, but it’s there. It’s hard to get past this, but I kind of don’t have a choice… it’s either deal with it, or spend my entire day beating up strangers on the street. I’ve got things to do, too busy to be fighting all day.

I’ve noticed this across all fronts, not just on the bus or S-Bahn (which is particularly dreadful during the mornings when school is in session): standing in line for anything, standing on the street, shopping, sitting in the park. I don’t know how or why, but the German understanding of a person’s personal space includes a much smaller ‘space’ than that of the Americans’.

I find this intriguing, since the Germans are so very slow to accept new people as ‘friends’: in America everyone wants to be your Facebook friend after they’ve literally bumped into you at a networking event. In Germany, you see the same person for a year on the street or at the gym, and still don’t even know their name. If you’re lucky, you get a nod or look of recognition from the person (true story) a year after the first encounter.

So there’s an overwhelming amount of physical closeness and it makes up for the lack of internet/false closeness that I don’t necessarily miss. I can’t speak about all Germans, this is just the case in the places I’ve visited, which ultimately means the south and east, except for Hamburg.

My boyfriend says the Germans DO understand the idea of personal space, it’s just a smaller allowed area. I don’t know how small that area needs to be for me to be constantly uncomfortable in slightly crowded buses or trains. How small can it be before it’s nonexistent?


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  1. Pingback: My GWExpat Blog post is up « From Germany-Marie, with love

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