No, You’re the Weird One: Bursting the Personal Space Bubble

by Jayne Yerrick

“Is this seat taken?” 

This is a question that many of us are familiar with. Someone will likely pop this question as a class fills up or a bus starts getting crammed, but why is this question out of place when there are plenty of open seats?

We live in a society with a series of unspoken rules that guide our behavior, and this question reveals a common one. Most people would agree that it is not normal for a stranger to take the seat next to someone when there is an open one a few spots away. For example, if a stranger sat next to a person in a nearly empty movie theater, that would be considered just plain weird.

“In our society, if people we don’t know sit close to us, we get uncomfortable,” said Ariana Kocab, an OU sophomore studying anthropology. “It’s ingrained in our culture.”

“It’s about personal space, and I don’t want to know their business,” she said. “Also, I don’t want to have to smell their B.O.”

Whether it’s about respecting personal space or staying away from strange smells, I’ve noticed that the majority of people do have a problem with sitting in close proximity to strangers. 

I wanted to see what would happen when this social norm was challenged, and I set out to break this unwritten rule by spending the day sitting next to complete strangers. 

This was by no means easy for me. Anyone who chooses to break social norms usually will get attention or even a negative reaction from others, which, like most people, I try my best to avoid. 

In fact, it took me a couple of tries to even start my social experiment. At first, I would approach an open chair but then turn away at the last second. For my entire life, I have been trained by society to leave one or two seats between me and the next person over, and I soon learned that it takes a lot of willpower to break even a small social norm like this one. 

Eventually, I was able to begin. I went to Baker and sat directly next to a girl doing her homework, even though there were four open chairs next to us. She glanced up at me and gave me a polite smile, but I did notice that she shifted away from me after I sat down.

I then moved on to the dining hall, which is one of the more intimidating places to break a social norm. Everyone in the dining hall was either chatting with friends or lined up along the windows eating separately in silence. I chose a spot along the wall that is typically designated for people who wish to eat alone.

I got the feeling that the boy sitting next to me had no desire to be in my company because I watched him scarf down his food and walk away. Then as I was walking my dirty dishes back, I saw him sitting alone at a different table.

My last objective of the day was to sit next to a stranger in one of my classes. I chose to do this in my marketing class because it’s held in one of Bentley’s large lecture halls, where my classmates consistently sit very spaced out from one another. 

I walked in early and sat down directly next to a girl. I definitely do not regret this part of the experiment because I complimented her outfit after I sat down, and we ended up having a conversation and helping each other with an assignment. I think that if I had not set out to break this social norm, I probably would have gone the whole semester without talking to this person. 

After spending my day acting abnormal, I now am more aware of all the social norms that guide our lives that we don’t necessarily think about. I wonder what other norms there are for me to break?

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