Is it OK to sit beside a stranger when many other seats are available?
August 5, 2014 3:09 AM   Subscribe

I have a question about different cultural norms regarding personal space. Specifically, taking the seat right next to somebody in an empty waiting room, bus, train, study hall, etc.

Obviously, if there are a few people already in a shared space, it's fine to take the seat next to somebody. But what if a large shared space is totally empty, and there are dozens other seats available?

Twice in the past few days, someone has sat right next to me in a very large space with ~50 other places to sit. It was not creepy, they were pleasant and non-intrusive. But it registered with me as breaking an unwritten norm.

Are there cultures where this is acceptable or encouraged (perhaps it's a sign of friendly camaraderie)?
posted by dontjumplarry to Society & Culture (30 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Here (in the UK) it would be odd behaviour to say the least. If someone did it to me I would probably find an excuse to move if I could.
posted by crocomancer at 3:35 AM on August 5, 2014 [19 favorites]

Odd - and creepy if the first person in the shared space is female.
posted by walkinginsunshine at 3:47 AM on August 5, 2014 [23 favorites]

Definitely against the unwritten rules. And if you are next to someone and a space opens up, you should move. I hate when I'm on the bus, and someone stays next to me when other seats are open.
posted by catatethebird at 3:47 AM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Imagine that you walk into a large church that is practically empty. If there are a few people scattered around in there then it would be safe to assume that they are after tranquillity and that they will wish to be left to their own space as much as possible.

But the rules change radically if a service is about to start - in that case anybody coming in is likely to assume that others sitting there are just part of the wonderful congregation that they have not had a chance of meeting yet. So its OK to go and sit pretty near them - not right adjacent but near enough to maybe start a conversation. There is also the matter for consideration of whoever is taking the service: in a large and mostly empty room it is polite to them to try to cluster in one area and maybe near the front.
posted by rongorongo at 3:53 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: That is what I assumed for my Western culture.

Is it different in some non-Western cultures though?
posted by dontjumplarry at 3:58 AM on August 5, 2014

I could see this not being creepy if there were safety concerns and it were two people who felt physically vulnerable (most stereotypically, two women, or if one or both were elderly, etc.).
posted by blue suede stockings at 3:59 AM on August 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

Personal space is not as big a deal in many Asian countries.

However it would help if you describe the situations more; otherwise it's hard to analyze. Was this on a bus, in an auditorium before a show? Etc. also, are you in a western country or not?
posted by bearette at 4:15 AM on August 5, 2014

I could see it being acceptable if (for example) it was the front seat of the bus, with the best view as to where they were - particularly for travellers who're unfamiliar with where they are headed.

Another classic example is walking into a lecture hall late - you sit in the seat closest to the door where you'll disturb the least people, regardless of whether the middle of every row is empty.

And in potentially social situations e.g. a talk or a lecture you'd expect people to sit directly next to you a fair bit more, because they want to be social.
posted by Ashlyth at 4:21 AM on August 5, 2014

It is kind of strange (in the Western world, but not in all other parts of the world where I've lived) and would weird me out most of the time, but in some cases I might do it myself. If I'm waiting to be seen (by the doctor, for a visa interview, etc), then I'm going to sit in the front/nearest to the door, regardless of how many empty seats there are simply because I wouldn't want someone else coming in after me and trying to get in ahead of me (which people do all the time).
posted by Enchanting Grasshopper at 4:25 AM on August 5, 2014

Agreeing with bearette above, particularly in some middle (to eastern) Asian cultures. I was in a large hotel in NYC once, with plenty of couches, chairs, etc. available in the lounge. A middle Eastern gentleman came in and sat right next to me on a 3-person couch. After the initial "shock," I started talking to him (American culture!) and we ended up on the subject. He said it felt like the right thing to do to him. His version of personal space was much different than mine.
posted by kuanes at 4:26 AM on August 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

At professional events then I think things might be a bit different, with potential for networking and such, so take that into account.

This happened to me in a cinema once, about half a dozen people in a Sunday afternoon showing, me on my own. Guy sits down and immediately tries to start a conversation. I felt quite happy moving away. IIRC he was middle eastern or maybe Asian so maybe the different cultural norms thing applied.
posted by biffa at 4:39 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

For what it's worth, i found people did this more often when I lived in Germany than they do here in Australia. Even there it wasn't the norm, but it wasn't seen as quite so bizarre, either
posted by lollusc at 4:51 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

It may simply be that for some people (or some cultures), choosing to sit far away from the only other person in the room would seem rude, as if you're not acknowledging that person's presence, or find their presence distasteful. At least that's what I've always assumed in situations like that.

If you walked into a room with no seating, and there was one other person standing there, I think most people would at least make eye contact and smile, or offer a small verbal greeting.
posted by pipeski at 5:18 AM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Generally I think it's a bit strange in western culture, but there are often preferences invisible to you that might be driving their decision. I was in a relatively empty waiting area the other day and I sat down right next to an older woman who was quietly reading a book, who was plainly not delighted with my decision to sit right next to her when the waiting room was mostly empty ... but she was in the middle seat of the three chairs right in front of the children's play area, where my children were playing. She wasn't thinking about it when she sat there because there weren't any kids waiting then, but I didn't have much choice if I was going to supervise my kids.

Sometimes this happens if you have a seat particularly near a door, or a bathroom, or with a good view of the clock.

And yes, women alone, particularly if they're not familiar with that transit/space/whatever, will often arrange themselves near another woman who appears friendly and confident, rather than choosing the most isolated spot to maximize personal space. You've identified a potential ally and are placing yourself near them in case you need them.

(In fact, one of the things they teach children and teenagers today is that if they get lost, or someone is harassing them, when they are alone in public and there is no obvious cop or security guard or whatever, is to look for a mother-with-children and ask her for help, as they are statistically highly unlikely to harm you and highly likely to help; they are specifically singled out as someone "safe" to ask for help. I think there's a similar instinct at work sometimes where solo women range themselves near woman who appear "safe," just in case.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:33 AM on August 5, 2014 [8 favorites]

There are so many possible cultural, gender and class variables at play I think I'd need more specifics to decide for certain.

In general in the US it would be a bit strange in most situations that did not expect a degree of engagement between the people in the space, excluding considerations like proximity to the bathrooms or exits for example.
posted by winna at 5:49 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

I remember reading a critique of American culture on this issue (it was the 60s so its goal was to explain how wrong the USian way is) saying that in a nearly empty train, in a Scandinavian culture, you would sit near the few others. I have no idea how true this may be.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:58 AM on August 5, 2014

This happens to me with treadmills at the gym. I try to remember there may be other factors I don't see--proximity to the bathrrom or an overhead fan or need to see who is walking in because they are meeting someone. Also some people genuinely aren't bothered by these things. Bugs me too though.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 6:03 AM on August 5, 2014

I was trying to think of what people in China would do in this situation (e.g., a bus or lecture) and I just couldn't come up with any examples. Buses were always packed standing room only. Waiting rooms were always full. I guess somebody has to be the second to arrive at a lecture hall, but it'd probably fill up soon.

So I won't claim Chinese culture encourages sitting next to strangers, but it's possible that modern urban China just doesn't provide that many opportunities for a small number of strangers to be together in a large space, and therefore there isn't much guidance as to what would be appropriate in that situation.

Note that I've lived most of my life in the U.S. though, so I don't have that much experience to draw on.
posted by d. z. wang at 6:44 AM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think the whole "Western"/"Middle Eastern or maybe Asia" thing is weird. None of those cultures are monoliths and class, age etc definitely play roles.

What I have learned is that generally Anglophone cultures (US, UK, Australia) are more wary with personal space, but plenty of people invaded my space in say, France.
posted by sweetkid at 6:48 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

I suspect this is cultural in way you're not thinking of: extroverts vs introverts. You're an introvert (as am I). Most of the world is an extrovert, so their idea of personal space differs wildly from ours. Not a big deal, they're mostly harmless people and god bless 'em, their hearts are in the right place. But their concept of boundaries is different, hence these little culture clashes.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:46 AM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

In my college sociology class we had to break a social norm and then write a paper about the experience. The social norm I chose to break was sitting next to people when there were loads of other places one could sit (buses, classrooms, cafeterias). With the exception of one person every single person I sat next to gave me a look like I was crazy. So in my experience, it is entirely normal in the US to be weirded out by this.
posted by magnetsphere at 8:28 AM on August 5, 2014 [6 favorites]

That happened to me once. I was in an empty waiting room and some woman came and sat right next to me. It was bizarre and I didn't know what to do. Any other time since then that's happened to me, like in a movie theater or on a bus, I just get up and move a few seats down. They've never been quite as blatant as that first one. I'm an American living in America. And I like personal space.

I have found that people from Asian countries will get closer than I am comfortable with sometimes. Like, when I was standing in line at the movie theater. When the person in front of my was getting his tickets, I stood a few feet back and waited for my turn to step up. But a pair of Asian girls who were clearly international students stepped right up with me and stood RIGHT behind me. I could tell momentarily the employee at the counter considered they were with me, but then could see I was annoyed about it, ha. That's not to say Americans never do this in lines, get too close, but that was definitely the most blatant example because it was a short line with plenty of space.

Wikipedia has an entry on personal space that touches on cultural differences. There's one for personal space in the U.S. too.
posted by AppleTurnover at 8:49 AM on August 5, 2014

I was in metropolises 0-4, American towns 4-18, and small-medium American cities 18-now. If on a full bus and seats open up, I do feel that I would offend my seatmate if I moved into an empty seat, as if I couldn't wait to get away from them.

But even with that, I do think it would be odd to enter a near-empty room and sit next to the only person there, with unpleasantness depending on the various power variables as previously stated.
posted by batter_my_heart at 9:11 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

The term you want to use if you Google around about this is "proximics." Anthropologists have been studying this for quite a long time and you're right--there are very different rules in different cultures about the definition and the treatment of "personal space." It is certainly violating cultural norms in both the US and the UK to sit next to a stranger in an otherwise empty room (unless there is an expectation that the room is imminently on the verge of filling up). And yes, there are cultures where this is not the case.
posted by yoink at 9:41 AM on August 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

I would find it odd, and if I were in a doctor's office waiting room, I'd probably find it intrusive, since there are often forms to be filled out and whatnot while waiting to see a doctor.
posted by sarcasticah at 12:34 PM on August 5, 2014

I'm from Eastern Europe, and in my country there seem to be several approaches to the one/few-people-in-largely-empty-waiting-room scenario (but bear in mind that I am one person generalizing from observation, and from conversations with a few other Eastern Europeans whilst abroad in the UK):

a. You walk in, greet (can be just eye contact and a nod), sit somewhere not very far from the person already there, without sitting right next to them (maybe leave one seat between you). Commence chatting or not.

b. Walk in, don't greet, sit somewhere not very far etc.

c. Greet/ don't greet, sit down right next to the other person. Start chatting or not.

d. Greet. Sit somewhere as far away as possible from other person. No eye contact or otherwise acknowledging the other person.

e. Just walk in as though no-one is there, sit as far away as possible, avoid interaction.

In my circles, the "civilized" thing to do is a. b. means you're a jerk/ "uneducated" (not in the sense of "enjoyed higher education" or the like, rather it means you have not been properly socialized by your parents). c. tends to indicate that you are from the country/ not educated in the usual sense of the word (as though you are not fully urbanized). d. is kind of weird, but each to their own. And e. means that either something truly momentous has happened that serves as an explanation/ excuse for why you are being so rude, or else you are just an asshole for being arrogant and treating people like they're lepers. This is so strong that i would instinctively shirk away from a person who behaved like this and who I then met somewhere socially; it's sort of almost on a par with "someone shows their true colours when dealing with waitstaff".

As you may imagine, this makes for a rather lonely, depressing existence when you move from this kind of culture to a more stand-offish one, like the one that emerges from answers here (this was one of our persistent whines during our EE get-togethers). Same is true though in my country, too; as mentioned above, people in rural areas or from other communities (for example, certain parts of the country) are much more proximity-tolerant than we are, so my "civilized" (a.) can be kind confusing and depressing for them (I have this experience myself when I move around communities: it can take me a while to adjust to either the aloofness in one community or the suffocating nearness in the other).
posted by miorita at 12:49 PM on August 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

I agree with others that it is a bit odd in a waiting room, but I was wondering about this recently when making decisions on where to sit on the bus/subway, when there are a few empty pairs of seats, and a bunch with one person sitting there. Generally, I tend to go to an empty pair, but I was wondering if (in instances where I know from experience that the bus will fill up shortly) it's actually more polite to sit by someone else, thus leaving the pairs of seats open for any couples or parent/children that come aboard. But, then I wonder if the person I'm sitting next too think I'm being rude/odd.

Re: buses/subways, I also will sometime make the choice to sit next to someone when there are open pairs of seats because I don't want to be on an inside seat if someone sits next to me, and I have to ask them to get up up to let me out.
posted by purplevelvet at 1:11 PM on August 5, 2014

I'm an American who had this experience in a shopping mall in South Africa. In an otherwise empty seating area another woman took a seat immediate beside me and it really made me uncomfortable. I asked a South African friend about it and she thought it was strange too, but she's been living in the US for a couple of decades now, so she might have an Americanized view of personal bubbles.
posted by MsMolly at 4:34 PM on August 5, 2014

purplevelvet, if you did that to me I'd get up and move. Why not just sit on the outside seat? I will also move when the train/bus empties out enough to allow me to sit by myself. I've sometimes wondered why everyone doesn't do this.

So, yeah, another Westerner here.
posted by Ik ben afgesneden at 9:44 PM on August 5, 2014

The treadmill thing is so true. I have "favorites." I know that some are slow to change speeds, which I do regularly, and some don't have a good internet connection, which is an absolute must. Without hesitation I'll take my favorite even if it's next to the only other person running on a bank of ~10 machines. (France)
posted by whatzit at 1:15 AM on August 6, 2014

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