Personal space and excuse me-s

When I had first arrived in the US, a lot of things were new. The people, especially, were very friendly and open. If you're walking along the road on the way to the university, total strangers will nod and smile, and even greet you with a "Good morning!". Soon, I learned to reciprocate: like the other day I passed this old lady who was walking with difficulty because of a cast around her knee; I wished her, "Get well soon", and she beamed at me and said, "Thank you!". People are genuinely appreciative with their comments, and if you are even of the slightest help to someone, they will make sure that you understand their gratitude, especially with the classical "Appreciate it".

Something else also struck me as a newcomer: the concept of a personal space. In India, if you're in a queue lets say to pay the electric bill or at a railway reservation counter, everyone is almost breathing down the neck of the guy in front of him. We don't mind others peeking around us from all sides trying to see what the guy behind the counter is doing. You need to keep your elbows and feet strategically placed so that if the next guy tries to slip around you, you can create a physical barrier. Things suddenly appeared totally different here in the US. People would stand at least at an arms length from each other in any queue. Even if you're standing in a queue to see Hillary Clinton (she and Barack Obama were on our campus recently :) ), only friends would stand close together and talk: another group would be a little apart in the same queue. On the bus, people prefer standing rather than sitting next to a guy who is on the window seat of a twin-seater, unless the bus is crowded and you "have" to push in to others to board it.

So far so good. But what strikes me as odd is the way people tend to apologize for the slightest things. You're on your way out of a door and she was momentarily in front of the entrance when she notices you and steps away: she'll still burst into an "Oh I'm sorry, excuse me". I'm walking towards a building across an open stretch, and I slightly change direction to allow this lady coming from the other direction to pass, and yet she will turn and say, "Excuse me". She apologized to me even though I was in her path! Initially I used to imagine myself as a village idiot fresh off the boat who had no manners at all . Asking to be excused in such trivial situations never crossed my mind. But nowadays it just appears pathetic to me. What the hell if you had to just brush by me? I don't care... I'm not offended. So I don't apologize for these things any more: it a real extreme! And the funny part is, when this happens between two people from here, they seem to apologize to each other, no matter whose "fault" it was. I have fun when I am one of them. If I was on someone's path and had to step away to let her pass, she will inevitably apologize for my "inconvenience" of taking a step. I always nod with a gesture that says, "Apology accepted!" :)


  1. 'THANKS' for such a nice post :)

  2. This sort of genteel manners tend to get on my nerves too. I'm a bit of a country boor though. :-p

  3. Ok, I appreciate Americans are a civilized society but since I have Indian blood running in my veins, I admit ‘too much apologizing and accepting apologies’ gets sort of distressing at times. Specially, times when you’re not feeling well about certain things and you still need to forcibly paste the polite smile on your face and apologize each man/woman coming your way. I demand privacy at such moments. It is kind of cynical of me but I’m honest !- Ms NMA

  4. :D well, I was awed too at the first. But somehow I couldn't do it. When I don't say a 'thank you' to my own family and friends for doing something simple for me, how would I say a 'thank you' to a bus driver for opening the automatic bus door? And I find it funny at times too. But since we have got accustomed to this, do you think we'll have trouble adjusting to India when we get back? or do you think our lifelong habit will just kick in as soon as we land there? Good post!

  5. heh, you should have seen me in india! i went about apologizing to and thanking all and sundry and people glared at me as if i just came back from a joy ride to the mental asylum. but surprisingly, i am not offended by the push-and-shove-when-in-queue bit that happens in india. maybe it's really "the best of both worlds" ?! :P

  6. Varun, bhai, thank you :)

    Hari, that is the precise word I was looking for! "Genteel". And yeah, by that definition at least, we're brothers :)

    Miss NMA, yeah thanks... moi also trying to be honest, but in the politically correct fashion :)

    Alpine Path, actually, thank you is not such a big deal to speak as is "I'm sorry". I do thank bus drivers and other people: it spreads a smile. But apologizing out of the blue doesn't suit me. It isn't much trouble adjusting in India: the day I landed, I jostled my way around the Kolkata cabs and talked with the right "attitude" :D But this was my first trip: so things might change a la Galadriel above.

    Galadriel, hahahah -- I can imagine! Probably, it is perhaps the best of both worlds since we're accustomed to that by birth. Someone born and brought up here in the US might find that offensive.

    P.S. - When push comes to shove, which side are you on? :P

  7. I tend to say thanks and sorry often :-)). I have heard this "don't be so formal yaar" :) so often from the indians. But haven't heard the same from americans. I just see it as politeness and manners and don't think I will be able to change in this. I read somewhere that women tend to do this more often than men?

  8. Are Americans polite by nature? From their general attitude and behaviour as portrayed in the media and the movies, we tend to picturize them as being arrogant and boorish.

  9. Yeah, and by the way, it's real easy to apologize at every word and that shows a real lack of sincerity.

    What is really tough is apologizing when you've really done something to be ashamed of or worth apologizing. I suggest trying that. Now that would really get stuck in your throat. :-p

  10. Great post!
    So it looks like Americans are pretty different from what they are portrayed like in the media.
    These journalists,I tell you.

  11. Oh yes, you are. I would've done that if i were you. It's that I'm enjoying my 'anonymous' status so proudly :D Jokes apart, I'll try to maintain a 'polite' profile in your comment space henceforth. But I'm pretty forthright in person anyway.-Ms NMA

  12. Harshi, heh heh heh... I can step into that last loopy mine of yours with a nice "Chauvinistic" comment. But I'd say that girls in general are more polite than guys: we tend to care less and consequently expect less.

    Hari, I would emphatically say a yes: a majority of the people I've met here are very polite and friendly, including total strangers. But beware of generalization: there will always be the odd one out you'll regret having trusted.

    And about that getting in the throat thingie, well, that essentially is what sets the wheat from the chaff apart. If you have a huge ego, you will never be willing to admit your mistake although the word "Sorry" will be there at the tip of your tongue for all trivial matters.

    Spirited, well, actually it is not just journalists. Take a look at the media in general, or movies, etc. The "normal" people aren't portrayed as boorish or snobbish: they're just normal. But again, they never the truth come in the way of a great story.

    Miss NMA, any more politeness and you'll probably melt away into oblivion. What about that "prospective female candidate" threat? :P

  13. Ahem ahem...well, do have a crazy sense of humor !! About the 'polite' part, heard of the crow-eagle story ? I need to improve on that anyway though I love the saying, 'well behaved women rarely make history'-Ms NMA

  14. Miss NMA, so now you're trying to walk the wild side, is it? In that case, please let me volunteer my personal services for this grand adventure, including but not limited to certain things which are not expressible in words :)

    P.S. - Crow-eagle story? Enlighten me please. And I'd be happy if this conversation happened offline any further rather than here. My email id is not so difficult to locate, you know!

  15. From here these gestures seems so nice where everyone is pushing you around, and ready to jump a queue at a slightest laxity on your part. Just happened to me a few days ago. I was purchasing some sweets and sanding in a queue waiting for my turn. Finally I was "THERE" and ordering and suddenly a tall fair "branded dude" from tip to toe, appeared from nowhere and start ordering ..I was simply furious and simply asked," Sirf kapade hi achche pahnana kaafi hai ya kuch tameez bhi aati hai?" He didn't answer me and avoided my gaze and stood like a schoolboy for the rest of the time. :-)

  16. Yes, I am totally able to relate to this post. Especially when I am deciding which way to turn to allow way for the person walking towards me. Right or left? :p

    And I end up almost making a fool of myself, to which I get a "Oh am sorry". That "Oh" wiping away any iota of guilt in me!
    Quite, the opposite?

    Adithya (Legolas)

  17. hahaha.. i find it sooo odd to hear a sorry in india :P

  18. Lol, everyone back home take etiquette for granted. Maybe that's because we follow the whole concept of 'we're just one big family'.
    Over here etiquette is reserved for the boardrooms.
    And excellent point on the whole 'personal space' thing. Here the concept is almost non-existent. Take our own parents for instance. They insist on every little detail that happens in our lives.

    It's an Indian thing I guess.

  19. Alka, baap re! I don't envy this branded dude, no way! :) On a more serious note, though, well said.

    Gradwolf, hahaa... way to go! :)

    Raghu, yeah, I'd agree. The more common one is, "Kya hai be?"

    Coconut Chutney, to some extent, I think our parents are justified in wanting to know what is happening in our lives. But once they have decided that you're mature enough, they stop interfering: I say this at least from the experience in my own case.

    And by personal space I meant physical personal space, not the kind you're talking about. But I'll agree there as well -- somehow what is your salary doesn't seem like a non-personal question. :)


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