personal space

Physical boundaries and social distance

Boundaries kind of gets used as a buzzword. So I’m writing some posts about how I understand boundaries. This post is most about physical boundaries.

What I mean by boundaries is that people have things that are completely theirs, physically and emotionally. It’s important to respect what belongs to someone else, and not treat it like it’s yours. This is especially true of someone else’s body, their personal space, their thoughts, and their feelings. Respecting physical and emotional boundaries is part of respecting other people’s humanity.

People have the right to control what happens to their body. If someone doesn’t want you to touch them, it’s important not to, even if you really want to. And it’s important not to put pressure on them to change their mind. And that’s true whether or not your intentions are sexual. Platonic boundary violations are still boundary violations.

(This is slightly more complicated than it sounds. For instance, it’s usually considered insulting to refuse to shake hands with someone unless you have a really compelling reason not to (eg: if it’s physically dangerous). I will write more about nuances in the future. But on a basic level, this is how bodies and boundaries work. And, even if someone is being unreasonable, it’s still important to not touch them against their will.)

Some things that are not technically someone’s body follow similar principles. Clothing and jewelry that someone is wearing are like their body in this way. So are purses and wallets. Mobility and adaptive equipment (eg: a wheelchair or communication device) is *especially* like someone’s body. This is true even if someone isn’t touching their equipment (eg: if someone’s not sitting in their wheelchair right now, it’s still like part of their body and you still shouldn’t touch it unless they want you to).

Personal space is also like someone’s body. Getting too close to someone is like touching them without permission. Personal space is a bit hard to define, because it depends a lot on context and culture. For instance, it’s ok to stand closer to people in an elevator than in an empty hallway. It’s a kind of thing where you have to develop your judgement. (To an extent by trial and error; watching what other people are doing can also be helpful.)

When people are uncomfortable with how close you are to them, they are usually more likely to communicate this with body language than with words. If you’re interacting with someone and they look uncomfortable, it’s worth considering whether you might be standing or sitting too close. If you think you might be, it’s worth trying giving them a bit more space and seeing what happens.

Sometimes when people are uncomfortable with how close you’re standing or sitting, they try to fix this by moving away to a distance they feel comfortable with. If someone does this, it’s good to err on the side of assuming it’s intentional. (Particularly if they move further away more than once.) If you repeatedly get closer to someone when they’re trying to create more distance, they’re likely to regard it as a threat. From their perspective, they’re saying no and you’re doing it anyway.

It can be hard to learn to understand social distance, especially if you have trouble understanding body language. It’s also both possible and important.

tl;dr It’s important to respect boundaries. One important boundary is a person’s right to control what happens to their body. An important part of this is to not touch people who don’t want to be touched. Some things a person might have are similar to their body. Standing too close to people is similar to touching them. Scroll up for more about how to tell where the lines are.

theprettiestboy:

realsocialskills:

chavisory said: Same as with assistive equipment and service animals-you shouldn’t even touch somebody else’s instrument without asking, usually. Again, unless some kind of unusual familiarity or intimacy creates an exception

realsocialskills said:

Yes. And also, this is *especially* the case if they are not present. Because some instruments are easy to break accidentally in ways that aren’t obvious. If you touch someone’s instrument when they’re not there, they can’t stop you from doing things that will break it.

theprettiestboy said:

I work backstage at a pretty big music festival, and one of my jobs is helping the bands set up. It’s my job to carry things for them, but I still DO NOT touch anyone’s instrument without asking them first, and that’s the first thing we teach people who are working with us for the first time. For many people, it’s as much of a boundary violation as touching their body without permission.

desktopwithsources:

realsocialskills:

rockinlibrarian:

Social skills for autonomous people: another thing about privilege

sarahreesbrennan:

realsocialskills:

If you have a lot of privilege, you’ve learned to take up all or most of the space when you’re around people below you in the hierarchy. 

It’s important to learn to stop doing that. It’s important to learn how to be in a space without dominating it. It means learning to listen to people you’ve been systemically taught that it’s ok to talk over.

This can be hard to learn. When you stop dominating spaces, you have to live with less control, space, and attention than you’ve become accustomed to. You’re going to feel constrained, and like the other people are taking up all the space — even if you’re still taking up most of it.

And, once it becomes clear that you’re trying, people will express anger at you a lot more than then used to. This might feel really unfair, since you’re acting better than you ever have before, yet you’re attracting a lot more anger and criticism. 

The reason it works this way is because people used to put up with you treating them badly because they didn’t see any point in objecting. Most people who have privilege and power over others don’t especially care about how it hurts people. Further, a lot of them get really angry and retaliate when it’s pointed out. You’ve shown that you’re someone who might actually listen. That means you’re the one who gets yelled at.

It’s not fair, but the people who are yelling at you aren’t the ones responsible for the unfairness. Don’t get angry at them for it - get angry at the people like you who aren’t getting yelled at because they don’t give a damn. And maybe start calling them on it and make their indifference cost them something. You’re probably in a much better position to do this than the people below you in the hierarchy. 

And keep in mind that the situation faced by the people who are yelling at you is a hell of a lot more unfair than the situation you’re in.

That said, don’t beat yourself up for feeling frustrated, either. This is hard, and it’s ok to find it difficult. You’re going to make mistakes, and some of this is really going to suck. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or that you can’t learn how to act right. (Also, sometimes people will tell you that you’re oppressing them when you’re not. You can’t automatically assume that everyone is right when they tell you off — but if you’re in a highly privileged group and you think *everyone* who is telling you off is wrong, you’re probably the one who is wrong.)

Just keep trying, and don’t make the people below you responsible for making you feel better.

It can be TRULY HORRIBLE to be yelled at, while others (often doing stuff you think is terribly, terribly wrong, often who are much more successful and powerful than you) are not yelled at… and sometimes join in the yelling at you. It feels extremely unfair.

But how much more horrible is it for other people who have had to deal with unfairness for years and years, unfairness they cannot opt out of.

Huh. Privilege? I’m supposed to be more privileged than average: white, American, straight, highly educated, (raised) middle-class by loving-and-still-married parents— I don’t think being female and now educated-working-class makes me underprivileged enough to consider myself NOT highly privileged. So is this really about privilege? Not just a personality trait thing and it may be EASIER to have certain traits with certain privileges? Because it’s the exact opposite of me. Lord HELP me, it’s the exact opposite of me. At some point in my childhood I developed the Invisibility “superpower.“ Seriously, people who claim they’d want Invisibility as a superpower obviously have never EXPERIENCED Invisibility. The thing is, right now in my life, in my psychological therapy exercises, my general attempts to grow as a human being, I’m trying to stop being invisible. I’m trying to become aware of how I unconsciously try to take up as little space as possible. I’m trying to convince myself that I DO have just as much right to exist as everyone else in the world does. I’m trying to learn to SPEAK UP, and assert my opinions, and acknowledge that I have needs and wants of my own (even though I’ve been so good at denying this that MOST TIMES I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT THOSE ARE). So, since I’m Privileged… do I NOT need to do this? Because if I do I WILL be automatically taking up too much space? I know, I’m being stupid. I’m missing the point. I’m derailing the Important Conversation that needs to take place. (But how derailing can I be if only 3 people follow this Tumblr anyway?) I’m making it ALL ABOUT ME. PITY ME, BOO-HOO. Yeah, I guess I’m taking up too much space already just because I have feelings and confusions of my own. But at the same time I’m SUPPOSED to start doing this, expressing myself and all. So that’s what I’m doing. I’m not trying to derail anybody. I’m just trying to speak up about how hard it is to convince myself that I have a voice that needs to be heard when so many well-meaning people keep saying that my SORT of voice needs to be heard less. Maybe I’m just hoping somebody will tell me otherwise. That NO, obviously, nobody’s saying that if you’re Privileged at all then you need to go dig a hole for yourself and fall into it rather than try to be an active, creative person. But then again, the other thing I need to learn is to stop relying on other people for approval. GAH. Growing is hard.

This is a reason I think I wrote that post wrong. I’m sorry.

Privilege is — a concept that I think is kind of wrong shaped. It doesn’t quite mean what I’d like it to mean, to communicate the kind of power dynamic I’m talking about.

I agree that being taught to be invisible is horrible, and common, and hard to overcome. For whatever reason it happens. And that you have to think for yourself, and work through your own perspectives on things. You can’t learn to do right by others if you’re trying to erase yourself.

And, all too often, discourse about privilege can get people to think they should be deeply ashamed and try to erase themselves. Or that privilege is something they should be constantly naming and atoning for. And no good comes of that. The point is to be aware of power relationships, and things that hurt people, and treat people well in the face of what is.

Everyone has some sort of privilege. Everyone has some sort of power over others. It’s not a sin; it’s something it’s important to be aware of and deal with. Because unacknowledged power is dangerous.

I think it’s worth being away that learned invisibility is harder to overcome if you’re also being held down by racism. Or by being dependent on people who want you to stay invisible for medical care you need to survive. Or sexism. Or poverty. Or any number of other things. Especially if a lot of them apply to you.

Because stuff like that matters. But it doesn’t mean that your problems aren’t real, or that it’s all a matter of box checking or anything. Isms are — part of the world. But not the only part. And, push come to shove, you have to think for yourself, rely on your own judgement, and do what you can to make it as good as possible.

I’m sorry I posted that post prematurely.

This is a problem that I really had/have too - having discussion of privilege just reinforcing my anxiousness that I shouldn’t talk, shouldn’t have needs, etc. And realizing some stuff has helped me with that, so I wanted to say about the thing above - first, actually being female is *huge* for this. There were posts going around about studies with this - here’s one and here’s one. 

if there’s 17% women, the men in the group think it’s 50-50. And if there’s 33% women, the men perceive that as there being more women in the room than men.

and

Another study reported that a male science teacher who managed to create an atmosphere in which girls and boys contributed more equally to discussion felt that he was devoting 90 per cent of his attention to the girls. And so did his male pupils.

So even for people who are privileged in other ways, sexism does enormous amounts of damage. 

The other thing is - people talk about ‘taking up space’, but they don’t always elaborate on which space they’re talking about. So, first, the spaces this applies to in its most ‘extreme’ form so to speak are safer spaces meant for people on the oppression side of the privilege in questions. So, if I’m white at an anti-racist meeting, or a man at a feminist meeting, etc, that’s where I should generally be quiet and listen. 

And then the next space in question is basically any space you share with people on the oppression side of privilege you have. So again, if I’m white and, for instance, at a planning meeting for something, I need to make sure I don’t contribute to an atmosphere where only white people are talking and everyone else gets talked over. 

But, conversely, if I’m female and at a planning meeting (or in a relationship, or in a group, etc), then I might get that issue in the opposite direction, where male-privilged people are not giving *me* space. So it’s not ‘I’m have X amount of privilege, so I should talk less’. Privilege isn’t about numbers. It’s ‘I have this specific privilege over some people, so it’s very easy for me to talk over them without noticing, so I need to watch out for that and work on not doing it’. 

And, finally, I am always allowed to take up as much space as I want when that space is mine to begin with. So on my own tumblr, or blog, etc, making my own posts, I get to talk about myself all I want. I’m not pushing anyone out - that’s *my* space. 

Reblogging for commentary.

I want to think more about how this applies to things like activist spaces, art spaces, and businesses - because sometimes it is possible to create a space but then have some obligations in terms of representation and taking up space.

I agree that on your own blog you get to talk about whatever you want and that can’t be pushing people out; your blog is your platform and it’s not one others are entitled to stand on. Some things are similar to blogs in that regard; some aren’t. I want to think more about where the lines are.

Creating personal space by moving away

orima-kazooie asked realsocialskills:

…Perhaps it’s not the most subtle or polite but jerking or yanking your arm away or like just kind of jumping a little immediately as if it were reflexive can generally get the message across without upsetting people.

That’s interesting. I’m not sure how I’d do that, because I’m not sure what reads as a reflex to most people. But it sounds like a really good idea.

charcoalcloud:

realsocialskills:

poeticignorance submitted: …Hi.  I was wondering if you or your followers could help me.  I work in a shop with lots of contact with the public.  Some customers stand closer than I’m comfortable with- either while talking to me or while shopping behind/beside me.  Several people have placed a hand on my arm while we were talking.  I feel like my personal space is being invaded every day. It’s very stressful but I don’t feel able to do anything about it without appearing rude (which could get me in trouble with  my managers, as well as potentially upsetting people).  Do you have any advice for discouraging this from customers, or for reducing the stress it causes?  Thanks.

I don’t have a good solution to this, unfortunately.

Sometimes people get the hint if you take a step backwards, but that doesn’t always work.

It can also work to have an object between you and them (eg: a counter, a washer they’re looking at, something like that), but it’s not always possible to do that.

Have any of y’all found something that works more consistently?

I tend to move away from the situation - to say “I’ll let you have a look at those, then,” or “Excuse me just a minute,” and walk off for a few seconds, maybe go to to check something or whatever.  You can even work it into the conversation - “Actually, I’m not sure about that! Let me ask a colleague/look it up on our system/see if I can find out for you.”  Usually creating that break resets the boundaries of social conduct.

(Note: this also works with customers who are getting verbally pushy or overwhelming in other ways, even when it’s not meant to be mean.)

All this obviously all depends on your particular culture/role/place of employment - it’s just what has worked for me.

Using a clipboard to create physical space

theodorepython replied to your post: poeticignorance submitted: …Hi.  I was wondering…Holding a clipboard between you and them creates a sort of boundary. Besides that there’s nothing I know of that you can do without being considered rude. You may want to try talking to your boss.

poeticignorance submitted: …Hi.  I was wondering if you or your followers could help me.  I work in a shop with lots of contact with the public.  Some customers stand closer than I’m comfortable with- either while talking to me or while shopping behind/beside me.  Several people have placed a hand on my arm while we were talking.  I feel like my personal space is being invaded every day. It’s very stressful but I don’t feel able to do anything about it without appearing rude (which could get me in trouble with  my managers, as well as potentially upsetting people).  Do you have any advice for discouraging this from customers, or for reducing the stress it causes?  Thanks.

I don’t have a good solution to this, unfortunately.

Sometimes people get the hint if you take a step backwards, but that doesn’t always work.

It can also work to have an object between you and them (eg: a counter, a washer they’re looking at, something like that), but it’s not always possible to do that.

Have any of y'all found something that works more consistently?