Get out of my personal space!

Nyree Barrett likes to keep her distance, but is that any way to live?

The Knowledge

I have a very finely tuned sense of personal space, and I think this may mean I’m uptight. At the airport last week the man behind me in the seemingly endless visa queue stood so close that his breath thudded on the back of my neck. All right, Darth Vader. He was either trying to cut the line or smell my hair, but it became all too much when he brazenly sputtered a melody of exposed coughs across my back.

I walked away thinking that lack of sleep and a nine-hour flight back from South Africa jammed up against a somewhat odorous man with a twitch was to blame. Maybe I was just being oversensitive. But no – the next day I was faced with a similar incident in my apartment building and felt equally perturbed, but this time after 10 hours of blissful sleep.

Every morning when I catch the elevator from my 30th-floor home, I arm myself with a BlackBerry to avoid possible conversations (I’ll even type a fake email or re-read my Facebook news feed), but on this particular morning a young, swarthy man in bootleg jeans and a shirt adorned with faux graffiti joined me at the 23rd floor. He broke through my BlackBerry block by facing me rather than the door and, *shudder*, making eye contact. This was way too much for me – even my smartphone couldn’t save the day – so, after 15 floors of an awkward face-to-face journey, I resorted to turning around and pretending to fix my hair in the mirror. Yet there was no respite: he then caught my eye in the reflection and began to talk about the weather. ‘Oh wow, it’s hot, what a revelation,’ were the passive/aggressive thoughts running through my brain, but naturally I just smiled and nodded.

I’ve been faced with many incidents like these since moving to Dubai. At first I thought it was the space invaders that had the problem, but now I think it might be me. I come from an overtly WASPish nation where people keep their distance, stay on the right side of the escalator and avoid small talk at all costs – for me, a stranger standing mere centimetres away is uncomfortable, and that’s actually a little sad.

In Dubai we come across a variety of cultures every day, all of whom have different ideas about what is normal. Maybe it’s time I stopped worrying, let my guard down and deflated my bubble just a little. That said, coughing on the back of my neck will never be okay.

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