Personal space in Dubai

Our man is feeling flushed over an invasion of privacy

Nokia Ovi Slider, The Knowledge

‘How many watts is that light bulb?’

As icebreakers go it wasn’t my best, but it was all I could come up with at short notice. A better conversationalist than me would have a witty bon mot prepared. Something insightful about the economy, perhaps? At the very least an observation on the clement weather we’ve been having.

But I’m not sure what the correct etiquette is when you are sitting in a toilet cubicle and a man atop a step ladder is staring down at you.

Looking back I realise a polite ‘excuse me, could you come back later?’ would have done the trick. But once you start down the measurement-of-electrical-power route it is hard to get back on track. The onus, I am sure you’ll agree, is surely on the man on the ladder to spot the mistake and go away. But the workman in this 100-per-cent-true tale was not prepared to give in. He’d set up the ladder with the intention of changing the flickering light bulb and no outdated concepts of physical space were going to stop him.

For a few startled seconds we just stared at each other before it was clear the other wasn’t going to go away. Luckily he finished his job before I did mine and was gone in about one minute. One of the most excruciating minutes of my life. Not for the first time I found myself wishing a hole would swallow me up. Okay, so I was sitting on the hole, but I shouldn’t be the one feeling the flush of embarrassment (pun-haters, I’m sorry).

However, you could say I should be used to things like this now. Dubai is a town that doesn’t seem to respect space. The Emirate has thousands of square kilometres but we all squeeze into a few residential districts a few miles from the coast. Dozens of people will cram into a tiny lift to go up just a single flight of stairs. And I once spotted eight adults and a baby spilling out of a small family car.

It was only a matter of time before toilet cubicles became territorial. But no matter how many people stand on your toes at brunch, crowd you out of a supermarket queue or drive into your lane on the highway, it is best to keep your cool. This is Dubai: sometimes you’re at the top looking down, sometimes you’re at the bottom looking up – whichever it is, you should always be polite.

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