The illusion of personal space
Understanding human territorialism is the first step to dealing with it
A fight broke out in my yoga class a couple of weeks ago. One minute we were all happily greeting one another and arranging our mats in neat rows; the next moment, two guys in baggy shorts were shoving and going after each other's man-buns with irate gusto.
What could possibly cause violence to erupt in a yoga studio, of all places?
"Dude was getting in my space," one of the combatants whined after the instructor broke things up.
Ah, the rest of us collectively sighed. His space. We understood.
If you have ever taken a yoga class, a Step class, a Spin class, or a group fitness class of any sort, you too will have observed how deeply possessive people can be in supposedly common areas. ("That's my elliptical machine," an older lady once barked at me in the almost-empty cardio room at the YMCA. I promptly moved.)
This tendency to lay individual claim to shared places isn't confined to fitness centers. Regular riders will often sit in certain seats on public transportation, even defying the laws of proxemics to do so. Parishioners head to the same pew in church, Sunday after Sunday… and woe betide any hapless interloper who might have gotten there first; she will spend the entire sermon getting the stink-eye. Heck, people will even usually use the same stall in a public bathroom, even if that means waiting.
It turns out space — and our sense of where we belong in it — is very important to us humans. There is an entire field of psychology devoted to the study of how we interact with our environment and each other. While social and biological scientists debate the origins of human territoriality (Are we genetically predisposed to see that seat on the train as ours, or is that expectation imposed upon us by a culture that places us in the same desk day after day in elementary school? ), no one can argue that we Naked Apes are not protective of our spaces.
In his essay "Territorial Behavior," sociobiologist Desmond Morris defines "territory" as a "defended space" and goes on to elaborate the different types of territories people will claim and the lengths they will go to define and defend them when threatened with invasion.
Storm my castle, will you? I'll show you! Bring on the boiling oil!
The problem is, the emotions and impulses that drive our response to very real threats carry over into less critical areas. If I see you've parked your ugly Hyundai in front of my lovely geranium beds — again! — my blood will start to burn just as surely as that boiling oil. I become unreasonably angry. I might end up saying or doing something we will both regret.
Be it a cave or a castle, a palace or a parking space, if we feel protected and secure in that space, we humans will assume rights to it, even when we have no actual right to do so. We will even resort to disproportionate behavior to defend that perceived right.
And that is never right.
So let's go back to yoga class. If you arrive and find someone set up in "your" spot, acknowledge the flash of irritation you feel and let it go, knowing that a casually thrown sticky mat isn't exactly a precursor to a full-out invasion of your home. If a neighbor continually parks alongside the curb in front of your house, don't write nasty notes or (worse) take out his windshield with a baseball bat. Invite him over for a beer. Show him this article, and laugh at yourself for being such a territorial animal. Ask if he might consider humoring your human-ness by parking in front of his own house for a while.
And if he won't?
You should still let it go. The ability to control our emotions and responses is another unique and very important aspect of human behavior. Perhaps if the rest of us started tempering our tempers more, our leaders might follow suit and begin a new era of civility and accord. Namaste!