Keeping your distance

Back in my rock’n’roll days (now such a distant memory that they appear to be in black and white with no sound), I spent far too much time at aftershow parties for bands I didn’t like, with my good friend Mr MacBottom (don’t ask). One exception though was a post-gig party for Mansun, the band from my hometown of Chester who could only be described as “prog-rock”. I say could only be described as prog-rock, but to be honest some people might have called them “the poor man’s Pink Floyd”, “pop genius all too often punctuated by rambling guitar solos” or “tiresome indie rock”. But not me. I loved them.

I think the band were, in reality, vainglorious arts students who liked the sound of their own music a little bit too much, but that didn’t stop me going to their aftershow upstairs at London’s Kilburn National. After all, where there was free booze, you’d find this still-impoverished recent student. To be fair, nothing much has changed.

Excessive quantities of cheap cooking lager later, and this Brit Then In Water had to make the first of several pitstops at the toilet. Or ‘the facilities’, as I believe I have to call it here. I’ve spent all my life thinking that a facility is an ability to do something, or maybe a hospital. Move three and a half thousand miles and you suddenly discover that it’s something you take a leak in.

As is standard procedure in an empty toilet, I made for the urinal furthest from the door, and began the laborious Heineken-removal process. Within ten seconds, another man entered and – again following the textbook to the absolute letter – he positioned himself at the urinal furthest away from me. Eventually we both looked over at each other at the exact same point, grunted an ‘alright?’ in mutual recognition of the fact that thirteen gallons of beer takes a long time to get rid of, and then carried on as normal.

The fact that the other bloke was Andrew Lincoln (Mark from ‘Love Actually’ to my American readership, but inextricably Egg from ‘This Life’ to most Brits) is neither here nor there. The fact is that in Britain there are very clear unwritten guidelines on personal space that are carefully adhered to by most members of the population. Nobody gets too close to anyone else, a principle which probably explains the stiff upper lip if it’s applied equally to emotions.

I’d always thought that it was all different in the US, with everybody in each other’s face given even half a chance. But recently on the subway, I’ve seen that the same social norms apply even here.

I get on the L train in Manhattan at the end of the line, meaning the train is often empty when I board. This allows me to sit wedged up at the end of one of the rows of sets that run the length of my section of the carriage. Largely without fail, the next person to enter my section will sit on the opposite side of the carriage, and at the opposite end of the row of seats, so that we are diagonally separated by the greatest possible distance. Passenger 3 will sit on the same side as me but at the other end. And Passenger 4 will sit immediately opposite me. All four of us are perfectly spaced. If this had happened just once, I’d put it down to coincidence. But it’s happened so often, I’m starting to believe that I’ve missed a compulsory class on subway seat positioning. The author of ‘Urinal Etiquette: A Textbook Explanation’ couldn’t have organiszed it any better himself.

Ironically, most New York subway trains smell of urine. Maybe people are taking the philosophy a little too literally?

10 thoughts on “Keeping your distance

  1. Karen

    Egg?! very cool 😀
    I wish the Icelanders followed that rule in the cinema! No matter how empty or big the room is, someone will always sit behind me and kick my chair. I am going to see Indy tomorrow in the University cinema, which is bigger, so hopefully we can have some space!

    What way does that work in the US of A?

    Oh and all is well after the earthquake. No major injuries reported and only minor damage.

  2. Sarcasmom

    It’s not often I get to start my morning with words like “vainglorious”. Outstanding. I have always thought that someone should study how people pick their seat in a movie theater.

  3. Brooklyn


    The pattern in subways is not dictated by distance, as such, although personal space in the subway is valued, the pattern is dictated by the seat side barriers and (in newer subways) the center poles, which (1) permit leaning while reading, etc., and (2) insures you won’t have people sitting on both sides of you.

    BTW, whatever visual or olfactory assaults you may experience in subway cars now, as you must have heard, they are royal carriages compared to their state at the nadir of the subway system.


    The pattern is the same in the movies (cinema) in the US. There the pattern is dictated by a consensus as to the optimal viewing location. If you want to experiment, try seating at a bad viewing area, like far to the left and see what happens.

  4. Expatmum

    I see my obsession with loo posts is catching. As a female, I can’t imagine having to wee in front of other people I must say!
    BTW – about to leapfrog off one of your previous posts on my next one. Hope you don’t mind.

  5. Brooklyn


    “a double on the far right very back row. Nobody sat within about 10 feet of us!”

    I take that as a bit of evidence confirming my movie theater hypothesis.

  6. Dylan

    Love the diagram Karen! Although I’d argue that maybe you were a little close to the screen for it to be the optimum position?

    And maybe I should do another post on ‘movie theaters’. It’s the fact that so many people talk throughout the movie that annoys me the most…

    Will read your post with interest, Expatmum,

  7. Mr Potarto

    I see a similar thing on Metro North, personal space is respected to the point that people would rather stand than sit between two other people:

    It’s a shame drivers don’t follow a similar code. I can park in a completely empty car park and when I return I find that two more cars have arrived and parked next to me. I think some people can’t park without a car to drive alongside.

  8. Brooklyn

    Mr. Potarto:

    The car thing is, I think, like the movie thing.

    As I city dweller, I’ve observed that in suburbia, people view walking an extra car length (or width) to the front door of the store, like a crossing of the Sahara.

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