This Thing Called 'Personal Space'

by Rosie R.

In October, I will be heading back to Naija for the first time in 9 years. I am sooooo excited. I will get to see my family and friends again. With my excitement, there are also anxieties anyone in my shoes would normally feel. I constantly asking myself: How much will my finances suffer with this trip? Am I going to forget to get gifts for someone or the other thereby incurring their wrath? Is my Igbo still Igbo enough? Granted I can’t remember some words and my fluency is really shaky at best but I can still pass with Engiri-Igbo right?

Funny thing is of all these anxieties, the one that has me really scared is this thing called Personal Space. Oyinbo call it the region surrounding each person. It is the area which a person considers his/her domain or territory. Let’s get to specifics: Public Space is described as an area about 25 feet away from an individual, Social Space is 12 feet, Personal Space 4 feet, and Intimate Space (for you lovers out there) is 1.5 feet. You know Personal Space is something that is purely cultural because back home, there is no such thing as extended families share a house and up to five people share a room or bed. Personal Space is a foreign concept in Nigeria and rightly so. Oyinbo people are nuclear by nature. They have this whole individualistic thing going where every one is expected to be independent of each other. Very few of them practice communal living, the type most of us grew up with. I can’t remember a time when I was not sharing something with my nine siblings, clothes, TV time, food, sleeping quarters etc. In fact due to the fact I have almost always had hand me downs, I am obsessed with clothing and fashion. As we had only one TV in the house full of siblings and relatives, now I have a TV in every room in my house. As for the size of my bed, that one is another matter…

Flash back to 1998 when I was a JJC living in Boston. I remember my first job as a cashier trainee. My trainer was this elderly woman and I will never forget my first lesson on Personal Space. While trying to learn how to use the cash register, I moved closer to peer over the shoulders of the woman who was huge at about 6 feet and really heavy set. She promptly told me to move back a couple of feet as I was too close to her. At the time I did not understand. I thought she was being such snot. Fast Forward to 2002. I was working in a nursing home when a male nurse, also a fellow Igbo, displayed understandable excitement at meeting another Igbo on the job. He proceeded to playfully hug me but I froze and did not return the hug. That was the first time I knew I had acquired a Personal Space. Fast forward to 2007. I know I have definitely acquired Personal Space as:

1) I don’t like being touched unnecessarily,
2) I don’t like crowds,
3) I avoid Nigerian parties or gatherings where everyone is always hugging and hanging out in close quarters.

Hey, the social gatherings I have gotten used to, everyone kiss-kisses the air, cheeks inches apart all thee while maintaining that distance with butts sticking out.

As I prepare for my trip, I will have to constantly remind myself to relax when I am with old friends and extended family – with their hugs and laid back manner – because my immediate family is huge, my extended family is even bigger. Or maybe it won’t be such a problem. Maybe I will automatically revert to my old ways of sharing everything including space. I guess I will just have to wait and see.

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Stanley October 24, 2023 - 9:01 pm

This is powerful

Rosemary July 15, 2016 - 11:11 pm

Thank you, very helpful. My housemate is from Nigeria and I thought it was odd he’d just walk into my room rather than wait for me to open the door if I wanted to, or would take things out of my backpack when I got home from the store, for example. So I looked up to see if it might be a cultural difference in personal space.

Nice to hear your own story with acquiring the Western Space and then needing to let it go when you go home.

joy March 9, 2008 - 6:10 pm

We including the lady who trained you like to share our spaces with any reservation with our loved ones, it is automatic. We all don’t appeciate it with strangers. So personal space, relax you do not acquire in the us of a but it abides in you. Before you came to this country, i am sure you did not allow a stranger to touch you same with Americans. We should think before we act.

george November 15, 2007 - 8:26 pm

regarding africans and african american, my advice is to the americans dont hate your mother land thats were your from originally, some times you will go back home.

David Adebayo August 4, 2007 - 3:17 pm

You will enjoy yourself Rosie. Trust me. I wish you a safe trip. Also enjoyed your article as well.

As for comment #2 (Patricia Daboh), can't you just rate an article without having to go on and on about how you are married to a Nigerian man? You are not the first foreigner to marry a Nigerian and you will certainly not be the last. As for the responses to your article that was also published on this site, I happened to read it and the responses that followed. What was mentioned in the responses is the truth and nothing but the truth. I guess the truth hurts and hence cannot be handled by everyone. Lastly, in regards to the dislike going on between Africans and American blacks, well it goes both way. You CANNOT blame those Africans who dislike black Americans because who would like a bunch of people who think we have AIDS (just like YOUR mother thinks) and live on trees and so on? who would find love in their hearts for a bunch of people who think so negatively and condescending on one's own people? When YOUR people stop thinking negatively about Africans, then Africans might begin to like american blacks. Until then, the dislike will continue so get used to it. Oti to.

Bola August 2, 2007 - 1:11 pm

Hi Rosie…so happy to hear that you have finally decided to come home even if its just for a visit….. its really true what comment 4 said…when you touch down your Nigerian-ness will just come to the surface…. its like not having driven for long…once you start you will just get the hang of it. Just come with an open mind, get ready to roll with the punches and see the funny side to everything. We deal with the stress of Naija with a healthy dose of humour! It will be well, dont worry.

As for Comment 3: my people say he that defecates on the way to the stream, should expect to meet lizards on his return. Translation: if you write an article expect comments both good and bad. But I understand what you mean about those nasty comments. I call it "bad belle". I once wrote an article on being brought up seperated from my own/tribe but being able to reconcile with my own and I urged parents esp. to give their children the opportunity to learn about their culture and language. Is that a bad thing? My sister, would you believe I was almost eaten raw? Someone even said I was jealous I didnt have the opportunity to grow up abroad that was why I was talking like that! Imagine! When i have been abroad over 10 times! Like I said being abroad holds no appeal for some of us. To each his own. I later read another article by a young lady who grew up abroad and bemoaned her 'rootless' for not being able to speak her language of know more about her culture. I just laughed because I knew that the truth no matter how long it is trampled on, would always rise. Thats that anyway.

Rosie you're welcome. Naija is not as bad as they say. Some people havent been home in over 20 years and are using the same eyes to judge the country. Things have improved alot so if you want to come to visit come. Like I said in my are always welcome!

Chima July 31, 2007 - 11:06 am

whatever you have acquired here in the states will disappear soon as you touch down in Naija. Trust!

Rosie July 30, 2007 - 3:15 pm

To comment # 1: I know people from walks of life Nigerians of tribes, Africans and others. I wonder why you ask.

Patricia July 30, 2007 - 10:41 am

I really enjoyed the honesty with which you wrote about in your article. Sometimes when we write articles and reveal our inner most feelings and experiences, people negatively jump down your throat for being honest about your expereience and feelings. One thing I have learned about writing on Nigerians In America, is that when you open your life to other people, you have to be able to take the compliments, and more than too often criticisms that come with it. Some read your article, and you know from their comment they really understood, heard, and identified with what you were saying. They might not agree, with every point in your article, but they understood the overall meaning you were trying to relay in your message. However, others read your article, and it is like you have attacked them personally for just stating how you feel, and you can tell from their comments, they did not even "slightly" get what you were attempting to express, for their anger, negativity, and sometimes horrible prejudice comments springs forth to the forefront.

As we go through this life, we experience new things, and we grow, develop, and change. We are all changing each and every day as unique experiences alter some of our perspectives, make us look at things a little differently than before, and our desires and goals change.

I am am African American woman married to a Nigerian man, and the prejudice and some really horrible comments made in reference to the article I wrote entitled, Disconnected From the Mother Land, was shocking to say the least. I revealed my experience as I am coming to realize the many prejudices that African Americans have against Africans, for prior to my marriage and affliation with Africans (for I just did not know any except my doctor), I was very unaware of the negative feelings out there. Amazingly, I also discovered that many Africans are prejudice and dislike African Americans equally, or more so than African Americans dislike them. The comments surrounding that article, one in particular, was horrid.

You will see, if you do not know already, that when you "dare" to honestly share your ideas, thoughts, and true feelings, you have to be able to take the comments that come along with sharing your life in the open. However, be true to your own feelings, and by writing what you feel, there will be others out there that can identify with what you are feeling and experiencing.

Your article was honest, open, and very good. I hope and pray you will have a safe flight going home and back again, a blessed and happy time while there, and enjoy yourself tremendously.

Just relax and enjoy your family, and I know they will enjoy seeing their loved one again.

Patricia Machele Daboh

Anonymous July 30, 2007 - 12:43 am

dp you ever interact with other tribes at all?


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