PERSONAL space is the physical space around you that you consider psychologically yours. A breach into that space is an intrusion into your person, a form of aggression even—creating not just discomfort but stress.

This is how I feel when I’m standing by the cashier at a store and the person in line next to me suddenly appears by my side. It’s not yet her turn. I don’t know this person. Yet, she feels it’s perfectly all right to stand six inches away from me.

It just happened again—last week. I moved away hoping she would get the hint. Well, she didn’t. She only moved closer to me, now commandeering the cashier area. I had not yet even paid my bill.

I was upset enough that she had breached my personal space. To top that, she didn’t have a shield on, only a mask, though both were required. And she was talking to a friend who had the same disregard for safety protocols.

Her behavior was extremely distressing to me in the midst of this pandemic. I wanted to ask her to step back. But I didn’t want to risk greater exposure by staying longer so I just paid my bill and left.

How far away can a person stand next to you without disrespecting your personal space? Four distinct zones of personal space have been identified: intimate (0-2 feet), personal (2-4 feet), social (4-12 feet) and public (greater than 12 feet).

These distances can be closer or farther depending on some other factors: situation, culture, even physical space. Obviously, in a small area like an elevator, you can’t have your 12 feet of personal space even if you’re standing with strangers.

Still, it is NOT all right for anyone to stand so close to you as to have any part of their body or belongings touching you. Sadly, this is not uncommon in our country and culture.

In the United States, people strictly observe this personal bubble even in crowds. In China or India, however, be prepared for bodies to be pushing against you. Peak times on a Japanese train are just as hellish. Ironically, the Japanese are skittish with eye contact.

Southern Europeans, Latin Americans and Arabs are a contact culture. They stand closer to each other and touch more often than other cultures. In my experience, the most touchy-feely people are the Argentinians—though not in a rogue manner.

Not dissimilar to our “beso” culture which shocked Malaysian friends who came to visit decades ago. But Argentinians take it a notch higher. No wonder an Argentinian classmate of mine in China found the Chinese to be very cold and distant. I had not yet been to Argentina then.

The one-meter distance inside public utility vehicles is not even enough but it will have to do. Since there is no shortage of public transport in the city, let’s keep the distance. This is not just about personal space now. This is about public safety.