Sunday, 19 June 2011

Personal Space

For a few months I worked at an English school in Krasnodar, primarily as a kind of British show pony to be awed and studied like a laboratory rat. The main task of this job was reading out stories which would be translated into Russian on the spot by indifferent Russian teenagers. Usually I would write these stories myself but when I first started, I was presented with a few stories which had been prepared by my predecessor. One of them began “an Englishman’s home is his castle” and continued to explain how the English live in constant fear of making eye contact with the general public, lest they find themselves in a situation which involves making conversation with a stranger.

The Russian students chuckled and raised their eyebrows in confusion. Why? I thought to myself. It is an integral part of the English psyche to go to such lengths to avoid unwanted interaction with other human beings on a daily basis.

I was not quite aware of the cavernous gap between our cultures at that time. Above all else in life the British man values privacy. Upon arrival in Krasnodar, I found it outrageous that I was expected to share a room with two other girls like some kind of battery farmed chicken. I became used to seeing the head cocked to one side, raised eyebrow reaction when I explained to some Russian friends shortly afterwards that I was finding it difficult to find personal space. I slowly realised that for the Russians, this was not some kind of violation of our human rights, but a completely normal way to live. Many of our friends who live with their families in Krasnodar share a bedroom with their parents and/or siblings, which also doubles up as a living room. Fold out sofa beds are a norm and a necessity. I have even been informed of the situation of one girl who shares a flat with another student, whereby they only have one bed and therefore take turns sleeping in it, with one girl sleeping in the bed and the other on an armchair.

When I became exasperated at this communal situation, I thought a good idea would be to sit outside on a bench for some alone time with my thoughts. Little did I know that not only can you barely step outside the building in the university vicinity without seeing somebody you know and having to make small talk, but on the occasion that you do manage to evade familiar faces, unfamiliar faces will sit down next to you as if you are old friends and start making conversation. How dare they? Can’t they see that you do not want to be disturbed? This goes against all of the unwritten British laws that a person who does not make eye contact must not be disturbed. Us English are folk of body language and unspoken signals. If you are in the mood for chatting, you give the signal of eye contact and perhaps a smile. On the occasion that you remain face down and staring at the floor, this is as good as writing ‘Do not disturb’ on your forehead. Of course, even in England there are exceptions, usually in the form of humouring old people. But we acknowledge that making small talk with old people is part of our contribution to society, like some kind of social tax which we are obliged to pay every once in a while.

This problem could easily be solved by explaining the cultural differences, you say. Well, therein lies the problem of appearing to be a stereotypical western self-interested capitalist pig. Of course I actually am a stereotypical western self-interested capitalist pig, but no good will come of this fact being broadcast and acknowledged. Keeping this fact a secret comes with the heaviest burden of all: sharing. In order to not conform to your cultural stereotype, you must be willing to share all of your worldly possessions, and above all alcohol, cigarettes and food. One particular acquaintance of mine has a fool-proof tactic of guilting foreigners into sharing with him; he laments about how the western world does not understand the communal living culture of Russia. Thus, when he drinks your beer or starts eating your pizza without asking, you feel that you cannot complain. The fact that you ordered this amount of pizza or purchased this amount of beer purely due to the fact that you had calculated the precise amount of pizza and beer which you intended to consume cannot be explained. It’s not about the money, you see. It’s about planning how much you intend to consume and planning accordingly. Despite the fact that cigarettes cost about 40p in Russia, he never has any. One non-Russian of mine was left feeling slightly infuriated when this friend asked him for yet another cigarette. He grudgingly took his packet from his pocket and handed it over. The response was “Oh, it’s your last cigarette? A Russian man never smokes another man’s last cigarette.” I saw the look of frenzy in his eyes which questioned the logic of smoking the first 19 cigarettes and then revelling in one’s own moral integrity at leaving the last one for the owner of the pack.

I had never seen my home as a castle before, mostly because in England exists an unspoken mutual understanding that, on the whole, people do not want to speak to you, and therefore it is not necessary to have some kind of human interaction blocking mechanism in place. Although perhaps this system only works because neither party wants to communicate with the other. In England it is not really necessary to build a concrete fortress, as we consider a distance of one square metre from every human being to be an impenetrable bubble of personal space, which no one may enter without invitation. There also exists a kind of taboo involving taking other people’s things without asking. This is called “stealing.” But then I suppose it’s our own fault for thinking that something we haven’t taken the time to nail down and sit a guard in front of won’t be stolen.

No comments:

Post a Comment