Downright rude or just different? It can be a fine line

Times Staff Writer

Travel shows us amazing things, opens us to new experiences, introduces us to different cultures. Sometimes, though, it also reveals a big, beautiful world full of an astonishing number of rude people.

I’m talking about the types of travelers who wage a silent, pitched battle for the armrests between airplane seats. Everybody is entitled to one, but not necessarily two. In civilized society, coach passengers often must tuck at least one elbow close to their bodies so their neighbors can claim their due.

I don’t like parents who let their children kick the back of my seat or climb on baggage carousels while I’m watching for my luggage, and I don’t like people who wheel their bags over my toes and smash me with their backpacks when they turn, apparently unaware of the space they and their luggage occupy.

And what about the people who stop to chat or check their tickets smack dab at the bottom of the escalator? They’re the same ones, I’m sure, who walk down the sidewalk side by side as a group, forcing me into the street.


Traveling would be far more pleasant if everyone respected others’ personal space and behaved considerately. In the U.S., Britain and other Western countries, personal space means the distance from your nose to the thumb of an outstretched arm, says L. Robert Kohls, the author of “Survival Kit for Overseas Living.”

As it turns out, things aren’t that simple everywhere. The notion of personal space varies widely from Mongolia to Morocco. Travelers can easily misinterpret social behavior in foreign countries, seeing rudeness where it doesn’t exist.

Don George, global travel editor for guidebook publisher Lonely Planet, witnessed vastly different behaviors when he lived in Japan and Greece. “In Japan,” he says, “personal space is extremely important. The Japanese don’t shake hands; they bow. People are islands. Even on crowded subways, they may be touching each other physically but not mentally. There is a palpable drawing inward, no conversation or eye contact.”

In Greece, being social is all about touching, George found. “People I just met were more physical with me than those I’d known for years in Japan,” he says.


Personal space also encompasses sound, says Jack Weatherford, a professor of anthropology at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. In certain places -- Latin America, I’ve found -- the volume seems loud to me. But in the Mongolian culture, which Weatherford has studied, people who spend their lives in the close quarters of tents learn to speak in whispers, which sometimes makes foreigners think they’re hiding something, Weatherford says.

The contrast between perceptions of personal space in England and the Arab world are equally striking and potentially misleading, says Orin Hargraves, author of “Culture Shock! Morocco” and “London at Your Door.”

Like other foreigners in Morocco, where he lived for years, Hargraves initially bristled at the aggressive tactics of men on the street there. He thinks their pushiness stems from a sharper distinction between private and public space in Arab countries. In the homes of friends, he was treated with great consideration.

“But there is a notion that public space belongs to men,” he says. “So when you go out, it’s assumed you have no privacy.”


The approach to propriety in public is different in England. “When two people bump into each other on the street, there’s a fixed protocol,” he says. “Both assume responsibility, say they’re sorry and walk on. Britons are experts at avoiding awkwardness.”

They are also the sacred guardians of the queue, it seems. “Forming lines is how order is maintained in England,” says “Survival Kit” author Kohls.

Hargraves recalls that he saw Brits form an orderly line at bus stops long before the bus ever got there.

We Americans must have learned it from them. But elsewhere, the notion that lining up is the fairest and most sensible way to get something that you and many other people want is about as foreign to them as eating ants is to us.


Lonely Planet’s George was initially dismayed by the lack of line etiquette in India, where people push and yell as they rush to the ticket window or boarding ramp.

“Queues don’t exist there,” he says. “When you try to board a domestic flight, it’s just chaos. I remember being horrified. Civilization was coming to an end. But then I just rolled up my sleeves and dove in.”

Weatherford, who saw similar line lawlessness in China, helped me better understand it. “If the Chinese see a space, they think it means you’re in no rush and push in,” Weatherford says. “It’s the same as a pause in conversation. You don’t stop even for a second if you want to keep talking.”

Of course, that doesn’t excuse line jumpers in America. A woman cut into a long queue recently at a curb at LAX, and I was so irate that I confronted her. She said she had asked a man fairly forward in the line to let her in because her flight was scheduled to leave soon. Mine left at the same time.


Some people are just rude. The trick is telling them apart from the ones born to follow a different set of rules.