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June 23, 2011 17:22:14 | in Expat Life

Translating Peru: Lessons on Personal Space - Part 1

Translating Peru
Photo: Francisco Centurión

By Kelly Phenicie

For Americans, personal space is no joking matter.  Raised on strict instructions to keep our hands to ourselves and slogans like “no means no,” the 1.5 foot perimeter surrounding each person’s body is nothing short of sacred.

Obviously there are exceptions: border patrol is usually waived during the pinch of rush hour traffic, the shoulder-rubbing pandemonium of concerts and night clubs and for friends, family or others with whom we figuratively (and in this case literally) “let our guard down.” All the same, any an invasion of this protective aura is contingent on our explicit say-so – an unbending rule that pervades our culture’s definition of acceptable social interactions.

The archetype of this phobia-esque protocol must surely be New York City, where geographical constraints and population density have spawned a series of social codes difficult even for fellow Americans to follow.  Much like your first visit to a salsa club, you flail gracelessly until you learn to jive to the rhythm of the city: stand on the right side of the escalator and walk on the left, look in front of you on the sidewalk (not up in awe like the ever despised tourist) and for God’s sake don’t stare.

Though a bit tamer outside of the Big Apple, the importance of personal space is still heavily ingrained in the American psyche – so much so that it has earned its niche in academia under the name “proxemics.”  In conversation with an American sociology professor specializing in this field, a New York Times article reveals the following:

“If you videotape people at a library table, it’s very clear what seat somebody will take,” Dr. Archer said, adding that one of the corner seats will go first, followed by the chair diagonally opposite because that is farthest away. “If you break those rules, it’s fascinating,” he said. “People will pile up books as if to make a wall — glare.”

Translating Peru: Coping with bad customer service
(Cartoon: Baloo, 2010)

The article also confirms that personal space involves all of the senses. In other words, Americans can feel equally “violated” by certain sounds, scents or sights – i.e. “the woman on the bus squawking into her cellphone, the co-worker in the adjacent cubicle dabbing on cologne, or the man in the sandwich shop leering at you over his panini.”  Incidentally, all three examples bear striking resemblance to scenes from Seinfeld or Friends.  As things that grate on our collective nerves, they’re natural targets for satire.

Through travel, television and other wonders of globalization, we know that this fetish with our personal invisi-bubble varies according to culture.  It’s common knowledge that Latin Americans exchange cheek pecks in lieu of handshakes or head bobs and that some nationalities across the waters stand dangerously close to each other when they parley.

Thoroughly prepped with this prior expertise, one Peruvianism in particular still managed to slip right by me: in the fender-benders of pedestrianism, you can rarely expect an apology.  Stateside, a shoulder, elbow or booty bump marks an unequivocal act of trespassing and if we can’t prevent it with a prior “excuse me” we follow up with a firm apology.

For years I was scandalized by Peruvians’ deafening silence after flagrantly chafing one of my body parts.  Hopelessly miffed by each offense, I was initially convinced this was a black hole in Peruvian etiquette.

In one of life’s ironic twists, it was a cheeky prepubescent boy who set me straight.  Over a year ago at a buffet restaurant, I kindly told the minor “con permiso” (excuse me) in order to avoid grazing his growing-boy muffin top.  As if giving him a lesson in the Golden Rule, I felt teacherly, if not a twinge motherly.  Then, on a subsequent trip to the salad bar, when the same tubby kid trudged by me en route to the desserts, he spouted a snide “con permiso,” ridden with preteen sarcasm.

For my Peruvian husband, this simply meant the kid was a brat, but for me it was an epiphany. Brushing against a person’s love handles or gently nudging them aside in order to get by was not a huge crime, but making a big deal of it was – as if the other person had to drop what they’re doing and roll out the red carpet just so you could safely pass.

Though I’ve noticed an increase in apologies for casual collisions, Peruvians don’t usually obsess over minor encroachments to the extent that Americans do.  Lesson number one on personal space?  No harm, no foul.

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# Beth Heilman says :
24 June, 2011 [ 08:53 ]
It's true!  I have lived here almost 7 years and still have a hard time with it.  Too many times each person could move over just a bit and no one would have to run into the other person.  What bothers me the most is when several people are coming towards you on a sidewalk and not one single person will move to let you by.  I have stepped off the sidewalk many times thinking just how inconsiderate they are.  I volunteer in class where Peruvians go to practice English and have mentioned this.  Even the Peruvians there agreed with me! Maybe they were just being nice to me but I had the feeling they really did not like it either.
# JC says :
24 June, 2011 [ 09:15 ]
I moved to Cusco, from Southern California, in 2003.  I was shocked at their rudeness (all that bumping, pushing, and not one darn "excuse me".  In 2005, I moved to Arequipa and have noticed the same thing here for over 5 years.  I recently became a Peruvian citizen and still marvel at the "rudeness" in personal space and aggressive driving among my new countrymen.  It's good to know this has irritated other "gringos".  Still, after 8 years, nothing irritates me as much as two or more people walking on the sidewalk, side-by-side, expecting an individual approaching them to get out of their way.  It's as if they see themselves as one entity (like the Borg in Star Trek).  How very different from the "aircraft formation" approach we use... you know, side-by-side (wingtip to wingtip) until we encounter someone and then someone takes the lead, someone falls back, and once we pass the individual(s) we return to formation.Laughing  Culture-clash... been happening since civilizations first encountered each other. I guess we all need to remember, "when in Rome, do as the Romans do".
# Roy says :
24 June, 2011 [ 12:44 ]
The trick is to say 'permiso' and if they don't move just walk through them. from the looks of surprise and comments I get I don't think it's cultural.

The one that gets me is when you hold a door open for someone and there's never a word of thanks (usually elderly ladies). Again, maybe letting the door go in their face would be an appropriate response.
# Peru-N-English Blog says :
24 June, 2011 [ 02:29 ]
Rude is always rude no matter the culture. I once read that you can determine the intellect, compassion and social development of a society by observing how its citizens drive. Cultural differences in comportment I can accept and I am willing to learn. But for me, consideration always trumps tolerance. I was stunned by a trip to Arica, Chile. Simply by crossing the border, the lack to honking car horns, the presences of people who stop their car for you to cross the street, the pedestrian courtesy on the sidewalks and the politeness and service in the restaurants and stores, all made me think I must have entered the Twilight Zone. “You're traveling through another dimension -- a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's a signpost up ahead: your next stop: the Twilight Zone!” Arica, Chile. Perú has a lot to learn, but I’m still here. (-:
# Henry the Navigator says :
24 June, 2011 [ 05:27 ]

You should move to Chile asap. The farther south you go, the better. I'm pretty sure nobody is going to miss your pathetics comments.

# Jimmy says :
25 June, 2011 [ 07:30 ]

You must be new to Peru.  Gotta assert yourself here unfortunately.  They're just plain rude, ill mannered, unclutured and think nothing of it.  There is always someone trying to cut in line or push past me.  I can get real agressive and put them in their place, pushing back if need be.  I'm 6'3" and tower over Peruvians.  They back down quickly.

# Jaime E Rivera says :
25 June, 2011 [ 03:28 ]
Love your articles. You should write a book about us Peruvians, you know, how we really behave, live, interact, stuff like that. After living outside Peru for 31 years now, it sure comes handy to know what living in Peru is all about. I'll take a look at your blog now. Bye bye.
# Fernando says :
28 June, 2011 [ 09:46 ]
Jimmy, what are you? Some kind of ill-minded redneck that escaped prison from the U.S? You sound more like a criminal than a person. I feel sorry for you.
# Rinda Payne says :
2 July, 2011 [ 06:27 ]
I have lived in Cusco for two years and also spent a lot of time in Lima. I have never experienced anything like you describe in your article. As well, New Yorkers, unless they are in a hurry to work, etc., do look up from where they are going  and as a rule do look around them, from side to side and up.

# Marco Antonio says :
6 July, 2011 [ 04:04 ]
Yes, we have our own personal space rules.
These rules ALSO let us give hugs, kisses, smiles and be friendly.
For sure is this something you are not used to experiment and I warn you that feel some warm human touch could be irritating to you.

For God's grace...we are completely different, and we have no problem with that ! We say "take care" and "how are you" because really have interest on you not as a common phrase. Yes, we are different, really.

Stay away from peruvian people, they will give you some comforting hug when you're sad or a sweet kiss when you're happy. Avoid to feel invaded, avoid to make ties with strangers. Build a wall. Don´t learn spanish.

But of course we have our own rednecks like Jimmy. It`s very sad.
For sure he would feel at home here acting like a cromagnon with them.

# bill says :
20 July, 2011 [ 12:00 ]
I have stepped off the sidewalk many times thinking just how inconsiderate they are.

i used to do that. but being that i'm bigger than most peruvians, if i'm at the edge of the curb, or walking flush against a wall, and the inconsiderate jerks walk toward me without even trying to move, i don't budge an inch and slam my shoulder into theres. when i get an exasperated "AYE" or what have you, they get a stare-down from me. when in rome. if the romans here want to be rude, i'm from NY, i can be just as rude back, if that's how they like it.

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