I think all of us have probably experienced this in one form or another. You’re standing on the toothpaste aisle in Wal-Mart, and you have the whole display to yourself. No one else is anywhere near you, and you have the rare opportunity to take your time and actually shop for a new tube of toothpaste by reading the labels and making comparisons. Suddenly, someone walks onto your aisle, and they’re headed for the toothpaste, too. That person will either A) wait for you to finish before stepping in front of the toothpaste display, B) walk away and come back when you’re gone, or C) barge right into your personal space and annoyingly start reaching across in front of you at the same toothpaste. Any guesses as to which response is likely to be a Yankee? I used to think that Yankees were always invading my personal space on purpose just to be aggravating, but after having lived in the Midwest for a few years, I’ve come to understand that the sanctity and interpretation of personal space is entirely cultural.
Southerners like elbow room. Yankees don’t particularly care for it one way or the other. I mentioned in an earlier blog about the differences between Southerners and Yankees when it comes to choosing a parking space. Imagine a full parking lot with only three empty adjoining spaces available. Almost every single time, a Southerner will naturally park in the center space and leave an empty space on each side. Elbow room for everybody. Yankees naturally gravitate to the first available parking space, and so they’ll pull right into the space by the next car. When we lived in Iowa, we learned the hard way that not only do Yankees park right beside the next car, they will pull directly up as close as possible to the car in front of them, which is a nightmare in a parallel parking situation. I honestly don’t know how they get their cars out. When parking beside a curb, we had to learn to purposefully leave a huge gap between us and the car in front, because the Yankee that parked behind us would be guaranteed to pull all the way up to our back bumper. If we didn’t leave wiggle room in front of us, it was almost impossible to get out.
So now, extrapolate that example back to the first example of the toothpaste display in Wal-Mart, and you might be able to imagine what it’s like to shop in the Midwest. My wife and I called the phenomenon “clustering.” The concept of shopping by yourself doesn’t really exist up there. It’s almost like if Yankees see someone shopping alone, they feel compelled to move in right next to them and start filling in the gaps. It happens when you’re shopping. It also happens when you’re driving, or even out taking a walk. Cars seem to instinctively speed up and slow down in order to self-organize into little car clusters on the highway. You almost never see a car driving along by itself. Every time we would go for a walk downtown, or on campus, or in the neighborhood, the clustering would happen. We might start out as two people walking alone with some personal space in front and in back, but within a few minutes it was gone. The people in front of us would slow and the people in back of us would accelerate, and before we knew it, we would be walking inside a loose group of eight to ten people. Always. Everywhere. Every time.
When we finally moved back South to Mississippi, we were overwhelmed at the vast amounts of personal space that we suddenly found everywhere. We’d never really appreciated it before. We could shop, drive, walk, or do whatever we wanted without people practically hanging onto us. It was such a massive relief to finally get some elbow room.
I think in a lot ways, that experience helped me to understand another basic difference between Southerners and Yankees. The elbow room and personal space that Southerners need and crave is analogous to basic independence. It says, “Leave me alone, and let me do my own thing.” Yankees, on the other hand, seem to have an intolerance for independence. When they see it, they’re obligated to stop it. They seem to say, “We don’t trust anyone off on their own. You must join the herd. If you don’t join the herd, then we’ll bring the herd to you.”
Resistance is futile.