Taking Up Space

Rain was pounding down the day we visited Edinburgh Castle. That was why we went. In summer, the streets of the Scottish capital are clogged with visitors, and the castle is a world-class attraction. We were hoping the storm would scare off the tourists so that residents like us — we’d moved from California three weeks earlier — could have the place to ourselves. Unfortunately, every other Edinburgh resident seemed to have the same idea.

My family was exiting one of the cramped galleries, angling our umbrellas into the horizontal bluster as we stepped back onto the rain-slicked cobblestone castle-top, when a voice behind us cried out in a strong local accent, “No manners!”

I looked around. An elderly woman met my eyes with an accusing glare. She and her group stood near the doorway, though not in it. They appeared to be still preparing for their own exit — zipping up jackets, readying umbrellas. Not sure of our crime, I mumbled an apology then scurried after my family.

In retrospect, I believe our offense was taking the initiative in the exit — not waiting to see if there was anyone, however unready, who might deserve to use it before us. It sounds strange to me, but conversations after the fact suggest that my suspicion was correct. And I’m pretty sure the difference comes down to our perception of space.

Everything is smaller here, for reasons social, historical, and geographical. A lot of public spaces have a single, narrow doorway that serves as both entrance and exit. As densely packed as the population is, especially in summertime, those doorways can get crowded. But we hadn’t pushed anyone out of the way. We hadn’t shoved or elbowed or jostled. There hadn’t even been anyone in the doorway, which was surprising, considering how many other people had packed themselves into that gallery with us.

In the weeks that have passed since then, I’ve noticed that Edinburgh culture — and Scottish culture in general, my sister-in-law assures me — includes a conscious and public deference toward vulnerable members of society, in particular the elderly, people with handicaps, and parents with small children. It’s a deference that goes above and beyond anything I’d ever observed in Los Angeles, though I understand a similar ethic exists in New York City and other densely populated parts of the country. It’s not that the sentiment wasn’t there in California. We all know we should be polite to those around us. The difference is what constitutes politeness in a group, and a lot of that difference comes down to space.

A favorite feminist rallying cry is “teach our daughters to take up space!” By this, it is meant, to teach them to exist in the world in 3D, to look after their own needs, to speak their minds and not let anyone condescend, interrupt, or whatever-splain them into silence. And this is as it should be. Nobody wants to walk around feeling ashamed of themselves for merely existing, or to teach their children to limit their own development for the comfort and convenience of others. We all want to be bold, fearless, assertive and unapologetic; actualized and fulfilled. We want to walk tall, swing our arms, and raise our voices in laughter or conversation, in lighthearted banter or good-natured argument.

To take up space.

But Americans take up space — psychically as well as physically. It’s one of our defining characteristics.

It’s understandable, if you think about it. In the US, there is space. Lots of it. Take a car (and you must take a car) and drive anywhere outside of the large Eastern cities, and there is nothing but space — hours and hours and hours and hours of it. And corn fields, or pine forests, or kudzu, or desert scrub, depending on where you are. Indoor spaces are not only capacious, but often filled with noise and lights and distractions that provide a mental buffer between groups of people. There’s enough room to swing your fist without hitting someone, to have a loud, opinionated discussion without offending anyone, to take a seat at a very large table and prop your left foot up on one chair, your right foot on another, and to take a fourth for your bag. There’s enough room that people habitually put a row or two between themselves and other passengers on public transport — if one must leave the comfort of their automobile — or a few tables between their party and the next at a cafe.

The space exists, and we use it. Why not? The country was founded, after all, on the idea that it was our right and duty to take up the entire space from Atlantic to Pacific (regardless of anybody who might have been there already). And vast expanses of unoccupied land are, even after all this time, a seemingly limitless resource. Don’t like what someone’s doing over here? Go somewhere else and do your own thing!

This is how I grew up in the American West — in the deserts of Arizona and California, amid tidy grids of residential streets each a quarter-mile wide, endless highways stretching out toward distant horizons punctuated by scrub-covered mountains, fields of cotton and cattle, and the occasional big box store. An optimist would look at the haphazard use of space in the West and sing (loudly) with joy about the limitless opportunities of cheap land and cheaper labor. A pessimist would make a snide remark about exurban sprawl. But I grew up with space, loud and proud, large and in charge, swinging my arms and ‘using my voice’. And so have my children.

Actually, my bunch is pretty loud by anyone’s standard. A family friend once described her neighbors, who seemed to communicate entirely by shouting. Happy, sad, fighting, loving, praising the Lord — it didn’t matter. It was all shouting. She called them “The Yells.” There’s no doubt in my mind that our neighbors in California had a similar name for us. But damn it, we’d never push anyone out of a doorway.

We mean no harm, but we take up space.

But here in Edinburgh, the American style of taking up space often crosses the line into acting like a jerk.

This wasn’t news to me. I’d traveled enough to know that outside the United States, folks don’t always think that we’re as great as we think we are. I remain self-conscious about that. This fear of inferiority, little known fact, is at the core of the American psyche. The more someone waves the flag and blusters about ‘Murka, the more they secretly fear that the rest of the world is looking down on us. And they’re right, to a degree — in part because of our government’s presumptuous adventurism around the globe, and in part because of the careless, extroverted solipsism that makes us stand out from the locals when we’re away from home.

It’s not a matter of congenital boorishness on the part of my countryfolk. It’s a matter of geography, history, and population density. When you take up space in a densely populated place, you will inevitably trespass. And since elbow room isn’t the limitless resource here that it is in much of the U.S., that’s going to grate.

Edinburgh — like the great European cities, and indeed, like New York City, Boston, and other eastern metropolises — evolved around foot traffic. Instead of wide, flat roads laid out in a convenient grid, Edinburgh is full of narrow streets, winding paths, and acute angles. Sidewalks are roughly half as wide as any I’ve encountered in the western United States, and they’re often crowded with pedestrians, trash cans left out for collection (the fraught and complicated dance of bin collection is its own, special story), cafe chairs and tables, and displays of fruit and vegetables spilling out from greengrocer shops. Edinburgh built up before building out. Shops and restaurants are ten-by-ten — if that — with narrow aisles, high, packed shelves, and absolutely no arm-swinging room.

As a result, people have to deal with each other in closer proximity, on a much more consistent basis, than in most of the United States. And this requires a subtly different, but keenly important, set of manners.

If you swing your fist, here, you will hit someone. If you speak loudly, you will annoy someone. If you put your bag on the seat next to you on the bus, you are taking a seat that rightfully belongs to someone else. If you aren’t careful with your umbrella, you will quite possibly put out someone’s eye, or at least drip cold Scottish rain down their back. If you stretch your legs out into an aisle between cafe tables, someone might well trip over them. And considering the fact that it rains nearly every damn day, taking off your shoes when you enter someone’s inevitably wall-to-wall-carpeted house isn’t a precious conceit, it’s saving your hosts a serious cleanup job.

Written out, these things seem self-evident. Indeed, I can sense my friends in the eastern metropolises rolling their eyes. Only a western-raised rube like yours truly would devote precious mental real estate to considering courtesies so obvious that they should be ingrained. But the population density of the western United States is 18.75 people per square kilometer[1]. In Edinburgh[2] (and New York City), it’s nearly a hundred times that — to say nothing of Macau, whose density is a hundred times that.

It’s a luxury to teach our children to take up space. And it often results in a lack of inhibition that fosters creative thinking, solid problem solving skills, and robust self-esteem. I’m happy for my kids to have had a childhood of loud laughter, swinging arms, and cartwheels down empty sidewalks.

At the same time, it makes me proud to see them learning, without being nagged by their parents, to modulate their voices in public, to keep their feet off the seats, to leap up when someone steps onto the bus who might need their place more than they do, and to think of themselves not first and foremostly as Unique and Special Individuals, but as members-in-training of a community. Individuals are only fully actualized when they take their place in the group. And while a robust society is made up of robust individuals, those individuals must know, intimately, how to function together as a society.

[1] Source: World Atlas, http://www.worldatlas.com/aatlas/populations/usapoptable.htm

[2] Source: UK Population 2016, http://ukpopulation2016.com/population-of-edinburgh-in-2016.html