I’m on the tail-end of a 4-day business trip.
The trip was full of client meetings, networking, and ended with a 12-hour conference in an auditorium of close to 10,000 other people.
Oh, and by-the-by, I also happen to be highly introverted.
By the end of that 12-hour day, I was suffering from immense people overload.
The next morning, I hopped onto my flight home, and only wanted to curl up next to my window and read silently.
That’s when an older couple took their seats next to me.
I’ve been in the middle seat before, and try to be thoughtful of offering the armrest to my left to the middle person, as I have the window and they have less elbow room.
With a polite smile to the couple, I got back to happily being a wallflower with my book.
That’s when ‘the elbow’ started getting bold and inching its way into my personal bubble, little by little.
Everyone has a right to space.
Airplanes are uncomfortable enough.
A hundred-plus people, stuffed into a small tube like sardines, in horribly intimate conditions where one person’s germs become everyone’s germs.
If you’re like me, you’re fascinated by the incredible travel that airplanes offer, but really hate flying on them because, well, people.
And if you live with a steady undercurrent of anxiety (oh hi, that’s me!), that makes this process even more uncomfortable.
That said, I fly whenever I can, and have done several 13+ hour trips back and forth to East Asia several times in my life.
I cope through the flight by reading, napping and listening to music to settle my nerves.
If you’re looking to chat with strangers when you get on a flight, I am not the gal to sit next to on a plane.
As long as I’m left to my own devices, I’m good to go.
If you don’t claim your space, someone else will take it from you.
Now, back to the ‘the elbow’.
I felt myself shrinking, smaller and smaller, further against the window.
For every centimetre I moved away, to lower my anxiety and feel more comfortable with my people overload, the elbow occupied that space until it was, once again, pressing into my side.
By this point, my back was practically against the wall of the plane, and the elbow was occupying half of my seat.
Truthfully? I was desperate for my own space, and was on the verge of tears. My anxiety was through the roof.
I didn’t have it in me, after 4 intensive days of client meetings and conferences, to tell this lady to remove her elbow from my side.
I felt silenced by my anxiety and backed into a corner.
I sat there, wishing and praying she would cozy closer to her husband, rather than a complete and total stranger minding her own business.
We must actively defend that which we have a right to.
I am not an inactive participant in my life.
If there is something I’m fairly good at, it’s claiming what I know I am owed. Not because I’m entitled, but because I know my rights.
But on top of that, I also have a very bad case of People-Pleasing Syndrome.
But, knowing that if I didn’t occupy some of my space back I would likely have a panic attack, I instead decided to subtly reclaim that which was mine.
I slowly and discreetly began to lean back into ‘the elbow’, up until I was once again sitting naturally in my seat.
And what do you know? As I leaned back in to occupy the space that I was due, the elbow returned to where it belonged as well — ending in all of us occupying the space which we were all rightfully entitled to — equally.
The elbow was still in my side, but at least I had a little more breathing room, which dulled my anxiety to a manageable level.
The reality is, if there is space, there will always be someone in the room who will instinctively take it.
There are a lot of reasons why certain people claim extra space, while others shrink to as small as they can and lose the space they deserve.
These reasons are influenced by unique personalities, but are also heavily influenced by societal sterotypes and contructs related to gender, culture, socio-economic status, religious belief, geography, and the like.
It is the societal influences that play most directly into the issues of inequality in our world.
This is why a male coworker may not hesitate to vocalize an idea he heard from a female coworker at a meeting and receive the praise for it — only because the female coworker was waiting for a ‘more appropriate’ spot in the meeting to speak up herself.
This is why white supremacists loudly scream and shout and get up in people’s faces, while those they are discriminating against do not duplicate this behaviour.
This is how white feminists can feed into the dangerous practice of being a “saviour” for other women in the world, pressing their beliefs for freedom on other cultures, without listening to the women of each culture and asking what they actually need in order to achieve equality within their own community and reality.
This brings light to the fact that the balance of space being occupied is often dramatically unequal, with those who are more privileged taking up the most.
Not only is this a call for each of us to ensure we’re claiming the space we have a right to, but also be mindful of the fact that those of us who are privileged in certain (or possibly all) social scenarios need to refrain from taking more than our allotted space.
Instead, we need to give others in the area their opportunity to claim their portion equally — this is a direct act we can all be mindful of to actively get closer to overall equality in our world.
Whether its intended to or not, when there is space, someone present will take up that extra space.
Why? Because those who are extraverted, in particular, are uncomfortable with silence, and so they instinctively try to break the awkwardness by filling said space.
To be fair, in the end, this grandmother on the plane was actually quite sweet — as soon as she saw that I had used up all the scribble space on my napkin (to start drafting out this particular article), she offered her napkin for me to continue on.
And while this interaction was a very minor one, it did get me thinking about the entire concept of space, and how some of us take more than we are due, and others need to be more mindful about actively claiming that which we have a right to.
That goes to show you can find inspiration and moments of betterment even in the most seemingly insignificant interactions.
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