Living as a Canadian expat in Brussels, there are a lot of cultural and social rules that one needs to learn and adjust too. One social quirk that I just cannot get accustomed to is the Europeans’ desire to be close to other people.

In Canada, or at least in the Western part where I’m from, there are very clear social boundaries that one does not cross. One of these very important boundaries is the “invisible bubble of personal space.”

This personal bubble doesn’t exist in Brussels. A prime example is when someone is sitting in a public area, whether it be on a bus or on a bench in the park, the standard social rule (in Canada) is to NOT sit in the seat next to them or on the same bench even if its the only one is a half a kilometer radius. The logical thing to do is to sit in one of the empty seats elsewhere in the bus, not the row right in front of right behind the person, the row farthest from the other person. The same is true in a park, if the person is not huddled on the corner of the bench obviously leaving 3/4 of it empty for someone else, you sit on the grass before you sit next to them.

See the closeness….awkward…

In Brussels, yes it’s a big city that is over crowded, but people will still choose to sit next to you on a bench in the park even if there is one a few feet away that’s empty because the one you’re sitting on is closer. The residents of Brussels also seem to LIKE being close to other people. They don’t first ask you if they may sit there, like a Canadian would if they really needed to sit down, neither do they sit at the other end of the bench, they will practically sit on the corner of your jacket without shame.

One of the issues of “closeness” that is the most disturbing is when you are walking down the sidewalk and someone walks directly behind you and at the same pace. They don’t walk slightly to the left or right so that you can glance back out of the corner of your eye to see if they look like a purse mugger or just a regular person. If you walk to the far right and slow down for them to pass, they will also slow down and move the right so that they are directly behind you like ducks in a row. The only way I’ve figured out to avoid this awkwardness is to step out onto the street and stand between two parked cars and wait for them to pass, which usually takes about 45 seconds too long because they don’t pick up their pace, but saunter along as if they didn’t even see you in the first place.

The same “ducks in a row” issue comes up worse in line at the grocery store. Most of the time you can feel the person’s breath on the back of your neck or their hands grazing the back of your jacket. If you turn around to give them a look like why-do-you-have-to-lean-against-me, they won’t make eye contact and pretend like they are just standing in line normally. Its the most disturbing to actually feel the person touching you and they have no problem. In Edmonton, Canada, if someone did this in line accidentally and you gave them The Look, they would profusely apologize and take at least two steps back. In Brussels, even if you try to angle your body parallel so that you’re standing facing the cashier, they will still touch your arm. So there is no way to win, I guess having a stranger lean on your arm is better than on your behind.

This is not one large table for a big group, it is 4-5 separate tables.

The last example I will share is when you go to a restaurant. One thing to note about Brussels, is that there are hundreds of restaurants in this city. They are mostly independently owned and not chain restaurants. So lets say you are on a date with your boyfriend or girlfriend and you’re really looking froward to sitting a nice table for two in the near-empty restaurant because you thought ahead to get there early before the crowds pour in. You have your choice of tables so you choose the one on the right-hand side of the restaurant by the window. Then after you are seated and have ordered the drinks (too late to move tables), another couple enters the restaurant. You first thought is, “ok its good, better than being completely alone in the restaurant. their presence will add to the atmosphere.” And then they choose the table RIGHT BESIDE yours. The entire restaurant is empty, and there is a perfectly nice table by the window on the left side of the restaurant, but no, they choose to sit at the table that is only 2 inches from the one your sitting at. This makes no sense to me at all. There is no common sense in this. The owners also need to fit as many tables as possible into each restaurant so in addition to the Brussels residents’ desire to be close to other people, the tables are placed as close together as possible so that you can barely squeeze between them if you have to get up to use the bathroom, or toilette as they so eloquently say in French.

So if you’re coming for a visit in Belgium and you are used to your personal space, be prepared to experience the “closeness” that is common and unavoidable in Brussels.

What’s the weirdest or more awkward situation you’ve been in when someone invaded your personal space without a second thought? 

19 Thoughts to “European desire for closeness – Living in Brussels”

  1. Don’t generalize!
    I am European and I love my personal space: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2011/03/05/loneliness-doesnt-kill-people-do/

    But still, if there is only one park bench, I will sit on it. But I will say a friendly “hello” to the stranger before I sit down. After all, park benches are not personal property.
    The experience you described in buses and restaurants I find odd however. If there is enough empty space, I would fill up the empty rows first. (Unless there is an attractive girl sitting there which might actually explain your personal experience.)

    1. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to generalize. As a Canadian expat in Brussels, these are just some of the things I’ve noticed about the Europeans living in this city. I know when I visited Germany, the personal space was wider and more similar to how it is in Canada.

  2. I have to somewhat agree with you here, at least from the personal experiences I have had. The Canadian/US version of personal space seems to be very different from the European version. When I traveled a bit through Europe before college the way people were always so close to me really made me very uncomfortable. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing; it’s just what the culture is and it is just…different and it was hard to get used to. For me, it was so foreign that it seriously made me nervous all the time. Every time someone was behind me in line, or sat too close to me, I kept thinking I was going to get robbed; of course it doesn’t help that I’m from New York state and get suspicious whenever I feel strangers are ‘too close to me’. lol Great post! Now I have to go look through my scrapbooks though–I miss traveling 🙂

    1. I’m glad I’m not the only one. I also come from a huge city in Canada that has a lower population compared to other capital cities so you always have lots of space. You made me laugh when you said that you felt nervous that you were going to get robbed. I still feel that way after two years of living in Brussels! 🙂 And the thing is that many of the girls my age have been robbed so I feel fortunate so far.

      1. You are SO not alone, Nicole! I’m one that kind of likes my back to the wall, so to speak. I hate it when someone is right behind me. It brings out my inner New Yorker (even though I’m not from New York) and I’ve been known to ask, “Hey! Can you spare a few inches there? Get off my a$$, dude.”

        It sounds like I’ll have to bury my inner New Yorker before going to Brussels. It’s funny because when I was in England, I didn’t have any issues with personal space at all. I think we should have a WANA road trip to see you. 🙂

  3. As one who lived most of her life in the wide open spaces of the Rocky Mountain high plains, personal space has always been important to me as well. Have to say that I’ve had similar experiences in restaurants in the South, infrequently, but it has happened.

    Karen

    1. I’ve also lived in open spaces and “semi-close” to the Rocky Mountains…only a few hours away by car. 🙂 Thanks for the comment.

  4. Oh no! I want to travel through Europe, but I have a rather large personal space. I despise when someone crowds me in the grocery store line. “Wait your turn, lady!” I’m thinking (I don’t say it). I know that cultures vary on this issue, so I’m sure I could just deal with it. It is a rather interesting study, though. Enjoyed the post, Nicole.

    1. Hahaha Julie, you honed my inner angst very well, I’m soooo like “wait your turn lady!” on the inside. 🙂 As I commented above, I can’t say this is true for allllllll Europeans, but in Brussels, this seems to be the tendency.

  5. How interesting. It makes me wonder what personal space is like in other countries.

    1. Yeah, it is an interesting topic. I remember a lecture in an anthropology class in university, where a professor was telling a story of when he was visiting another culture and the stood centimeters from his face to speak. He was a Canadian professor so of course this was something that was slightly uncomfortable for him, but the people from the other culture ware actually being respectful.

  6. If you are from the US and have not traveled abroad then you might be unaware that regardless of Hollywood’s portrayl we are a fairly “modest” society when it comes to our bodies (topless beaches aren’t the norm, no nudity in commercials etc etc). We also have a great love of our bathrooms (watercloset if one prefers) and you are highly unlikely to find a hotel that has a “shared” bathroom in the US. A few years ago I was in London on business consulting with a retailer. As the day progressed…and the coffee built in my system I was in need of a restroom. My client directed me to the employee restroom and when we approached I saw both men and women entering and exiting. Seeing my discomfort the client explained that it was a “shared” restroom/changing area. Shared? As in I’m in one stall and Mary is in the next? Yep. What can I say, I’m a modest American so I took a pass on it. Now this was Soho and city space is limited and a premium so maybe that’s not the “norm,” but regardless a “shared” restroom in the US means “one person at a time.” I’m not criticising the practice as the US culture carries a great many “puritan” sensibilities – the global view however made me realize the extent of my required “personal space” issues LOL.

    1. THANK YOU for mentioning this. There are shared washrooms in Belgium and France as well. Probably due to lack of space, but like you said, sooooo disturbing. There are also lots of other cultural things, like spas where both men and women go without swimsuits in the same baths, etc. I’ve heard about this from my colleagues. And like you said the advertising and beaches seem to be a little more risqué. Thanks so much for the comment.

  7. Juliana Haygert

    In Brazil, people like closeness too. Of course, we keep our space, but we’re not afraid of touching, hugging, and kissing on the cheek … When we meet people, we kiss them once on each cheek.
    Anyway, I always say (and please don’t get me wrong … I don’t want to generalize, I’m just sharing something that I noticed) people in Brazil is more warm toward their relationships, while American are slightly less warm (or a little cold?). Again, please, don’t throw stones at me. I love US and don’t feel as if I need people closeness to keep me happy 😉

    1. From what I’ve seen, the french Belgians kiss each other on one cheek, but the French kiss two or more times.

      Based on my experience, I think its very accurate to say that English-speaking countries tend to be more reserved in showing affection to each other and Latin countries tend to be more warm.

  8. Great post, Nicole! Being a New Yorker, I like my personal space. Your post makes sense of a few situations I’ve had when traveling in the US and meeting European tourists. I realize now that what I perceived as rudeness was their norm. I’ll be more aware of this when we travel this year! 🙂

    PS – I echo Jenny’s Oh.My.God…from above. My sensibilities would be shocked if I were in a spa and naked people jumped in.

  9. zoesays

    I totally forgot about this European phenomenon! It definitely drives this American crazy. If and when I get to Brussels, I’ll just have to be patient and enjoy the quirkiness.

    1. Hi Zoe! Yes, I’d recommend sitting at the Cinquantenaire Park if you’re ever in Brussels. You shall experience the closeness within 15 minutes I’d bet!

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