Issendai (issendai) wrote,

Men vs. Women: Filling Space. Or: Why sidewalk chicken is a viable game.

On How Men Occupy Space

For guys who think this is occasional behavior, or who don't like the frustration and anger in the post: This shit happens ALL THE TIME. Every day. Every hour. I can't go to the grocery store without encountering it. I can't walk across the room at a party at your house without encountering it. Men and women have radically different algorithms for using space, and radically different ways of reacting to other people's use of space based on the other people's gender; and while the larger manifestations, like sitting with your knees splayed out two feet to either side, are associated with dominant and/or aggressive men, the smaller manifestations are nearly universal.

To top it off, this is a subject that doesn't get touched on often. People talk about opening doors for women or using "girl" to refer to 45-year-olds, but they don't talk about how men expect women to move aside when they approach. Nor do most men realize any of this is happening, because they're socialized to believe that their way is how everyone does it, and they generally don't observe that women routinely give way to them. Nor are they likely to notice that they expect women to give way to them. It takes place on a level outside of language, so for various reasons, it hasn't been pulled into our common vocabulary.

(This is true of a lot of spatial behaviors. I had to relearn how to communicate intent with kestrell  after a few instances when I wanted to get at something behind her, did the hello-I'm-going-in-that-direction-please-move posture-and-gesture combo, then lunged into her personal space. Visual signals don't work so well with the blind. But I had to repeat the experience a few times, stupidly, because I knew that people moved if you did this and then that, and I didn't know that I knew. In the same way, most men don't know that they know women will give way to them on the sidewalk.)

Typically, men are more likely to:
  • Take up more space in public--spread bags over seats, sit with their knees apart, take up elbow room, spread books and papers over larger areas of tables, spread newspapers wider in crowded situations.
  • Take up more space in walkways. Men are far more likely than women to stop in the middle of a walkway and stand there, letting traffic stream around them. They're also less likely to take pains to get out of the stream of traffic.
  • Assume that others--especially women and lower-status men--will make space for them without being asked. They're more likely to move into someone else's personal space as a way to make the other person move. For example, I was sitting on a concrete bench beside the wife of the head of the anthro department at LSU. The head of the department walked up to me, looked at his wife--not me--and, without saying a word, turned around and lowered his ass toward my face. If I stayed put, he would have sat in my plate of lasagna. I moved aside in alarm, and a teaching moment was lost. This isn't a particularly extreme example, either, just a colorful one. In general, women are more likely to acknowledge the other person, even if nonverbally; men are more likely to just take the other person's space.
  • Assume that others--especially women and lower-status men--will move aside when they are walking. Men tend to walk straight ahead, often taking the middle of the walkway (or of their half of the walkway). Women tend to dodge and weave around men, and are more likely to take the edges of the walkway. If two people are coming from the north and two from the south and the walkway is too narrow for all four to pass abreast, the women in the pairs are more likely to be the ones to step behind. If one pair is male and the other pair is female, the male pair will take a larger section of the walkway, and may not reduce the space they take up at all.
  • Pay less attention to others' movements. Men are less likely to notice that they're in the way; for example, in situations where a woman would notice you approaching and move, a man is more likely to not register your approach at all. One writer reported that at a party, she tried an experiment where she scootched down a narrow aisle, a maneuver that required the people sitting there to move their legs out of her way. Each time she did this, all the women moved without being asked, and none of the men did.
  • Acknowledge others less when making space for them. Women are more likely to make eye contact and to stop what they're doing for a moment; men often move without acknowledging the other person, and might not even stop talking long enough for the other people in their group to tell them that they have to move in further. (Set piece: A 50something man holding forth loudly while his wife, smiling with embarrassment, grabs his elbow and maneuvers him out of the way.)
  • Have smaller notions of how much space others need. When a man moves aside, he's likely to move less than a woman. Men often allow for physical space but not personal space, so they'll move enough for someone to get by, but the other person has to break their own bubble of personal space, or even brush against the man. This seems to correlate to status as well as sex; high-status men often need to be asked to move two or three times before they make enough space.
Men tend to assume that everyone operates under the same rules, so if other people want more space, they just have to ask for it. However, men are more likely to have space given to them without asking--by both men and women; when a woman asks for more space, she's likely to get less than a man would; and when a woman asserts herself spatially the same way men do, men tend to react poorly. Strange looks, weird power plays (like shoving their legs wider when a woman tries to make space for herself on the T), games of sidewalk chicken, yelling at women who don't give way--it's all common. Sidewalk chicken is a great way to pick up "Are you stupid?" looks, as well as "God, you people" looks and "Don't you know better?" looks and "Didn't your mother teach you manners?" looks.

So if you're a guy, you've almost certainly been socialized into a different way of negotiating space. You may not go to the extremes of some of the examples above, but you're likely to unconsciously expect more space from women and pay less attention to the space around you. Try spending some time peoplewatching on a busy street, particularly somewhere where people walk in ones or twos instead of in large groups. Notice how traffic patterns move, who sets the speed, who takes up which part of the walkway, who gives way to whom. When you're in a store, notice how strangers negotiate issues like how to get an object from a shelf that another person is standing near. Who makes space, and how much? Was the communication verbal or nonverbal? Did both people look at each other? For how long?

Then try being more aware of your own surroundings. When other people are nearby, bear in mind whether they might want to use the space you're occupying. When you're out walking, be conscious of when and how and who people give way to you, and try to equalize it. When you move aside for someone, allow for not just the physical space they need, but the space they need for their personal bubble. And look at the person when you move--not doing so reads as a power play, while doing so is a low-key apology.

I know that a lot of male spatial behaviors are tied up with dominance issues, so I'd be interested in hearing what guys think of this. Women bid for dominance with spatial behaviors, too, but our plays are lower-key than men's and aren't as important to our place in the hierarchy. That means I don't have as firm a grasp as I could on how to give this particular piece of advice--my advice is to learn to navigate space like women, which is great for women but useless advice when dealing with men who are afraid of losing face with men. Since those are the men who most need to change, my advice needs some modifications. Ideas?

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