Manspreading and more: American vs. Dutch ideas about personal space - Akteos
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Manspreading and more: American vs. Dutch ideas about personal space

Have you heard about the latest nuisance on public transport in America’s cities? No it’s not pickpockets, playing loud music, spitting or groping. The latest threat to peace and harmony on the metro is manspreading – that is the rude and inconsiderate habit of men – and this is exclusively a male realm – of taking up two or more seats by literally spreading their legs wide and planting their feet firmly into the floor. In doing so they take up much more space than allotted to an average sized person. There are now serious campaigns being launched to curb this growing epidemic. And the response is pretty lukewarm. As one perpetrator remarked, “I’m not going to cross my legs like ladies do,” ……. “I’m going to sit how I want to sit.” 1

Although culturally Americans tend to be sticklers for following the rules, when it comes to claiming space, Americans transform into defensive rule-benders, staking out territory to suit their own needs for comfort with a brazen disregard for the impact of their actions on others.

Airplanes have also become battle grounds for space feuds. Personal weapons are now available on the market to defend you against the enemy -none other than your fellow passenger sitting in front of you! For a modest sum, you can purchase The Knee Defender ™ which is a kind of a lock you can fasten to the reclining mechanism of a seat. It “helps you defend the space you need when confronted by a faceless, determined seat recliner who doesn’t care how long your legs are or about anything else that might be “back there”.

Space as an expression of freedom

For starters, the American mind has been deeply shaped by a sense of entitlement about space as an expression of personal freedom. The vastness of the American landscape and the historic sense of limitless resources has given rise to the idea that there is enough to go around for everyone – so bigger is better, take all you can get. Coupled with the strong emphasis on the individual as a one-man (or one-woman) show of independence and self-reliance, Americans bristle at the thought of any limitation on their precious birthright to do exactly what they want to do, as long as it’s not against the law. So yes, technically speaking you do have a right in most states to openly carry a weapon into a family restaurant , or park your giant recreational vehicle in front of your neighbors house instead of your own. “It’s a free country.” is a typical response to questions about shamelessly rude and inconsiderate behavior. Although perplexing and annoying, well, they are right.

The importance of fairness and consideration of others

Contrast this to the Dutch attitude about the importance of fairness and consideration of others. Deviants from this cultural value are quickly called out publicly as “Asociaal !” or ”Aso” for short – which translates as inconsiderate, selfish or egocentric. I have heard this term used to describe behavior such as sitting in the first class car of the train when you only have a second class ticket, parking your car outside of the delineated lines of a parking space, and leaving your tray of greasy paper and cardboard refuse on the table instead of putting it in the trash yourself and McDonalds. In fact the term ”social control” is very much a part of Dutch society. It refers to people checking up on what others are doing, in order to make sure that behavior supports the well-being of everyone, not just themselves.

Why do the Dutch promote harmonious group functioning before individual needs?

The virtue of taking others into account, of promoting the harmonious functioning of the group before the needs of the individual has its roots in a very different historic scenario in The Netherlands. In centuries past, while the Americans were expanding to new and exciting frontiers, the Dutch were living under constant pressure to defend a small area of land -about the size of the US state of Maryland. If they weren’t being attacked and occupied by one of their European neighbors, they were fending off floods, storms and other natural disasters battering their villages and towns throughout the countryside. People had to cooperate and take care of each other within a limited area of space in order to survive. This imperative reverberates in one of the primary characteristics of Dutch culture to this day – ”gezelligheid”, best translated as ”coziness”. Broadly speaking, this is the custom of people gathering close together in a warm place. The mood brings physical and emotional comfort to everyone. Candles, warm food and drink, simple but comfortable furniture and good conversation are all hallmarks of a ”gezellig” get-together. When faced with the alternative, waging bloody battles with neighbors to claim tiny patches of sodden earth as one’s own, one could argue that ”gezelligheid” evolved as the safety net against Dutch civilization’s own self-destruction.

Did you know that the Dutch are statistically the tallest people in the world? And yet, traditional Dutch homes tend to be modest spaces with small rooms, lined up in neat rows on narrow streets. As a towering presence, you need to literally ”make yourself smaller” in order not to physically dominate others in your cramped environment. It is a clear reflection of the Dutch cultural preference for the well-being of the group before that of the individual. It also helps to explain the abhorrence of noisy, insensitive American tourists who sometimes seem more like ”invaders” than visitors to The Netherlands.

Thanks to the different attitudes towards individuals and space in The Netherlands, it seems highly unlikely that the manspreading epidemic will drift across the Atlantic to this tiny country. Rest assured that anyone who attempts to imitate this American habit risks an immediate public reprimand – ”Hé Aso, doe je benen dicht!” (Dude close your legs!).

1. ”A Scourge Is Spreading. M.T.A.’s Cure? Dude, Close Your Legs.” by Emma G. Fitzsimmons, The New York Times, Dec. 20, 2014

Lisa Ross-Marcus

Lisa Ross-MarcusLisa has both American and Dutch nationality and has lived in Paris, Moscow and Basel. After a successful career in dance and theatre, she shifted direction to the corporate world, leading and co-leading communication training programs for international business executives in The Netherlands, USA, Russia and Thailand. She is also an executive coach and trainings actor. Her areas of expertise are Cross-Cultural Communication and Leadership and American culture.

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