This is part of my series on How To Be A Good Person.
Most of us associate physical dominance with direct threats, e.g., masked bank robbers storm in with machine guns and demand everyone jump to the floor. Such encounters have a simple calculus: surrender or suffer.
Luckily, and gratefully, these confrontations are rare among adults. But there’s another form of dominance where an individual employs subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) tactics to assert control over your personal space. These people invade your space, block your way, and clog public areas with boisterous talking.
In each case, these dominators communicate nonverbally, “I’m in charge, I’m the boss, and you must yield to me”.
The antidote is simple: request they stop. Sounds too good to be true, I know, but the vast majority of dominators dislike discord. They rely on acquiescence and prey upon those who won’t protest. And they’ll back off when you push back. Unfortunately, many of us are afraid to utter a word of opposition, and so, the behavior continues.
Let me show some examples of how to push back. I should add that these don’t assume intent. If someone is unaware of their behavior, they’ll stop once you point it out, and you’ll both be better off. And if they want to dominate, once you speak up, they’ll withdraw and hunt for someone who won’t stand up for themselves.
On to the examples.
Personal space invasion occurs when a person invades your space or touches your body without permission.
A funny example is Seinfeld’s “The Close Talker.”
When people get too close, ask them to back up, and they usually will, e.g., “You’re kind of in my space—mind taking a step back?”
You might feel uncomfortable saying this as polite society has taught us to endure these incursions in silence. You might justify their intrusions with thoughts like, “It’s not that bad. They don’t mean anything by it.” Your brain manufactures these justifications to make you feel better about not speaking up. When these excuses pop up, push them to the side, embrace the 15 seconds of discomfort, and stand up for yourself. You’ll be surprised how often dominators retreat.
In rare cases, dominators will ignore your request. For example, I had a creepy experience with a coworker I’ll call Biff. One day, while I was in a bathroom stall, I saw Biff peering in at me through the gap between the stall door and the stall wall. I confronted him later, but he shrugged it off, saying that he “liked” making people uncomfortable. As I think about this, years later, I have no regrets about pushing back. I only wish I had taken an additional step and spoken to HR about it. How many other employees had he creeped out?
Sprawling is the act of taking up space without regard for others. (In my experience, this is only done by men and is called men-sprawl or man-spread.)
Example: three people share a bench while waiting for a bus. One of them spreads their arms and legs to take up most of the bench.
In such cases, it’s reasonable to say, “There’s only one bench for three people—would you make room for others?”
High Volume Talking is when folks take up space by speaking louder than anyone else. This signals, “I’m the most important person here.” These people love having loud phone conversations in stores, on city buses, and in public restrooms.
Such individuals have a huge advantage: they can blare their blatherings without fear of push back because our culture offers few suggestions on confronting strangers who aren’t speaking directly to us. Instead, we endure roaring conversations in silence rather than speak up and appear rude. Ironic, right?
To make matters worse, some of these folks have an array of ready-made excuses, e.g., “Sorry, I’m just a loud person.” The “sorry” in the sentence gives it the appearance of an apology without any follow-through. Beneath the apologetic veneer, the meaning is clear: “too bad and tough luck!”
Now, I don’t have any constructive suggestions on how to handle this, but I do have a passive-aggressive one: When someone’s phone conversation engulfs the bathroom, repeatedly flush the toilet nearest them. If that doesn’t work, bellow, “It’s still in there, it’s so big, it won’t go down!”, punctuating each phrase with a flush.
Blocking is when someone obstructs your entrance or exit. When this happens, you might say, “I need to leave now. Is it important to you that I stay?”
Public space bans occur when dominators bar specific people or relationships from public places.
For example, in the 1950s, dominators sought to bar interracial couples from public spaces. Their reasoning was simple and yet absurd: “I don’t like what I see, so we should remove people so I can feel better.” Dominators used this line of thought to try to keep LGBTQ couples out of sight in the 1980s. And today, this mentality leads them to exclude mothers who breastfeed hungry babies.
Keeping groups of people invisible for your own comfort is a form of oppression.
Just imagine if everyone behaved this way. What would happen if a dominator was required to leave a public place because a stranger didn’t like what they saw? The dominator would condemn the action and demand the stranger take off.
And that’s the best defense against these assholes—ask them if they want all people to behave this way. You may not convince them to mend their ways, but bystanders will notice the dominator’s hypocrisy and hopefully use this defense to push back in their own lives.
Dominators utilize an assortment of strategies to control your space. And while their tactics differ, their goal is always the same: communicate that they’re in charge and you need to serve them (or at least defer to them).
The remedy is to speak up and point out how other people affected, e.g., “There’s only one bench for three people” and “What if everyone behaved this way?”
In my experience, dominators almost always back down. And that’s great news for those of us who dread any form of confrontation. You see, controlling people don’t enjoy conflict either, and the second you push back, they’ll prowl for other people to prey upon.
So, offer a modest amount of resistance to invasions of your space. You’ll be amazed at how often dominators withdraw and walk away.