This is part of my series on How To Stand Up For Yourself.
Let’s say you’re riding the bus, minding your own business, and a stranger sits down next to you. Close to you. Their hip crams into yours, and you inhale a bouquet of cheap cologne, body odor, and chili dog breath. Their fingertips graze your thigh.
You contract your shoulders and contemplate your shoes as a battle erupts inside you. Your Lizard Brain yelps, “Danger! Fight? Flee?” It mashes the giant red button, splashing adrenaline into your bloodstream. Your heart rate surges, and your fingers go cold. Opposing this acute stress is your inner Pacifist, chanting, “Don’t make a fuss. Don’t make a scene.”
You know from experience that you’ll hearken to the Pacifist because they never ask much of you. Just sit quietly and disguise your discomfort with a gracious smile. Turn the other cheek, suffer in silence, and all that. And when someone is particularly egregious, you count your blessings, or write in your gratitude journal.
When confronted with a stranger sitting almost on top of you, the Pacifist soothes, “We’re probably overreacting. There were probably no other seats available.” Hoping to support this hypothesis, you glance around your surroundings, searching for evidence of a packed bus brimming with bodies. Hoping there’s a benign reason for this stranger’s disconcerting decision to sit so close.
But no. The bus is empty.
So what do you do?
Lizard Brain tells presses you to bolt because you’re terrible at fighting, and even if you win, you’ll go to jail, where you’ll fight more people and eventually lose. They urge you to hide your face, switch seats, and get off at the next stop, even though you’re miles from home. They offer a convenient excuse—a long walk home is exercise!
In contrast, the Pacifist tells you to ignore the stranger. They offer the oft-recited refrain, “No one can make you uncomfortable without your permission.” Nevertheless, you feel nervous. They tell you to think of three nice things about the stranger. But you can’t. You think, “This wouldn’t bother me if I were a better person.” And your self-loathing increases.
You’re in an awful predicament, and your discomfort is justified. You should worry when folks get too close without your permission, as it’s often an act of dominance and aggression. Such actions put them in striking distance of major organs and nonverbally communicates: submit or suffer. Now, not everyone that gets too close is a threat (or even aware of how it affects you), but you can’t tell the difference. We, humans, survived for 200,000 years by protecting our personal space.
Here’s the good news: acquiesce and flee are not your only options. You can safely resist using soft resistance. This strategy combines nonverbal communication with language that helps people empathize with your plight.
Here’s what you do:
- Look the stranger directly in the eyes for 5 seconds.
- Say, “You’re kind of in my personal space. I feel uncomfortable, and my heart is racing. Would you mind moving back?”
- Don’t say anything else but keep looking in their eyes for the next 10 seconds or until they move.
This whole process takes about 15 - 20 seconds and will feel very uncomfortable! But it works.
Let’s break down the mechanics of soft resistance.
The first step, making eye contact, broadcasts that you have power and that you’re not afraid. Fearful folks look away but staring into the stranger’s eyes will make them uncomfortable and might be enough to make them back up.
The second step has a lot to unpack. Saying, “You’re kind of in my personal space,” clearly states the problem, and the modifier “kind of” softens the statement, which diffuses any defensiveness. The next sentence, “I feel uncomfortable, and my heart is racing,” gives them a taste of the emotions swirling inside as well as your physiological response. All of this urges the stranger to empathize with you, which dampens their desire to dominate. The last sentence, “Would you mind moving back?” states what you want them to do. Posing it as a question gives the stranger a sense of agency and a feeling that they may say No, which ironically makes them more likely to comply. Including the word “mind” in the question adds tactical politeness, which disarms any defensiveness.
The second step summarized: Here’s the problem. + Here’s how I feel. + Here’s what I want you to do.
The third step, stay silent, and look into their eyes, reaffirms your power. It announces, “I won’t go down without a fight.” In contrast, people appear weak when they get chatty, make concessions, or look away.
In my experience, soft resistance works 99% of the time. Here’s why: dominators dislike confrontation and hunt for people who won’t resist. Invading your personal space is them testing the waters, determining if you’re acquiescent. And they’ll back off when you push back.
Now, let’s say soft resistance didn’t work, and the stranger remains in your space. You still have all your original options available. You can hide your face, switch seats, and get off at the next stop. You can ignore them and recite things you’re grateful for. You’ve lost nothing.
So you hereby have my permission to use soft resistance and push back when folks encroach on your space. Look them in the eye and tell them what the problem is. Describe how you feel and specify what you want them to do.
Let soft resistance be your default mode when dealing with people who cross boundaries. It’s far better than automatically turning the other cheek and suffering in silence. To paraphrase Malcolm X, people who turn the other cheek can be enslaved for 1,000 years. Don’t let that happen to you. Push back, and you’ll be amazed how often people will back off.