Her gray head wagged slowly from left to right like an old Grandfather’s clock, sending an uncomfortable message directly to the pit of my stomach. Was that wag meant for me? “But I’m not even close to her,” my mind argued, “so why should she be upset?” I was pulling into a parking spot at Cub Foods when I noticed her putting groceries into the trunk of her car. She was parked directly in front of my space, and not wanting to scare her by pulling up directly behind her, I stopped—at what I considered a safe distance—and waited patiently for her to finish.
I had just flown in from Brazil only three days before and was spending the afternoon visiting my son and family. This quick dash to the grocery store had been prompted by a sudden urge to eat chocolate chip cookies—a desire stronger than my reticence at maneuvering my son’s old clunker through unfamiliar city traffic.
The gray-haired stranger took her time putting away her groceries, never once turning around to look at me, while my van rattled like a McCormick threshing machine. “If she’d only turn around and look,” I thought, “she’d see I’m not as close as it sounds.” Frustrated, I eased into my space as she walked around the front of her car to open the door on the driver’s side. I opened my car door and stepped out and it was then we saw each other ‘face-to-face.’ But before getting into her car she gave me another unsmiling wag. Shaken, I argued with myself that I hadn’t done anything wrong and determined it wasn’t going to bother me, but while I walked the aisles searching for brown sugar and chocolate chips I couldn’t get the wagging out of my mind. And all the way back to my son’s place, the scene kept replaying itself like a broken record. “What did I do wrong?” I repeatedly asked myself.
The answer came a few days later while shopping with my daughter Michelle. We had just exited the Brazilian Connection Store and I opened the passenger’s door on the right to get into the car. It was then I noticed an idling pick-up waiting to pull into the space adjacent to ours. But he didn’t stick his nose into the spot, as I’d done; rather, he stayed completely out of the parking space until I shut my door. “That’s the answer!” my mind shouted.
I remember when my husband and I first moved to Brazil wanting to back away a few inches when people would approach us to talk. They stood uncomfortably close, but thirty-two years later the close proximity feels normal. And, on our visits back to the USA we have been baffled by all the “I’m sorrys” we hear as we push shopping carts up and down store aisles not feeling we’d been offended in any way. But now I knew I’d had an epiphany. What had happened on the parking lot was an invasion of that gray-haired lady’s personal space—that invisible number of cubic feet (or inches) of space that surrounds each person like a bubble—and my proximity had punctured her bubble leaving her feeling vulnerable and violated.
But there’s an ironic twist to the space question. Like I said, when conversing, Brazilians stand closer to each other than Americans do, yet in most parts of Brazil, when visitors announce their arrival at someone’s house, they will not even knock on the front door. The visitor will stand back three or more feet and clap his or her hands, or in most cases, stand outside the fenced-in yard. Imagine then, how strange it feels, when a Brazilian is transported to the USA, and upon answering a knock on the door, finds someone standing close enough to kiss! Yes, in America one can stand close to the door and no one objects, but can not get too close in grocery stores (or in parking lots?). And why can Brazilians stand close to each other when conversing or shopping, but not dare stand close to your front door? Someone has said that culture is neither wrong nor right; it’s just different—and not necessarily logical.
The dictionary defines culture shock as “the alienation, confusion, surprise, etc. that may be experienced by someone encountering unfamiliar surroundings…”
If anyone should ask you to explain that, just tell them what happened on the Cub Foods parking lot that sunny afternoon in May.