Uni-Verse-City: European desire for closeness – living in Brussels

Uni-Verse-City: Europe, Brussels and the missing personal space

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Nicole Basaraba finds out that her personal space bubble stayed in Canada. In Brussels, people just 'like being close'.

Living as a Canadian expat in Brussels, there are a lot of cultural and social rules that one needs to learn and adjust too. One social quirk that I just cannot get accustomed to is the Europeans’ desire to be close to other people.

In Canada, or at least in the Western part where I’m from, there are very clear social boundaries that one does not cross. One of these very important boundaries is the “invisible bubble of personal space.”

This personal bubble doesn’t exist in Brussels. A prime example is when someone is sitting in a public area, whether it be on a bus or on a bench in the park, the standard social rule (in Canada) is to NOT sit in the seat next to them or on the same bench even if its the only one is a half a kilometer radius. The logical thing to do is to sit in one of the empty seats elsewhere in the bus, not the row right in front of right behind the person, the row farthest from the other person. The same is true in a park, if the person is not huddled on the corner of the bench obviously leaving 3/4 of it empty for someone else, you sit on the grass before you sit next to them.

Uni-Verse-City: European desire for closeness – living in Brussels
See the closeness….awkward…

In Brussels, yes it’s a big city that is overcrowded, but people will still choose to sit next to you on a bench in the park even if there is one a few feet away that’s empty because the one you’re sitting on is closer. The residents of Brussels also seem to LIKE being close to other people. They don’t first ask you if they may sit there, like a Canadian would if they really needed to sit down, neither do they sit at the other end of the bench, they will practically sit on the corner of your jacket.

One of the issues of “closeness” that is more disturbing is when you are walking down the sidewalk and someone walks directly behind you and at the same pace. They don’t walk slightly to the left or right so that you can glance back out of the corner of your eye to see if they look like a purse mugger or just a regular person. If you walk to the far right and slow down for them to pass, they will also slow down and move the right so that they are directly behind you like ducks in a row. The only way I’ve figured out to avoid this awkwardness is to step out onto the street and stand between two parked cars and wait for them to pass, which usually takes about 45 seconds too long because they don’t pick up their pace, but saunter along as if they didn’t even see you in the first place.

Uni-Verse-City: European desire for closeness – living in Brussels

The same “ducks in a row” issue comes up worse in line at the grocery store. Most of the time you can feel the person’s breath on the back of your neck or their hands grazing the back of your jacket. If you turn around to give them a look like why-do-you-have-to-lean-against-me, they won’t make eye contact and pretend like they are just standing in line normally. Even if you try to angle your body parallel so that you’re standing facing the cashier, they will still touch your arm. So there is no way to win, I guess having a stranger lean on your arm is better than on your behind.

Uni-Verse-City: European desire for closeness – living in Brussels
This is not one large table for a big group, it is 4-5 separate tables.

The last example I will share is when you go to a restaurant. One thing to note about Brussels is that there are hundreds of restaurants in this city. They are mostly independently owned and not chain restaurants. So lets say you are on a date with your boyfriend or girlfriend and you’re really looking froward to sitting a nice table for two in the near-empty restaurant because you thought ahead to get there early before the crowds pour in. You have your choice of tables so you choose the one on the right-hand side of the restaurant by the window. Then after you are seated and have ordered the drinks (too late to move tables), another couple enters the restaurant. You first thought is, “ok, it's good, better than being completely alone in the restaurant. Their presence will add to the atmosphere.” And then they choose the table RIGHT BESIDE yours. The entire restaurant is empty, and there is a perfectly nice table by the window on the left side of the restaurant, but no, they choose to sit at the table that is only 2 inches from the one your sitting at. This makes no sense to me at all. The owners also need to fit as many tables as possible into each restaurant so, in addition to the Brussels residents’ desire to be close to other people, the tables are placed as close together as possible so that you can barely squeeze between them if you have to get up to use the bathroom, or toilette as they so eloquently say in French.


So if you’re coming to Belgium and you are used to your personal space, be prepared to experience the “closeness” in Brussels!


Reprinted with permission of Uni-Verse-City.

Photo credit: Kerstin Lundquist (photo 2)

Uni-verse-city: Nicole BasarabaNicole Basaraba lived as an expat in Brussels, Belgium for 2.5 years after graduating from the University of Alberta. On her blog, Uni-Verse-City, she writes about travel, different cultures and lifestyle. She also writes women’s fiction and works in print publishing and website content management.

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2 Comments To This Article

  • Juan Pablo posted:

    on 10th October 2012, 20:47:13 - Reply

    As an expat with 20 years of Belgian residence, I have to say that you are right on some accounts, but not in all..
    While It's easy to judge with your Canadian think cup, when you realize that the density per square mile in hole country it one of the largest in the world, you can understand why they behave like they do.
    Being alone does not come naturally for a Belgian, as there is almost no place in this country where you will not have another human being in one mile radio. Being Alone feels wrong for them.
    My kids where born here and I had to take them Argentina, my homeland, to show them that is was possible to be truly alone into the wild. And It took them some time to adapt to the social rules of the place too..
    I think that what you describe is a clash between the Canadian social rules and the Belgian social rules, they are different and certainly you can find them offensive, but I would not put a judgment on any one of them unless I felt that it was a threat to my self.

    I only hope that this was not the only memory you retain from this country that has so much to offer.
  • Bob Mardyl posted:

    on 9th October 2012, 11:19:35 - Reply

    I don't agree with the statement that individuals should sit elsewhere when you are sitting either on a bus or park bench. "Public transportation", as the term implies, is for the public not only an individual. If, however the person wishing to sit down prefers to sit on your seat that is usually only big enough for approximately 1.5 people, you have to say no. As much as people have little respect for personal space here, they don't put up much of a fight when challenged. Same thing for park benches.

    You should have touched upon the lack of respect of personal space when individuals are exiting a store or when they are coming toward you. When exiting a store, they simply walk out, without looking to see if someone is in their path. When approaching someone, they act like swimming pool cleaning robots. They are on one tangent and will wait until they bump into someone before moving to the side ( if they do ). From little old ladies to young kids the sense of obliviousness to anything else is what irks me the most.

    I have lived in Brussels for close to three years, so I have an inkling of what I am saying.