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Monday, February 26, 2024

Column: Space invasion

This past weekend, I deactivated my Facebook profile. Not because finals week is coming up — I’m not one of those people who quit social networking before major tests. Why give up my preferred method of distraction and primary means of procrastination? No, I was just tired of basically everything on my newsfeed. Social networking gets overwhelmingly underwhelming sometimes. You have to dig through so much junk to find that one attention-worthy update.

But last week something did come across my newsfeed that actually provoked some kind of thought in me. It was a link to a video of Will Smith at the Moscow premiere of his new movie Men in Black III. Smith was making his way down the red carpet when he came across this very enthusiastic male reporter.

The reporter excitedly hugged the actor, then proceeded to kiss him on the cheeks multiple times. Yes, Will Smith is one of the most successful actors in the industry and, yes, he has traveled the world. However, at the end of the day, he is still a black man from Philly. You don’t just come up to a black man from Philly and start kissing him. You don’t come up to anyone you don’t know and start kissing them. Talk about an invasion of personal space!

In reaction, the visibly disgruntled actor shoved the overzealous reporter away and gave him a smart slap to the side of his face with the back of his hand. He didn’t hit him hard enough to make lasting damage, but a clear message was sent nonetheless. Will turned to a shocked member of his “people” (his publicist, perhaps?) and said, “He tried to kiss me on the mouth!” He also let it be known that if the cameras hadn’t been rolling, he would’ve sucker punched the guy.

My initial reaction to the video was uncontrollable laughter. How hilariously awkward! Even worse, the reporter had the most innocent look on his face and it was clear that he didn’t understand what had happened. After doing a little research, I learned that greeting stars with a kiss on the cheek was the reporter’s “thing.” There was no malice behind his act.

The research result was a confirmation of something I had suspected from the very start. This was a clear case of cultures clashing. Having been born in France and spent time in Europe, I know firsthand that the American standard and the European standard when it comes to personal space are very different. Americans are all about their personal space. Europeans are a little more … friendly, so to speak.

The funny part was that, although I understood where the reporter was coming from, I totally identified with Will Smith. I like my personal space. I don’t know if it’s because of my individual preference or the influence of American culture. It’s probably a bit of both, but I really don’t like my immediate space to be infringed upon.

Some of the most uncomfortable moments of my life occurred due to personal space invasions. From sitting on an airplane or a crowded bus, to having a conversation with someone who is standing a little too close, there have been times that felt way more intimate than the occasion required.

The key to space violations is context. The who, what, when, where and why totally matter. When the five W’s are all working in your favor, getting close can actually be a good thing. That unexpected hug from someone that you’d love to be friends with, or when the person you like finally makes a move. Have you ever seen a male professional sports team celebrating a big win? They’re jumping all over each other, slapping each other’s butts, giving each other congratulatory punches, etc. If Will Smith had just won the Super Bowl and his teammate kissed him on the cheek, I don’t think he would’ve reacted the same way.

Next time you enter someone’s personal space, think before you act and put yourself in their shoes. You’ll save yourself a slap, or much worse.

Contact PAMELA NONGA NGUE at pamnonga@ucdavis.edu.

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