An American’s Search For London’s ‘Personal Bubble’

American Expat Living in London England

By Shana Ting Lipton

[originally published on Huffington Post | Travel]

…Any externalization of emotion — through sighs, furrowed brows, and general visual signs of frustration, sadness, anger, etc. — seems to be frowned upon, figuratively if not literally…

Anyone who has ever lived in Manhattan is familiar with the term “personal bubble.” Although invisible, it is the nucleus of a New Yorker’s life. It promises — in a city of 8.2 million — a safe zone, not to be penetrated by the masses.

You may be centimeters away from four sweaty people in a crowded space, so close you can smell what they ate for lunch — yet, despite this proximity, eyes shall not meet, actions shall not be acknowledged and personal space shall not be violated. Such unwritten codes keep urban denizens from going mad via overwhelm and confrontation in such overpopulated milieus.

So, masses of Manhattanites grumble to themselves, exhale after a long day, roll their eyes when seeing something irritating and so on, with little fear that their private expressions shall be viewed and then confirmed by another humanoid. Quite simply put: They are ignored.

I’m quickly learning that although there are crossovers between London and New York living, the rules are essentially different in the former. Actually, when I first moved to London, I found the cultural learning curve quite flat — compared to my move to Amsterdam. London, like New York, is highly populated (7.8 million, I believe) and of course a very sophisticated, international city. Londoners are busy, busy, busy and that’s a good thing.

People are generally not too needy but rather independent. There’s a group social dynamic, but because everyone is preoccupied with juggling the many facets of London life, adjustment (for a international city-dweller like myself) is fluid…save for one social no-no I have inadvertently engaged in time and again.

Although stiff upper lips abound around these parts, I have found the aforementioned “personal bubble” to be, generally speaking, absent (save for during Rush Hours on the Tube). However, any externalization of emotion — through sighs, furrowed brows, and general visual signs of frustration, sadness, anger, etc. — seems to be frowned upon, figuratively if not literally, as that would be engaging in said no-no. Such gestures are also called out.

Sometimes this can be heart-warming. You’re having ‘one of those days’. Soaking wet from a windy rain. You have an asthma attack whilst chasing a bus. Its doors close in your face, the driver grins wickedly and peels out. You’re soaking wet, have ripped your stockings and finally, wheezing like an old man, you manage to hobble onto another bus when an ornery driver berates you for swiping your Oyster card when the machine is broken.

That final straw, along with hormones, drive you to tears. Then, a kind stranger leans in and says, “The bus driver was quite rude. Are you ok?” You have no desire to engage as the combination of your tears and mascara have transformed you into ‘The Crow’ but you’re thankful for his concern, nevertheless.

On other days, the lack of ‘bubble’ feels intrusive. Your computer has randomly sent out multiple emails to the same people transforming you into a spammer in the eyes of esteemed colleagues. It crashes. You spend three hours waiting in the Apple store only to hear ‘iCan’t’ (fix your laptop). Downtrodden, you shuffle home, slumped over, exhaling as you think of ways to erase the day’s events when a complete stranger looks you in the eyes and blurts out, “Cheer up mate, it might never happen.” He means no harm but his scant few words have externalised and validated your internal worries.

Then there are the times when someone has shoved you and stepped on your foot, without so much as an ‘excuse me.’ A verbal, “ouch!” is your regrettable knee-jerk reaction. At that point, you’ve invited someone to step inside your bubble and proverbially stomp around with careless abandon in Doctor Martin boots. You will be confronted, and firmly reprimanded, as I discovered: ‘What are you complaining about? It was as much your fault as it was mine’!

Curious and perplexed by these and other confrontations in such a mannered albeit highly populated metropolitan centre, I asked some of my English friends for illumination. They all seemed to concur that this behaviour relates to the ubiquitous ‘stiff upper lip’ philosophy. The idea of expressing displeasure through facial gestures would be the opposite of holding it together, I learned. What was easily ignorable in New York, displays as a neon light festooned billboard in London–especially for someone like me whose face betrays her emotions.

As someone who was born in London but has moved about from Hong Kong to LA to New York to Amsterdam, I’ve spent my life studying cultures and analysing how my behaviours are received in them. I try to adapt as much as I can without being dishonest about my quirks and God-given flaws.

So, I wouldn’t say that this essay amounts to a gripe or a public complaint, but rather an attempt to understand it for myself. But I suppose it’s quite the opposite of keeping a stiff upper lip. Instead, mass-blogging about my take on such social mores is quite simply the literary equivalent of furrowing my brow and expelling air.