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The question

When attending events where I have paid for a seat, I frequently have someone sitting next to me who feels they are entitled to spread themselves into my space – regardless of how uncomfortable this may make me. It happened the other day at a sold-out theatre event. I thought I handled it delicately, but the woman beside me took great offence. She felt she was within her rights to have her thigh extend three or four inches onto my seat, and extended her elbow three or four inches beyond the shared armrest. I moved over a few inches as far as I could, giving her as much room as I could spare. She kept fidgeting and jabbing me with her elbow and pushing me with her thigh so I moved my purse from my lap and placed it between us – on my seat. She argued that my purse was crowding her and told me to move it (I did not). Could I have handled it differently, when finding another seat was not an option? I am respectful of others’ personal space, and I wish strangers would do the same.

The answer

This reminds me of “manspreading,” the term used to describe when a man who enters, say, a streetcar, then spreads his legs, maybe plops backpack or briefcase on the adjoining seat, and generally takes up more than his fair share of room with no consideration for other passengers.

I don’t know. Maybe there’s truth to such a popular term. And maybe some will think I’m “mansplaining” here, or that I doth “bro-test” too much, but it always seemed to me men and women can both be guilty of this sort of thing, as your question shows.

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I try to be mindful of not being this type of “space invader” when it comes to my own oversized self (6 foot 5, 250 pounds). But there are so many ways to impinge and infringe on other people’s comfort zones. I was mortified in an office where I worked to hear a couple of people had complained to the boss about my “pungent lunches,” so I switched from my beloved vindaloo and biryani to sandwiches.

It’s impossible to prance through this life without stepping on a few toes, figuratively and sometimes even literally (people yowl with pain when I do it).

The trick is not to be boorish about it, to apologize if you’re wrong and accommodate where reasonable.

You sound quite reasonable; this woman like a complete boor.

I’m not sure I would have been so patient in your shoes. An evening at the theatre can be a pricey proposition. If she wrecked your expensive night out, she’s kind of guilty – sorry, this might be a tad hyperbolic – of stealing your money.

(I always feel this way when someone wrecks my time in a restaurant: “Hey, this wasn’t cheap! You owe me, pal!” I also feel like they should have different sections for different personality types, like they used to do with smoking and non-smoking: “Welcome. Would you like to be seated in Loud and Obnoxious or Quiet and Thoughtful?” Sounds like it might be a good idea for your theatre, too.)

In any case, sounds like you did everything you could, within the framework of what used to be called “polite society,” now clearly rapidly vanishing. Tried to give her space; asked her nicely to give you some; set up your purse as a little mini-barrier in the spirit of “good fences make good neighbours.”

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Only to be rebuffed and rebuked with maximum haughtiness and rudeness – along with poked and prodded and all the rest of it.

You didn’t mention whether this is a continuing issue. If, say, you both have subscriptions and are stuck sitting next one another for a long time, and she refuses to budge either literally or figuratively, I’d be tempted to get an usher or even management involved.

Sure, it could cause a bit of offstage drama – I wouldn’t be surprised if all these audience antics distracted the actors, so management might be interested in that.

And she just sounds like the type of person who needs to be pushed back on.

If the incident was a one-off receding in the rear-view, and you’ll never see her again, I’d just shrug/shake it off and say to yourself Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous line “Hell is other people,” from the play No Exit. And be grateful the exits to your play weren’t sealed off so you were seated next this woman for all eternity.

Now that would be awful.

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