Tuesday 12 December 2017

Joe Biden and the rise of the serial space invaders

United States Vice President Joe Biden talks to Stephanie Carter (R) as her husband Ash Carter (not pictured) delivers his acceptance speech as the new Secretary of Defense at the White House in Washington February 17, 2015.
United States Vice President Joe Biden talks to Stephanie Carter (R) as her husband Ash Carter (not pictured) delivers his acceptance speech as the new Secretary of Defense at the White House in Washington February 17, 2015.

Tanya Sweeney

As looks go, 'creepy uncle' is one that few people carry off with élan. And Joe Biden, sad to say, is not one of them.

With the world's media trained on him, Biden got up close and personal with new US defence secretary Ashton Carter's wife Stephanie, leaning in from behind, whispering and throwing in an ear nuzzle for good measure. Hashtag awkward - and of course the image went viral.

Biden's a man for whom toe-curling moments are normal, but this was a true zinger.

Political commentators have referred to him as "the most powerful close talker in the world". In other words, this isn't an isolated incident.

"It's a controlling movement, but I would be inclined to describe it more as a 'kindly power gesture'," says body language expert Rowan Manahan. "He's basically saying to her 'I'm the silver-backed gorilla handing over the reins'. I don't think (Stephanie) took it as an uncomfortable thing."

To her eternal credit, Stephanie took the bizarre pawing with good grace. But why should anyone have to put up with in-your-face, in-your-space folks at all?

Like some kind of grim virus, manspreading is… well, spreading. New York's subway system is officially tackling men who have little concept of personal space. It's come to that. It's an unspoken rule: the space around us is a private area. We don't like interlopers rocking up into it unannounced and uninvited. Such is the nature of the modern world that we're all now on top of each other physically, so we take that boundary more seriously than ever.

But why do some people like to get right up in another's grill? Consultant psychologist Owen Connolly offers an explanation: "Very simply, some people have no boundaries. They haven't understood that it's not healthy to brazenly break into another person's intimate space."

'Intimate space' is an interesting term. In today's sex-saturated world, it wouldn't be unusual for our systems to interpret someone right in our face as a potential intimate partner. If the signals aren't returned, or are unwanted, it can lead to confusion and hostility.

Connolly cites plain biology as the root of our discomfort."Personal space is tied up to our natural defense system," he says. "Unless you give someone permission to be in your intimate space, your automatic response system will be put on alert.

"Those people certainly don't feel like they're assaulting you, but your system can sometimes interpret it that way."

Manahan is in agreement: "In Ireland, we're typical frigid Northern Europeans who like our space. Because of our simian ancestry, society is all about degrees of distance. We let the very close right in, but everyone else is held at a distance."

Keeping the space invader's at arm's length can be tricky: to paraphrase Morrissey, the more you resist the too-familiar advances of someone, the closer they get. But a bit of polite assertiveness can go a long way.

"Take ownership of your intimacy space," advises Connolly.

"That way, you're likely to have the confidence to keep unwanted people out."

Irish Independent

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