Unwritten Laws of Life

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As a former lawyer, I ought to be more interested in the laws of the land, but actually, I’m not. Legalese is pretty boring, and statutory interpretation falls some way short of painting in terms of fun activity.

I am however completely fascinated by custom and the laws of life; the sorts of rules as a society we abide by as convention rather than as Law in the strict sense.

One such set of rules relates to use of space, and the manner we interact with other people in the use of personal space. Different societies have different customs and approaches to this of course, but generally within British society we manage to jog along through life with a reasonable consensus on what comprises personal space, and when not to invade it.

So consider the following social situation. I am sitting at a table in a cafe-bar in a posh shop in the city centre. There are two free tables to my right, but the table to my left is occupied by a couple clearly in the early stage of a great romance. The seating comprises a banquette running the perimeter of my side of the cafe. There are a couple of other tables the other side, both occupied, with seating provided by another banquette.

A lady enters. Tall, with a hat and gloves and fine bag and very high heels. She looks around, ignores the two empty tables to my right, and moves towards the sliver of available banquette space between my table and that of the lovey-dovey couple. A sliver of space with no table in front of it, of course.

She squeezes into the space between me and the love-birds, and it becomes clear she is not joining them when she leans towards ‘my’ table and deposits her spectacle case, her gloves and something else. We must look a very cosy group at this point.

She proceeds to call out a command for her ‘usual’, and the waitress scurries off to comply. I, meanwhile, have yet to have my order taken.

I am not quite sure how to respond to all of this. Clearly she is a regular, and equally clearly I have unwittingly sat (presumably) at her usual table. It crosses my mind to apologise for not realising she has a timeshare for the table, but my irritation at the blatant invasion of my personal space prevails, and I stubbornly remain glued to my section of the banquette.

A psychological battle begins for the tiny bit of no-mans-land space remaining, and I quickly realise I am no match for this customer. Even if she is fine with invading my territory, I find I cannot read my book because I am concentrating so much on not conceding.

Before my coffee arrives, she has won. I have slid along the banquette to the free table at my right, thereby causing not a little confusion for the waitress who is probably well used to people sitting cheek by jowl at the regular’s table even when the rest of the place is disconcertingly empty.

I like to think I was behaving in an adult dignified manner when I eventually moved. Sadly, I suspect I was not.

What might you have done?

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2 responses to Unwritten Laws of Life

  1. I’m not sure I could have found a dignified adult response in me… When we lived outside of London, my husband took the train into the city every day. He quickly learned that the regulars liked to stand in a particular spot on the platform. Now and then, my husband would get to the station just a bit early, so he would deliberately stand in one of the regulars spots. When the regular arrived, my husband would take great delight in watching what happened. He said most of the regulars would stand as close to him as they could possibly get, without actually pushing him aside!

    • gillianholding – Author

      How funny! I don’t have a regular ‘spot’ anywhere in my life, although I have a lot of favourite cafes (obviously!) and preferred tables, but maybe that’s because I don’t want to ever become dependent on a particular seat or, heaven forbid, platform spot!!

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