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Take your seats
by Lee Thorkhill
Issue 15
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Last month I went to the hospital - nothing very serious - I was accompanying my girlfriend for a check-up. As we arrived at the department we both observed the waiting area. There were nine seats in total, three chairs on each of the three 'wings' left, right and centre. Imagine them numbered one through to nine from left to right.

Two people were already seated, an elderly Asian lady (seat three) reading one of the old Hello magazines provided by another patient and a younger very scruffy man (seat six) who seemed to be quite happy just to stare into space. It did occur to me that he may have strolled in to the waiting room completely by mistake and would be surprised when a patients name was called instead of the arrival time for a train or bus. Anyway, they were of course sat on the different wings which left the third wing vacant for us (seats eight and nine).

This was the start of a perfectly English custom of forming equidistant boundaries between people in non-social situations. I mean, how many people have ever walked into a waiting room, of any kind, and gone to sit right next to the only other person in there? I'm telling you if someone did that to me I would leave the room very quickly and by the nearest exit then proceed to increase my speed of departure down the corridor out onto the street and down the main road for fear of them being a serial killer.

Back in the waiting room we now had each of the three wings occupied and then the next person arrived. An elderly gentleman walking with the aid of a stick, who would not even have to think about the "code of seating when in a waiting room", in one swift moment he surveyed the nine seats and took his place in seat one, thereby maintaining the minimum one seat gap between all parties involved. Nobody in the room had made eye contact, there was nobody directing people to their seats - at some point in our lives we had been subconsciously conditioned to the method of choosing a seat in a room full of people you do not know.

The next and thankfully final person to enter the seating area was a young girl, dressed for the warm weather she looked self confident and generally happy with the way the morning had progressed so far. She did however pause when entering the waiting room. She did not have the same split-second evaluation as the old man had done. In her obvious inexperience it took her longer to see she could not sit in the vacant seats without sitting next to someone.

Then she did the most English ritual in the rule book. She took some time to browse the table of old magazines, then after selecting a glossy magazine with Madonna on the cover, she sat in seat four. This was next to the Asian lady clearly because she could not justify taking a seat next to any of the males in the room, especially the bus/train guy who was now quite clearly looking around the room for the ticket office window.

As she sat down she made momentary eye contact with the Asian lady, this must have been to apologise for the space which she had just invaded (something us English really must try harder with) then sat in a defensive pose with arms and legs crossed praying no one else would enter the room.

Then the Doctor came to call in the first patient which was the elderly gentleman, and as he slowly followed the doctor down the corridor the scruffy chap picked up his bag without warning and left - obviously planning a letter of complaint to the transport director. It did cause enough distraction to allow the young lady, when changing magazines, to shift one seat sideways to rebalance the room to the 'one-seat-space' status, which allowed the rest of us to relax a little more once again.

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