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Attack of the personal space invaders

Who are these chaps who insist on standing so close that you can smell their breath?

21 February 2015

9:00 AM

21 February 2015

9:00 AM

It’s the shoulders you have to watch out for. If he’s pressing them back as his hand comes out to shake yours, then beware: you’re about to meet a Space Invader.

It’s tricky, being an alpha male in polite 21st-century society. Gone are the days when you could expect other men to gather round, worshipping your medallion as it glistened on a bed of luxuriant chest hair. Now you have to subvert the genre. You have to go to them. You have to get in their face, literally.

There’s a particular breed of alpha who displays his credentials by standing unnervingly close to you, his face just a few inches from yours, eye contact maintained for what seems like centuries. Some of them even avoid blinking. Or is that just how it feels?

The subtext is clear: ‘We are men of the world, you and I. Or rather New Men of the New World. We are not bound by the conventions of the past, the rigid formality of an uptight era. We feel no shame in standing so close to each other that we could compare dental records.’

Space Invaders don’t lean in, they step up, resolutely and proudly vertical as their toes almost meet yours. It’s all done with a conspiratorial smile, recognition that you’re two of the in-crowd, rejecting the other losers around you, two alphas together. Well don’t take this the wrong way, Mr Invader, but get lost, would you? I am defiantly un-alpha. In fact I’m way past beta, so far down the Greek alphabet even an Oxford don would struggle to find me.


It happened at a party the other night. The guy was an inch shorter than me, but no matter, an extra backwards thrust of the shoulders and retinal parity was established.

Talking of which, his glasses were another giveaway: rimless Scandinavian jobs. Invaders always wear these, again as part of their genre-subversion — massive multicoloured frames with ‘Gucci’ plastered down the stems would be way too obvious. The other thing they’re careful about is their breath. No arrogant munching of garlic-laden hors d’oeuvres just before buttonholing you: that too would be unforgivably old-school. For this I suppose we should be grateful.

Normally you put up with your territory being encroached on, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you feel. But this time I decided to stand my ground. Or rather the opposite: I took a discrete half-step backwards, re-establishing a comfortable distance between myself and Invader. But he was determined. Forwards he came, once again getting up close and personal.

You can guess what happened: soon I was retreating like a 1970s secretary before a Radio 1 DJ. This wasn’t easy, as the party was crowded and I had a constant fear of ploughing into a group of people having their glasses refilled. After a while I realised we were nearing a wall — oh God, soon my back would be against it, in both senses. What would happen then? Fortunately I managed to inveigle a third party into the conversation. Disaster averted.

It’s the patronising element that winds you up. ‘Hey,’ the Invader is saying, ‘I’ve clocked you, you’re as impressive as me. Let’s get together.’ Anyone who feels the need to big themselves up by pretending to big you up has issues I’d rather not engage with, certainly not at a range of three inches. I don’t care about, or believe, their implied message: they’re so interested in you that they have to give you all their attention, stand so close that they couldn’t do the ‘looking over your shoulder for someone more important’ trick even if they wanted to.

The other unspoken element is sexuality. ‘I’m so secure in my straightness,’ an Invader seems to be saying, ‘that I can engage in this level of physical proximity without anyone thinking it might in any way be construed as a come-on. Look, our crotches are virtually touching, and yet such is my manliness that no observer could possibly imagine I’m trying to gay you up.’

I hate to be the one to break it to you, old chum, but don’t you think you’re protesting a little too much? I bet you’re the sort of guy who stands there ostentatiously towelling himself in the gym changing room, aren’t you? ‘What, I’ve been standing here in front of you stark naked for five minutes without even attempting to put a stitch of clothing on, you say? I’d barely noticed.’ All very well until the day you do it to Miles from finance and end up realising you didn’t know Miles — or indeed yourself — quite as well as you’d thought. Ten days and one incredible weekend in Morocco later and you’re composing a difficult email to your wife.

So on balance, Mr Invader, it might be an idea to keep your distance. In personal space no one can hear you scream.


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