Whose Armrest Is It Anyway?

December 12, 2017 - 3 minutes read

Last Saturday evening I was seated in the third row center at a Broadway play, “The Band’s Visit.”  Ten minutes before curtain I was catching up on the news, courtesy of my iPhone, when I felt someone push my right elbow into my side and forcefully take sole possession of our mutual armrest.

Out of my peripheral vision, I noticed a woman had invaded my space.

I have attended hundreds of plays, but I have never discussed this situation with anyone.  Maybe I’m unusually sensitive to the art of sharing a theater armrest, which, after all, is only designed for one arm.  My wife typically sits to my left, so that side is easy.  We hold hands, usually on her lap or mine.  But occasionally, there is a problem with the stranger sitting on my right.

Before the show begins they always tell you to turn off your cell phone, but there are never any instructions on how to share your armrest.   I suppose the applicable etiquette comes under the heading of “Invisible Rules” which I wrote about in my book People Tools. Everyone knows the rule but no one talks about it.

It seems to me that there are only two possible systems.  Either you take turns, without talking about it, or the more aggressive person seizes sole possession.  That seemed to be the case here.

I prefer to avoid confrontations, but I will also defend my personal space from invasion when I feel it is necessary.  In this situation I ignored the intrusion.  Just before the show began the woman sitting to my right said, “You hit me with your elbow.”


Louder.  “You hit me with your elbow.”

I didn’t hit her with anything, but it was easier to simply smile and say, “I’m sorry.”

I also took advantage of the opportunity to reclaim possession of the armrest.

The play was well performed, but I remained distracted.  I began to worry that after the show this woman might use her cellphone to take my photo, then circulate it on the internet with some sort of false allegation that I elbowed her.  That thought bothered me for ninety minutes, until the play ended.

While I would normally have exited to my right, after the curtain call my wife and I promptly departed to our left.

That’s where the matter ended, as far as I know.

But I wonder if this was an isolated incident. Are we all becoming more protective of our personal space, especially with strangers, as a way to carve out a zone of safety in what appears to be an increasingly contentious, neighbor against neighbor, world?  To put it another way, is there enough space for all of us?


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