Whatever happened to personal space?

Story highlights

  • Personal space gaffes by John Travolta, Vice President Joe Biden make for new memes
  • But the incidents belie a more serious message, a psychologist says

(CNN)Vice presidential ear whispers. Awkward actor-singer chin grabs. And who could forget the belly grab-cheek smooch that rocked the Internet?

It's enough to make you ask: What in the world has happened to personal space?
Or, in the case of the Internet, you make fun.
    There's John Travolta kissing not actress Scarlett Johansson -- as in the original incident from Sunday's Academy Awards -- but Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korea's Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un or the Statue of Liberty.
    Then there's Travolta holding "Frozen" star Idina Menzel's chin and being urged to "Let her go ... let her go!"
    "Today's word. #Travolta - (verb) - To touch (meaning) - For example, I like to travolta your cheeks," Twitter user @IamMrTex wrote Tuesday.
    Of course, invasions of personal space aren't anything new. It's been more than 20 years since "Seinfeld" brought us the "close talker," and it was old news even then.
    John Travolta gives Scarlett Johansson a smooch.
    But all the jokes aside -- and there were plenty -- there is a serious side to this.
    Take a look at these photos, and a theme emerges. There's Travolta grabbing Johansson, who received an even more invasive grab at the 2006 Golden Globes, when designer Isaac Mizrahi actually grabbed her breast on the red carpet while checking out the construction of her dress.
    Vice President Joe Biden talks with Stephanie Carter in the White House on February 17.
    Then there's Biden gripping the shoulders of Stephanie Carter, the wife of the new U.S. defense secretary, last week. That image evoked memories of former President George W. Bush's awkward shoulder massage of German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the 2006 G8 summit.
    Though the notion of cultural space varies with culture, Americans are undisputed champions for a large personal zone, argues University of Massachusetts, Amherst psychology professor Susan Krauss Whitbourne.
    And although they make might for laughs by violating the unspoken rules of personal space in such egregious ways, Travolta, Biden and others are demonstrating a cultural disregard for women, she said.
    "Breaking those zones shows a lack of respect," she said. "It's a way of showing your power."
    Don't argue that it happens to everyone, columnist Barbara Ellen wrote in the Guardian.
    "Even though it happens to some males sometimes, it happens to females all the time," she said.
    "Try to imagine the White House situation with the roles reversed -- Stephanie Carter gripping Biden's shoulders; or, to even things up, Hillary Clinton or Angela Merkel doing the grabbing and whispering," she said. "It's implausible to say the least."
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    The power plays do happen among men but take on a different cast.
    There's a whole field of research into the "power handshake" -- who stands where and does what -- that elevates a simple, quiet greeting into proxy chest thumping.
    And then there's trying to escape when one latches on a party, author Mark Mason wrote in the Spectator this week.
    "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," he wrote.
    "Some of them even avoid blinking," he said. "Or is that just how it feels?"