Monday, July 22, 2013

Undercover Agnostic (Update 14): Personal Space Invaders

I have noticed a pattern after spending 24 years now inside the world of Christian fundamentalists here in the Midwestern United States. In many Protestant churches, it's typical for the opening of the Sunday morning services to start with an announcement from the pastor or music director, then there will be an opening song that the choir or praise band will sing.

As this opening song starts, the pastor or music director will say to the people to shake hands with everybody and introduce yourself if you see someone you don't recognize. The people all get up, chattering amongst each other, making the rounds around the sanctuary. This happens all the time across the US, but in the 3 churches I have been either a member of, (or at least a regular attending person for a few years), I keep noticing that during this period of time that no matter what church I was in, there always seems to be the same cast of characters that show up in each congregation.

First you have the elderly woman (or women) that play the part of "everyone's Grandma". They've been in the congregation for many years, they know everyone, and if you don't know you yet, well, believe me, they will get to know you. During this time period, they will always insist on hugging and kissing everyone they meet.

Second you have the "always happy guy" character. He is usually a deacon or Sunday School teacher, or just simply an well established and respected member of the congregation. He's usually a large, middle aged guy who always seems happy, has to greet everyone, and if he knows you, he will insist on saying, "Hi (your name)" rather loudly, and will give a strong handshake before insisting on a big "brotherly hug".

Third, you have the pastor himself. He's always in a suit, or at least a shirt and tie, will give you handshake so strong you are wondering if he's trying to see if he can break a finger or two. After the painful handshake, he will insist on putting his hand on top of your shoulder, or on the back of the shoulder, and act like your therapist or your caring older brother, and ask in a very concerned voice "How have you been doing this past week, are you alright?"

There's always some variation on these characters, but they will show up in one form or combination or another, and they all have one thing in common: They have to touch everybody they see, and get into your personal space. They mean no harm by it, but they feel like they aren't a proper Christian church member if they don't touch and get into the personal space of everyone they meet on a Sunday morning.

To me, it's incredibly annoying. I can't stand it when people touch me, I just can't. Handshakes are OK (so long as they aren't the finger breaking version I mentioned earlier), but anything beyond that from most people, even my own family, just makes my skin crawl. I know, it's rather odd, but I feel like my personal space is being invaded every time, it makes me feel trapped. The only affection I like is when it's coming from a female friend I am rather close to, or from a girlfriend when I am in a relationship. Then I absolutely enjoy it.

It's strange, I know, but I usually don't say anything about it. It's not worth explaining it to people all the time, and there are worse things to complain about in this world. This past Sunday, when the morning introduction period was going on in the church I am undercover in, it brought to mind this cartoon from my favorite webcomic Cyanide and Happiness:

I just don't understand why people feel the need to do this in churches. Are there any current or former Christians that have experienced this phenomenon in churches? Do you understand why people do this?

Not only do I find overly touchy people annoying, but I get that trapped feeling in other circumstances as well. I don't mind being in a small room, or even in an elevator, it's not claustrophobia, but I hate it when people seem to feel the need to crowd around me in a circle when they are talking, or block my path to the exits to the room I happen to be in. That makes me feel trapped as well. It's incredibly irrational, but I want to be able to leave a room anytime I want to, without people getting in my way.

Can anyone else out there identify with this?


  1. My diagnosis: you are a midwesterner! I grew up in Ohio and I need my space. I have adopted some of the customs of other places I've been but don't come within 30-36 inches or so if you really want to talk to me.

    As for why space invaders operate in churches... beats me! Perhaps it's their way of taking possession of you to be part of the congregation, or of treating you like family, to keep you committed to the place.

    I have a theory that atheism has more appeal for introverts precisely because of this kind of thing. Extraverts are more common, so "modern" churches are catering to them.

    I grew up in an Episcopal church, and we had a handshake thing mid-service. That was as much touching as any of us wanted, and we usually only shook hands with people we already knew.

    1. You're right. I grew up in Saskatchewan (just north of North Dakota) but then moved to Montreal Quebec which has a much more physical French culture. I am still pretty awkward at everyone trying to hug and kiss me all the time.

    2. Do they do that awful French/Italian "kiss on each cheek" custom when greeting people?

      If so, that would be my perfect idea of hell......

      If I lived there, I think I would walk around with a brightly colored shirt that says "don't touch me" all the time.

    3. @ LadyAtheist

      I had been wondering if this was more of a evangelical/fundamentalist thing or if moderate/liberal churches did it as well. It seems like your comment answers that question.

      I think it might be partly a generational thing. I notice this keeps happening with people who are 40+. Maybe baby bommers and World War 2 generation people like that, but the younger crowd doesn't. I've noticed most of the younger fundamentalists just shake hands and go on.

      They usually save anything more than that for just their spouse/lover.

    4. I think its that way because its always been that way, think about God hasnt changed, the Bible hasnt changed, the only way to heaven hasnt changed, but this world HAS changed, and I think its great that theres still smiley guy and old huggy lady, it shows that they didnt change to impress people or whatever. They still do as they did always and stay the same. Everyone has their own opinions. I personally think atheists are crazy and will be laughing down from heaven at them just as I am now

  2. This is so true.

    I think that many people may crave this sort of thing. It's a way of sort of "love bombing" people into the group. For some it may give them a feeling of "family" that they may just not be getting where they're at.

    Again, with religion it's 99% emotion and 1% rationalization.

    1. I didn't think of the "love bombing" side of it.

    2. Oh no, Sheldon ! I was gonna hug you really tight when I saw you! Damn
      It is a gesture of closeness typical of social oriented cultures. When I first lived in the US (I'm a one kisser though) I would kiss everyone I met but not for long because I felt resistance every time :P
      In Argentina even male (friends kiss each other when they meet. My American English teacher suggested respecting about an arms length of personal space to avoid rejection

    3. I didn't know that about Argentina. What's the norm in Australia?

  3. I'm an introvert and hate the small chat time. Incidently during my Calvinist time, the reformed church didn't do that because the pastor believed it was not holy, lol. So ever since then I appreciate the church who at least don't think it's legalistic to have small chat time.

    1. I have noticed that introverts make the best bloggers :)

      The small talk time I don't mind, it's no worse than the pointless social traditions that I have to deal with every day, and don't fully understand or find singleness, lol.

      There are several people there that I actually do care about, and don't get to see them often outside of that church. It's the constant touching that aggravates me.

  4. Come to New England, the Land of Good Fences Make Good Neighbors.

  5. I think in part this has to do with differences in culture, temperment, and personality. My son recently returned from a trip to a culture where just about everyone greeted him with a kiss on the cheek.

    I tend to be a more physically affectionate, touchy feely type person myself. But, I've come to see more clearly that everyone is different, and some folks really do see touching and hugs as an invasion of their personal space rather than as an expression of caring and friendliness.

    So, I think it's important to be honest if something makes you feel uncomfortable.

    Also, if it's ok to ask, what has led you to be "an undercover agnostic?" It would seem more prudent on the surface not to place yourself in these uncomfortable situations in the churches. Are you doing research?


    1. Hi, Rebecca. Right now, there's many different factors involved in why I haven't come out about being an agnostic. I'm a former fundamentalist. I'm trying to get my life back together, and deal with my depression and possible autism, all while being in the process of rebuilding a house so I can move into it and break free from an abusive family member.

      Instead of me going into more detail in this comment, I'll link to some posts that will explain it further:

      Thanks for stopping by, Rebecca, it seems like you are a new reader here, I hope you stick around.

    2. Thanks Sheldon. I will check out some of the posts.

  6. I know exactly what you mean. I have a group of people that I dont mind touching me on the shoulder or back. My direct family and my girlfriend. It makes my skin crawl when someone else does it, even if it is with good intent I have my space and stay out.

  7. Hi Sheldon, it's interesting that you say you don't like being touched as this can often be a sign of sensory integration disorder, which is very commonly associated with the autistic spectrum. My son has it although he's hyposensitive when it comes to personal contact (will happily invade people's personal space and loves deep pressure contact) but is hypersensitive when it comes to many other touch sensations ( I have to remove labels from his clothes, avoid certain fabrics and he prefers to be barefoot if at all possible).
    It might be worth looking into :)

    1. Yes, it is very common with autistics, either they can't stand touch entirely, or can only find it bearable under certain contexts, or with certain people.

    2. I have been wondering if I am autistic lately, and in the coming months, I will talk to a professional about it. I've beeen on the site Wrong Planet recently, it's a forum for autistic people and their family/lovers, and what people people are saying there is making wonder even more.

      So much of what they have experienced, I have as well, it's really making me curious.


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