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Nothing is Sacred: Why Reading Over Your Shoulder Annoys You

Nothing is Sacred: Why Reading Over Your Shoulder Annoys You
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Palina Dolia

It happened to each of us. You cram into a crowded subway car, you can hardly find a free space to fit at least your head, a book is in your hands, you open it – after all, you stopped at the most interesting moment, how can you not read it? That is when it happens. Someone else's curious glance slides over the pages, the uninvited reader almost puffs in your ear – what an audacity! Although... What's the big deal? Why does a glance at someone else's book, thrown by a fellow passenger, awaken so much anger and irritation in us? Let's try to figure out.

To do this, let's return to the crowded subway car. A stranger shamelessly reads a book with you, and for some reason it completely kills all attempts to focus on the text. Maybe the point is that you see this uninvited reader for the first time. Unlikely: a loved one looking over your shoulder is often as annoying as a stranger is. A more realistic view. In the end, such ignorance can be forgiven, if it’s a stranger: maybe he grew up in a family where books are prohibited, and such peeping is his only chance to read at least something other than store signs. But someone close to you should know how annoying reading over your shoulder is. Therefore, in such a situation, it infuriates not only peeping, but also frantic disrespect for your reader's feelings.

Then, the problem is still not the person who peeps. And hardly a place: reading in transport in any other situation can be quite comfortable. So where do you look for the answers? As usual, in the library, and more specifically – in scientific papers (yes, scientists have researched even this).

Carl Sagan compared reading to "time travel", and Descartes called "reading all good books conversation with the finest men of past centuries.." If you share their opinion by at least a third, then you will probably agree that such a sacred process should not be interrupted. After all, what kind of time traveler would tolerate an uninvited companion who silently squeezes into his capsule with the expectation of "seeing a little too"? Yeah. But, of course, the irritation from interrupted reading has its origins in the very human core – from the biological side.


Let's turn to the research of psychologist Madeleine Roantree and the lab monkeys. To begin with, the space around you is called peripheral. Studies have shown a curious fact: when the object entered the peripheral space of a resting monkey, it reflexively tried to defend itself against it by closing its face, eyes, and crossing its arms. Nonetheless, it was not about the need to protect its monkey life – in this case, closed eyes wouldn't be the only reaction. Here it was all about disturbing the peace.

Privacy as such is one of the important parts of a large complex of spatial human behaviour. Even relationships between people are built on this. Have you ever wondered how close you allow others to approach you? Surely, a friend standing close to you is much more comfortable than a stranger who breathes down the back of your head. In fact, this distance is an imaginary bubble that changes its size depending on the environment. Why do we need it in the first place? Like everything in the human body, it is needed so as not to die prematurely. To limit physical contact (you don't know this person, what if he or she is contagious?); to regulate the stimuli that people exchange. Distance between you and the person you are talking to is also a form of non-verbal communication. If you keep a two-meter distance from your colleague over and over again and prefer to raise your voice over coming closer a step, he may suspect that you have absolutely no sympathy for him. In general, all for the sake of controlling intraspecific aggression.

What have books to do with it? Reading itself is a popular and very personal way to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life, so any intervention in it invariably leads to stress. Much more than when somebody spies on you while you are watching TV or exploring the world of computer games. After all, a book is, first of all, solitude. Just you and the letters on paper, no extraneous sounds and unnecessary movements. Watching TV is often associated with communication: we all discuss the movie right in the process, without waiting for the end credits. Of course, this will not work with books.


Another important difference in reading is that we tend to project much more personal experiences and opinions onto books. Movies and computer games have a vivid visual sequence, allowing the consumer to relax, almost spoon-fed with the necessary emotions. The book is black on white, words with which you are left alone. Reading requires more concentration; it makes you think about the lines, interpret them in your own way, and this, in turn, leads to another interesting effect: we become more vulnerable to social rejection if other people understand the book in a completely different way than you do. Talking about what you read is usually a much more personal process than talking about a movie – even though movies can also be deep, multifaceted, and ambiguous.

So, any peeping into a book over the shoulder feels as if the uninvited reader can thus reveal our vulnerable parts, get to the bottom of our deepest thoughts, crawl into the soul right in the dirty shoes. After all, we are very jealous of the books in our hands. This is our story; go make your own.

In transport, cafes and even libraries, people always strive to look into your book. So what do we do? Hide, of course. The National Library, by the way, is full of secluded places. If you have nowhere to hide, and you read mostly in electronic format, get yourself a "scarecrow book" on the carrier – something frankly unpleasant or insanely boring. Boring books work even better: after all, Sullivan 's "I Spit on Your Graves" is still far more interesting than a textbook on thermal engineering or "Low-Melting Glazes for Wall and Household Ceramics."

In other words, we get annoyed with reading over our shoulder just because we are protecting the world in our head and heart. And there is nothing obnoxious about it. Especially during rush hour.

Internet Portal Maintenance Department


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