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Changing room incident shows new attitudes toward privacy among younger generations
By Doug Young

I had to smile to myself when I read areport this week on a mini-scandal at alocal H&M clothing store, involving an overeager security guard who pulled open a fitting room curtain without checking first to see if anyone was inside. The guard quickly discoveredthere was a woman trying on clothes in the small space, prompting the womanto complain about the intrusion.

The woman’s age in this case was quite revealing. At just 22 years old, she was clearly quite a bit younger than many Chinese who grew up with an entirely different concept of priva-cy. That was what prompted my smile,since people from that older genera- tion probably would have considered the guard’s behavior quite ordinary and hardly cause for complaint.

The case shines a spotlight on the broader issue of privacy, and how the Chinese concepts of privacy and per- sonal space have changed radically with the country’s rapid moderniza-tion. But since an individual’s conceptof privacy is usually formed at youth and doesn’t really change much after that, this kind of clash between the woman and guard is almost inevitable.

Many Westerners often struggle withthe huge differences between their own concepts of privacy and those of some people in China. The difference is especially pronounced when it in-volves people from the generation thatgrew up in extremely crowded condi- tions, where the concept of personal space was nearly non-existent.

To those people, pretty much any- thing you did was considered a public affair. Anyone from that era probably kept their feelings to themselves if they had any qualms about others who did things like asking personal questions about their love life or per- forming personal acts like urinating in public. But more likely everyone just learned to ignore such behaviorbecause it was relatively common backthen, and persists today even in big cities like Shanghai.

The case that got me thinking about changing concepts of privacy occurredlast week, and didn’t seem all that unusual. The H&M guard, whose age wasn’t specified, probably thought hewas just doing his job when he openeda fitting room curtain without check- ing first to see if someone was inside. He later said he was simply checking for discarded hangers for reuse in the store.

If I was the person inside that room Iwould have probably been mildly sur- prised, and then politely asked the guard to leave and come back when Iwas finished. But this woman who was born in the 1990s was obviously moreoffended by the guard’s intrusion andcomplained to the store, which said it would suggest changes to the fit- ting room design to avoid such future conflicts.

The story reminded me of an un-pleasant encounter I had while stayingat a downscale but relatively ordi- nary hotel in Shaoguan, Guangdong Province in 1989. The case involved a particularly persistent floor atten- dant who woke me up one morning at around 7am with a series of rapid knocks on my door. I didn’t get out of bed, and simply yelled for her to go away before going back to sleep.

But when she came back a half hourlater and started pounding on the dooragain, I decided enough was enough. I dragged myself out of bed wearing only my underwear, and opened the door to confront her directly. The sight of my nearly naked body must have startled her, and she quietly left and never bothered me again during my stay.

New feelings

Fast forward to the present, where that kind of behavior is thankfully mostly a relic of the past, even in smaller cities.

But similar types of behavior still persist, such as the time one of my older nosy neighbors wandered into my apartment uninvited and nearly scared me to death when I left the front door open one day after coming home from work.

Then there are the people who walk up and stand just an inch or two in front of you when you’re waiting for a subway or the traffic light to change on a street corner, oblivious to the fact that they’ve just blocked out your entire field of vision and intruded strongly into what many Westerners would consider their personal space.

While the H&M scandal was some- what amusing and also revealing, it was also quite encouraging to me. That’s because it showed that many younger people are beginning to take their privacy more seriously and complain when they feel violated by inappropriate intrusions.

If I were advising H&M, I would suggest they tackle this kind of problem through education of store employees and not just suggest mechanical changes like changing the fitting room’s design. Such an approach would not only prevent similar intrusions in the future, but would also create a more comfort- able living place for everyone in a crowded city like Shanghai. 

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