While walking down the street I noticed another pedestrian, who was ahead of me, accidentally dropping his wallet. I did not stare at this wallet, of course, but it wasn't hard to notice that it looked quite valuable: it was pretty thick and had both documents and money.

I said 'Excuse me!' but I got no reaction: this man had an enormous headset on his head and was failing to notice anything around him. To get his attention I had to speed up, walk in front of him, prevent him the road and wave my hand in front of his eyes. By doing this I clearly invaded his personal space, as I closed my distance to him considerably.

As soon as I got his attention I pointed his lost wallet to him and then, when he lunged to collect it, I left.

My question is: How to handle such situations so that I don't break societal norms and even more importantly, don't put myself to risk of being mistaken for a criminal.

One of the main sets of rules about shared space involve how closely we approach a stranger. Depending on the circumstances, it can range from five feet or more to inches. In an office lobby, you don’t come closer than five feet to strangers. However, in a crowded elevator we pull in those boundaries, sometimes to mere inches. We unconsciously know what is and what isn’t an acceptable distance in public and for the situation.

An unwarranted violation of these rules is a serious danger sign. For a criminal to be successful, he must break the unwritten social code and get close enough to violate your personal space. He has to do this to control you. A knife at two feet is a threat -- from there he leaves you no choice. But if he’s 10 feet away, you can run. He doesn’t have control. Therefore, in order for him to succeed, he has to approach you -- and in doing so, break the social codes.

Become a stickler for distance etiquette when you are in public -- do NOT let people approach you at inappropriate times. Unless you are in a line, crowded elevator or a crowd, don’t let anyone get closer than five feet. In a deserted parking lot, it’s 10 feet or more. That is your space, and he has no right to be there. If he tries to close, move wide. This will show you if it is an intentional or unintentional invasion. If you move and he continues on his way, it was unintentional. If he again veers towards you, be assured the invasion is intentional.

The above quote comes from Marc MacYoung's site nononsenseselfdefense.com, page Personal and shared space § Shared Space distance rules and crime. Reading this site made me think that my invading his personal space to get his attention was a serious matter. I fear that there are people who would react violently in such a situation, believing I might be trying to attack them.

I am especially interested in an answer that would compare how the situation is in Europe and how it is in the USA. This is because this happened in Europe, but one of the main sources of my fears that I did something very wrong - the above-quoted website - seems to be US-based. I was told that while what I did was OK in Europe (I clearly did this guy a favor, if I didnt do this he would have made himself a major loss), the same behavior on my part would be absolutely unacceptable in America, because by doing this I would have put myself into a grave and very real risk of being convicted for theft attempt - and that is even if I did not invade his personal space but just pointed his lost wallet to him from a safe distance. Is this accurate?

2 Answers 2


In this type of situation, I would've picked up the wallet while calling out "Excuse me, sir!", jogged to catch up to him and tapped the side of his arm with the wallet. I'd expect him to stop and turn and realize you were handing him his property. (As noted in comments, calling out to him as you pick up the wallet will signal to him, if he can hear you, and others that you are trying to help him and have no ill intentions)

Yes, you invade his personal space but since he was clearly not going to hear you call to him, you have to use another way to get his attention.

Using the wallet to physically touch him is a different feel than poking or tapping him with your finger, not to mention, you are touching him with his personal property instead of touching him yourself. Tapping the side of the arm is also a common invasion of space while out walking versus having someone tap your shoulder or jump in front of you.

Could he become startled, yes, but people are often bumped and brushed against while walking on the street or in public spaces so people have become accustomed to accept that our space may be invaded at times in public areas and in such situations, I'm sure, it is welcomed. You could've easily slipped the wallet into your own pocket but you chose to give it back to him, can't imagine anyone being ungrateful for such a gesture.


You did exactly the right thing. You got the person's attention, pointed out the problem, while avoiding any action that would make it appear that you were a thief. Getting into someone's personal space does violate a societal norm, but unsolicited touching of someone else's personal property is an even bigger violation. I recently done similar actions to point out dropped money, where I had to intrude on someone else's "space", and I'm positive I acted correctly.

As a person who has lived in various parts of the USA all my life, I find the quoted text to not match my experience. Sure, in a deserted parking lot at night, I'd be careful about people passing by, but the idea that people have to veer to be apart by 10 feet is not what I've experienced.

In your case you were trying to get their attention, by waving and probably pointing at the wallet. Criminals who are planning on attacking are generally not going to be trying to attract attention.


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