At an Airport recently, I was standing in queue, minding my own business when the lady in front of me turned around and gave me the look. A little confused at first, I realised I had inadvertently crossed an imaginary line and wandered into her territory. A matter of cultural differences and personal preferences, the dimensions of this space change as we cross international borders. It is the largest in the USA where people like to keep strangers at an arms length, a few inches less in Europe and much lesser in over populated South Eastern Asia. The affluent require more space and so do the aged. Also, men need it more than woman.
For us Indians this concept doesn’t come instinctively. This is because we spend our lives in crowded places where body contact is not unusual and someone breathing down the neck is normal. We are conditioned to ignore the unintentional brushing of arms, even the occasional push and shove.
Sanctity of boundaries is a alien concept and is scientifically called Proxemics. It is the study of use of space and the effects of population density on human behaviour, communication, and social interaction. Personal space is the region surrounding a person which they regard as psychologically theirs. This imaginary bubble is created in childhood and its size varies with location. Permitting a person to enter it is an indicator of familiarity. According to Edward T. Hall a pioneer in this field, the space can be divided into four zones. An intimate zone of 45 cms is reserved for close friends and family members. Outside this is the 1.2 metre friend zone, the acceptable distance for interaction with friends and associates. Further away at 3.6 metres is the social zone for strangers and new acquaintances. The outermost is the audience zone and is the distance to be maintained for speeches, lectures, and theatre. While Hall insists that these measurements are not strict guidelines I was surprised to know that such numbers exist.
As I delved deeper I found the reason for ‘Elevator Facies’, the body language we encounter when forced to share confined spaces with others. Personal space is considered the most inviolate form of territory so most people feel discomfort, anger or anxiety when it is encroached. When cooped up with strangers, people desperately fight this violation by using dehumanisation as a tool. So in places like public transport and elevators they imagine the intruders to be inanimate. This is achieved by avoiding eye contact, keeping an expressionless face, standing rigidly stiff and acting preoccupied. So it seems that staring at the ceiling or acting engrossed in your phone while using the lift is just an inborn defence mechanism.
Being a Haryanvi by choice I tend to forget this unwritten rule of modern society. I have spent most of my life in this state where personal space is neither expected nor extended. If people are interested they will look, not just a furtive glance but the unabashed gawk. If they are curious they will ask, not just a discrete question but a detailed interrogation. If they have an opinion they will give it whether or not you have asked for it. Packed like sardines in tempos and buses the idea of empty space between individuals is incomprehensible. To them maintaining distance means being aloof and perhaps uncaring.
Things are changing though. As unbelievable as it seems there was a time when patients would walk into our living room to watch Ramayana on Sunday mornings. Now there are few occasions when we watch TV together as a family. With diverse viewing preferences and individual screens everyone is trapped in their own bubble. Perhaps we need to define the thin line between being obnoxiously intrusive and completely self involved. The trials and tribulations of human existence cannot be seen from a distance. Proximity brings emotional attachment and empathy, the prerequisite for any functioning society. As Charlie Chaplin famously said,”Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long shot. “
One of my patients said something similar a few days back. It happens rarely now, but some of my elderly patients still touch me to show me where it hurts. When I told her that she could demonstrate on her own body she innocently said, “ Nyu zyada bera paatega “ ( You will be able to understand better like this). Ordinary….yet so profound!
( published in my Column ‘ So Ordinary’ in the Tribune on 3/2/2018)