Too close

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.

19876A7D-220A-4838-B222-ED0E0C5C0D44For 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) 

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26 thoughts on “Too close

  1. Anjali Bansal says:

    Very good write up and choice of topic. I was going through pics of last Sunday…..45cm…..Really…..Naaaa

    Keep doing gud and cloze things.

    1. Manju Gupta says:

      Ha ha Anjali Bansal…..good point….but those figures are for Vilayat….we were very much in apna desh…..gharaunda with a soft d is still desi
      Loved your observation ‘seven in 45 cm’….but we are cloje? Aren’t we?

  2. Ranjana Parihar says:

    Interesting …… Personal space .. It’s still an alien word for majority of us Indians . There is a famous joke when asking by a wife some personal space in a joint family, the husband created a corner for her.. anyway jokes apart, it’s an interesting topic and situation which most of us come across many times. And living in this over populated country , managing even 45 cm distance is a big issue

    1. Manju Gupta says:

      Thanks Ranjana ….yes we crave space….I am glad you found the topic relevant

  3. Dr Kavita Katoch says:

    Wonderful article n knowing d exact distance needed in developed countries
    though I feel closeness gives warmth n affection of course wd very close friends n family
    n in d modern world need some distance even in our own country…remember movie highway ..d end of it pl do c if not seen…

    1. Manju Gupta says:

      Thanks for your input didi….have seen highway …will see it again on your recommendation….it is advice from people like you and Manju Puri that got me through medical college!

  4. Sunil Sethi says:

    Nicely described an entity new to hear in our zone of globe.Personal space.During history taking I was asking the colour of stool from an old lady suspecting malaena.She stared at me minus my face for a moment,pulled her stool near me ,touched a part of my multi coloured sweater and said”Exaztly like this”.Since then I have stopped wearing that sweater

    1. Manju Gupta says:

      Ha ha…so believable….but why shun the sweater? It got better with the Haryanvi touch

  5. Dr Anita Jain says:

    interesting write up,loved the haryanvi touch and look too

    1. Manju Gupta says:

      Thanks Anita for your feedback

  6. Rohini sehgal says:

    Excellent write up
    Working in a crowded OPD, someone breathing down your neck,accidental brushing etc is so normal that sometimes one forgets to draw a line in places other than work area.

    1. Manju Gupta says:

      Very true rainy… we are conditioned to overlook intrusive behaviour

  7. Mitra Saxena says:

    Once again a heart winning warm writeup.
    Today I got a loving hug from my old patient who had accompanied her younger sister also my patient ,both had come for getting my opinion….and Nisha hugged me with moist eyes saying I looked up the Internet and saw you are back in action.last year our family was stunned to know about you ..
    I do believe that it’s the love respect and trust of our patients our well wishers that we tide over our roughest rides…

    Concept of spaces is so true …too.
    I guess this is the genuine East West divide..

    1. Manju Gupta says:

      Thanks mitra for your comments….they were like a warm hug as always

  8. Dr Manju Puri says:

    You amaze me Manju. Beautifully written article. Irrespective of where you come from there is a difference between voluntary and involuntary closeness Jaadu ki jappi has its unique flavour of bonding but undesirable closeness people maintain in public transport: buses metros and queues can be as distressing as seeing someone spitting in open.

    1. Manju Gupta says:

      Thanks Manju. Appreciation from you means a lot to me. Yes, voluntary vs involuntary closeness is not the same. But the need for space varies across cultures and countries.

  9. Dr R P Gupta says:

    Read your recent article in Tribune. You see customers in public utility places jostling for space with scant sense about the discomfort for others. Could be due to the hidden feeling that they will be left behind . The the article is well written.

    1. Manju Gupta says:

      Thanks daddy. Never thought of it that way…but yes it could be the insecurity of being an Indian which makes us crowd counters…..kahin khatam na ho jaye, khirki band na ho jaye!

      1. Anju Singh says:

        The most embellished statement is-“a matter of cultural differences and personal preferences….” nicely described the distinction between space and personal space , the dividing line therein and the impact of intrusion …well observed and well compiled… three cheers again
        when we are surrounded by people due to lack of space, we act smart and pose aloof ‘ by avoiding eye contact and pretending to be preoccupied……,but when we are given space,..perhaps beyond personal space …,we automatically get surrounded by loneliness….,this is Ironical…
        What matters is the dividing line….and that dividing line varies according to “cultural differences and personal preferences “ … marked by you. And i love this expression

        1. Mitra Saxena says:

          Very right ..

  10. Suman Bishnoi says:

    Beautifully written piece.. your article in the tribune makes the newspaper interesting now…
    Now something about you which I wanted to share…We were traveling to Chandigarh with Ma’am (Dr)Sushila Rathee to attend a conference in 1992 .She told us a story about you when we were crossing ur town Gharaunda (I like it with soft d )….Story will be told to you personally….
    After that every time I crossed Gharaunda …Dr Rathee’s story crossed my mind…
    I never realised then that I would be fascinated by your writing skills…
    Now waiting for your next article in * The Tribune*..

    1. Manju Gupta says:

      Thank you Suman di for not sharing the story here…heh heh…if it came from can’t be too good. I was neither too conscientious nor hardworking( qualities which she herself possessed and appreciated in others). She never hid her disappointment that I didn’t reach my potential. And although she didn’t know….I did learn a lot from her….and became the best I could be
      Your comment that my article made the newspaper interesting is a gross exaggeration….but I enjoyed every word of it. Thank you so much.

  11. Suman Bishnoi says:

    Dear she always had a word of praise for you…You will appreciate that once I tell you …
    And my writing that ur article makes The Tribune more interesting is no exaggeration….It’s a fact…

    1. Manju Gupta says:

      Thank you Suman di…you are very kind. Hoping to meet you soon

  12. Dr Vandana Pahuja says:

    lovely artical manju…just got down to read it completely…so true…for indians moreso for haryanvis…ha ha …there is no imaginary line of sanctity here…we could cross over peoples arms to pass or get things even in a queue or in a buffet …where touching inadvertently happens…so normal it is…no sorrys ,no apologies most times…we are so used to it…being hugged by patients moms and patients pulling their chairs to come closer to your OPD chair is all too normal here and we just take it in a stride…and don’t mind ha ha

    1. Manju Gupta says:

      Ha ha….the buffet scene you painted is so real….I had almost forgotten it..all this makes us so Indian….and specifically Haryanvi

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