BY JANINE WHITE: CULTURE EDITOR
The concept of personal space, or proxemics, has been dedicated research for many years and until recently there was an agreed understanding about what is needed to keep that space safe. Imagine a dartboard, the centre area that players want to reach but only a few manage; whether by fluke or by building a relationship with the dart. This is intimate space; that bit immediately around you, the space that allows your children but no one else to pop onto your lap for a story, a partner to swipe a mischievous kiss, a sister to hug you. Then there is the social space. This space is when you meet your friends and acquaintances, the space where you are close enough to have the germs from their sneeze reach you, to hear what they say without straining, to be able to pass them a cuppa, to sit on the same settee. This is the four to twelve feet zone. The numbers that many people can make on the dart board. The area that signifies that you are getting points but not quite right for the intimacy. Next, the public space, the distance for when you do not know who the person is. The woman walking her dog, the man waiting at the bus stop, the area off the dartboard.
Have you been sat in your office and someone has come and sat right next to you at your desk? Gradually and trying not to be noticed, do you shuffle your chair backwards to say whoa there, back up? If they move closer still, what are you thinking? What are you feeling? Are your anxieties growing, is your brain in overdrive? Are you wondering how much further back you can go before you get trapped and must put up with the presence intruding on your space? When you are stood in a queue at the post office and someone brushes your back with their handbag, do you turn to see who it is? After all, only someone you know could be that close! When you are walking your dog on the lead and someone decides to walk at the same pace as you so that you walk down the path side by side. Are you trying to speed up or slow down so that there will be more distance?
There are a variety of studies which conclude that there is a hard wired buffer zone around the human body that protects it from danger, putting a feeling of safety around it, meaning that beings can run or move if there is aggression or other threat towards them. Countless researchers have found that stress hormones are released, blood pressure raises and heart rate increases, when this buffer is breached.
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Investigations show that people who are tall or wide believe that they deserve extra space, trespassing as a sign of dominance. Several scientists propose that it is a form of aggression. Others put forward that some people have never learnt the rules of society surrounding the subject. As an alternative, a selection of inquiries advocate that it is a sign of disrespect and that you do not deserve your own space. Either way, this is a way for someone to attempt to invade your territory, a way to prove that they know more, deserve more, are bigger than you. It is fighting talk, a way to challenge you into submission. Therefore, in Britain, society chooses to listen to their gut instincts and keep the expanse between bodies empty. By following this norm an equilibrium is achieved that allows the day to go smoothly.
This anxiety when our surroundings are breached happens every day, in a ‘normal’ world, where coughs, colds, bad breath and guarding your territory were what you were worrying about. Now there is something even bigger. COVID-19 is on the loose. More than ever people are aware of how important personal space is.
Britain is known for cultural practices that are unlike others. The British traditions are going to the pub for a good drink at the weekend to relax after a hard week at work, British culture says that whatever has happened a cup of tea will make it all better. It says that shoppers must queue and that a Sunday roast is essential. Consequently, the question raised, is why would a society who queues and stays at home for a family roast take offence at their own traditions being enshrined in law temporarily?
Even though it was a choice, a natural feeling to need space, a physiological requirement, as soon as the government tries to introduce it as a new social culture, bringing it into awareness and placing it as an expectation of society, the bumper that we relied on for survival becomes a debate and something to fight against . Prior to COVID – 19 people listened to their instincts and allowed their bodies to give them the safe space they needed. Now that it is a rule, the people wish to turn against nature so that they can become activists.
Is society feeling uneasy about the social distance because they want to be closer than two meters? Do they want the other dog walkers to be next to them? Or, is it that their anxieties are going haywire because the people who are expected to be off the dart board are suddenly inside it? Is society fighting for a closer proximity when their core systems wish the distance was greater? Is society choosing to fight the government as it is easier to comprehend than fighting their internal, physiological and mental cultures?