PROXIMITY IN A TIME OF PHYSICAL DISTANCING
Updated: Oct 14
After six months of physical distancing based on guidelines from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has staying six-feet-apart in public spaces become routine?
From supermarket lines, outdoor parks, to doctor visits, new regulations are in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, most of us have run into the uncomfortable, perhaps awkward situation where a stranger (or even a friend) is closer than six feet to us. As for myself, growing up as an Ecuadorian-American in a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Miami, FL, staying six feet apart is not the cultural norm. I am used to greeting new friends with a kiss on the cheek or touching someone's shoulder when speaking with them. As the pandemic progresses, I am navigating new ways to communicate with my loved ones in a safe and physically-distant manner.
A long-term solution might be using new technology as the 2020 NBA Bubble has done. Players and staff wore a small device that served as an audio alarm whenever they are less than six feet from another person for longer than five seconds. Unfortunately, this technology isn't widely available to the American public at this time. So, what can we do instead?
Here is where Proxemics comes in. Proxemics is a non-verbal communication theory that describes how people perceive and use space to achieve communication goals. Proxemics is the study of the effects of different ranges of Proximity between individuals. Simply put, it allows us to observe and understand the types of relationships people have to one another based on their body's placement within a space. If preserving six feet distance between strangers is the new normal, Proxemics can provide great insight into why it might be challenging to keep physically distant from others and how we can change our habits to be mindful of these new practices. Never before has the world faced a crisis that is begging us all to cooperate to survive.
Main Takeaways from Proxemic Theory
The American anthropologist, Edward Hall, developed Proxemics' theory in his book, The Silent Language. Below are the most relevant points he made in context to our brave, new COVID world. Edward Hall explains that we understand relationships based on observing proximity people keep between one another. When we see people holding hands as they walk down the street, they are in an intimate Proximity and, therefore, can assume they are comfortable being close to one another. If I speak to a coworker at an office, we recognize unspoken space between our bodies since we know each other from a professional setting. Edward Hall would call this personal or social amount of distance from one another. While sitting on a bench in a big open park, I would not expect anyone to sit or stand right next to me due to the ample space available. Hall describes this as a public distance since we are among strangers in public.
Keeping six feet of distance when spending time with friends, family, or even acquaintances is challenging. As humans, we are social creatures, and maintaining physical distance lacks a sense of intimacy and connection and goes against our communicative impulses.
Furthermore, Edward Hall points out that proximity preferences differ based on culture because proxemic behavior is learned through observation rather than instruction. Although with globalization and social media, culture might no longer be a driving factor behind how close or far people choose to be. The fact that proxemic behavior is learned from observing others indicates that it is challenging to wake up one morning and remain six-feet apart from a passerby on sidewalks. On the other hand, the more often we see people staying physically distant, the easier it will become to adapt to our new normal and change our habits.
Lastly, Edward Hall writes that Americans generally prefer 18 inches of personal space. This translates into one and a half feet or one-quarter of CDC's recommendation! It is of no surprise that many people are struggling to adapt to this new way of interacting.
How can we build (self-)awareness to stay physically distant?
1. The Golden Rule: Respect others as much as you do yourself.
To defeat the global pandemic, we must work together and respect one another. Becoming aware that the health of those around us impacts our health can serve as a gentle reminder always to wear our masks and maintain a six-foot distance. Businesses and shops have been encouraging six-foot distance with markings, tape, and stickers on their floors. Take a moment to notice them. Through mutual respect, we can internalize the physical distancing norms.
2. Cultural awareness and understanding
As Edward Hall stated in the Theory of Proxemics, people from different cultures might have different preferences in the amount of space they keep with others. Take time to be culturally aware. Our neighbors might have been raised with different practices and physical boundaries. If you sense someone encroaching on your space, craft a kind statement you can use to make them aware they might be a bit too close. More often than not, they are not aware of their surroundings and will be happy to move for your comfort. If you find yourself on the receiving end of this comment, try to show empathy and understanding. We never know what others are going through personally. They might live with immunocompromised or elderly relatives, or perhaps are themselves immunodeficient.
If you ever fall into the situation where someone is closer to you than you would like (and unfortunately for us, we don't have the cool NBA social distancing alarms), take a mindful moment. Being conscious that we are struggling through the COVID pandemic together can energize us to stay healthy and physically distant for the good of ourselves and our neighbors.
4. Self-Awareness: Actively use your senses to take in the information around you.
Most importantly, look, listen, and be aware. When you are aware of yourself and sensing the situation you are in, you will be more capable of actively staying six feet apart. It's similar to driving a car. It's imperative to keep distance between yourself and the vehicle ahead for everyone's safety on the road. We are now being asked to bring that same level of attention and sensory perception into everyday life.
We do not know how much longer we will need to stay physically distant. However, we do know that the earlier we can intentionally adapt to our new normal, the faster we can return to a non-physically distant world. There are times when I am exhausted and overwhelmed by new COVID regulations, even though they in place for our benefit. I now offer up elbow bumps and waves instead of goodbye hugs these days. It is a challenge to keep it up and remain physically distant from my friends and family. What gives me momentum is looking ahead to days when we will be able to hug one another freely and for me, when I will be able to go Latin dancing (and not be afraid to dance with new faces!).