This morning I was reminded of one of my favorite tidbits of information from college: the concept of proxemics. I was standing in the store after CrossFit, waiting to pay for my protein drink, and an older gentleman was standing uncomfortably close behind me. If I shifted, he shifted closer too. When it was my turn at the counter, he shuffled behind me, almost as if we were together. He asked the woman at the counter a question in a thick accent, and finally I understood. He wasn’t being creepy. He was being from somewhere else.
I learned about Proxemics in a Sociology class. It’s the study of the differences in culturally accepted interpersonal distance. In the United States, we fall around the middle of the range. In Scandinavia, for example, they prefer more space between people. In the Middle East, less, standing in ways we would find uncomfortably close. My textbook told a story of an American diplomat and a Saudi Arabian one having a conversation in a long hall. By the end of it they were at the opposite end of the hall, because as the American perceived the Saudi was too close, he’d inch back subconsciously. The Saudi, uneasy with the distance, also subconsciously, would inch forward.
We learn culture as children in a thousand different ways from before we’re even aware of it. Turns out this includes in how much personal space we need. And it varies within a culture, too, depending on where and with whom you are. There is the space we’re comfortable with in the public sphere – why it feels weird if someone comes right up to you at the mall, for example – and the space we’re comfortable with in the personal sphere. We let people like lovers in closest, fine with all manner of touch we would find highly objectionable from anyone else. And, as any mother of a toddler can attest to, when you have kids you lose all personal space as it relates to them. (My two grown humans will still tickle-bomb the heck out of me no matter how indignant I try to get over it).
I even run into a subtle cultural disconnect of my own when it comes to proxemics. My people are kissers. We greet each other hello with a kiss on the cheek and sometimes a warm hug, and say goodbye the same way. I have learned that Americans, by and large, are not this way, and have learned to modulate accordingly. But when in a mixed group – other Latinos and some Americans too, in the sweep of giving hugs and kisses to people, I’ve sometimes forgotten to skip the American, and watched them stiffen up awkwardly and kiss the air. In their world, I was like the too-close old guy of this morning, invading space without even meaning to.
And I’ve often wondered if there’s a proxemics of aging, too. I find that the older I get, the less I tolerate people cutting me off or standing too close to me on line. I didn’t used to mind as much in my teens and twenties. So may the old “get off my lawn” cry of grumpy old age is just a need for more space as we get older?
Anyway, the point is that in understanding our fellow humans, let’s remember we all come from different places, with different life experiences. That creepy guy at the store may not be trying to get fresh. He may just be from somewhere else.