Covid-19 Pandemic And Social Distancing: The Theory Of Proxemics

At the height of the global reach of the novel virus, Covid-19, came some of the now already accepted measures to limit its human-to-human transmission. Aside frequent handwashing with soap under tap water, the use of hand sanitizer, the use of protective face mask, etc, it has also been recommended that people in public spaces observe some distance apart while interacting.

This distance so created limits the extent of social interaction (removes handshakes, hugging, standing near the mouth of others) in order to protect an uninfected person from receiving droplets coming from a cough or sneeze of the infected person conversing with them, or picking the virus through handshakes. Indeed, this particular measure has helped "flatten the curve" of the pandemic in many countries. But the option of social distancing wasn't a difficult task to arrive at.

Social distancing had already been a part of the study of human communication. Social distancing is found in the theory earlier suggested by Edward T. Hall. This theory is known as Proxemics. Simply put, "Proxemics is a theory of non-verbal communication that explains how people perceive and use space to achieve communication goals". Edward T. Hall, the cultural anthropologist who coined the term in 1963, defined proxemics as "the interrelated observations and theories of humans use of space as a specialized elaboration of culture". In his foundational work on proxemics,

The Hidden Dimension, Hall emphasized the impact of proxemic behavior (the use of space) on interpersonal communication. According to Hall, the study of proxemics is valuable in evaluating not only the way people interact with others in daily life, but also "the organization of space in [their] houses and buildings, and ultimately the layout of [their] towns" - Source: Wikipedia. Communication is so important to we humans, yet for some individuals encroaching into their space and privacy isn't allowed. And the Covid-19 pandemic really strengthened such rules. But it's different strokes for different folks.

At the on-set of the use of social distancing as a health precautionary measure many felt the denial it brought to the hitherto enjoyed cultural ways of communicating which largely involves touching and closeness. The African culture has been impacted the most. Yet this feeling of hurt may have been as a result of not being aware of the theory of proxemics. According to Edward Hall, there are 4 distinct boundaries that form our individual spaces.

First is the intimate distance which is open to touching, embracing, whispering while communicating. This distance is measured between 1cm to 46cm. Next to intimate distance is the personal distance with a boundary of 46cm to 122cm for interactions among good friends, family members, etc.

Beyond personal distance is social distance that is only open to acquaintances and group members, colleagues, etc. It extends between 1.2m to 3.7m. Finally, we have public distance. This is a distance in use in public environments while doing public speaking, teaching, etc. It ranges over 3.7m in measure. This different distances influences and builds our seemingly imaginary territories. Territories are designed to provide comfort for their owners and also produce anxiety within intruders.

There is a popular expression that goes thus: "too close for comfort". In it, there is an expression of discomfort or a feeling of threat coming from an event or action. In some cultures, there can be a communication approach that feels intrusive in nature, but this may not be the case elsewhere. Example is an unconsented touching of a lady, which can be taken to be an act of sexual assault. Here, proxemics has set the standard for acceptable communication behaviours. The above example is not a hostile reaction from the lady. You see, though during a social interaction there may be no intention to harm or a possibility of being harmed (like in being molested) but some interactions are safe being conducted from a preferred distance as set by the other person.

Social distancing as a health precaution in this era of a global pandemic may have brought us some form of enlightenment regarding proxemics but its importance should outlive the pandemic. To respect the communication boundaries set by individuals other than us is a responsibility we owe them. We will keep many of our relationships alive if only we will learn to observe and obey the level of closeness permitted by the individual on the other end. Never let familiarity push you to disrespect the communication boundaries in your relationships. And the safest way to approach communication will be to always observe how comfortable others are when you seek to interact with them. Maintain your distance and enjoy every distance afforded you.

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