Pandemic Proxemics: Is Six Feet Enough?

Before the coronavirus, what was your boundary style?

Posted Apr 09, 2020

Remember the Seinfeld episode about the close talker? In this time of social distancing, it’s worth thinking about how our individual boundary style, as well as our personality, shape our response to public as well as private health.

Boundary style is the characteristic way we behave when encountering other people—friendly or cool, open or closed, wary or welcoming. Our inner and outer boundaries exist on a continuum from rigid to flexible, thick to thin, permeable to impermeable: While inner boundaries separate our thoughts, feelings, and impulses, relational or outer boundaries determine our level of comfort with others, be they family, friends, colleagues, and casual acquaintances.

Although primarily a mental phenomenon, boundaries arise early in life, once the infant realizes that it is a distinct entity, physically separate from its mother. The oceanic feeling Freud described as a sense of oneness disappears, but like a fossil frozen in amber, its trace remains and drives us thereafter, creating a lifelong tension between our conflicting needs for intimacy and independence. 

Both physical and mental boundaries mark a line between where I end and you begin; where my body as well as my thoughts, feelings and impulses are separate from yours. Boundary invasions are those situations in which someone gets too close to us, literally and/or figuratively, whether it’s a stranger on the subway who gets right in our face or a friend who asks a personal question that’s none of their business. 

Spatial boundaries define the invisible bubble around the body that anthropologists call proxemics, or the distance people keep from one another. In normal conditions, personal space varies not only from person to person but also according to context and culture; absent a public health crisis like the one that confronts us now, what’s too close for comfort in Tokyo may be a nodding acquaintance in Naples, while the right amount of space between two people at a cocktail party might be inappropriate at a business meeting.

Under normal circumstances, even when we have limited control over our physical distance from others–jammed up against a stranger on the bus or train, for instance, or as far as we can get from that person on the other side of the bed—we can communicate our other external boundaries with our overall body language; by the quality of our attention and the directness of our gaze; by our gestures, actions and expressions of emotion; and by our words. All are the interpersonal processes of relationship.

Social distancing is different, though. Even at the recommended six feet between us and others, those processes are how we can maintain connection. And most can be conveyed through all the electronic communications tools available, from Skype to Zoom meetings to telephones, while social networks can do much to limit our feelings of isolation from others.

In the current crisis, extroverts may have a more difficult adjustment to make than introverts, who need less stimulus from the external social world than do more outgoing personalities. As Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, points out, while extroverts gain energy from other people, the opposite is true for introverts, who, she estimates, account for a third of the people we know.

For extroverts, the limited opportunities to be in the company of others imposed by the current pandemic may be particularly onerous. By nature, they may chafe under the need for social distancing. In my own personal and professional circles, the extroverts report that, although they’re spending more time online, it’s less fulfilling than it was when they could easily temper it with actual human contact.

Some changes in how we interact with others may be temporary while others could be long-lasting. Before texting became the most efficient way of contacting people you needed to inform, reaching out and touching someone through actual phone conversations prevailed, and it might be making a permanent comeback.

As isolation continues, we're hearing from old friends and acquaintances whose Christmas cards or notes in the alumni quarterly had been our only contact for years—the revival of old friendships sparked by the pandemic reminds us of how important they once were, and catching up on more than the highlights of their and our lives re-cements connections that were once important.

While spending more time with one's family has been difficult at times, especially for those with young children, it has also made many of us grateful for the opportunity to get to know them in a different way. The enforced distancing has led to extensive online getting-to-know- encounters rather than hasty hookups.

And while boundary style tends to be more fixed than flexible, the distance we prefer between us and other people—he proxemics forced on us by this pandemic—is changing the way we live with and without each other, although how and whether it permanently reshapes all our relationships is yet to be determined.

References

Boundary Issues: Using boundary intelligence to get the intimacy you want and the independence you need in life, love and work. Jane Adams, Wiley.