Tuesday, 30 January 2007

5:5 When should we touch each other?

The 'social space' is partly symbolic and invisible and hence dealt with through gestures, postures, language. But it is also partly physical, and hence can be observed in body distances. The range of body distance varies with the degree of intimacy and equality that is thought to exist in the relationship.

At one extreme is 'untouchability', whether literally (as in the caste system) or through keeping one's distance, as when a nobleman finds it distasteful to be close to a commoner. Neither of these two extreme situations are what we commonly associate with Britain, though there are some exceptions.

At the other extreme are what we find in certain tribal and peasant societies. Here there is, within the group, very little social and physical distance. So people will often stand or sit disconcertingly close for a westerner's tastes, while some Africans find westerner’s aloof and stand too far away.

In some societies there seems to be little appreciation of privacy, separateness, the need for a protected zone of intimacy into which no one intrudes. I remember vividly the shock of living in a village in Nepal where the door was open and people dropped in constantly and commented on everything I was doing. They followed us on our trips out of the village when we were trying to create a little personal space, and even going to the toilet out in the fields was an arduous exercise.

It is therefore interesting that many of the English effect a compromise, more or less the same physical distance is maintained for everybody, whether they are intimate or distant from us. Everyone stands under one law, the law of compromise, not too far apart, nor too close. They should be close enough to show engagement and involvement, but not so close as to cause embarrassment and intrusion. And, on the whole, we consider an intrusion into our personal space without an invitation odd and possibly threatening.

The questions of personal space are a delicate compromise, and as times and influences change they become confused. Twenty years ago I would have considered it very strange to kiss female friends or acquaintances on the cheek or to hug men, but now these continental customs have spread widely. I constantly find myself wondering how to behave.

It used to be so easy, a hand-shake at the start and end of a meeting with a friend. Now I often wonder when and how we should kiss or hug. The problem is even greater across cultures. To kiss on the lips in public in Japan is an obscene gesture, even when the couple are married, and even touching another in public until recently was rather indecent. A bow and a name card on first meeting; thereafter just a bow or smile.

Yet even the simple hand-shake is a delicate art. It symbolizes friendship, equality, mutual grasping, in other words involvement and the taking of a calculated risk (of being rejected) by stretching out one's hand. On the other hand, the arm is extended and fends off the other, it is not a drawing together as in the embrace. It is a stiff gesture; let us be friends, but let us also keep our distance and respect our mutual independence. The hand-shake and an older form of rather restrained middle-class Englishness went together well.

Two friends are like magnets. They are mutually attracted, yet if they get too close, there is repulsion to a safer distance. Friendship is thus a balancing act, like a ballet or dance. It is both spontaneous and to be worked at, both natural and artificial. Like happiness it comes unexpectedly and cannot be forced. It is usually the side-effect of other interests.

Humans are very social animals and love to love and be loved. To be able to feel warmth in the company of good friends or mates is an unusual pleasure. It helps to overcome some of the loneliness of our rushed and individualistic lives. We are no longer islands, but part of a continent. We find mirrors for ourselves in others, support and help in difficulties, the pleasure of giving when we have too much. Some of the moments I shall always treasure are when, as true friends, you and I explored the world together, enjoying a new garden, a visit to the Natural History Museum, or discovering the fairy tales of the Grimm Brothers, with a joy which could not have come if we were on our own.

No comments: