By now we are familiar with Edward Hall and the term he coined: “proxemics,” to define our cultural and personal preferences for space, beginning with our intimate space and radiating outward toward personal, social, and public space. These spatial needs can make us comfortable or uncomfortable depending on various situations. With a pandemic, and certainly where health is an issue, there is yet another distance, and that is the prophylactic distance, or prophylactic zone.
The prophylactic zone kicks in and overrides personal or cultural preferences during a health crisis. What it requires is that people not loiter near each other closer than 6-8 feet and preferably further. This takes some getting used to because we all have preferences when it comes to personal space; however, it is what is required, and we should not take offense when others insist on not touching us or standing or sitting further apart.
Normally we object to spatial violations, when people get too close to us. In fact, it can cause limbic reactions, such as nervousness, anxiety, and irritability, if it lasts long enough. Which explains why we don’t like the closeness of elevators, especially if people stand behind us. But something interesting also takes place when we carry this too far. When people avoid us or they stand or sit at a greater distance than normal, this too can affect us. It can make us feel marginalized. However, when it comes to a setting or a situation where everyone is aware there is a health issue involved, we have to override that initial sensation of being marginalized and reframe it as: others are respecting my health and well-being.
We as a species enjoy proximity and touch. These are habits, to be sure, but because we are a very tactile species, it does leave a void in us. Touch is important, as is closeness. But for now, it is something that we must recognize and deal with just as we are learning to wash our hands more often and not touch our faces.
In the old days, if you are familiar with history, the rich would head up to the mountains where the air was fresher or into the country when there was an outbreak. We don’t all have that ability, nor is it really wise. But we can at least be aware that when there is a pandemic, our customs must change. We need to be extra cautious about touch and personal distance. Even as we wash our hands more often, we also must monitor how close we stand.