Rules for Living in Harmony       

By Andrew Kolasinski

 "Don't tell me to be reasonable." I whispered to my wife through the darkness. We had taken our seats early so we could have our choice. When the theatre began to fill I saw we would soon have neighbours to my right. Graciously I moved my elbow in order to share the armrest with the newcomer, but the moment I shifted to adjust my collar, the conniver took the opportunity to claim the entire armrest. "It's not me who wants to take over the world," I said to my wife in a stage whisper, and slightly louder, "Asshole!"

            The movie began, but I couldn't concentrate. I ignored the swashbuckling on the big screen as I tried to edge my elbow back to its rightful place. The war of the armrest was on and for the duration of the film I was more absorbed in the outcome of my personal struggle than I was in the projected drama. It was a revelation of human nature to experience such passionate emotion and determination to gain dominance over a territory less than four inches square.

            Spaces we occupy, even temporarily, belong to us only if we are ready to defend them. And not just at the movies. If you pay close attention to people next time you're at the shopping mall you'll realize there are vicious conflicts, power struggles, and minor assaults going on all around you. It's impossible to walk through the mall or down a busy sidewalk without experiencing barely contained hostility. People are moving towards their destinies and nothing must get in their way.

            Lately I've been noticing how aggressive even the meekest people become when their plotted course is blocked. On my way home recently I saw an angelic young mother pushing her baby stroller through the crowded sidewalk like it was a battering ram. Ankles met axles and wheels rolled over toes.

            Or consider the phenomenon of "road-rage". It's about freedom of movement and personal space. I'm guilty myself. Several years ago, another motorist on the freeway cut me off inconsiderately. I became so enraged I tailgated him for the next forty miles with my high beams glaring into his mirrors. I drove well past my destination, endangering both our lives, just to annoy him in retaliation because he had broken the unwritten code of motorized culture: This bit of road is mine; it's my path in life. Violate this rule and the thin veneer of civility peels away, exposing the beast within.

            There is a science behind these encounters. The study of spatial relationships, proxemics, is a branch of semiotics (a study of symbols and signs). Winfried Noth in his Handbook of Semiotics defines proxemics: "Most individuals are unaware of the norms of proxemic behaviours within their culture, but they do become conscious of them when these norms are violated or when they notice differences in spatial behaviour due to the norms of foreign cultures."

            Have you ever encountered someone who stands too close to you, or a person who joins you on the sofa when there is clearly not enough space? Chances are that person was acclimatized to a foreign proxemic value. In cultures where public space is limited by harsh geography or by architectural confines, the tolerance for proximity between strangers, by necessity, increases. This is why it took me several weeks to get used to the washroom attendants in Eastern Europe. They would try to collect a payment while I was engaged in using their facilities. Eventually I overcame my sense of violation. I then was able to haggle with them for a reduced rate at the same time as I did my business with one hand and reached into my change purse with the other.

            One measurable aspect of cultural difference is the frequency of body contact among strangers in public places. Edward T. Hall in his book The Silent Language presents data demonstrating that Arabs, Latin Americans and southern Europeans tolerate greater body contact than do Asians, Indians and northern Europeans.  Among southern Italians, Greeks and other south Europeans, men commonly walk together arm-in-arm. Such behaviour would be met with puzzlement or cause hostility in less tactile cultures. It would be seen as an abnormal sharing of personal space. In Mexico I was terrified when the beggars downtown, all but stood on my toes, as they moved in with their pleas. Once I became proxemically acclimatized I discarded my sandals in favour of sturdy hiking boots and I soon turned the tables on the bothersome panhandlers.

            Of course cultural differences don't account for every spatial intrusion. Some violations of personal space are perpetrated by mentally disturbed or unbalanced individuals. Walking on the sidewalk against the pedestrian flow is anti-social behaviour that can only be justified by some sort of an emergency.  Such public disorder is more than a mere annoyance. The sort of pushing and shoving that is becoming more and more common in our marketplaces is a physical hazard to the elderly, weak and disabled.

            I would be among the first to endorse a scheme to mandate the wearing of some sort of proximity detector. It could be a small radar that emits mild electric shocks when proxemic violations occur. Wearing a device like this, even the most spatially maladjusted nitwit could eventually be trained to give their fellow citizens enough room to eliminate social friction. Sharing public places necessitates some conforming to the actions of the herd.

            Human interactions are not that different from the behaviour of animals. Patterns of movement of bird flocks, animal herds and fish schools, at times, appear to be orchestrated into a choreographed order. I have witnessed two flocks of birds cross each other's paths. Seen from below, the movements formed a pleasing geometry of exact angles. Herds of antelope running together seem to turn on a dime, each individual maintaining precise relative position.  I've noticed the same sort of geometry while watching a crowded city plaza from my tenth floor balcony. The people below became tiny specks moving in an interlacing ballet.

            The smooth interaction of strangers in public areas has created a set of unacknowledged rules. Private property can acquire a public aspect and requires a different set of values. How about the people next door who always park their truck just a little over the line, onto your section of the lawn. Even if you haven't marked your territory, the sanctity of your property should be known instinctively. Enclosing a residential yard is just a formality, but the builder's association estimates that every year North Americans buy enough fencing material to go around the earth three times. Neighbourly intrusions have driven some people into violent response. The legendary feuding neighbours, the Hatfields and McCoys, began their bloody conflict when a razorback hog strayed across a shared boundary line. Their decades-long feud resulted in more than twenty murders. Perhaps some sturdy chain link would have prevented the quarrel.

            Keeping people far enough apart to prevent the outbreak of hostilities is only possible if there is enough space. There are many situations where space is limited or for other reasons the normal rules governing our actions in common areas do not apply.  Behaviour in elevators, at bus stations, in stairwells, or in line-ups is more tolerant of space intrusion but less tolerant of expressions of identity. Psychologists call these "liminal spaces"; areas where we are in suspension or transition. The term is derived from the Latin, "limen", which is the root for "limbo" (nowhere). While you're waiting for a train, or being transported up an elevator shaft, it is impossible to fulfill normal social roles. You are nowhere, and in suspended animation.

            Observe your own actions and thoughts next time you're riding in an elevator. You may find that you can't recall what you were thinking because you were in a liminal state of mind. Between floors, between one place and the next, you were not in your usual character or fulfilling a personal role. Social anthropologists consider liminal spaces as areas of transformation. While you ride up the elevator to a meeting, you are composing yourself for the next situation. While you wait at the airport for your flight to Mexico you are changing your outlook from the daily routine to a holiday state of mind. The departure lounge confines you with 150 people in similar circumstances and you will emerge together at the distant arrival lounge with a shared understanding of a new relationship to each other. The world around you will have stood still while you were in transition.

            Liminal spaces are a necessity. They are a creation of our collective consciousness. We need to transform ourselves constantly to face new situations otherwise there would be much more social friction.

            Back in the darkened movie theatre, proxemic justice was about to be effected. The hero on the screen was escaping from the villains while my seat neighbour shifted his popcorn then reached down to retrieve his jumbo cola. Just the opening I needed. My vanquished elbow made a triumphant comeback. He stared up at me through malevolent reptilian eyes and said, "You big fat jerk!"

            Before I could fire off a suitable response, I heard, from the next seat over, "Tommy! That's no way to talk to a grown-up. You apologize at once or I'm taking you home and putting you straight to bed."


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