Essays

Why we need less personal space: A look at the proximity principle

ferry to Uruguay

This guy got a whole boat full of strangers to rock out.

I recently spent a vacation in silence. When I returned to my normal life in the talking world, I felt… lonely.

You see, although these retreats are silent, we sit in close proximity to others. We do not exchange words or social courtesies. We keep our eyes lowered and avoid eye contact.

In these conditions a strong bond– the strongest of bonds– is forged. When silence is broken, former strangers are suddenly the best of friends.

How could this be?

The Proximity Principle

In social psychology, the proximity principle accounts for the tendency of individuals to form interpersonal relations with those who are close by. The more you encounter someone, the more likely you are to develop a close relationship.

Pretty simple stuff, right?

At a silent retreat, proximity alone is enough to forge strong bonds.  So much so, in fact, that I almost always feel pangs of loneliness when I return home.

The unbearable closeness of South America

Many of you readers know that I spent a signifiant chunk of my early-adult years in South America. (I’ve written previously on how Buenos Aires inspired me to get into coworking.)

When I first arrived to Southern Chile fresh out of college, I was completely offended by the lack of personal space. I mean, people are up in your stuff all the time. From my host family barging into my room without knocking, to my students hanging all over my arms and legs and giving me actual kisses, to the intimacy of the small shared taxis that sped around the city, proximity is how people roll.

In Buenos Aires it was much the same: I grew accustomed to packing into the subway during rush hour, to cab drivers wanting to know every detail of my personal life, and to greeting my coworkers every morning with a kiss on the cheek. I knew the names of all the doormen on my block, and I became so close to my produce stand vendors that it was teary moment to say goodbye.

Montana USA

In part due to geography, space is abundant in the USA.

The United States of Personal Space

Returning to the states was like going home after a silent retreat: I felt pangs of loneliness. Where was humanity?

Here we’ve designed our lives around privacy and individuality. The family unit rules. We have large yards so we don’t have to see our neighbors. We drive in closed cars to and from our destinations. We do our banking, pay bills, and shop online, eliminating the need for human interaction.

For some strange reason, we’ve decided that close proximity to other people is undesirable. We owe this perhaps to the foundations of our country, emphasizing the individual’s pursuit of happiness. Or perhaps it was the rise of the automobile industry and the great influence of gas and oil on urban planning and policy. Either way, personal space is how we roll here in the states.

Are we missing out?

If you look back to that proximity principle, the personal space we enjoy means that we are less likely to form relationships. And relationships, my friends, make the world go ’round.

You could attribute polarization, violence, racism, bullying, ineffective government, and any number of societal problems to a growing inability to relate to each other.

The good news?

While proximity may not be baked into our daily lives, we as a people have created spaces where it can happen. Coworking spaces are one great example. There are also maker spaces, art studio complexes, and community centers.

Certain housing developments are designed with community in mind– I remember with great fondness renting an old row house in downtown Denver, where the neighbors would gather in the shared backyard to socialize every evening.

Fenway Park

It’s hard not to feel part of a bigger family in the grandstand at Fenway.

The United States of Humanity

Years after the initial culture shock of my return to the United States, I’ve found myself deeply invested in a local community, with plenty of opportunities for proximity. Humanity, it turns out, is alive and well in our country.

So as you celebrate our independence on this 4th of July, consider also celebrating our inter-dependence. Look for spaces and environments where you can be close to others, and perhaps even create and cultivate such spaces in your own community.

If the flags and fireworks tell us anything, it is that humans are tribal by nature. Now go celebrate with your family, stay close to strangers, and nurture your tribe.

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Sarah

Co-founder at Groundwork!
Sarah lived all over South America, produced a documentary about Patagonia, and worked in digital marketing for a decade before settling in New Bedford to start Groundwork! She loves running a coworking space because she gets to meet the coolest people in the world.
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