Social Distancing, So Easy Yet Difficult; Why?

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The current pandemic has brought to the fore one of our greatest shortcomings – the inability to maintain social distancing.

On the face of it, it is one of the easiest things to do but it has become the hardest rule to follow. We can use masks, clean our hands with sanitisers, consume all sorts of potions and vitamins to keep the virus away, but somehow, when it comes to keeping a six feet gap, we fail miserably.

In his 1963 book ‘The Hidden Dimension’, Edward T. Hall, the cultural anthropologist defined four distinct zones that we maintain with the people around us – Intimate, Personal, Social and Public, and coined the term ‘proxemics’, which he defined as “the interrelated observations and theories of humans use of space as a specialised elaboration of culture”.

As the names suggest, these zones indicate the distances that we instinctively deem acceptable for our interactions with others and form the invisible spaces that we try to maintain with them.

As per Hall, intimate distance ranges from one inch to eighteen inches, personal distance ranges from one and a half inches to four feet, social distance from four to twelve feet and finally, public distance ranging from twelve feet and beyond.

Whenever there is a breach of this distance, it triggers discomfort and we try to restore the comfortable distance – either by moving away ourselves or if that does not work, by resorting to physical means to move the other person.

But having said that, as any red-blooded Indian would know, these distances, especially personal and social are nowhere close to what we experience in reality.

Take a look at any queue for example – even the ones we make for taking our COVID vaccination. Invariably, we end up inching closer and closer to the person ahead of us. So much so that there have been newspaper reports on how vaccination centres could become infection spreaders.

One other example that comes to mind is that of air travel – be it the queue that is formed to board the aircraft or the mad scramble that takes place to stand in the aisle as soon as the aircraft has come to a halt at the terminal; there is no apparent logic behind these behaviour patterns.

Some decrease in the distances could be explained away by the lack of space due to a much larger population and the concentration of people in a smaller space. However, this does not explain the drastic decrease in personal space or social distance even when there is plenty of physical space available or when there is absolutely no necessity of crowding, as while deboarding an aircraft.

So what could be the reason for this?

It could be a combination of deep-rooted collective memory and our own unique culture.

One of the best ways to describe the effect of culture is by taking the example of the twin cities of Odisha – Cuttack and Bhubaneswar. Though located so close to each other, there is a vast difference in culture and this is reflected in the way their citizens drive.

As anyone from Bhubaneswar will vouch – traffic in Cuttack can be nerve-wracking, as the distance between vehicles is much lesser than what people keep in Bhubaneswar. But for the natives of Cuttack, the distance is perfectly acceptable, and they are very comfortable.

For a majority of Indians, shortages have been a way of life till the very recent past. We have grown up grappling with chronic unavailability of practically everything, and the advantages of being ahead in the queue, or using any means to get ahead in the queue are deeply embedded in our minds.

The memories of having to return back from the theatre without being able to see the movie or not being able to undertake a journey due to the inability to get an OK ticket have not yet been erased, and these play a big role in dictating our behaviour today.

This is why, whenever we feel that there is a possibility of not being able to obtain something, our deep-rooted instincts take over and we throw all logic out of the window in our efforts to get it.

Therefore, until such time that we are able to subdue the fear of missing out from our collective memory and modify our behaviour with respect to our comfort with close proximity with strangers, it will be very difficult to follow the social distancing norms required for evading the virus.

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