29 July 2020

(In our times) reading, and especially, re-reading “The Hidden Dimension”

by Marco Romanelli

The Hidden Dimension came out, or rather exploded on the scene, in 1966. The Italian edition, swiftly published by Bompiani (1968), has a preface by Umberto Eco and a subtitle that reads: “Near and far: the meaning of distance between people.” Its American author, Edward T. Hall, was a professor of anthropology. He employed a rigorous methodology to tackle the subject of proxemics (a science that helps to understand interpersonal relationships in relation to space), but has chosen to use layman’s terms – the book talks about distance and nearness during sex, during a business meeting, during a shared meal. What seems too close to an American will probably be too far for an Arab. The subject of so-called “social distance” is an extremely delicate one, and has unfortunately come back to haunt us thanks to the recent pandemics, after years during which it had not actually disappeared but lay simmering beneath the surface.

The Hidden Dimension discusses, or rather unveils, our everyday life which, as we well know, conceals behaviour that is not always correct or altruistic, basically our bodies “speak” even while we remain silent. We’d better learn to listen to them! Better for everyone: architects dealing with clients, doctors dealing with patients, tramps begging or heads of state on official visits. Certainly, having deciphered the non-verbal language used by the “outsider” concerned, Edward T. Hall seems to suggest a drastic solution: the “outsider” (himself, obviously himself) ought to adapt to the “prevailing” model (pragmatist American optimism). The 45 years since the book was published have taught us, sometimes harshly, that it is by no means true that things always end up this way. Recognising our differences is not enough (and runs the risk of appearing moralistic, if not downright racist): we have to try and understand them profoundly, and accept them. Reciprocally.

Let’s précis some of the practical cases discussed by Hall:

Auditory perception: “The Japanese screen visually in a variety of ways but are perfectly content with paper walls as acoustic screens.”

Olfactory perception: “In the use of the olfactory apparatus the Americans are under-developed … The extensive use of deodorants and the suppression of odour … results in a land of olfactory blandness and sameness.”

Breathing: “Bathing the other person in one’s breath is a common practice in Arab countries. The American is taught not to breathe on people.”

Perception of space: “In the use of interior space, the Japanese keep the edges of their rooms clear, because everything takes place in the middle. Europeans tend to fill up the edges by placing furniture near or against walls.”

Tactile perception: “The Japanese, as the objects they produce indicate so clearly, are much more conscious of the significance of texture.”

Visual perception: “The eyes are usually considered to be the main means by which man gathers information. However important their function as “information gatherers,” we should not overlook their usefulness in conveying information. For example, a look can punish, encourage ….”

Distances: Hall puts them into four categories: intimate, personal, social and public distance. “At intimate distance the presence of the other person is unmistakable … Sight … olfaction, heat from the other person’s body … This is the distance of love-making and wrestling, comforting and protecting …” Personal distance (from 75 to 120 cm): “It might be thought of as a small protective sphere or bubble that an organism maintains between itself and others … Keeping someone at ‘arm’s length’ is one way of expressing … a point where two people can touch fingers if they extend both arms.” Social distance (from 120 to 360 cm): “Impersonal business is generally conducted at social distance.” Public distance (from 750 cm upwards): “may even cue a vestigial but subliminal form of flight reaction … [it is] the distance that is automatically set around important public figures.”

The importance of assessing these “distances” (and the inevitable consequences) had remained underestimated between when the book was published and now, in 2020. That’s no longer possible. Now we have to think of every human being as though they are surrounded by a series of transparent interpenetrating spheres. If we can manage to visualise them mentally, we can learn to respect the privacy levels of others. This no longer simply applies, as it did in 1966, to relationships between inhabitants of different countries or regions (an aspect that now makes us smile wryly, like the old jokes that inevitably begin “There was an Englishman, a Frenchman and a Chinaman …”), but to the neighbour we “bump into” on the landing, the taxi driver who has had the temerity to sneeze, the colleague we suspect of promiscuous behaviour. Basically, we need to be capable of turning “distance” into an instrument of respect, on a daily basis. Once we’ve learned how to gauge “distance” we can go back to practising “closeness.”

#social distancing