The limits of self-defense and the nature of vigilantism are both perennial American debate topics, but this spring, they boomed louder than ever. In March, a woman in the Bronx stabbed her neighbor to death . In April, a 20-year-old woman was shot and died after she . In May, Daniel Penny, a white ex-Marine, put , a Michael Jackson impersonator and mentally ill Black man, in a 15-minute-long headlock on a subway in New York City, killing him. It’s anyone’s guess what June will bring.
Trying to make sense of this senseless and ubiquitous violence, whether on the national news or in your nearest NextDoor group, inevitably leads to a handful of rote explanations: There are too many guns, Fox News profits off paranoia, structural racism and impoverishment breeds “random violence.” Or, something is wrong in the minds of Americans, ” people need opportunities to their inner anger. Or both. All we know for certain is that you either die young or you live to become the bad neighbor.
For that is the real crux of the issue: Our definition of “personal space” is expanding, with dire political consequences. The of a Clint Eastwood movie, the enshrined rights of the “,” and the cult of personal property have infiltrated even the most public of spaces: the sidewalk, the city bus, the grocery store parking lot. Intrusion of any kind registers as a cataclysmic event for the person trapped inside their own portable panic room. This rageful individualism shows up in more subtle ways too: Everyone is with the “ ” in their lives. Every day is , or . And the bigger your bubble is, the bigger its inevitable burst.
In the 1960s, anthropologist Edward T. Hall that there are four concentric invisible circles radiating outward from every human being. The smallest ring, within 1.5 feet of the subject’s skin barrier, he named the “intimate.” The next circle, radiating outward from 1.5 feet to about four feet, was “personal.” From there, stretching out to about 12 feet, existed the “social.” The final ring, from about 12 to 24 feet, was the “public.”
Researchers in proxemics—that is, the study of the human use of space—have always understood that the radii of our personal circles “are not static,” says , a professor of urbanism at the University of Cincinnati. Proxemic boundaries shift in response to numerous stimuli: motion, touch, volume, body angle, and even skin temperature. These lines of demarcation also vary widely across cultures: Peruvians get than Romanians; Americans are, perhaps surprisingly, somewhere in the global middle, with an average personal space bubble clocking in at 3.1 feet. But everyone has some amount of “personal” territory—and, it follows, territoriality.
This flexibility is useful. Though populated by strangers, a rush hour city bus is the definition of “intimate.” To cope with this crushing proximity, people may use noise-canceling headphones, hold an open newspaper between themselves and the world, or opt for what one researcher in 1999 the “New York non-person phenomenon”—in essence, a strategic dissociation.
Conversely, and less helpfully, our sense of what’s ours can expand outward. “Road rage” only makes sense if we accept that the driver’s body has, in some meaningful way, grown to encompass their SUV.
More recent findings suggest that Covid-19 changed our spatial reality. During the early phases of the pandemic, millions were confined to their homes and asked to remain hypervigilant in public settings. Anything closer than six feet of distance between strangers implied contamination, both literal and metaphorical, Mehta says. One 2021 , conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital with just 19 participants, who were tested before and during the pandemic, found that the subjects’ perception of their personal space expanded by 40 to 50 percent on average in response to these public health measures. What was once a roughly three-foot-wide bubble grew, by the second assessment, to about 4.1 feet around. Other senses may also have been affected: Noise complaints have been on the rise for the last half-decade in some cities. The world temporarily quieted in the lockdown, but our sensitivity to sound seems to have only grown in the post-vax period, if noise complaints data in 2021 is anything to go by.
What is the fixation on with “ ,” or over-identifying with Ali Wong in , or the widespread claim of “ ” if not the bourgeois manifestation of these larger obsessions with protecting personal space above all else?
But at least as far as proxemics are at play, there are opportunities to modify our built environments for the better, without reducing density. Cities could offer tax breaks or other subsidies for people who want to install noise-insulated windows and acoustic wall panels. Investments in public transit—with an eye toward more and more frequent trains or buses, and design modifications like could free up space. And to help foster safer interactions between neighbors, municipalities should focus on advertisements in public spaces, or even online and in-person workshops, about what is (and what it isn’t).
Most importantly, citizens must remain present in public spaces—especially those who might otherwise have the money to opt out and spend more time in private spheres. Social space only works with other people in it. When an entire class opts for Ubers over light rail or blood-spattered tabloid stories over the reality on the street—essentially an in-situ white flight—the social sphere can tip from to real disaster. As always, it’s the people who can’t afford another option who will suffer most. So if there’s one story we tell ourselves, let’s hope it’s this: We must fight to protect the bubble we share.