The Need for Personal Space– Historical Neglect Persists

Patterns of everyday social interaction have long been considered unworthy of careful thought, analysis and even general attention. These aspects have received neglect primarily because they are deemed too trivial or regular. While for ages, social concerns were beyond the perimeter of academic research and study, the emergence of an independent discipline of sociology post Enlightenment brought them within the purview of academics. In this context however, what is worrying is that civil inattention has remained unchanged. Even though empirical research and analyses by passionate sociologists have produced several theories on human interaction and patterns of social behaviour in the recent centuries, this academic fervour has not been able to percolate into the attitudes of the masses. The resultant indifference is the cause behind several social problems that have not been dealt with over the years, and some newly emerging ones that aggravate the crisis.

Personal space is one of the most inadequately addressed components of social interactions. This concept of an imaginary bubble surrounding every individual had not been acknowledged until lately. But with the increasing recognition of individualism since the 18th century, the principle has only become more popular and largely accepted with the passing of each day. The spread of democratic ideals has been further symbolic of the primacy being attached to individuality on the political front. The simultaneous modernisation drive around the world in the 20th century has also been instrumental in furthering the process to a great extent and help it come to some consequence.

Sadly, the progress aside, a general apathy towards the issue of personal space persists to this day. And what is more is that people do not consider this lack of concern alarming or even perturbing. Another problem area that probably worsens the case is the ambiguity of the concept itself. In academic study, the term personal space is usually defined in terms of the physical distance people like to maintain from other individuals during social interactions. Deducing from this, a breach of the minimum distance convention is a breach of personal space. This definition seems to certainly limit the scope of the idea to a mere physical. While a physical intrusion is certainly unacceptable, what also needs to be discussed is the growing need for allowing individuals more space at a mental level.

In this respect, India in particular has had long a history of a very community-oriented approach within society, with the collective given more importance than the individual. This is reflected in the values and lifestyles we held dear, such as living in joint families, frequent and elaborate festivities, etc. While preservation of collective values is necessary, the recognition of individual space also demands equal attention. Fortunately, over the years post Independence, the growth of urban culture has resulted in a considerable shift, giving way to nuclear families, and while the importance of the collective remains, individual freedom is more respected today.

However, as societies grow and transform, new realities and challenges gain relevance. On one hand, where several factors back the importance of personal space, the explosive spread of social media in the 21st century is approaching as a mounting threat. The constant social pressure of portraying one’s life as a happening joy-ride, and the obligation of being participative in social media activities to be accepted as part of the group, is intrusive to say the least. One can always argue that participation is voluntary. However, the mental pressure an individual is exposed to is undeniable, specially when inertness on social media platforms is widely linked with being primitive. When the system compels the individual to be perpetually presentable, there is little space for the expression of one’s real self. This constant thrust on social media is also making us more dependent on the acceptance and support of others, and is negatively affecting mental health and well-being.

This idea must not be confused for an argument towards alienation. The fact that every human being is born alone and dies alone, should be enough for us all to understand the significance of individuality and personal space. It is in personal company that the individual must find greatest solace. This personal space must be non-negotiable and respected at all circumstances.

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