Culture, Environment, Communication and Social Distancing

In 1968, Sir Edward T. Hall a renowned American anthropologist and cross- cultural researcher gave the concept of Proxemics and explained the role of space and distance in human communication. In his thoroughly researched work on culture, cultural context, language and communication he described how communication operates at different levels based on social, emotional and cultural behaviour of the people.

Today in 2020, when the world is facing a global crisis in the form of a pandemic (Covid -19), a review of the work and contribution of Sir Edward T Hall has become the need of the hour. Humans cannot think of their existence without communication. While on one hand there is the need to express feelings and share thoughts with others, on the other hand with unprecedented advances in technology and artificial intelligence, it has become almost compulsory to adapt onself to the modern tools of technology. To sustain in a highly technological society that relies heavily on digital and smart communication devices for all personal and professional activities, one has to adhere to the norms of changing human culture. However, the human connect or human to human interaction still occupies a large part of our communication. The family structures, office environments, schools and educational institutions, hospitals, recreation zones, markets and shopping arenas are living examples of direct or face-to – face communication. Although these structures have also undergone transformation yet they are still potentially more capable of representing human to human transmission of messages through direct face to face mode of communication. It is in such direct forms of communication that space and distance come into action.

This distance based communication has now become a strategy of survival in what we are witnessing currently during the Corona times. Even Sir Hall would not have imagined that his work on Proxemics, a non-verbal form of communication would actually provide valuable inputs in devising a defence mechanism for combating a deadly invisible enemy. It is now a proven fact that appropriate distancing between people can prevent one from contracting the presently incurable disease Corona caused by a virus and transmitted from one person to another. Communicable diseases are by nature communicated from one person to another through touch, physical contact, proximity or sharing of common belongings such as combs, handkerchiefs, towels etc. Isolating the patient has always been a preventive and preferred treatment for anyone suffering from a communicable disease. The ideal distance between people to prevent transmission of Covid-19 has been identified as 6 feet. Thus the language of space is one of the primary elements in the preventive methods recommended by medical experts and virologists in the fight against Corona. This shows how non- verbal communication is relevant in all aspects of life and is not just a theoretical concept in the field of Business Communication.

Proxemics is defined as the language of distance; be it physical, social or personal distance between people. Proxemics is related to proximity which means nearness. Nearness is defined by various communication circles that we evolve over a period of time. Right from the start of our life journey we experience proximity with people who surround us; our parents, siblings, family and friends. As we grow and mature we realise that sharing space with people around us relies mostly on three factors:

a) The physical space we share with people

b) Frequency of interaction and degree of familiarity.

b) The emotional connect we establish with others

In his classic The Hidden Dimension, Hall explains the difference in distance awareness among different cultural groups. He defined four different distance zones among healthy adults. They are:

Intimate zone: (1.5 ft from the body) this space is shared with family, close friends and romantic partners. Sharing intimate zone is a sign of comfort and and the deep bond that people share. This intimate zone is shared only when we trust a person emotionally and have unconditional faith in the person.

Personal zone: (1.5 to 4ft) Much of our communication operates in this zone which we can also term as our comfort zone. Our presence in this zone though friendly is not intimate. We feel more relaxed when there is no threat to our privacy and yet we can comfortably connect with others in this zone. This zone according to McKay, Davis and Fanning (1995) is divided into two sub- zones which helps us negotiate close interactions with people we may not be close to interpersonally. These zones are –

a) The outer- personal zone: 2.5 feet to 4 feet. It allows for relatively intimate communication and private conversations but doesn’t allow close intimate interaction. b) The inner- personal zone: 1.5 ft to 2.5 ft. It is space reserved for conversations with people we are interpersonally close to or trying to know better.

Social zone: 4ft to 12 ft

This helps to set the context of professional communication or casual interaction. Students seated for attending lectures or audience present to hear a speech are ideal examples for this particular zone of communication. It helps to establish a better connect with the audience.

Public zone: 12 feet or more– This is strictly formal and generally observed in high profile meetings. High profile persons, celebrities or executives maintain this distance with their audience. This distance is a sign of power or is maintained for security reasons. The lack of physical closeness does not allow for private talks and one to one interaction.

Considering the present situation, social distance during interaction has become the new normal. Social distance is not about creating gaps and distances in relations it is only an alternative manner of communication where the dimension of space plays a critical role. It is a natural response to our environment. A change in our physical environment automatically results in cultural transformations. While handshakes, hugging, huddling are common forms of communication in several settings and societies, certain societies refrain from such these modes of physically communicating with others. With the onset of the pandemic “Namaste” has become the most preferred form of greeting and societies across the world have adopted this gesture replacing the already existing patterns . The adaptation of “Namaste” as a way of formal greeting is now preferred globally as compared to the ” HandShake” which was a more popular form of formal greeting, especially in Western societies. This change is in response to a global challenge which has affected humans alike irrespective of the geographical regions that they inhabit or the cultural differences that they exhibit. This reaffirms the fact that how environment and culture are closely intertwined.

The necessity is to understand the cultural context that has been set by our environment. Environmental changes trigger behavioural changes. Today when humanity is threatened by a pandemic, the wisdom lies in adapting to the changing mode of communication. This calls for nurturing a global culture of communication wherein space and distance should be recognised as the key factors in communication. Haptics that is language of touch is also an aspect to consider. We can build trust and confidence in our relationships by making sincere, honest, genuine and engaging conversations. How we carve our messages, how we deliver them and how sensitive we are to the needs of our audience can make a real impression on the listeners and also facilitate strong relationships. The need is for keeping physical spaces between ourselves and not creating social distances.

The human spirit can stay alive and blossom more in an hour of adversity. Words fail, expressions donot, situations fail but humanity prevails. Distances are measured not in metres and kilometres but when voids are created in the hearts of people. Small words of love and gratitude, gentle acts of generosity and goodness, deeds of care and support can make big impacts on the minds and lives of people.

It is true that our physical and immediate environment shapes our communication but our communication can uplift our lives. We as a human specie have the ability to transform our lives and rise above calamity through endurance, courage and confidence. In fact with technology by our side individuals, societies, schools, offices all have found ways to reach out to people, students and clients. With innovative ways they have succeeded in establishing a link and communicating with their community. So, let your communication become a symbol of strength for those in pain and suffering. Let our words signal hope, healing and well-being.

Distance is a space that divides us into operational zones but emotions are the underlying current that bind us humans like the flowers in a wreath. Let us be one in spirit and heart. Communication keeps us alive and keeps us going. Verbal or non- verbal let the messages keep flowing. Keep the channels of communication open for there can be distances between us but we can build bridges to bridge the gaps. As we practice physical distancing let the gates of our communication remain unbridled.

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