Long Before the Coronavirus, Anthropologist Edward T. Hall Researched the Phenomenon of Social Distancing

Long Before the Coronavirus, Anthropologist Edward T. Hall Researched the Phenomenon of Social Distancing

Photo from study-body-language.com/proxemics

Culture hides more than it reveals, and strangely enough what it hides, it hides most effectively from its participants.

― Edward T. Hall (The Silent Language, 1959)


Edward T. Hall (goodreads.com)

George Cassidy Payne

Social distancing may feel like a new and abnormal concept for most Americans but not for those familiar with the research and writings of Edward T. Hall (1914 – 2009). Throughout his professional career as a cultural anthropologist, Hall explored the multifaceted dimensions of cultural and social cohesion and described how people behave and react in different types of culturally defined personal space. He was one of the 20th century’s most thoughtful observers of human behavior and his theories have influenced a wide range of academic fields and corporate industries.

In the field of anthropology, Hall was well known for his system of distinguishing cultures as either “High-context” or “Low-context.” The former has many “unwritten rules”, with many contextual elements that help people to understand the rules. In a low-context culture, very little can be taken for granted, and misunderstanding and ambiguity are kept to the bare minimum. Whereas high-context cultures often have reserved, inward reactions, a low-context culture such as the American often results in highly visible, external, and outward reactions. (This is one reason why sports are an obsession in the United States.)

A high-context culture views social cohesion in terms of strong family ties, as well as a strong distinction between in-groups and out-groups. Think of Italy, Spain, Russia, China, and Japan. A low-context culture is more flexible and open to group integration and changing patterns in social organization. This has the consequence of producing strong and weak bonds between people. In America, for example, social bonds are in a state of constant flux and uncertainty. Affiliation to family and community is important, but not to the same degree as the Italian or Chinese cultures. Whereas Americans often view people in terms of economic transactions, in China the concept of loyalty and high commitment to long-term relationships are the highest priority. In low-context cultures, the task is almost always more important than the relationship.

Naturally, the concept of social distancing came up in Hall’s work. In groundbreaking books such as The Hidden Dimension (1966), he even coined a term for this, calling the exploration Proxemics. In a nutshell, this theory suggests that some cultures require more space than others. From personal body space to space in offices, parking lots, and homes, how we define space and who belongs there is a byproduct of high context or low context worldviews. “In the United States, for instance, people involved in the conversation will assume a social distance of roughly 4–7′, but in many parts of Europe, the expected social distance is about half that with the result that Americans traveling overseas often experience the urgent need to back away from a conversation partner who seems to be getting too close.”  Everything from furniture, buildings, and cities, can be understood when looking at internalized expectations about how these areas should be spatially organized. United States cities, for instance, are regularly set out along a grid, a preference borrowed from the British.¹

(left) William Moehle’s front lawn [Photo: David Kramer, 4/7/20] see Humorous social distancing campaign in Brighton pokes fun at 6-foot-8-inch supervisor (Democrat and Chronicle, 4/3/20); (right) the real Bill Moehle from Third parties at the Brookside polling place (25th Congressional District)

Hall concluded that the American culture is far more concerned with private property, private spaces, and well-designated boundaries than probably any other in the world. This happens, he pointed out, “right down to the desk-level, where co-workers may do battle over a piece of paper which overlaps from one person’s area to another.” At a national level, many wars have been fought by American governments to secure and attain more space.

In all actuality, Americans have been practicing various elements of social distancing for centuries.  It is deeply ingrained in the national psyche — for better or for worse. I think if Edward Hall was alive today, he would not be surprised to find that a low context, high territorial culture such as the United States could not only accept social distancing guidelines during this pandemic but find ways to embrace and take advantage of them.

Source: Hall, E.T. (1966). The Hidden Dimension, New York: Doubleday

¹ Edward T. Hall, Proxemic Theory, 1966. CSISS Classics


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About The Author


Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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