There is none.
Ok that’s a lie — there’s some. But honestly, coming from a US upbringing it really means none. The study of “personal space” is called Proxemics, ever since 1963 when the cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall, decided to name it extremely appropriately. Because of his wonderful work, more people have noticed this variation of how close people like to be to other people and studied it. So now we know that in North America, the average “appropriate” distance to be away from another person is literally longer than arms-length away at four feet. Italians, the culture that likes to smoosh their faces together multiple times while greeting, are absolutely fine with two to three feet of distance. I will attest to the fact that city Italians have an even smaller circle that hardly extends past their actual being. If I go into the center, I will absolutely touch other people. This is a given now, and I have accepted it for the most part. Today at the playground in the park, however, I couldn’t get over how these kids throw themselves around and over each other without a care.
The study continued to agree that “In Italy, it’s also common for people to establish extended physical contact when having an exchange. For instance, a person may reach for a friend’s forearm as a way to communicate openness and honesty or walk arm in arm with a coworker (of any gender) as they discuss something confidential.” Even when I was younger, I never minded a pat on the arm and thought it nice, so the casual physical interactions that happen here are endearing, and usually come from the older crowd. Older Italians are absolute suckers for babies and puppies and neither is safe from roaming cuddles and kisses. Maybe that’s why the kids Proxemics numbers are subzero numbers here. I’m pondering all this today as I watch three boys crawl over each other up the slide and then past Giulio as he was trying to go down it. It’s madness.
I grew up as one of maybe ten or so kids in our neighborhood that was surrounded by corn fields and woods. We didn’t have a swing set, but we had acres of land to ourselves. Of course, this mirrors throughout society and culture. In the US,I grew up with houses having backyards, grocery stores had parking lots as big as the piazzas here. Three grocery carts could pass in an aisle at the same time. I could do cartwheels in my bedroom. Here, if I did a cartwheel in any part of my house, I’d definitely be at the hospital. If I don’t have to wait for a traffic jam of carts to clear in the grocery store, it’s a good day. As described, the neighborhood fits about forty-eight (this is like a guess-the-jelly-beans-in-the-jar-number. I honestly have no idea. It’s a lot.) high-strung children from the ages of months to preteens in the size of a baseball diamond with four swings, and three slides. Of course youre going to get used to having less personal space — because there isn’t much to go around.
You know the little dance you do when someone else is in front of the item you need in the store? That awkward back and forth waiting for them to move? Not here. If someone wants something, they’ll get it. Maybe even move you out of the way a bit to do it. This, once accepted, is actually awesome when you can use it yourself.
Sometimes, it’s infuriating — this closeness. Sometimes, it’s pretty endearing. It certainly does bring everyone together — because we have to. Everyone is in everyone’s face always. So we learn to deal with each other — just like Giulio having no issue with being bowled over as he runs to the slide — with a special burst of confetti from the other kids on the way (it’s Carnevale here so paper confetti is a free-for-all and, again, everyone just accepts it). Of course, I still believe everyone needs a bit of personal space — and that that’s the best way to be. That’s why we get away every once in a while and have our garden out back. But as I live here longer, my bubble of personal space has gotten smaller, and I think maybe overall it’s a good thing. It really gets you in touch with the people around you. Ha!
Originally published at lisaharveywriter.com on February 19, 2019.