We Americans are taught to maintain an inviolable spatial envelope, or imaginary bubble, around ourselves. But does our desire for individualism allow us to experience the world in all its concrete fullness?

Like all Americans, even those with gypsy blood, my experience of space was determined by individualism. In the third grade, my desk, in a row of identical desks, was the farthest from the teacher, Miss Booth, who sat at a large desk at the front of the classroom. When Joey Prinko reached across the aisle separating our respective rows of desks to hand me a pencil or a crayon, the teacher yelled at him and told him to keep his hands home. Each one of us occupied a small cubicle with invisible walls. In grade school, I, of course, did not know that the arrangement of desks in our classrooms was dictated by the answer to “Who am I?” given to all of us by American culture.

My classmates lived in houses, mainly rentals, and not in apartments. With one or two exceptions, every American house I have been in emphasizes privacy, not only bathrooms had doors, but bedrooms, living rooms, and often kitchens. I once owned a Victorian clapboard house in New Hampshire built in the 1880s; every room and every closet had doors that could be locked by an old-fashioned key. In suburbia, houses are often designed to isolate persons. To guarantee privacy homes are separated from each other, and side doors on successive houses are deliberately built facing opposite directions, so neighbors will avoid spontaneous meetings.

Surprisingly, architecture reveals how members of a particular culture understand themselves. The typical American house is not separated from the rest of the community by a high wall; but inside walls divide the house into private spaces for each individual. Traditional Chinese houses, in contrast, are set off from the community by high walls and screened gates, although their interiors are designed for common living, not partitioned privacy. Each culture puts the wall around the basic unit: for Americans, the individual; for the Chinese, the family.

Furthermore, the walls we put around ourselves are not merely physical. A revealing visual representation of how we Americans understand ourselves was given by a former student of mine in reply to the question, “Who are you?” She answered, “I am everything in here,” tracing her hands over her body from head to toe, “and nothing out there.” This young woman thought of herself as living inside an imaginary bubble that isolated her from the world. She thought to be free meant to be an isolated, autonomous individual and believed that she owned herself and her abilities, that all the relations she had with other persons she voluntarily chose and that she owed nothing to other persons except what she of her own free will incurred.

We Americans are taught to maintain an inviolable spatial envelope, or imaginary bubble, around ourselves. If I am talking to another American and move closer to him, he will without thinking move away in order that I not invade the imaginary, private space that he maintains around himself. A Latin American, conversely, does not feel comfortable talking with another person unless he or she is very close to the distance that usually evokes either sexual or hostile feelings in a North American.[1] When Latin Americans move close to us, we withdraw and back away. Consequently, they think we are distant and cold, withdrawn and unfriendly.

When we ride on a crowded elevator, we hold ourselves in, having been taught from early childhood to avoid bodily contact with strangers. Americans, generally, avoid making eye contact with another person. Crowded streets, stores, and subways are filled with people looking either straight ahead or at the ground. If two people happen to look at each other at the same time the reflex response is to turn away, for direct eye contact is a violation of the other person’s space.

If a stranger in a fast food restaurant asks to sit down in a booth that we occupy by ourselves, we would immediately perceive him or her as a threat or perhaps as mentally unbalanced; we are perfectly happy to sit alone in a swivel chair facing a blank wall. Outside of elevators, buses, and trains that force us into close physical proximity, we have little physical contact with others. Except for sexual intimacy, we find physical contact with others repugnant.

Anthropologist Edward Hall reports of one woman he interviewed: “A normally cheerful, outgoing person, who had been thrown into a temper for the umpteenth time by her modern but badly designed kitchen, said: ‘I hate being touched or bumped, even by people who are close to me. That’s why this kitchen makes me so mad when I’m trying to get dinner and someone is always in my way.’“[2]

In general, Americans consider being jostled or touched even by those they love as an invasion of their private space. The only exception to this repugnance seems to be sexual contact. Ashley Montagu comments, “Tactile demonstrations of affection between mother and daughter are not as inhibited as they are between mother and son. The very thought of any such demonstration of affection between father and son is something that makes most American fathers squirm. A boy putting his arm around the shoulders of another boy is cause for real alarm. It is simply not done. Even women are reluctant to indulge in such open displays of affection towards members of their own sex. One touches others largely in a sexual context. To touch another out of such context is open to grave misinterpretation, since touching is to a large extent restricted to and associated with sex.”[3]

Since Montagu wrote these words the inhibitions about touching in American life have weakened somewhat; however, we Americans still evaluate others by observing the visual image they project and “make contact” by talking to them rather than touching them.

Inside our imaginary bubble, the role of smell is diminished. “In the use of the olfactory apparatus, Americans are culturally underdeveloped,” Hall observes. “The extensive use of deodorants and the suppression of odor in public places results in a land of olfactory blandness and sameness that would be difficult to duplicate anywhere else in the world. This blandness makes for undifferentiated spaces and deprives us of richness and variety in life. It also obscures memories, because smell evokes much deeper memories than either vision or sound.”[4]

We do not like to breathe the breath of others or feel the breath of others. We also dislike smelling the odor of others. To avoid violating the private space of others we make extensive use of deodorants and take frequent showers to rid us of any trace of perceptible body odor. In public places, ventilation, air conditioning, and air fresheners eliminate odor.

Most Americans are surprised to learn that smells occupy a prominent place in the Arab life. “Arabs consistently breathe on people when they talk. . . . To the Arab good smells are pleasing and a way of being involved with each other. To smell one’s friend is not only nice but desirable, for to deny him your breath is to act ashamed.” By highlighting smells, “Arabs do not try to eliminate all the body’s odors, only to enhance and use them in building human relationships. . . . Smell is even considered in the choice of a mate. When couples are being matched for marriage, the man’s go-between will sometimes ask to smell the girl, who may be turned down if she doesn’t ‘smell nice.’ “[5]

We say that we protect ourselves from each other’s secretions in the interest of sanitation. Who but a very young child would think of using someone else’s toothbrush? We are disgusted by accounts of how South Sea Islanders like to share half-chewed betel nuts. We would probably throw up if we saw the pitcher and the catcher of the New York Yankees exchange wads of chewed tobacco.

To preserve the imaginary bubbles around ourselves, we make contact with the outside world primarily through sight and hearing, the senses that operate at the greatest distances from their objects. Our five senses are unbalanced; sight and hearing predominate at the expense of smell, taste, and touch. No wonder we Americans invented Disneyland, McDonald’s, and Bud Light.

Isolated and self-absorbed within our bubble, we emphasize language over concrete experience. But language can never replace, duplicate, or even approximate concrete experience. We cannot convey in words what strawberries taste like or what a rose smells like to anyone who has never experienced these things. In extreme isolation, the only inner activity a person can have is a dialogue with himself or herself. So, the more persons are isolated from each other and things, the more speech replaces concrete experience. Because individualism promotes excessive verbal activity and neglects concrete experience, modern Western intellectual life often degenerates into meaningless language games, empty speculation, and endless verbal wrangling.

Group-centered cultures are less verbal than we are. The Japanese mother speaks less to her infant than the American mother does to hers. Anthropologist Harumi Befu points out the consequences for adult life: “Americans tend to emphasize verbal ability a great deal more than the Japanese. . . . The ideal Japanese has been a man of few words, one who would show his character through action rather than through verbal promises of what he would do and one who would persevere without complaint.”[6]

Correspondingly, group-centered cultures emphasize concrete experience. In rural Greece, psychologist Mariella Doumanis points out that when people “sit together they seldom chat. Usually they talk when they have something specific to communicate to one another. They may argue fiercely and at length when there is a difference of opinion, but they also may remain silent for quite a while carefully observing the other people around them.”[7] Rural Greeks place great emphasis on observation as do the Native Americans. Chief Standing Bear reports that the Lakota children “were taught to use their organs of smell, to look when apparently there was nothing to see, and to listen intently when all seemingly was quiet. A child who cannot sit still is a half-developed child.”[8] In contrast, American children are trained to develop verbal skills, not their observational skills.

If we wish to experience the world in all its concrete fullness, we have to be liberated from modern culture. We must train our senses to be more acute and more in balance. We need the kind of sensory education that Chief Standing Bear tells us the Lakota children received. Unless we learn to smell, see, and listen well, we are half-developed adults and not fully connected to the world around us.

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1 See Edward T. Hall, The Silent Language, (Greenwich, Conn: Fawcett, 1959), p. 164.

2 Edward T. Hall, The Hidden Dimension (Garden City: Doubleday, 1966), p. 51.

3 Ashley Montagu, Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971), pp. 247-248.

4 Hall, Hidden Dimension, p. 43.

5 Ibid., p. 149.

6 Harumi Befu, Japan: An Anthropological Introduction (San Francisco: Chandler, 1971), p. 153.

7 Mariella Doumanis, Mothering in Greece: from Collectivism to Individualism (London and New York: Academic Press, 1983), p. 55.

8 Standing Bear, Land of the Spotted Eagle (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978), pp. 69-70.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is a detail from “Nighthawks” (1942) by Edward Hopper (1882-1967), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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