Social distancing: Origins and effects

Staying away from each other has become crucial to slowing the spread of the coronavirus. Public health officials have instructed us to practise social distancing, stay home, avoid crowds, and refraining from touching one another.

In 1963 when Edward Hall, a cultural anthropologist, coined the term proxemics to define studies about social distancing in everyday life, nobody thought that a virus, 100 times smaller than even a bacteria, would make human closeness a big problem. Hall’s concern was that closer distances between two persons may increase visual, tactile, auditory, or olfactory stimulation to the point that some people may feel intruded upon and react negatively. Today we are worried about becoming exposed to a viral attack.

Hall proposed four main zones of space between individuals:

  • Intimate distance (less than half a metre), such as in giving or receiving a hug.
  • Personal distance (about 1 metre), usually reserved for family or good friends.
  • Social distance (2 to 3 metres), when meeting strangers.
  • Public distance (more than 5 metres), such as in public presentations. 

Under ordinary circumstances the interpersonal distance chosen by people depends on attitudes toward each other, as well as gender, age, and even climate. In addition, “contact cultures” use closer interpersonal distances and engage in more touching; “noncontact cultures” exhibit opposite preferences. In ordinary times the amygdala is suspected of processing strong reactions to violations of social spaces. Now we are facing compulsory social distancing beyond the amygdala and proxemics. We are ordered by public health authorities to create distances between households, neighborhoods, cities, and even countries.

Overall, people are resilient to short-term social distancing, although individuals who already have problems with loneliness, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, or other health problems are likely to be vulnerable to more problems. In the short run, understanding the purpose of prolonged isolation and having pride in being a good citizen by following the advice of professionals may help.

A 2015 study suggested that long-term social isolation (in the absence of a threat like the current viral infection) increased the risk of mortality by 29% in such chronic conditions as heart disease, depression, and dementia. 

There are no studies about the unintended side effects of enforced long-term social distancing situations. Confinement of families with children may result in unexpected interpersonal and family tensions. The physical closeness may exacerbate domestic violence. Missing the coping mechanisms provided by the emotional experiences of sporting or artistic events, even of religious ceremonies, may be a problem for many people. The anxiety about finances secondary to job losses and the interruption of schooling are only part of a predictable rise in mental health problems. And this is only a short list of what a submicroscopic lifeless protein can do when it burrows itself into the cells of our body to copy and copy and copy itself, multiplying to wreak havoc in our lives, and even kill us.  
—George Szasz, CM, MD

Suggested reading
Kennedy DP, Gläscher J, Tyszka JM, Adolphs R. Personal space regulation by the human amygdala. Nat Neurosci 2009;12:1226-1227.

Miller G. Social distancing prevents infections, but it can have unintended consequences. Science. Accessed 8 April 2020.

Wikipedia. Proxemics. Accessed 8 April 2020.

This post has not been peer reviewed by the BCMJ Editorial Board.

Courage Julius Logah says: reply

Than you for George. I found the write-up very insightful in my online search to understand the origin and scientific underpinnings of the term Social Distancing.

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