In the 1920s and 30s press agents and publicists began to use print media to publish stories about their clients or products. So rather than straight ads readers would find what looked like newspaper stories or magazine articles that were in reality a new form of advertising. Apparently media owners really disliked this and called them space grabbers.
I’ve begun using the term space grabbers for other situations. The group that spreads out across a sidewalk and ambles along paying no attention to who might be behind them. The truck owners who take up two parking units, the motorcyclists who make as much noise as possible driving down the street, the people who park for days and weeks in one place on the street despite a parking bylaw that prohibits it. Those who scatter garbage in their wake and never pick up after themselves. The companies who use all the resources (e.g. water) they can without thinking about future generations. Those who pollute. Those who bully and harass others.
Why is it that these things bug me so much? It would be easy to say because those people’s behaviours are wrong; they pay little attention to the needs of others. And perhaps that’s so, but I think there are other elements at work as well.
Is it true as someone said to me recently that we are becoming less kindly in the way we live with each other? What bugs you most that might relate to space grabbers – the noisy concert many blocks away? The clouds of acrid smoke from a fire pit?
As cities grow larger they develop more problems just from the sheer mass of humanity and all its complexities. To a certain extent we have to put up with each other, be somewhat flexible about the things that bug us. Still, for each of us there seems to be a place where we hold the line.
In the end it may come down to something basic – how we feel about incursions into our close environment. And it’s not only our visual sense that notices incursions on personal space.
Edward T. Hall (1914 – 2009) was an anthropologist and cultural researcher born in the United States. In the 1930s Hall lived and worked on reservations in the southwestern United States. This was an area where several cultures existed – Navaho, Hopi, Hispanic, and Anglo. As he explored worlds strange and new to him Hall began to see how culture affected each individual’s behaviour.
Subsequently he traveled in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Eventually he worked for the U.S. State Department, teaching intercultural communications skills to foreign service personnel. He continued to observe and study how humans behave in a variety of cultures and situations. His books range from The Silent Language (the ways that we communicate without the use of words) to The Fourth Dimension in Architecture (the impact of buildings on behaviour) and to The Hidden Dimension, which is about proxemics, or humans’ use of space and the effects that population density has on social interactions and communication.
It should be noted that Edward Hall is not the only person to study these topics.
In the Authors Preface to The Hidden Dimension (first published in 1966, but still very relevant and not only in the United States) Hall writes:
It is increasingly apparent that clashes between cultural systems are not restricted to international relations. Such clashes are assuming significant proportions within our own country and are exacerbated by the overcrowding in cities. Contrary to popular belief, the many diverse groups that make up our country have proved to be surprisingly persistent in maintaining their separate identities. Superficially, these groups may all look alike and sound somewhat alike, but beneath the surface are manifold unstated, unformulated differences in their structuring of time, space, materials, and relationships. It is these very differences that often result in the distortion of meaning, regardless of good intentions, when people of different cultures interact.
I began my life in a small city in Germany, living in an apartment block with a shared playground and other shared outdoor space. Later, my family moved to a farm in Canada with fewer amenities, a different language and much more outdoor space. Huge changes in culture. My earliest life, however, impacted me most for I still prefer to live in a small city rather than on a farm, though I do like visiting wilderness areas. And yet, in that city I am very aware (if only subconsciously at times) of the space around me.
Among animals, territoriality helps to prevent overpopulation and is a way to protect breeding grounds and raising of young. In our cities, have we been paying enough attention to the effects that crowding can have on the human psyche? Does it have the same effect on us all? Hall would say, No.
There are contact and non-contact species of animals. Halls list of the former includes walruses (showing a picture in his book of them sleeping crammed together), pigs, brown bats; his lists of the latter includes horses, swans, hawks. Though Hall does say that all species begin as contact types, but change as they grow and leave their parents.
According to Hall there is also a relationship between aggression and display – aggressive animals display more vigorously. So do some humans view vigorous display in others as aggressive?
People from different cultures, says Hall, not only speak different languages, but what is possibly more important, inhabit different sensory worlds. Each world has its own set of sensory inputs, so that what crowds people of one culture does not necessarily crowd another. In addition, social animals need to stay in contact with each other.
Most of us are familiar with the terms introvert and extrovert. These are terms that attempt to define how individuals interact socially. Each of us generally knows where we fit.
I’m more of an introvert than an extrovert. That means I enjoy spending time with others in moderation and like a lot of time to myself. I prefer quieter activities though I do enjoy a noisy spectacle on occasion. Because I’m a quieter person who doesn’t often make a fuss, it seems to me that people don’t always notice that I’m
Extroverts are more out there, showing themselves, making themselves noticed. So they push their boundaries out quite visibly. Introverts who come into the orbit of some extroverts have to push back hard in order not to feel run over.
Certain characteristics are born or created in us perhaps through culture, and are difficult to change. From all I’ve read you can’t change your tendency toward introversion or extroversion, though you can perhaps engage in various activities that stretch your preferences. Neither introversion nor extroversion is wrong. However, by being more aware of peoples’ tendency for one or the other we may be able to be more tolerant of differences. We need to remember that each of us comes from our own traditions and may have diverse needs in terms of personal space. At the same time, it seems to me that city planners and architects can do more to avoid overcrowding in cities and make them gentler, more livable places.