A little social distance, please – even after the pandemic

No woman – or man – should have to go back to feeling uncomfortable when boundaries are breached

Before the coronavirus pandemic, it was the #MeToo movement that led to discussions about personal space and maintaining physical boundaries.

Back in 2017, there was talk of how women often felt their physical boundaries were routinely breached, which added to some women feeling not just disrespected but violated.

These public conversations, largely online, raised important questions: how could those men who – whether habitually or absent-mindedly – disrespected women's space be prevented from doing so? How could we change behaviour patterns and create a different culture, a healthier one, in which men didn't feel entitled to disregard women's preference for people standing a little further away.

After the Harvey Weinstein case, some men at least attempted to understand the discomfort and even terror that women can feel, but often suppress – for fear of consequences – when they try to regulate their personal space.

Then came the pandemic and the universal roll out of social distancing.

A year and a half since then, as we gradually shed coronavirus restrictions, there are behaviours we need to get used to again. Let's hope that the violation of personal boundaries is not going to be one of them – unlike the hand washing and mask wearing, which I suspect, are here to stay.

During peak Covid-19 restrictions, plenty of people were already wary of catching the virus or infecting others. This period gave women a justified reason to tell people off if they flouted restrictions and stood too close. The social distancing, which accompanied Covid-19 gave people breathers from uninvited and unwanted hugs, kisses on the cheek and shaking of hands.

For many women, it freed their bodies of the tension they are prone to carry, in anticipation of someone violating space boundaries. It freed many of the fear that if they voiced their concerns, they would be called rude or grumpy, get mocked for "making a big deal" – or worse, have a man turn on them with aggression and even violence. Broadly speaking, over the past year and a half, women didn't have to be on guard as much as was the case before the pandemic, and this was a huge relief.

Studies suggest that people now perceive the value of their personal space to be greater than it used to be. Research at Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital suggests that subjects have increasing personal space requirements, post the onset of the pandemic as compared to before. The authors of the research are unsure whether this observed change will subside post pandemic or not.

Even in non-medical circles though, there are discussions under way that we need a new non-verbal and spatial language to be able to tell the level of comfort people have about social distancing rules. We may be nervous about once-normal behaviours such as hugs if we don't know the other person's feelings on the matter.

But it's not just women who want their personal space respected.

To be sure, men have also felt the discomfort of someone coming too close, and the social awkwardness of dealing with those who simply don’t care about intruding on personal space. However, while plenty of men like their physical space, it is rare to hear a man talk about feeling threatened or uncomfortable when that boundary is disregarded.

Having your personal space breached and therefore risking contracting Covid-19 is on a different scale to what many women deal with: a lifelong barrage of micro-aggressions when they assert their need for boundaries.

Nonetheless, the social distancing brought on by the pandemic ought to have given men a taste of what many women experience routinely. Perhaps at last men can relate and understand the importance women attach to their space. It took too long but maybe the point that personal space is sacrosanct has finally been made.

As we emerge from the pandemic, we will need to re-establish some social norms. In doing so we must not miss the opportunity to permanently weave in women's rightful claims to maintain boundaries. It is critical to start doing that now before we all revert to type. Even when the pandemic is behind us, no woman should have to go back to feeling uncomfortable.

Updated: July 14th 2021, 3:53 PM

Shelina Janmohamed

Shelina Janmohamed is a columnist for The National