Personal Space, Status, and Territory
Kevin Simler has a great post about social status and its relation to space; a central aspect of this is personal space. As Kevin observes, we can understand a lot about people and the social relations between them by how watching they interact in space. People exert dominance by taking up a lot of space, or by invading someone else’s space; people express submission by huddling up, making themselves small, and trying to use as little space as possible.
So space is related to status in the following manner: having more status means having more space. Personal space can be explained very naturally in terms of territory, since having more territory makes you more powerful. If you’re trying to dominate someone, you will steal his territory. If you’re trying to submit to someone, you’ll surrender your territory to him.
The Personal Space Bubble
We can understand personal space metaphorically as a bubble. This “personal space bubble” marks the invisible boundary of your territory. As long as no one gets inside your bubble, all is well. But as soon as someone enters it unbidden, you’ll begin to feel physically uncomfortable, because your space has been invaded. Notice how this metaphor of invasion captures both the territorial aspect of personal space and the threat inherent in its violation.
So we can conceive of the personal space bubble as demarcating territory. But I’d like to explore another metaphor for understanding personal space: namely, we can view the personal space bubble as an extension of the physical body. This leads to some interesting insights, especially when we combine the PERSONAL SPACE IS BODY metaphor with the metaphor BODY IS SELF to get PERSONAL SPACE IS SELF.
Personal Space as an Extension of the Body
If we view the personal space bubble as part of the body, then entering someone’s personal space is like touching that person physically. The discomfort we feel at having our personal space invaded resembles the discomfort we experience at being touched by someone we don’t really know.
On the physical body, we view some parts as more spatially central, and others as more peripheral. Touching a central body part is much more intimate than touching a peripheral one. Someone you barely know might tap you on the shoulder, but touching someone’s chest or belly is usually reserved for romantic relationships. During courtship, physical contact proceeds from the most peripheral (least intimate) body parts to the most central (most inimate) ones. Pickup artist blogs encourage men to playfully touch a woman’s arm (a peripheral body part) in order to initiate physical contact and thereby create the beginnings of intimacy. “Escalating” the physical contact increases the intimacy. (MORE IS UP, for my fellow metaphor nerds.)
Personal Space as an Extension of the Self
Why is physical contact such a big deal? What makes it so intimate, or so threatening, depending on the context? The evo-psych answer to this is obvious: physical proximity equals vulnerability, so it makes sense that we’d have developed a very strong emotional response to it. But we can gain more insights into the significance of physical contact when we view it in terms of the metaphor BODY IS SELF, which we can combine with PERSONAL SPACE IS BODY to get PERSONAL SPACE IS SELF.
Observe that these metaphors contrast with the very space-limited conception we often have of the self. The self is frequently equated with the mind, or constrained even more narrowly to the higher cognitive functions. This means that if we grant the self a physical location at all, it will be in the brain. (A few weeks ago, I asked a friend where his self was, and he replied, with no hesitation, “my prefrontal cortex”.) Embodied cognition has begun to challenge this idea, extending the boundaries of the self to encompass the body as well. But even with the insights from embodied cognition, people usually don’t conceive of the self as extending beyond the body. (Notable exceptions include the people who study extended cognition, as well as all the mystical traditions which seek to remove the separation between self and other by asserting that all of us are one.)
Despite our dualistic heritage, though, I don’t think we really conceive of the self as restricted to the brain. We may talk about it that way in rational philosophical discourse, but linguistically and conceptually, we seem to perceive the body as part of the self. If someone touches your arm, it’s much more likely that you’ll think to yourself “someone touched me” than “someone touched my body”. This shows that the body and self are linked metonymically. And there’s an entire disorder for people who feel like their bodies are not part of their selves; it’s called depersonalization, and I’ve experienced it. If you have this condition, you will look at your body, and it won’t feel like a part of you; instead, it will feel like a machine that you operate. When you lift your arm, you’ll understand that you’re the one making it move, but it will feel like operating a robot from a distance. This suggests to me that the BODY IS SELF metaphor provides a very accurate description of our ordinary perceptions.
So what are the implications of this metaphor and its extension PERSONAL SPACE IS SELF? For one thing, it means that whenever someone invades your personal space or touches your body, they are touching and therefore altering your self. (Note that this relies on a further metaphor: to touch something physically is to alter or control it. Examples are “the film touched me deeply” and “he pushed me to publish my results”. These metaphors follow very naturally from the fact that touching things physically often allows us to influence, change, or control them.)
If someone dominates you by touching you or invading your personal space, they are imposing their self on yours; they are entering your self-space and thereby influencing your personality and identity. The closer they come, the further they intrude into your self-territory, the more their self blends with yours. This explains why couples in relationships are happy to enter each other’s space – they want to blend their selves, to unify into a single entity in some sense. And this is why sex is the most intimate of all acts, because it is the closest two selves can merge with one another. It’s also why rape is so traumatic: it doesn’t just hurt your body, but invades the deepest parts of your self.
Self and Possessions
We can extend our metaphor (and our selves!) even further if we say that possessions are part of the self. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m a territorial person, and when someone uses my stuff without asking first, it makes me feel very uncomfortable, like someone were violating my personal space. So this metaphor makes a lot of sense to me, and I’d like to add it to my conceptualization of the world.
Conceiving of possessions as part of the self gives a new meaning to the idea that “the things you own end up owning you”. When you buy something, that object gets integrated into your self. Some objects, like fancy cars, seem to come with their own “personalities”; when you buy one of these, it will merge with and influence your own personality. If you start out with a weak personality, and you acquire a lot of powerful artefacts, you may find them taking over…
But consider objects that don’t come with a personality; or rather, since all objects presumably have some personality, consider objects whose personalities are weak enough to be negligible. I’m thinking of things like an ordinary, functional stapler, a plain white coffee mug, or a simple decorative item in your house. You probably own a lot of these objects, but not all of them will be equally important to you. Thus, we can think of more and less peripheral objects, like there were more and less peripheral body parts. A disposable object that you don’t care about losing is likely to be peripheral. The most central objects are things like a kid’s blankie or teddy bear, or an adult’s computer or guitar.
What determines which objects are central and which are peripheral? The model I use for this is that when you first acquire an object, it gets infused with a little bit of your self, just because you own it. The longer you own the object, and the more you use it, the more of your self gets infused into it. This can happen with any kind of use, but the more emotion you feel when using the object, the stronger the bond between you and it will grow.
People say that freedom from possessions makes you happier. In terms of my metaphor, I think there are two reasons for this. One was already mentioned above: if you own a lot of objects with strong personalities, you may find that your own personality gets overwhelmed. But another is just that, if you own a lot of possessions, then your self will get spread too thin. You’ll have put bits of your self into so many objects that you won’t have any left to keep inside your body.
One way to free yourself from possessions is just to own less stuff: the fewer things you have, the less thinly you will need to spread yourself between them. And having fewer objects lets you invest more sentimental value in each of them. If you only have one spoon, it will be a lot more important to you than if you had fifteen identical spoons and used a different one each night.
But another way to free yourself from possessions is to “hold each possession lightly”. That is, you can have lots of possessions, as long as you don’t infuse much of your self into them. This can help prevent loss aversion, the phenomenon where we care more about losing something than we did about acquiring it in the first place. My explanation of loss aversion is that when you lose an object, you don’t just lose the physical possession, but the bits of your self that you’ve infused into it. So you can prevent loss aversion simply by putting less of your self into your possessions. Phrasing this in terms of a more common metaphor, the less you invest emotionally in your possessions, the less of a big deal it will be if you lose them. This is the physical possession version of keeping your identity small.