Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Doing the dance: How groups groove

Once people in a society have learned their culture (or become socialized) they begin to do the dance. Isn't it wonderful watching humans walk around and carefully avoid one another? The quiet understanding of personal space is something that has always fascinated me.

If you look out of a window... from at least four floors up, and you watch people, you can see them dance. How they dance! In America our personal space norms are taught to us at a very young age. I remember standing in grocery lines with my mother and being pulled back by my shirt collar and admonished for being "too close" to the person ahead of us.

It may come as a surprise to many of you that culturally, our standards dictating personal space differ. It middle eastern cultures, they tend to stand closer to one another... in England and other parts of Great Britain, the distance is further apart. Knowing about the differences of cultural space can help us a great deal when we travel, when we are dealing with other cultures in our own country, and when we try to study or write about cultures we have never interacted with. It gives us a good place to start. It tells the story of the dance.

Relationships are a dance. At first, people don't know one another and they get stepped on. Ouch! But then, if both partners are willing to learn the steps, to feel the rhythm of the other dancer, they become brilliant at it.

That is the key. That is where the work comes in, the commitment to living a life of individual concessions. A life of "I would like to spin faster," mixed with "I don't like to spin".

Everything good in life has to do with hard work. If it wasn't hard, if it was too easy, we better go back and check the status!

Groups move together in a dance as well. A Ferris wheel where people get off and get on, all moving and knowing and speaking without having to direct or be told. I love that about society. The beautiful dancing.

And the farce! How about when we go out of step? You know the drill. You are walking along the street and someone else is walking toward you and you go to step aside... but so does he! And soon you are doing a different kind of dance, the one that brings you out of stranger reverie and into each others lives for a moment... a funny, whimsical, delightfully uncomfortable moment.

Society, Groups, Relationships, Love. All dances. All smoooooth once we learn the steps. So: Practice, practice, practice!


  1. Interesting thoughts here.

    This morning I took my son to Target and pulled him back by the shirt collar when he was standing too close to the lady in front of us. I laughed out loud when I read that on your post just now.

  2. I am always amazed at how my eduction in sociology helps me with my fiction. Just the simplest detail of how close or how far people are standing from one another... gotten wrong... can corrupt the whole scene.

    I do it with my kids too. I usually use that Patrick Swayze quote from Dirty Dancing. Remember it "This is MY dance space, this is YOUR dance space." :)

  3. I was just thinking about this the other day when I was in Walmart and realized that no one in that store, no matter what city or state, knows what personal space is. Especially in line!

  4. Personal space is a huge concern in cultures especially when you don't realize you are offending another culture if you are unaware of their customs. Being that I work with individuals from Kenya, I am constantly in a battle with them over personal space. In africa they tend to stand close to each other when in conversation but when they do the same, in respect to me, I feel violated in that they are too close.

    It is hard to please two cultures at once but after years of working together we have been able to establish a "happy medium" in which both of us finally feel comfortable.

    The hardest thing, in my eyes, is being aware when you are unaware and offending when you don't mean to offend.

  5. That was interesting, here in Cyprus, I find the Cypriots have no boundaries, they get into another's space. As a Brit, I found it intrusive, now I just stand with my elbows out LOL
    Interesting topic