‘Please stay home for us!’ Since the outbreak of the corona crisis, healthcare workers from across the world have been successful in crowding social media with this message to the public. Indeed, it seems sensible for the common good to follow their advice, at least out of necessity. Thinking about implications for privacy, as we constantly do at the Centre for Privacy Studies, it seems obvious to ask whether more time at home might not also have positive side effects in terms of privacy. To be sure, long before the modern era, the home has been defined as a private sphere, in opposition to the public square. Along the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, residential buildings have been gradually extended, isolated from each other and become places where an increasing number of people could benefit from certain legal rights to live undisturbed by the outside world (and to some extent even by their closest neighbours). Accordingly, privacy is sometimes described in terms of physical and mental autonomy or solitude, for example as ‘a state of being alone’.With this background, one could imagine that the appeal to stay at home, apart from the apparent problems embedded in transforming it to a place of work, would resonate like a romantic invitation to an existence rich with valuable privacy, whether alone or with family.
Indeed, the corona realities liberate more time for ourselves or our families. But after several weeks almost entirely spent between the walls of our homes, does it really make sense to talk about life dictated by the virus as an existence beneficial for privacy? Although families get more time together – which can surely be valuable in many cases – children have had a rising need to get out. In several countries, public playgrounds have been closed during the strictest lock-downs, and the Spanish government has only recently opened up for children under fourteen to leave their home one hour per diem. As for people living by themselves, the order to stay at home tends to lead to isolation, at least after the first weeks of intense puzzling with crosswords and Netflix consummation. Mental disease, and even suicide rates, are expected to increase as a consequence of rising loneliness.
When I first started to reflect upon how to approach the elusive topic of privacy, which surely escapes too narrow definitions, I was a bit sceptic to approaches that put too much emphasis on the individual’s inner life or a state of solitude. In my efforts to problematise such definitions, I was struck by a stimulating question formulated by Helen Nissenbaum, professor of information science at Cornell Tech: ‘Does a person stranded on an island really have privacy?’. I still find it really difficult to motivate an affirmative reply on that question. Slightly reformulated, it seems to be quite applicable on the quarantine situation: Does a person locked inside his or her home really have privacy? Isn’t rather each family or household stranded on a desert island, although equipped with a decent WiFi-connection?
Helen Nissenbaum has been highly influential in forming US legislation on informational privacy, which is partly based on her concept of ‘contextual integrity’ regarding public surveillance. The basic principle is that no information is private as such; laws must be formulated with regard to its social context. Together with the Canadian philosopher Michael Walzer’s concept ‘spheres of justice’, the framework of contextual integrity urges information gathering to define categories depending on the social norms of various contexts.While Nissenbaum specialises in informational privacy, her heuristic questioning of whether there is reason to speak about privacy on a desert island with one single inhabitant implies that social relations might be an important factor when trying to understand what makes privacy valuable.
Considering privacy as a fundamentally relational phenomenon would suggest that valuable privacy would typically emerge as a response to social experience, in dynamic with others and the outside world. Indeed, this idea coincides pretty well with some creative approaches to study notions of privacy within the field of cultural history, for example as a protest against intrusion (from authorities or fellow citizens), an act of temporary withdrawal from social life or a need to cultivate more intimate relations.This would not exclude the assumption that key moments of experienced privacy are taking place in more or less secluded physical spaces, or while the individual is fully occupied with his or her inner life. But it would encourage scholars in search of privacy to investigate how such moments are related to a social context (authoritarian or friendly) that provokes a need for privacy. It would also imply that long-term isolation might be a threat to privacy.
If privacy is understood as a response to social experience rather than just in terms of being in one’s private sphere, the social isolation following on the plea to stay at home during the corona crisis may not contribute very well to evoke the values of privacy. But it does seem to suggest a clear-cut distinction between private and public responsibilities during the crisis: the private responsibility being to stay at home; the public responsibility to provide health care to those who need it. From a historical perspective, it might be most peculiar that people are encouraged to be passive. In emergency regulations for seventeenth-century Helmstedt and eighteenth-century Altona – two of the case cities that we are currently researching at PRIVACY – private responsibilities were generally of more active character. In order to prepare for the risk of fire, private people (Privat-Leuten) were ordered to be constantly on guard to provide the city’s functionaries with water and lighting, even in the middle of the night. Today we are barely asked for more than to provide ourselves (and our elderly) with food and toilet paper. Briefly, we are encouraged to fight the corona virus in our distinct private sphere. Having reached a high degree of specialisation and material welfare, today’s Western societies provide its citizens with both physical space and room for action to perform their private lives, in states of emergency as well as under more normal circumstances.
One thing is sure. Setting our normal lives on hold and staying home gives us quite a unique occasion to ponder and experience what privacy is and what it isn’t. Does it make sense to us, under these extreme conditions, to regard privacy as a state of being alone or as an existence in our private sphere? Or does it rather correspond to our experience that long-term isolation, or the conditions in the private sphere, make it more difficult to experience privacy? We may take the opportunity to try to detect how ‘the corona human’ is seeking his or her privacy. Perhaps by borrowing a dog from the neighbour? It has been widely noticed that dog owners in areas with strict quarantine regulations have been lending out, or even renting out, their dogs to people desperate to get out.The rising interest in dog-walks might satisfy many needs in terms of privacy. It might offer socially overwhelmed family members ‘a time of one’s own’. Obversely, individuals living in self-isolation can get an opportunity to escape their cells, which may help them to live through or, even better, benefit from further days in solitude. A third person might find the dog walking business a joyful way to outsmart the authorities and reconquer his or her autonomy. Perhaps these various efforts to leave one’s private sphere indicate that the state of emergency following on the corona virus is as much a threat to privacy as an opportunity for it?
 E. g. Cambridge English Dictionary, ‘Privacy’. For a rich discussion on theories regarding privacy in relation to freedom and autonomy, see Beate Rössler, The Value of Privacy, Polity Press (Frankfurt am Main 2005) , p. 43–76.
 Helen Nissenbaum, Privacy in context: technology, policy and the integrity of social life, Stanford Law Books (Stanford 2010), p. 71.
 Helen Nissenbaum, ‘Privacy As Contextual Integrity’, Washington law review, 79:1 (2004).
 See for example Barrington Moore, Privacy: Studies in Social and Cultural History, M. E. Sharpe, Armonk (New York 1984), p. xi, 71–73; Diana Webb, Privacy and solitude in the middle ages, Hambledon Continuum (London 2007), p. ix; Julie C. Inness, Privacy, Intimacy, and Isolation, Oxford University Press (New York 1992).
A month ago, I started seeing one of my old sources, a 1563 Plague Order for the City of Westminster, in a new light.
“Maybe this could be of current interest”, I thought, and stored it in a drawer for later thought. As the weeks passed, I pulled the Order out my drawer more and more often. Then, a week ago, I realised with a mix of intrigue and disbelief that the draconic measures of the Elizabethan Plague Order were not just the emergency measures of the early modern state, they were the measures of the modern state. In the week that has passed, the similarities have only become more pronounced. From my home desk, history has seemed to warp and repeat itself. In all this, one thing seems certain: measures for fighting against epidemics have not in their essence changed since the 16th century, but surely, notions of privacy have.
The otherwise little used word “Quarantine”, originally a forty-day period of isolation, has rapidly moved from passive periphery to active centre stage in our daily vocabulary.
Across the globe, the spread of the Corona Virus is intensifying by the day. And country after country joins the ranks of those with citizens that are affected by the contagious disease. Throughout these countries, the dual-method for dealing with the threat of mass contagion is simple: quarantine and a tracking down of every person with whom the sick citizen has had contact. These precautions, the isolation of an individual, either in the individual’s home, or as we have seen, in hotel resorts, hospitals or even a cruise liner, and the searching out of the person’s movements, activities, and daily interactions, are, from society’s point of view, necessary for the common good. But to the individual citizen, they are also direct, physiognomic, spatial, and informational invasions on the individual’s personal privacy.
As such, the legal and health regulatory developments that are presently being instated across the world beg the question: is health a public or a private issue?
According to a recent tweet by the influential eco journalist, Adam Ramsay, the case is clear: “health isn’t private”. 
Instead, Ramsay explains, “Everyone’s health relies to some extent on everyone else’s. Healthcare has to be public because health is public.”
Broadly speaking, we might identify this form of logic as a “common good” sort of argument that reminds us of the prevalence that the benefit of the many takes over the benefit of the few.
At the Centre for Privacy Studies we investigate notions of privacy in early modern Europe in the period between 1500-1800. Needless to say, the question of how to contain and abate mass epidemics was an issue of concern in this period also. My own focus at the Centre is on the City of Westminster during the rule of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), whose reign saw several visitations of the plague.
You might ask what the plague in the 16th century has to do with a virus epidemic in 2020. Well, for one, they have the quarantine in common. Second, they share a similar rhetorical focus on “the common good” as well as a complementing vilification of private interest. Finally, they share a fundamental shift in the balance of power between individual and state. A shift that is perhaps best understood as an invasion or annexation of territory that the state had more or less formally relinquished to the private citizen, but in cases of emergency reclaim to their absolute domain. It is difficult to talk about rights and privacy in 16th century England, but we might, by negative inference, be able to detect the thresholds that the state saw fit to regulate and invade in emergencies. Thresholds that it might not otherwise have bothered with.
The 1563 Plague Order for City of Westminster:
”Fyrst we wyll and command you in the name of our sayde soueraigne Ladye … to … shutte up both … doors and wyndowes towards the streates or common ways by the space of fortie dayes.”
This command is from the Plague Order, issued in March 1563 by the Secretary of State, William Cecil. It commands the civic officials of Westminster to shut up any houses with infected members, placing the sick and their households in quarantine.
In the Order, clear rules for disregarding the quarantine are delineated. That is, should a member of the household be let out – or should a visitor or customer be let in – that same person would be “committed to the upstockes” for about seven days and then brought to the “common gayle” to remain there for a full forty-day quarantine.
The measures, quarantine in the case of sickness and corporal punishment in the case of disregarding the quarantine, might seem draconic to modern ears. Yet, in China and Italy, two of the most severely infected countries to take measures against the present Covid-19 epidemic, corrective regulations have been passed to discipline those that trespass against their quarantine – or even misinform the health authorities about their activities. The need to assess whom an infected individual might have infected unawares is an important part of containing the spread of the virus, but it is also information that is fraught with details about our private lives. Details we might not want to share either with the authorities or even with family members. There is no evidence in the 1563 source that any such care towards detecting potentially infected individuals took place.
In 1563, quarantine measures were still relatively new in England. And, as we have seen ample evidence of in the past months of Covid-19 coverage, quarantine is still very much in use. Some things however, have changed since 1563.
As stated, quarantine was still a new measure in 1563 and with new visitations, new means were developed to perfect quarantine measure. One of the improvements was the building of pesthouses, or of pest fields, as in the case of the parish of St. Martin’s in the Field. Pesthouses were places to which sick members of a household could be sent for the remaining duration of their life, or in some happy cases, the duration of the quarantine. The infected households in question would still be shut up, but with a significantly smaller risk of catching the disease themselves. Before the pesthouses were used, households would simply be shut up with all of the inhabitants inside, sick or not.
So, in a household of, say, seven, even if only one person were ill, the entire household would be put under quarantine until the house was opened again forty days later. How many, we might wonder, would survive such conditions?
The local parishes of Westminster were at the core of organising everything from shutting up houses, taking away the dead, detecting the infected, collecting money for charity, and doling out “victuell and fuell” to the “persons shutte up and forbidden to come abrode.” The number of deaths during the 1563 plague are fraught with uncertainty, but based on the parish registers of Westminster and London, scholarship on the period estimate a 1000 deaths per week for several months. According to John Charles Cox’s The Parish Registers of England, the parish of St. Martin in Field noted a total of 177 burials in 1563, “145 of which are followed by the word peste.” This might not seem like a daunting number but according to the parish registers, yearly burials would be in the tens and twenties, not in the hundreds. This is evident in Cox’s table over burials between 1562 and 1564 in five nearby London parishes.
To some extent, the 1563 Plague Order informs us of how the state reacted in the face of emergency – quarantine measures, punitive regulation and organisation of poor relief for the quarantined, but it doesn’t tell us anything about how the people reacted. Did they keep the quarantine? And if not, how were such trespassing detected and monitored?
Looking into praxis – Newman’s work on the 1636/37 bubonic plague:
The early modernist, Kira L. S. Newman, seeks to answer some of these questions in her excellent research on the bubonic plague in 1636-1637 London and Westminster.
The question of whether or not quarantined citizens respected their quarantine is answered with a resounding “no” in Newman’s sources. Watchmen were posted outside houses and on corners to keep an eye on the infected households and make sure that none left or entered. In fact, Newman’s sources show a whole list of necessary occupations taken on by the local parishes. The sources from the parish of St. Martin in the Field are particularly detailed and describe the expenses towards a whole corpus of personnel: “nurses, watchmen, bearers and searchers.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Newman’s investigations show that it was not the poor, nor the wealthy, that broke their quarantine, or tried to bribe the searchers not to report on an infected member of the house – or bribe the watchmen to look the other way when customers and visitors came calling. No, it was the industrious middleclass. The tailors, the shoemakers, the shop keepers, the innkeepers and other forms of small business owners whose livelihood were pulled from down under them with the severe restrictions on mobility and heavy death tolls in their clientele.
Newman writes that “There was a conspicuous absence of the poorest from the Session Rolls.” The poor, she argues, would be given food and fuel free of charge and therefore might have had less incentive to disregard quarantine orders. But not all poor people had a home or space to share that was theirs. What did the poor people that rented rooms do? The answer to this question is vividly given in the 1563 plague order: they were not shut up. They were shipped out.
Rhetoric and vilification:
“And further, where it is evidently knowen that in the sayde Citie of Westminster, there be greater numbers of people inhabytyng, and as it were swarmyng in every rome, than can reasonably have their sustentation by their honest labours or trade of lyvyng, by reason that for gredinesse and lucre many owners or tenauntes of houses, do take into them other inhabitants and famylyes, to dwell in some part of theyr chambers, shoppes, cellers, or leanetoos, paying for the same also such excessyue weekly, or other kynde of rentes, as they can not mayntayne them selves in sekyng the same by sundry kyndes pf disorder”.
This section of the order is so strikingly rich in its portrayal of the social situation in Westminster. Its portrayal of private property and private greed vs. public good reveals a system that did not have the state apparatus to deal with overpopulation, nor, significantly, the means to contain the spread of the infection. The reasons for Westminster’s overpopulation are compound. For one, Westminster was the seat of power. When Westminster was not visited by the plague, parliament, the royal court and the legal courts were open for courtiers and those with political and legal affairs from all of the country. The wealthier of these would have houses in Westminster for this specific purpose. Similarly, the well-connected would stay with wealthy friends. Everyone else would have to rent houses, rooms, or beds according to their means and status. In turn, such activity brought in servants or demanded that temporary servants be taken on for the duration of a stay, meaning that those in need of a job, or wanting to sell their goods at the market would flock to Westminster too.
Unlike the lockdowns of France, Spain and Italy, the City of Westminster was not shut up nor locked down. Much like Boccacio’s group of imaginative noblemen and women in The Decameron, the rich fled to their country houses and the poor remained.
All those that in the state’s eyes were “swarmyng in every rome” were sent back to where they came from. And those that defied these orders, perhaps in an attempt to make some extra money by continuing to lend out their “shoppes, chambers, cellars or leanetoes” were publicly shamed for their private interest – their “greedinesse and lucre”. Additionally, those that did rent a place, be it in a shop or chamber – were deeply vilified in the Lord Secretary’s description. It is unthinkable by the logic laid out in the Order, that such persons would be able to sustain themselves by an honourable profession. The Order’s careful wording evoke powerful images of greedy self-interest and dehumanised hordes of criminals, endangering the health of the city. The connection that Lord Burghley forges between greed and private interest is by no means novel. In the Acts of Parliament, we see an even more directly expressed vilification of private interest as “private greed”, “lucre”, “profit” and “gayne”. The table below gives an overview of non-formulaic priv*-words, in the Acts of Parliament from 1547 to 1603.
Vagrants, day-labourers, season workers and their families were, according to the Plague Order, thrown out of their homes, be they rented or lent. Those with permanent settlement in Westminster on the other hand were, if suspected of being infected, shut up in their home, or in the case of servants, in the home of their master. In the first case, such action robbed citizens of the roof over their heads. In the latter case, it robbed citizens of their personal mobility.
The Plague Order from 1563 is unambiguous and unapologetic in its intrusion into private property. The privacy to do what you want – with and in – your property or lodging is unflinchingly interfered by the authorities when the state is in a state of emergency.
Health Status – to be or not to be publicly marked?
With 21st century eyes, these actions are very serious potential violations to personal freedom and privacy. But that does not mean that 21st century governments have not enforced similar measures in states of emergency. In Denmark, we have all been encouraged to work from home and stay indoors and in this moment of writing, all shops, cafés, bars and restaurants are being shut down.
An Emergency Act was passed this week in the Danish Parliament. The Act was passed with a unanimous vote across the political parties. One thing, however, was fiercely debated before the Act was put through; namely, the inviolability of private property. In the Act, the government wants to have the possibility to grant officials the right to search and enter private property without a search warrant. The permission has not been put into use, but it is now in the government’s arsenal, should circumstances call for such drastic measures.
Turning to another example of state muscle-flexing, the French prime minister, Emmanuel Macron, has declared war on the virus and placed the entire country under a 14-day lockdown. During this lockdown, non-essential excursions will be fined.
In the province of Hangzhou, as reported early this month in the New York Times, a new system of classification is introduced to control citizen’s movement and determine their virus status and thereby assess their right to mobility.  The app, Alipay, is used to give citizens a health code: Green is good and gives free access to public space and transport, yellow means seven days’ isolation and red results in a 14-day quarantine. The status of your health is based on your movements and the people you have been in contact with. All trackable through the app. As with so many of the measures now put in place, we find historical equivalents. None are found in the 1563 Plague Order, but the Plague Order from 1578, not directed at plague in Westminster but in the countryside, gives an Elizabethan example of publicly marking health status. In the order, it is explained that those quarantined at their farms are allowed to care for their livestock and manure their fields. But it is also noted that such persons “be neverthelesse retrained from resorting into companie of others either publicaly or privately during the said time of the restraint, and to wear some marke in their uppermost garments, or beare white rods in their hands at such time as they shall goe abrode”.
In the case of the app Alipay, used in China, the concerns in terms of privacy and mobility tracking are of course significantly more far-reaching. Emergency Acts are rushed through parliament in countries across the world and as much as such emergency legislation is for the benefit of the common good, citizens also voice valid concerns.
Privacy in a State of Emergency
In a recent article in the L.A. Times, the newspaper answered a question about governmental infringement on the private sphere: “What can the government force people to do in the name of containing the coronavirus?” We might notice the overt hostility and scepticism in verbal phrasing of the question. The word “force” springs to our attention, but also the formulation “in the name of” indicates a deep mistrust towards state interference. What this question brings to mind is the monopoly on legitimate violence vested in the state. The monopoly on legitimate violence is one of the defining aspects of Max Weber’s understanding of statehood. The 1563 Plague Order and the rampant Covid-19 crisis reminds us that this monopoly is constantly negotiated across the different zones of society as perception of what pertains to the public domain expands and contracts. In France, parliament started out by advising its citizens to stay indoors and avoid social engagements and physical contact. Because the initial advisory precautions have been disregarded, the state has now enforced a strict curfew that the law enforcement is tasked with controlling the adherence to. And even more dramatically, the Spanish government has now called in the military to patrol the streets and ensure compliance to the official regulations on personal mobility. 
What we might conclude from looking at epidemic induced states of emergency from 16th century England to the present day globalized world is that in cases of emergency the public sphere becomes more elastic as it expands to regulate more and more aspects of society. At the Centre for Privacy Studies we are particularly interested in notions of privacy in the overlaps and thresholds between different societal zones. A visualization of these societal zones in a non-emergency state could look something like this:
But as the headline of the L.A. Times article manifests, the proportional interrelation between the zones undergoes a significant, if not dramatic, shift in cases of emergency:
Naturally, the measures against epidemics have changed, but quarantine and disciplinary actions towards those who disregard the quarantine remain core measures, and have been so for over five hundred years.
During this period, our notion of privacy in northern Europe has changed dramatically, especially in the past two hundred years. And worries about what the state might force you to do are expressions of this. But predominantly, citizens seem to agree with Adam Ramsay: Health is a public issue. Such status legitimises the expansion of the public sphere in cases of health emergency today and historically. The question then is whether our more developed and legally manifested notions of privacy even matter in emergency situations. When it comes to state nullification of private spheres, be they personal, informational or spatial, has the situation over the past five hundred years merely changed from ignorance to informed consent?
Leaving that polemical question to linger, I will thank you for your attention. Please comment and please share any sources you might be working on that, like the 1563 Plague Order, gives you that crazy sense of being in a warped space-time continuum.
 @AdamRamsay (Adam Ramsay), “The Coronavirus is an important reminder that health isn’t private. As a species we live in herds. Everyone’s health relies to some extent on everyone else’s. Healthcare has to be public because health is public.“, Twitter, 28 Feb. 2020, twitter.com/AdamRamsay/status/1233341409815646209
 Wyllyam Cecill Knight, High Stewarde of the Citie of Westminster, and Ambrose Caue, Knight, Chauncelour of the Duchye of Lancaster, Two of the Priuie Counsell to the Quenes Moste Excellent Maiestie, to the Baylyffe, Headboroughs, Constables, and Other Officers within the Sayde Citie … Greeting Knowe Ye That Our Sayde Soueraigne Lady the Quene, Hauyng Compassion of the Estate of That Her Citie, Because of the Long Visitation Thereof with the Plague …, Early English Books, 1475-1640 / 1881:05 ([S.l.] : Jmprinted by Richard Jugge, Printer to the Quenes Maiestie, Cum priuilegio Regiae Maiestatis, , 1563).
 Siobhan O’Shea, ‘How Bad Were the Medieval Stocks?’, Interesly, 2018 <https://www.interesly.com/how-bad-were-the-medieval-stocks/> [accessed 6 March 2020].
 Kira L. S. Newman, ‘Shutt up: Bubonic Plague and Quarantine in Early Modern England’, Journal of Social History of Crime, Corruption, and States (Spring 2012, pp. 809-834), p. 809.
 Wyllyam Cecill Knight, 1563.
 J. Charles Cox, The Parish Registers of England (London Methuen, 1910), p. 144 <http://archive.org/detail/parishregisterso00coxjuoft> [accessed 16 March 2020].
 Cox, 1910, p.145.
 Newman, 2012, p.811
 ibid. p. 823
 Wyllyam Cecill Knight, 1563.
 The data is mined from The Statutes of the Realm: Printed by Command of His Majesty King George the Third, in Pursuance of an Address of the House of Commons of Great Britain. From Original Records and Authentic Manuscripts, 10 vols (Dawsons of Pall Mall, 1810), iv, part I <http://hdl.handle.net/2027/pst.000017915502> [accessed 30 October 2019].
 Paul Mozur, Raymond Zhong, and Aaron Krolik, ‘In Coronavirus Fight, China Gives Citizens a Color Code, With Red Flags’, The New York Times, 1 March 2020, section Business <https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/01/business/china-coronavirus-surveillance.html> [accessed 17 March 2020].
 Wyllyam Cecill Knight, 1563.
 ‘Q&A: What Can the Government Force People to Do in the Name of Containing the Coronavirus?’, Los Angeles Times, 2020 <https://www.latimes.com/science/story/2020-03-02/coronavirus-government-restrictions-legality> [accessed 3 March 2020].
 ‘Coronavirus Spain: Government Sends in the MILITARY to Police the Streets amid Lockdown | World | News | Express.Co.Uk’ <https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/1255657/coronavirus-spain-lockdown-military-patrol-streets-madrid-valencia-santa-cruz-tenerife> [accessed 19 March 2020].
When you are new in town, greetings can put you in awkward situations because of unknown tacit conventions of the new cultural environment. I was once at a party in Montréal and the topic of greetings came up, each of us outsiders reporting on awkward moments where greetings went wrong in the new town. I had been living in Québec for a while and had noticed that people would often greet each other by offering their left cheek for a kiss. I had also noticed that people who came to Montréal from elsewhere in Canada were more likely not to kiss as a greeting, but rather shake hands or just wave, sometimes hug. In my experience until then, coming from São Paulo, I had seen most people offer the right cheek for a kiss when greeting someone, which sort of trained me to also do the same, allowing for a seamless greeting experience of the cheeks fitting nicely. But that habit was tricky, because in Québec, with people trained to offer the other side of their faces for the kiss, a polite greeting would very often almost turn into a kiss on the lips, which was not the desired goal! I had to retrain myself on how to greet people.
Greeting conventions intersect with conventions of personal space, and for us humans they seem to change depending on a lot of variables: region of the world, social occasion, differences of gender, hierarchy, sometimes even by the mood of the people involved. A friend of mine recently told me about an international professional occasion gone weird. After a productive conversation with a potential client, she offered her business card, and when the two people were parting, she offered a firm handshake as a final greeting. The man with whom she had been conversing—older and from a different region of the world than the one she came from—at first shook her hand, but after a split second of hesitation, smiled awkwardly, and offered a hug in addition to the handshake. She was slightly surprised, but in the quickness of the moment, she responded to the hug as if it were normal. But she was left with a weird feeling because, even though hugging was normal where she came from, she knew from experience that this was not the case in the place where she was, where people rarely hugged each other in professional occasions.
Regarding this anecdote, I waver between an innocuous interpretation, and a more grudging one: was the man—being aware of the cultural difference between himself and my friend—trying to culturally adapt to the situation by offering a hug? Or did he misinterpret my friend’s upfront and confident demeanor as flirting, then try to take things from the professional realm into the personal with his awkward hug?
When we greet someone, we temporarily shrink the bodily distance that we normally keep between us and other people. This can put us on alert mode. In his book The Spaces Between Us, neuroscientist Michael S. A. Graziano compares the function of this buffer region around our bodies to bubble wrap: it is a sort of layer of protection that arises because some of our brain capacity is dedicated to constantly monitoring the region around our body. Graziano spent the 1990s studying peripersonal neurons and peripersonal space (which had been first described by Giacomo Rizzolatti and colleagues in the 1980s). According to Graziano, our bodies use different sensory inputs—vision, touch, audition, perhaps even smell—all in combination with our memory to keep track of the safety of our bodies, making sure that we maintain a minimal distance from potential threats to our wellbeing.
This is not unique to humans. Graziano credits biologist Heini Hediger as a pioneer on the study of proxemics on other animals. When Hediger was director of the Munich Zoo, he transformed cages into environments that attended to the needs of the animals that inhabited them:
More than just having territories, animals partition their territories. And this insight turned out to be particularly useful for zoo husbandry. An animal’s territory has an internal arrangement that Hediger compared to the inside of a person’s house. Most of us assign separate functions to separate rooms, but even if you look at a one-room house you will find the same internal specialization. In a cabin or a mud hut, or even a Mesolithic cave from 30,000 years ago, this part is for cooking, that part is for sleeping; this part is for making tools and weaving, that part is for waste. We keep a neat functional organization. To a varying extent, other animals do the same. A part of an animal’s territory is for eating, a part for sleeping, a part for swimming or wallowing, a part may be set aside for waste, depending on the species of animal. (Graziano 2018, p. 14)
As a historian interested in questions of bodily privacy, I am constantly confronted with the idea that privacy is a Western concept. People with more radical positions, who I have once in a while encountered in casual conversation, even go so far as to say that this purportedly Western concept is culturally imposed on other cultural environments of the world, where people are prone to live more communal lives and not worry about privacy so much.
But the need to protect one’s body from harm is not a cultural imposition from the West. It is a widespread need that spans across many species. I am left with an empirical question: what is the relationship between this buffer space around our bodies—which arises from the need to protect oneself from physical danger and which is present in many species beyond humans—and the need for a safety buffer zone around ourselves that has a more emotional nature, which we sometimes associate with the concept of privacy?
In my next post, I will talk about what I have been learning from Lisa Feldman Barrett’s work on the social construction of emotions and put it in conversation with what I learned from Michael S. A. Graziano’s work on peripersonal space.
Graziano, Michael S. A. The Spaces between Us: A Story of Neuroscience, Evolution, and Human Nature. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018.