Opinion

We keep distance from those we perceive as different

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me." Whoever coined that catchy playground phrase had obviously never met the likes of Don Imus, a man now famous for starting a war of words.

So I have just added my two cents' worth and a little levity to the Imus fiasco, but I will tell you what is truly poignant about it. This racial event got me thinking philosophically about the distance between you and me in this pluralistic society.

It is, after all, human nature to maintain not just a psychological distance from others we perceive as different, but also a physical one. We call it our comfort zone.

How many times have you kept your distance, so to speak, from another because they were different than you? Conversely, how many times, from your perspective, did another invade your personal space? Was that other individual of a different race, a different social class, a different religion, a different physical or mental ability, a different weight?

In the late 1950s, anthropologist Edward T. Hall wrote about this type of cultural nonverbal communication in his seminal work, "The Silent Language." To illustrate this phenomenon to my college students, I conducted an experiment in class. I had a male student stand at the front of the room and asked a female student to approach him. I instructed her to stop taking steps when she felt uncomfortable going any further. It didn't take too long (or too many steps) before she stopped abruptly and announced that was it. There was about a two-foot distance between them, which is consistent with studies on so-called acceptable spacing between American men and women (who are not intimate) in public settings.

Americans maintain one of the greatest spatial distances between each other.

In comparison, Arabs stand closest together, followed by Indians, Pakistanis, Europeans, Asians, and Latin Americans.

Sometimes, though, physical proximity may be more a function of context than culture. For instance, I grew up in a Third World city with a high population density. I vividly recall riding in crammed buses as a child and being wedged under the armpits of passengers who wore no antiperspirant in 96 degree weather! Nonetheless, even outside of the bus setting, standing closer to people in general was quite the norm in my native land.

In these times, there is much discourse about diversity and the need to embrace others, yet our body language often contradicts us.

Do we really mean what we say? And do we really say what we mean? It is high time we make some serious effort to bridge the distance between us by matching our actions with our words - you know, walk the talk. Remember, there are no strangers among us, just friends we haven't met.

Karen Champagnie Alman, vice president of sales and marketing for Alternative Business Solutions and part-time college instructor, is a member of The Olympian's Diversity Panel. She can be reached at karen@alman.us.

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