Let’s talk about distance. As in the distance required to be considered safe. Take public transport, for instance. It’s off-peak time, so the expectation is that there will be plenty of empty seats on the tube. The issue is that they are all randomly placed. That means that you have a split-second decision to make as soon as you board the train. Where to sit? Or more specifically, where is it appropriate to sit?
In the grand scheme of things this dilemma can be filed away under the category “First World problems”. Yet, if you get caught in the middle of it, you are painfully aware of what I have just described. You rush into the carriage and without a second thought sit next to a woman immersed in her book, or as it is more common these days, glued to her mobile phone. It is only when you look at your surroundings that you realise what you have done. There are twenty-odd empty seats in the rest of the carriage. You suddenly feel self-conscious. What is worse, you now feel her eyes on you. Is she thinking the same thing? You do the only honourable thing. You get off the train at the next stop and wait for another.
Another example is open spaces, like parks. With the recent high temperatures we have had in London, it goes without saying that we have been enjoying the outdoors a lot more. Plonking your personal self in a park should be hassle-free. After all, London is probably the city in Europe with most parks and green areas. The only problem is when the thermometer hits 34 degrees and you find half the neighbourhood down your local park. Space becomes an issue and distance between sun-seekers awkward. This situation is more difficult for adults on their own. I count myself amongst those. Many a time I have been cycling, when all of a sudden I have decided to rest my weary bones on the soft grass of one of the many parks that dot my adopted city. The look I get is a mixture of distrust and hostility. Especially if you should happen to choose a space in between two Prosecco-guzzling groups. Eventually eyes are turned towards me, voices are lowered and belongings moved closer to owners (this tends to happens in the leafier parts of London. I live in a deprived area. No one bats an eyelid if I decide to sit on my own next to them). Luckily, I usually carry the weekend Guardian or a copy of The Observer with me. As if by magic bags go back to where they were before.
Distance is just another bone in the skeleton of social awkwardness, a structure that underpins the way many denizens on these isles interact with others. There are more components such as conversations about money (as in salary) and class. Distance just happens to be more visual.
Going back to my first example: where is it appropriate to sit? Well, whoever talked about sitting? I usually remain standing.