LONDON: One of the most enjoyable articles I’ve ever read was called Up And Then Down, by Nick Paumgarten. It was published in the New Yorker in April 2008.
Today, it would be described as a long read. Back then it was simply an exhaustive study of the life and times of the elevator, or as Brits would call them — lifts.
Apart from the brilliance of the writing, the piece has stayed with me, more than a decade later, for the theories of social distancing the elevator helped evince.
THE TOUCH ZONE
In particular, it illuminates the work done in the 1970s by John J Fruin, an engineer who developed the concept of the “touch zone”, an area of three sq ft around the body which, if encroached upon, would be considered an invasion of one’s personal space. The typical area of comfort, he concluded, was about 10 sq ft of room.
READ: Commentary: Japan hasn’t declared a state of emergency over COVID-19. That’s bad news
And yet a packed elevator gives each occupant a proximity of less than 18 inches. It was an intimacy Fruin described as being “psychologically disturbing”.
We are all in the touch zone now. Except our touch zone is not only psychologically disturbing, but a place of danger.
Every time we leave the house, each interaction is charged with fear and caution. Overnight, and quite intuitively, we’ve started using odd manoeuvres and behaviours to ensure we safeguard our health.
Fruin’s personal comfort area measured a full metre more than the 2m distance we are advised to keep in preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
But 2m is hard to mark, especially if you are trying to manage basic errands such as doing the weekly shop, walking the dog, or having the misfortune to be anywhere near an urban jogger — that curious alpha species that deems itself immune to illness and therefore eligible to dominate the path.
SOCIAL DISTANCING AT WORK
Even when we’re trying to give other people room, we’re still a bit too close.
READ: Commentary: Why clapping for COVID-19 carers feels so strangely uplifting
In the attempt to avoid each other, our normal exchanges have become less intimate as well. We don’t have time for chit chat.
Our heads are down. We cross the street away from strangers in exaggerated acts of corona courtesy that would otherwise seem rude.
It’s a strangely hostile world we live in. Seeing friends — even at a distance — is frowned on. Loved ones are quarantined. Work colleagues have become two-dimensional avatars we see only via a screen.
It makes you wonder what will happen to the other codes of body language.
Already the handshake, a badge of business-like braggadocio since the days of Ancient Greece, is being eliminated fast. Europeans have had to quash the habit of the traditional double kiss. Even the elbow bump — a recent alternative to the high five — is too close for comfort now.
THE END OF THE HIGH FIVE
Writing on social media recently, the actress Jamie Lee Curtis wrote about her sadness at the demise of the high five; a universal gesture of celebration that was supposedly born at LA’s Dodger Stadium in 1977, and credited to the rookie baseball player Glenn Burke. Burke, a closeted gay man, died from complications from Aids in 1995.
READ: Commentary: COVID-19 – maybe countries will get serious about strengthening social safety nets now
“Today, another virus may temporarily bring an end to his legacy,” wrote Lee Curtis about Burke, whose biography she has long been trying to turn into a film.
“The beautiful gesture of joy, celebration, love and support that crossed every boundary, every socio-economic line, every race, every gender, from members of royal families to our most vulnerable young immigrants, the high five stood the test of time and I am not giving up on it.”
Although I’d happily eradicate most forms of physical contact — I’m all in favour of a ceremonial bow — I’d still like to find a gesture to see us through the next few weeks. But a wave feels too royal, and a thumbs up looks too dumb.
Maybe it’s time to introduce my grandmother’s old favourite — when you do something she approves of, you get a little wink. It’s friendly, informal, cheeky, and it shows solidarity.
Plus, you can read it from a distance. Rethink the wink — it’s the touch zone hug.
BOOKMARK THIS: Our comprehensive coverage of the novel coronavirus and its developments
Jo Ellison is editor of How to Spend It and is the Financial Times’ fashion editor.