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We’re All Bad Neighbors Now

What explains the rise of noise complaints and get-off-my-lawn violence in America? Research points to one intriguing possibility.

The limits of self-defense and the nature of vigilantism are both perennial American debate topics, but this spring, they boomed louder than ever. In March, a woman in the Bronx stabbed her neighbor to death over a noise complaint. In April, a 20-year-old woman was shot and died after she accidentally turned into the wrong driveway. In May, Daniel Penny, a white ex-Marine, put Jordan Neely, a Michael Jackson impersonator and mentally ill Black man, in a 15-minute-long headlock on a subway in New York City, killing him. It’s anyone’s guess what June will bring.

Trying to make sense of this senseless and ubiquitous violence, whether on the national news or in your nearest NextDoor group, inevitably leads to a handful of rote explanations: There are too many guns, Fox News profits off paranoia, structural racism and impoverishment breeds “random violence.” Or, something is wrong in the minds of Americans, “a mental health crisis grips the city,” people need opportunities to safely express their inner anger. Or both. All we know for certain is that you either die young or you live to become the bad neighbor.

For that is the real crux of the issue: Our definition of “personal space” is expanding, with dire political consequences. The “get off my lawn” logic of a Clint Eastwood movie, the enshrined rights of the homeowner,” and the cult of personal property have infiltrated even the most public of spaces: the sidewalk, the city bus, the grocery store parking lot. Intrusion of any kind registers as a cataclysmic event for the person trapped inside their own portable panic room. This rageful individualism shows up in more subtle ways too: Everyone is setting boundaries with the “toxic people” in their lives. Every day is Beef, or The Banshees of Inisherin. And the bigger your bubble is, the bigger its inevitable burst.

In the 1960s, anthropologist Edward T. Hall posited that there are four concentric invisible circles radiating outward from every human being. The smallest ring, within 1.5 feet of the subject’s skin barrier, he named the intimate.” The next circle, radiating outward from 1.5 feet to about four feet, waspersonal.” From there, stretching out to about 12 feet, existed the social.” The final ring, from about 12 to 24 feet, was the “public.”

Researchers in proxemics—that is, the study of the human use of space—have always understood that the radii of our personal circles are not static,” says Vikas Mehta, a professor of urbanism at the University of Cincinnati. Proxemic boundaries shift in response to numerous stimuli: motion, touch, volume, body angle, and even skin temperature. These lines of demarcation also vary widely across cultures: Peruvians get much closer than Romanians; Americans are, perhaps surprisingly, somewhere in the global middle, with an average personal space bubble clocking in at 3.1 feet. But everyone has some amount of “personal” territory—and, it follows, territoriality.

This flexibility is useful. Though populated by strangers, a rush hour city bus is the definition of intimate.” To cope with this crushing proximity, people may use noise-canceling headphones, hold an open newspaper between themselves and the world, or opt for what one researcher in 1999 called the New York non-person phenomenon”—in essence, a strategic dissociation.

Conversely, and less helpfully, our sense of whats ours can expand outward. Road rage” only makes sense if we accept that the drivers body has, in some meaningful way, grown to encompass their SUV.

More recent findings suggest that Covid-19 changed our spatial reality. During the early phases of the pandemic, millions were confined to their homes and asked to remain hypervigilant in public settings. Anything closer than six feet of distance between strangers implied contamination, both literal and metaphorical, Mehta says. One 2021 study, conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital with just 19 participants, who were tested before and during the pandemic, found that the subjectsperception of their personal space expanded by 40 to 50 percent on average in response to these public health measures. What was once a roughly three-foot-wide bubble grew, by the second assessment, to about 4.1 feet around. Other senses may also have been affected: Noise complaints have been on the rise for the last half-decade in some cities. The world temporarily quieted in the lockdown, but our sensitivity to sound seems to have only grown in the post-vax period, if noise complaints data in 2021 is anything to go by.

Its unclear how widespread or long-lasting these trends really were; the current body of pandemic proxemic research is too small to generate any robust conclusions. But its hard not to wonder, when surveying the available data, whether many people may still be experiencing a kind of post-pandemic culture shock, without ever having left their neighborhood.

Or, put another way: If Halls second circle—the personal—is expanding, Mehta says it likely comes at the expense of the third sphere: the ever-shrinking social.

The social” space between humans, extending from four to 12 feet, is the domain in which much of modern life unfolds: Store aisles are often between three and five feet wide. Sidewalks may be as little as five feet across. Even in parking lots, drivers rarely have enough room to fully open their doors. So we slip, slide, and squeeze our way through life—usually without incident.

But personal space invasions” can elicit a range of negative emotions, from squirming discomfort to simmering rage. Sometimes these strong reactions are justified, as in the case of violations like sexual assault, abuse, or physical intimidation. No one has the right to invade another person’s personal space, however defined. Just as often, however, the way people react to close encounters with strangers can feel disproportionate to the situation—as if pent-up anger from other aspects of life were brought to the surface simply by the heat of so many bodies.

While fearmongering about the “state of our cities” is undeserved, anyone who claims not to have witnessed this widespread pain and anger is simply not paying attention. Even the privileged few who have managed to shelter in their stylized homes are showing their social maladjustment: What is the fixation on setting boundaries with “toxic people,” or over-identifying with Ali Wong in Beef, or the widespread claim of “overstimulation,” if not the bourgeois manifestation of these larger obsessions with protecting personal space above all else?

In many ways, our current way of relating to one another feels like a self-fulfilling prophecy. In summer 2020, in the midst of the nationwide protests over the murder of George Floyd, we heard ceaseless reports framing property damage as violence”—as if a police station or a bank storefront were a vulnerable person. Now, when strangers attempt to use property deemed personal—whether a car in a public lot, a driveway to a private home, or, in the minds of some, even a subway car—this is treated as a form of bodily violence,” an implicit threat to life and limb.

But this version of personal property rights is also co-opting narratives that felt, at one time, diametrically opposed to individualism. In the pandemic, there was an increased focus on cooperation and neighborliness. In the wake of the virus, conversations sprang up nationally about the importance of being involved in ones community, offering mutual aid, protecting and supporting each other—doing the work of being what Jane Jacobs once called the eyes on the street.” For every think piece about the benefits of remote work, one can find three or four insisting that adult dormitories, or co-working spaces, or other means of building community are the only answer to Americans’ “loneliness crisis.”

Now it’s clear that these ideals, however noble, can branch off in unexpected ways. You can be the “eyes on the street” for the police. You can use the rationale of protecting others” to kill someone. While many are mourning Neely, others are valorizing the man who killed him. You dont have to wait until some innocent person is stabbed or killed to spring into action,” a letter to the editor of the New York Post read. The victim made threats and was acting in a belligerent manner. Daniel Penny is a total hero.”

The most potent solutions for our current social crisis—like a weapons ban, or constraints on the purchase of ammunition—feel all but impossible politically. In the absence of hope for collective action, people waste time and money on individualistic fads, like anger management classes. Or worse, they opt out of the social sphere, as part of the agoraphobic fantasy” of bourgeois ownership, Zoe Hu writes in Dissent.

But at least as far as proxemics are at play, there are opportunities to modify our built environments for the better, without reducing density. Cities could offer tax breaks or other subsidies for people who want to install noise-insulated windows and acoustic wall panels. Investments in public transit—with an eye toward more and more frequent trains or buses, and design modifications like removing middle seatscould free up space. And to help foster safer interactions between neighbors, municipalities should focus on advertisements in public spaces, or even online and in-person workshops, about what bystander intervention is (and what it isn’t).

Most importantly, citizens must remain present in public spaces—especially those who might otherwise have the money to opt out and spend more time in private spheres. Social space only works with other people in it. When an entire class opts for Ubers over light rail or blood-spattered tabloid stories over the reality on the street—essentially an in-situ white flight—the social sphere can tip from rumored decay to real disaster. As always, it’s the people who can’t afford another option who will suffer most. So if there’s one story we tell ourselves, let’s hope it’s this: We must fight to protect the bubble we share.