The United States is often seen as having a highly self-reliant culture, not only in the eyes of outsiders but also by Americans themselves. American heroes are men like Davy Crockett, Charles Lindbergh and Donald Trump, rugged individualists using their own will and wits to conquer the wilderness, the skies, or the cutthroat world of real estate. Such people embody the American Dream, the idea of a society set up in such a way that everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, has the opportunity to use innate talent to achieve any legitimate ambition. It is a dream molded by the world that confronted the early European settlers: a pristine continent vast in size and abundant in enough natural resources to accommodate millions without conflict.
This reality of space seems to be reflected in many of the social conventions we see today. In contrast to the intimate culture of neighboring Mexico, Americans like to keep one another at a distance. Personal space is in most circumstances at least arm’s length: only lovers, close friends or children unlock those boundaries. An American will not sit next to a stranger on a bus or train unless there are no vacant pairs of seats available. In such unfortunate circumstances, awkwardness hangs like a pall over the reluctant neighbors, who sit stiffly facing forward, minds occupied with the fervent unspoken wish that the stranger will get off at the next stop. In a crowded elevator the situation is even more tense, as passengers forced into unwilling proximity either giggle nervously or, more often, scrupulously ignore one another.
Personal space does diminish with closer acquaintance, but it is still closely guarded. Although lovers and close friends may hug and even kiss, the duration of contact must be kept to a minimum, especially when other people are around. While it is common in some societies for members of the same sex to link arms in public, to do so in America, unless it is obvious that the pair are sisters or drunk, encourages speculation about their sexual orientation.
The situation is similar with eye contact, which is often touted as important. Job interview coaches and relationship counselors stress the importance of looking at the person you are talking to, and warn that breaking eye contact during a conversation implies that you are either not listening or not trustworthy. Yet Americans seem to struggle with this idea. It requires an effort of will to keep looking directly at someone for more than a few moments at a time; in fact, if you do, you are likely to make them feel uncomfortable. Eye contact is a sign of honesty, but only to a certain ill-defined extent: beyond that, it is aggressive.
American males are even more reserved. Hugs are rare. A handshake is usually the extent of physical contact (quick and firm, to reassure the other man that you are not gay). Male friends will not sit next to one another on that bus if they can help it, but instead will each sprawl across a double seat, with one friend craning round to continue the conversation with his buddy behind him. Eye contact, when maintained at all, is focused steadfastly on a point somewhere beyond the other man’s left ear.
Observing all this, an innocent outsider might well conclude that Americans do not want to have much to do with one another. This is strange when even a cursory look at American history shows that individualism would not have gotten anybody very far. To build the United States required cooperation at every stage. The Puritan communes of New England, the Constitutional Congress, the ranches and towns of the “Wild” West, and the founding of a Mormon society in Utah are all models of collective achievement. The lone adventurer forging into the unknown frontier turns out to have been, in most cases, a family man given credit for both his own labor and that of his whole household – wife, servants and children.
So if the rugged individual is a myth, the social distance we see in America must have other roots. For an obvious culprit, we must look to the nineteenth century. This was the Victorian era with its rigid formality and draconian moral code. A prurient obsession with sex, disguised as morality, directed everything. Every social situation had precise rules of etiquette which must be followed. At a time when the United States was recovering from its post-independence hangover and finding its feet in the world, the Victorians offered a cohesive social structure which Americans eagerly adopted. Successive waves of permissiveness, beginning in the 1920s, have eroded the façade but the basic Victorian values, deep in heart of every American, remain and shape their outlook on the world and their interactions with others.
Perversely, individualism may have a greater role in shaping America’s future than its past. Technology offers abundant opportunities for avoiding social contact. Television and the internet enable us to bring the doings of the world into our homes, rather than having to go out and find out about them. Video games and iPods offer personalized, one-on-one entertainment. Even activities that are still communal are often arranged in such a way as to prohibit social contact. We go to the movies but sit in darkness, every seat facing in one direction. We work in cubicles, partitions screening us from our neighbors. Drive-through restaurants, drugstores and banks allow us to conduct our daily business without the tediousness of having to leave our own personal space. Even education, with the burgeoning popularity of home schooling and web-based college courses, is becoming insular.
Whether this bodes well for the future of social reserve is hard to say. Americans may become even shyer when meeting people, or avoid doing so altogether. Or this increasing isolation may tip the scales in the other direction, so that the need for human companionship pushes individuals to seek closer contact. With social conventions the way they currently are, to reach out like this may require more ruggedness than Americans have heretofore shown.