I was one of the 2, 204,462 passengers—nearly 37% of the city’s entire population—who used the Santiago Metro (subway) system on Monday,
April 20, 2009. And although the Metro’s official figures say that spatial density is 5.67 people per square meter, I, for one, can tell you with all the confidence in the world, that in the Escuela Militar Station at 7:30 pm, that was definitely NOT the case. It felt like all 2 million plus were right there, right then.
In fact, I generally try very hard not to take public transportation at rush hour. I even changed my office hours to avoid peak travel times and, whenever possible, I prefer to work at home.
I want my “metro cuadrado”
In Chile, when people speak of a need for personal space, they refer to their metro cuadrado (square meter), but the simple fact is, that in Santiago, there seems to be a lot of spatial exaggeration going on… WHO, in reality, has a square meter all to themselves? Not many.
According to the official Metro Santiago web site, Line 1, which runs through the center of town and most of the length of Alameda (including all of its corresponding name changes) has a daily density of 5.67 people per square meter. Think about it as a space that’s 1 meter by 1 meter, or just about 10 feet square (3.3′ x 3.3′). I’m no math whiz, but while that seems a bit close, it still means that each person (please correct me—anyone!) has a circle of about 1¾ feet in diameter around them… but that daily density must take in the average of all-day-everyday-including-Sundays-at-7 am when there’s only 1 person per car, cuz take a look at the freakin’ picture and tell me how many people are in any of THOSE square meters!
One of my favorite courses in grad school was on the anthropology of space, taught by a wonderful professor (Dr. Deborah Pellow) who had been a student of Edward T. Hall (the Hidden Dimension, the Dance of Time). At the time I enrolled, I thought it would be an interesting elective course, how little did I know how much it would come to shape my way of thinking.
Let’s face it. We (humans, that is) are territorial beings. Some more space than others, of course, but we all have a certain amount of distance—that free-space barrier that we need between us and the people around us—in order to feel comfortable and safe. Cultural differences in the amount of space needed vary tremendously, as just about any westerner has noticed upon coming to Latin America.
Edward T. Hall on Proxemics
In a nutshell, Hall talked about proxemics as a way of defining our perceptions and sense of “ownership” of the space around us… who can do what and under what circumstances and within what distance.
Hall defines 4 spatial spheres and the amount of space that most North Americans need. (I would love to see the same study adapted to Latin America, specifically Chile, where those distances would certainly be smaller…Anyone have those figures?)
- Intimate space-refers to our personal “bubble” of space, the space that we consider our own personal private space into which we only allow those closest to us to enter. For most people from the US and Europe, we’re happy with about an 18–20″ (46–50 cm) circle of “My Space” into which only those nearest and dearest to our hearts (and health, as in doctors) are allowed.
- Personal Distance: This is the space—about ½–4 ft (.5–1.2 m)—that we allow our friends, co-workers, classmates, and general acquaintances to share. The usual US-style handshake (without the typical Chilean male back thumping and accompanying bear hug) takes place at about 2–4 feet (.6–1.2) of distance… so maybe we have longer arms than Chileans, but the idea is to keep the other at bay.
- Social spaces: refers to the amount of space we consider normal and comfortable for more formal social and business interactions. This may be about 4–12 feet (1.2–3.7m).
- Public space: the space over which we feel we have no claim. This refers to spaces that belong to no one in particular or everyone in general. We (being gringos) feel best with about 12 feet (3.7 m) between us and the next guy.
These are some important concepts for cultural understanding—on or off the subway—and I’m sure I’ll come back to them time and again.
For anyone who’s interested, check out the topic of “proxemics” in general and the work of Edward T. Hall in particular, especially The Hidden Dimension. It very much brought home certain cultural differences with regard to the amount of personal space one needs to feel comfortable. And I, as a gringa born and raised in the country, need a heck of a lot more space than most Santiaguinos at rush hour.
October 15, 2009: See also “Bye Bye Blackberry (Ode to the Santiago Metro)”