The Strange Intimacies of City Life
Living in the modern, globalised, cosmopolitan, metropolis you will frequently encounter bizarre, yet often overlooked intimacies with strangers. The intimacy is everywhere and is permeated throughout urban life. As you trek through the city, you may casually glance up and see through the windows of all the various buildings see a parent playing with their child, someone speaking on their phone and then taking a selfie, playing video games on their Playstation. On the rare occasion, you might even be an unfortunate witness to a frisky couple or a lonely man wanking off to goodness knows what on Pornhub who forgot to close the curtains.
If you live in apartment blocks, you may smell your neighbour’s cooking, the alien fumes and aroma of which your nostrils may have never encountered. You may also privy to their conversations, their arguments (perhaps in a language you don’t speak), their parties, their taste in music, even their sex life.
When we go to the toilet to answer nature’s call at work, in restaurants and bars, in train stations and airports, we urinate, defecate, wash our face, touch up on our makeup, change clothes, as strangers come and go literally inches away.
For a brief moment in elevators, we spend time in an incredibly small enclosed space packed with a diverse cast of strangers, often in total silence, sometimes dripping with sexual tension, but also enduring the various flavours of scents and odours of your fellow creatures and subconsciously hoping that your elevator doesn’t break down so that you don’t spend more time stuck in this claustrophobic space than you have to.
On public transport men and women of various social/cultural backgrounds, skin colours, job occupations, sexualities, religions, lifestyles and fashion choices, even if only for a small amount of time, are hurled together squashed like sardines, their bodies pressed against each other, temporarily violating our customary norms of personal space and appropriate physical contact with strangers, as they travel to their destination. The onset of urbanisation and the need for public transport put city dwellers into previously unheard of physical intimacy with strangers, especially with members of the opposite sex, squeezing them together knee-to-knee, shoulder to shoulder, body to body, the mutual entangling of breaths and scents.
This is a peculiar form of cosmopolitan intimacy, not the intimacy that one experiences among families and close friends or within small tight knit communities which is familiar and comforting. It is rather an unfamiliar and discomforting, as well as involuntary and forced intimacy between anonymous strangers, who are different to you in almost every imaginable way. It isn’t always rosy. Rude and brusque behaviour occurs and sometimes it can be a window to the antagonisms that exist in broader society whether based on class, race, gender, generation and so on. Put a bunch of humans in an enclosed space and eventually sparks will inevitably fly. Nevertheless, the unspoken values of civility and pragmatic tolerance of difference win out in the end.
Ironically, in such a public space we are inundated with the private selves of strangers. People may play loud music, speak loudly while on their phone, perform public displays of affection with their lover. The anthropologist Edward Hall argued in his Proxemics Theory that one way humans mitigate the awkwardness is to develop defensive strategies to take “the real intimacy out of intimate space in public conveyances. The basic tactic is to be as immobile as possible.” No eye contact beyond a passing glance, baring a poker face, read a book or go on your phone to avoid direct conversation and so on. Hall goes on to state: “It is taboo to relax and enjoy bodily contact with strangers.”
Such intimacy at times also creates an undeniable sexual tension that potentially can be very interesting and exciting, yet also be daunting and provoke anxiety. Sometimes, you catch someone looking at you longer than they’re supposed to and with a bit more interest than is prescribed. Many women understandably at the back of their minds dread the intimidating leering stare, or the rogue wandering hands of the groper. But it isn’t all degradation and perversion, sometimes instances of genuine human connection do occur, even of an erotic variety in these contexts, which makes one wander on the kinds of genuine social intimacies and solidarity between strangers that could be possible evacuated of the understandable discomfort and awkwardness.
When you think about how living in the city the lives of complete strangers who are different to us in every way can intersect with ours with surprising intimacy in the mundane and the everyday, it is overwhelming and fascinating. There is the fact that under the auspices of modern, urbanised, globalised capitalist civilisation traditional social and communal bonds have withered and social atomisation has grown. Life seems more impersonal, lonely, and constantly changing at too fast a pace. We seem obsessed only with our narrow ambitions and commercial interests and prone to ignore our fellow alienated humans. From one angle this is sad and to be lamented. But there is something to be said about being able to live amongst such a funky mongrelised sea of humanity, occasionally tuning in to inhale the absurdities and contradictions, yet not be swamped by it all.