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Six Feet of Separation During Coronavirus—How Arabs Will Cope with It

posted on: Mar 18, 2020

Egyptians shopping in the Khan el-Khalili in Cairo–Arabs use public space differently than some other cultures–Photo  Dreamstime

By: John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer

Arabs in their home countries have specific ways in which they use social space. These are quite different from traditional American patterns of body language. In the context of the growing coronavirus crisis in the U.S., health specialists are recommending the practice of social distancing.

How to practice social distancing as the coronavirus spreads

Since the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus COVID-19 a pandemic, government and health officials are clamoring to find a way to manage it. By now, well over 100,000 cases of the virus and at least 4,000 deaths have occurred. One method that many health experts around the world are recommending is to limit an individual’s risk of exposure or of spreading the virus by employing, “social distancing.” Since the virus is transmitted through droplets from coughs and sneezes between people who are in close proximity, distancing of six feet apart is the recommended distance to avoid infection.

People use social space differently–here Japanese men create such space in their traditional greeting photo rocketnews24

What is social distancing? Time Magazine reported that the Centers for Disease Control defines it as “remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance” whenever possible to limit the ability of the virus to spread.” Such distancing is not the same as self-quarantine or isolation which are practices being utilized to minimize the coronavirus spread. The major difference is that “a quarantine or isolation restricts the movement of people within a certain area or zone to limit transferring and spreading infection.” Social distancing is a behavioral practice that does not restrict an individual’s movement, but which is intended at the same time to lower the risk in most cases.

How to practice it? Social distancing, as reported by Time, “is a response to the idea that, during a disease outbreak, many people can’t just stay home all of the time. People have lives that they need to continue to live so rather than fully isolate, by creating distance between [yourself and other] people you can reduce the likelihood that the virus can be transferred.” In case it’s difficult to keep a six feet distance at all times, such as in elevators, public transportation, post office lines, banks or restaurants; therefore, a personal judgment must be exercised. In all cases, personal hygiene practices such as frequent hand washing, and sanitizing surfaces are critical to protecting yourself.

Arab use of social and personal space in the context of six feet of separation

While we know all Arab Americans will try to meet the standards of social distancing during this pandemic, it is interesting to note that six feet of separation is an enormous breach of Arab social norms. As is probably well known, all peoples of different cultures use space differently. Arabs have been defined as what is called a “high context or collectivist culture,” one in which the distinction between the right to personal space in a public area and personal space is blurred. Anthropologist Edward Hall, in a popular work, The Hidden Dimension, researched this issue of the use of social space or “proxemics” (body language) in Arab as well as many other cultures. His findings were intended to be value-free and non-judgmental in terms of one practice being better or worse than another.

In his construct, Hall saw a distinction between how, for example, a non-American acculturated Arab and an American see public and private space. The idea of someone having her or his own private space within a public space was strange to an Arab. After all, to the Arab, “it’s a public place, isn’t it?” The Arab thought one’s rights in a public space are just that and do not entail a sense of one’s own private space. Thus, crowding and elbowing, and pushing in a large group setting might be normal to an Arab in her own culture but may be considered brusque or rude in a typical American cultural setting. This is not intended to suggest one mode is better than another.

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As an anthropologist living and working in the Arab Middle East, I found it touching to have an older male colleague take my hand and guide me across a heavily-trafficked street, as if protecting me. Embracing in the Arab manner on greeting I also found endearing; long greetings, including shaking hands for longer than a minute or two became common in my experience; for women, walking hand-in-hand is very common. One stereotype among Americans about Arabs is how close he or she can get to your face in talking with you, perhaps involving a sense of smell of what the person had eaten, often including garlic. Thus, social space is not only a matter of physical space; it also involves a sense of smell, olfaction, as the experts say. This “in your face” idea, however, is in part a stereotype that must be resisted, since it is often used as an insult.

Given the present crisis of the virus pandemic, the main point about Arab “proxemics” is the ‘privacy-in-a-public place’ idea that may be foreign to an Arab. In the context of buying and selling in the Arab suq or bazaar, for example, it can become a spectator sport, in which standers-by participate in your bargaining for this or that. In another context, in Cairo, I have witnessed fistfights between two men being broken up by complete strangers, just like that. This is not a standard practice in the U.S., as far as I’m aware. In the Arab world, such street fights are in a public space, they can’t be “private” and in that sense, the public allows itself to interfere and break them up.

Today in a statement, the National Muslim Task Force on COVID-19 strongly recommended that Muslims in North America make an effort to support self-quarantine and use social distancing. The statement also emphasized that congregants should avoid all public gatherings to protect themselves, their families, and communities.

A poignant example of the predicament of Arabs in this troubled time over their usual “intimate use of space” versus the requirements of social distancing comes from a church sermon of an Arab Christian priest:

“Please, limit hugging, kissing, and shaking hands and make sure to wash your hands thoroughly before and after being in contact with people. As far as coffee hours after some services, we will maintain them with all the measures of hygiene while making or preparing the food. In any case, you are free to come or not to come to such gatherings.

The Arab priest went on to say: “I want to assure you of my love and care for you. If you feel sick and you want me to come and pray for you or/and give you communion, I will be happy to do so.”

(In other Arab churches, like the Antiochian Orthodox in America, they have canceled all meals and coffee hours.  Even coming to church is not recommended at all).

Arabs in Church or Mosque–now because of the coronavirus parishioners have to be more careful in social distancing  photo Arab church

The address of the priest to Arab parishioners about personal behavior in a public or semi-public space would under normal conditions sound like it came from another planet. It also underscores the priest’s own conflict of interest in desiring a close, personal relationship with his “flock” while at the same time adhering to the requirements of keeping them safe.

So…lots of hugging and kissing is probably going to be off-limits for all of us under the growing conditions of the pandemic. Let’s hope it doesn’t grow to the proportion of some countries where, because of unpreparedness, the crisis is difficult to contain. Social distancing will become essential, the norm, and once it’s all over, we can return to our normal proxemics or body language practices, to enjoy our lives. For the moment, Arabs and Arab-Americans alike, and for that matter, all Americans will have to practice imagining hugging, kissing, and holding hands.



“What Is ‘Social Distancing?’ Here’s How to Best Practice It as Coronavirus Spreads,” Time Magazine, 3-1-2020

The Hidden Dimension, Edward Hall, Doubleday, 1966

Nydell, M. K. Understanding Arabs: A Guide for Westerners. Intercultural Press, 1996



John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID and the World Bank in 65 countries.



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