One of the minor mysteries of life preoccupies me whenever I walk down a crowded street. How is it that we politely weave in and out of dozens of people without so much as an elbow touch? We are like birds in the sky. Or are we? Many species fly in formations that are a wonder of the skies. We humans are not so wondrous. Yet we do preserve a similar small, well gauged distance as we pass by each other on the pavement or walk purposefully toward a common destination, each at our own pace.
As I walk down Oxford Street in London or negotiate the ticket office in a crowded railway station I observe that we ‘take-in’ other people, judge distance perfectly and all seemingly done on reflex. Whichever country I am in, and I travel a lot these days, (maybe even too much) I note the self-same phenomenon, whether in a small village or in a busy city’s CBD. How do we do this? Magnetism? A special 8th sense? If so, then our special antennae are hidden unlike those physical tools of other species (think snails here). Or has thought and judgement occurred but with such rapidity that we are quite unconscious of having made any observation.
But we have made numerous observations – we have made and avoided eye contact, noted a sexy figure, the colour of a jacket, the holes in a jumper of a passer-by. Faces may reappear in dreams that we would have sworn we had not noticed at the time. We have assessed class; financial wealth or absence; city, country or suburban style; business grooming or designer stubble; architect or cashier profession – and all in a glance that we are unaware we have made.
This all works when there is some cultural consistency or cultural familiarity on the city’s pavement or on the village street. But what happens when there is a cultural mix of people who do not have that familiarity? Then we naturally become on physical alert. We must be careful not to bump or knock, not to catch an eye, should return a smile, calculate a suitable distance by turning toward or away. And we do not know we are doing any of this, unless we have miscalculated and need to embarrassedly apologise to a stranger for some social infringement that we do not know we have committed.
So I conclude that the way in which we are like the birds of the sky is a “learnt” behaviour. It is one that has to be re-learnt whenever we encounter a mix of human groups mingling together who have not yet internalised the new norms. The mystery remains unsolved. How and why do we learn all this?