The Leviticus:8 Project
If one with a discharge spits on one who is clean, the latter shall wash his clothes, bathe in water, and remain unclean until evening. Leviticus 15:8
Social scientists will tell you that every culture has its standards of personal space, that comfort zone around the body into which uninvited intrusions are unwelcome. You can search online for what any given society holds as its standard, but you yourself know how close someone should not come.
Of course, it also depends on who the someone is and what the circumstances are. The person with whom you are vehemently disagreeing has a wider zone than the one you hope to kiss. If you are late for a meeting on the 25th floor, you’ll accept closer proximity rather than waiting for the next elevator. And standing in line to get into a restaurant on a pleasant day is a more expansive activity than it is on a cold and rainy day.
My tenth-grade French teacher – a woman of sometimes peculiar qualities – would often read the auras in the classroom and use them to convey information. One day she asked us to translate an obscure phrase, cocked an eye at my friend Wendy and called her by name. Wendy, whose French skills were no different than the rest of the blank-staring students in the room, gave the correct answer. Mme. Morris said, “I sent you that answer.” (Cue out-tro music from “The Twilight Zone.”) After that, none of us got too close to her.
But whether the proximity you prefer is intimate or vast, no one wants to be the recipient of a spray of saliva from another party. Call it gross or call it awkward, a drop of spittle is akin to an assault in the feelings it provokes in the recipient. Though likely harmless (unless it lands in some portal to your insides and the offender is sick), we nevertheless recoil at the very notion of foreign spit – even from someone we have kissed, perhaps moments earlier!
Perhaps it has to do with the unusual nature of bodily fluids. (Don’t worry – nothing too disgusting is ahead.) When they are contained within, we appreciate them. Not just saliva, but blood and other liquids and semi-liquids are considered natural and even sustaining. But the moment that they escape from the confines of the containers we call our bodies, they are considered polluted in some way.
A professor of mine in grad school explained the phenomenon as a function of our inherent desire to categorize everything. When something is neither here or there, in or out, it makes us feel uneasy. He did an experiment with us to illustrate – he handed us each a brand-new disposable plastic cup, shot-glass size. He then invited us to spit into the cup and drink it back down. Among those who were willing to spit, few were willing to drink. Even after making the point that it was our own saliva which we would have swallowed without a thought had we not spit into the cup, most students still would not drink.
There was no question that had the spittle come into contact with anything of questionable cleanliness we would have categorically considered it polluted. (The five-second rule does not apply to things that are wet.) But even crossing the boundary between inside and outside seemed to create an irreconcilable problem.
I imagine just reading this column – assuming you got this far – is making you a little uncomfortable. But in the words of the incomparable Elle Woods, I have a point, I promise.
Anything that finds itself in that strange realm that we imagine as our personal space makes us a little hinky. Sometimes we learn to deal well with it; sometimes we get upset; much of the time we get confused until we can decide what is comfortable and what is not. Religion famously sets those boundaries, but not just religion. Race, ethnicity, sexuality, presenting gender, class, appearance, and maybe dozens of other characteristics can produce as sense of too-closeness, depending on how comfortable we have allowed ourselves to become with proximity to the other. Even traits held deeply inside can upset us when they emerge and are held up to examination.
Those differences are mostly in our heads, which is to say they have no objective objectionable qualities. I am still not interested in getting shpritzed by a partner in conversation, but all these other differences – and all these pieces of myself unexamined – are opportunities to overcome the things that divide us from each other and from ourselves.