“No room in this melting-pot of culture to be overly-sensitive”

Wonga Andrew Ndopu (South Africa, AC 09-11)

For those who live under rocks and might have missed developments in pop culture in recent history, Mariah Carey has become the artist with the most number-one singles ever after releasing her eighteenth chart-topper, Touch My Body, last year. Divulging this trivia has less to do with the success of the over-achiever-diva and more to do with the theme of the song title which ostensibly explores the expression of love and affection in a physical form.

As a UWC newbie observing this alien world with ogle eyes, seeing the casual, yet intensely personal interaction of second years comes as a surprise. It is common for students, irrespective of sex, to embrace one another keenly. As time progresses (bear in mind I’ve only been here a month) it is evident that even we ‘firsties’ are tentatively adopting a more physical manner of interacting. Let it not be mistaken; I am not concerned with sexual intimacy among students in this piece, the emphasis rather is on the nature, extent and role of amiable physical relations.

Physical contact includes kissing, cuddling, tickling, wrestling, hugging, handshaking, spooning, and horseplay – the acts are varied and abundant. Conventional wisdom dictates that in unfamiliar circles it is best to be mindful of physically affectionate gestures so as to avoid awkwardness and insult. Suffice to say, this position varies according to individuals’ cultures and preferences. To paint a picture of offensive contact, here is a classic case:   A reluctant beneficiary is stopped in a corridor and bestowed with a rib-cracking embrace and solicitous interrogation by an over-zealous donor who then moves on blissfully. The recipient is left reeling. The brashness of the encounter is likely to offend as the recipient is denied the chance to reciprocate or decline the offer of physical contact. The hug-giver imposed herself/himself upon the recipient, undermining any intended kind gesture.

Offensive contact also extends to mutual, overt physical exchanges in shared spaces; which can be especially awkward as the participants disregard to the presence of others while indulging themselves.eg. common-room cuddling. These examples illustrate the potential of physical affection to flout personal and public boundaries. These scenarios are not uncommon but are heightened in social situations akin to the UWC’s where shared spaces and experiences are unavoidable.

 As with many other widely-held views, UWC’s break rank with traditional ideas of appropriate physical engagement. Students embrace friendly gestures with open arms.  All unwritten laws and preconceptions of physical affection are redefined in an environment like this. Views on ‘correct’ interaction will be challenged.  This is not to say that etiquette is thrown out the window, but there is no room in this melting-pot of culture to be overly-sensitive when someone (within reason) pats your arm while greeting or rests on your shoulder on the couch. Not only are members of this community faced with divergent views on appropriate social behaviour, but also with a need to establish sound relationships and communicate well with one another.  Boundaries are necessary and exist. 

 Ultimately individuals determine their own boundaries and what they are comfortable with, any infringement to their rights is reprehensible.  Looking at a UWC as a society in itself with its own social constructs, behavioural expectations must be reasonable and work with the aim of cultivating tolerance. So is accepting a relaxed approach to friendly physical contact a compromise on traditionally held standards? Perhaps – perhaps not in the context of such diversity and open-mindedness. In a place with a myriad of languages, embracing non-verbal interaction achieves greater understanding. It introduces a sensory revolution, a new genus of communication – a language we can all speak.

-United World College Student Magazine-


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