America’s Intimacy Problem

I don’t give intimacy much thought. Honestly, it’s very American of me to do that. I don’t mean “sexy time” intimacy necessarily, but the actual meaning of intimacy.

Intimate, in the Oxford English Dictionary, has quite a beautiful definition: “Inmost, most inward, deep-seated; hence, Pertaining to or connected with the inmost nature or fundamental character of a thing; essential; intrinsic.” Perhaps you’ve seen it used in the context of home decor. “Her home was warm, and her living room was intimate, inviting, and cozy.” Or perhaps you’ve seen it used as an expression of how deeply involved you are with an academic topic, “He had an intimate understanding of biology.” But the root of intimacy is this – closeness, deep knowledge, and true understanding.

Actually, I think it’s very telling that, by uttering the word “intimacy,” Americans that might be reading this might immediately perceive some kind of sexual undertone to this word. It’s also very telling that intimate situations, such as becoming familiar and close with another person, are often perceived with a stigma of scandal or a requirement of romance. The fact is, intimacy can have a very broad application of its definition which is largely ignored in most American contexts.

I’m not saying Americans are incapable of intimacy; far from it. I feel Americans are open and friendly especially compared with other international cultures. But like I once heard from a Frenchman, “Americans are like avocados – soft, inviting on the outside, but their souls hard and impenetrable. True friendship is very difficult to keep. On other hand, Europeans are like coconuts. They are brusque and dismissive at first. But upon breaching the surface, are soft – true, devout friends who stay with you for your whole life.”

I’ve kept this analogy in mind for quite a while, almost scoffing at it with each thought. But his comparison held some weight. I thought more about the delightful openness I face with Americans; and the ease with which I am able to strike up conversation with any random stranger. But I also thought about that “personal space bubble” that all Americans have, and the inability for me, as a woman, to befriend male people without some undercurrent or expectation of something more. My desire to be intimate, while fueled entirely by platonic interests, regularly gets misinterpreted for something more. Part of this is due to the objectification of women (and by transitive property, also their emotions & friendliness), but part of it is also the sheer lack of understanding that intimacy and closeness isn’t just reserved for romantic partners.

Then I reflected on those double-cheek-kisses very characteristic of Europeans. The propensity they had to kiss each other’s lips, friends and family alike. Intimacy, from a European perspective, is not reserved for significant others. Intimacy is for everyone worth the time of day. There is no bubble.

Similarly, looking at Caribbean dance culture, in which songs are inevitably sexual, is still not tied to expectations of sex. Dance embraces the movement and desire to be close, but does not insist that intimacy is reserved for romantic partners.

So, keeping this in mind, how can we think critically about intimacy, and find ways for it to enrich our lives? American culture, while phenomenal in its openness & friendliness, is still severely lacking in empathy and a sense of unity as a people. Where it succeeds in hardheartedness & persistence, it fails in tenderness and compassion. Some say that it is foolish to be softhearted. I argue that it is brave, strong, and rebellious to be soft. By bravely being vulnerable, we are strong. By facing the thought of intimacy as an opportunity to grow roots together–not just as a romantic couple, but as friend, as family, and as people–there comes a plethora of opportunities to learn, grow, and change the world.

And, well, if we were to go ahead and apply our thirst for intimacy wherever we could, our lives would be fuller, richer, and yes, perhaps more heartbreaking. But the best creations and moments of life come from embracing the spectrum of emotion & desire, and by taking a moment to breathe deeply, without fear, with full commitment. If each meaningful interaction we had was filled with the momentum and passion of a thousand French kisses (or even a fraction of that), it would be nearly impossible to deny that you are loved.

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