The etiquette of sharing space

Should people sing in parks and forests because their religions says praise god loudly and god is in nature, or is nature for peace, quiet and meditation?

Should dog poo be picked up, or can you kick it to the side (where someone else might want to picnic) because it’s biodegradable?

These are hot topics on social media pages dedicated to local parks and forests.

South Africa’s “diversity is our strength”, but we never learnt how to share space…

There are several theories about why different groups use spaces differently. Some are about groups that have been marginalized and excluded from using spaces historically, or have differing levels of access currently and may impact on how spaces are used (for example, needing to travel in large groups, as an “event” to a space that is far and difficult to access). Some focus on cultural, ethnic and religious differences and the expression of these in public and natural spaces (for example, using green spaces to pray or perform certain rituals). And others focus on discrimination and safety and that certain groups may not feel safe in specific places, also influencing how they use or behave in those spaces (for example, resulting in neglected spaces because they are no longer used).

So what should etiquette be in these spaces that we are, quite newly, learning to share with people with different cultures and religions to our own, and spaces that have had and continue to have varying levels of accessibility?

Most posts available online about how to behave in public spaces are very… polite. They don’t seem to have been crafted within multi-cultural contexts at all. Things like don’t let your child point at strangers, don’t make a noise, don’t answer your phone loudly… I just don’t see how that flies in South Africa, that would outright be the imposition of a set of rules from one group, over others — which is not only a perpetuation of a power dynamic, but also a missed opportunity to use public spaces for multiculturalism.

So, how should we behave in these spaces to make them both more inclusive, but also, you know, not full of dog shit or broken glass?

Be rule-curious

Generally the rules have been created to keep you safe (physically), to protect the space (from fires, litter, ecological damage), and — ultimately — to protect the custodian from liability charges.

Probably, not littering, not starting fires, not removing vegetation etc are pretty decent rules, that should be followed.

However, if you see someone breaking a rule, start from a place of curiosity — ask them a question and you might be surprised. There are some groups, for example, who do have permits to remove vegetation, or have been fighting for years to get them, for traditional reasons. My suggestion here is to not act like a prefect, but to open a dialogue.

Sometimes, these rules are outdated or representative of a particular bias. If you don’t like them, work to change them — like skaters worked to get skateboarding and cycling allowed on the Sea Point Promenade. I bet many people can’t even imagine a time when that wasn’t allowed — but it was only within the last decade that activists where working with officials to allow for experimentation, and later regularisation, of this rule change.

Go with the flow

This is one that’s quite common internationally that I can’t see much reason why it shouldn’t translate locally. Perhaps that is my own bias? I am interested to be challenged if that is the case?

Keep moving on narrow pathways, or step to the side when you take a break, stop to talk or take a picture etc. Same goes for greeting friends, or meeting at entrances/gates.

It’s safer for all involved, mindful of personal space, and keeps the flow going (a nod to traffic modeling, who would have thought!)

Check for confirmation bias

We often like to think that simply bringing people into proximity with one another builds social cohesion. Unfortunately, the human mind and existing structural barriers to cohesion makes it harder than that.

Confirmation bias is the tendency for our brains to seek evidence for prejudices we already hold.

So if you find yourself thinking “you see, they just don’t know how to…” Check Yourself.

It’s quite likely that it’s you who has some missing information here, and your brain is filling that with a pre-existing prejudice about a particular group (race, religion, gender, etc) who are different to you.

There may be a cultural practice you don’t understand, or there is a poor design in the space you that haven’t noticed/experienced (because you’re in a smaller group, for example). Try to pay attention to details, ask what bias you might have, and don’t jump to conclusions.

Express yourself, and respect the expressions of others

Hopefully this one doesn’t need to much elaboration, and builds on the above. Multicultural spaces can feel rather “put on”. Let’s just live it.

Consider “time zones” and “space zones”

If you’re looking for peace and quite, or planning a rather loud activity, it may be useful to consider time and space zones.

In writing this blog I am thinking of Newlands Forest, the Promenade, Silvermine Dam, Kirstenbosch, The Arboretum, Deer Park, Green Point Park, many beaches, etc.

It’s quite obvious that if you want your kiddies party at these spaces you go in the morning, your adult drumming circle you go in the evening, your larger louder group (whether that’s a prayer group or a Jol) tend to find themselves closer to the entrances, the smaller groups make their way deeper in…

This may have happened organically over time, but I think it makes for a pretty nifty guidance note for respectfully sharing space. You shouldn’t go to a place and time that’s clearly become popular for larger, louder gatherings, and then expect peace and quiet — be willing to adjust your space and time zone, too.

What else would you add?

Archive of thoughts. Imperfect, incomplete and not assumed to be my final position. My actions speak louder than my words. Learn more: