In my current family, we’ve mostly lived in small spaces. If one person plays music, everyone is listening. If one person needs a whole floor to deal with a project, everyone else has to work around that. During the years on the narrowboat, and now in a small flat, we are, when inside, in close proximity to each other.
One consequence is that we are perfectly in the habit of checking, being mindful of each other’s needs and flexing around each other. We discuss what to listen to, and what to watch. If I’m doing something sensitive – like recording audio for www.nerdbong.com I know I’ll get total co-operation. When there is homework to do, no one else is watching a film. Arguments just don’t happen, most of the time none of us is irritated by anyone else.
The second consequence is that this way of living gives us involvement in each other’s life. We all know roughly what everyone else is working on and how that’s going. We know what music we can agree on, and who is reading what.
In a larger house (and I’ve done that too) the same issues are resolved by spreading out. The result is that no one really knows or has any involvement in anything anyone else is doing. People in separate rooms can often hear each other, though. I did a period of shared living where people were sleeping at different times, and although I was quiet… they were not and it really impacted on my sleeping. In a big enough house, of course you can get by with barely any impact on each other at all. As our houses get ever larger, and our families ever smaller, as we trend towards one person per house in an increasing number of properties, the co-operative good manners fostered by communal living may be less prevalent.
Our ancestors lived in much greater proximity to each other. In a poorer household all the children might well be arranged at either end of one big bed. Parents would sleep alongside the smallest children. Extended families lived together because living with your family was about the only insulation anyone had for old age. You may think the rich man in his castle had a better shot at a room to himself, but it isn’t so. You could expect a servant or two to be sleeping on the floor, even if you weren’t sharing space with your peers. The reason for four poster beds, is that those curtains are the only way a person could have any privacy!
If you can afford it, living in a big space is easy. You don’t have to pay much attention to the needs or feelings of anyone else rattling round in the big space. If no one else is near you, then you can be as self involved and inconsiderate as you like, and it doesn’t matter, and you aren’t affected by anyone else’s selfish and careless actions. When everyone has an en suit bathroom, your less than perfectly acceptable bathroom habits are never an issue.
We may feel a good deal materially richer for all having an en suit, and copious space in which to exist privately. Of course it means that we use up more resources building, furnishing, lighting and heating the space. We are poorer for not learning the co-operative skills that are integral to living closely with others. We’re also more isolated. Four people in four different rooms under the same roof can all be really lonely. We’re supposed to be a communal species, and it is worth learning to be less self-centred, and more considerate so as to reap the benefits of being able to live communally. Yes, living closely with others is more hassle, takes more effort, but we’re culturally so obsessed with ease that we forget that many of the best things life can offer require a bit of trying.