It seems to me that presently our society has an image of intimacy as a demonstration or and an act of dominance and power. This has historically been true to some extent and in some regards, one proof is in master-slave relationships of intimacy, yet because our society has become such a visual one (TV, movies,music videos), this image has had the opportunity to become more widely spread, more widely applicable, and more widely influential.
I agree that it is difficult to discuss intimacy without first describing it. From a historical viewpoint, being openly intimate has become far more acceptable. Once upon a time a young woman wouldn't have even been allowed alone with a young man. Now, many societies don't even take notice of a young man and young woman holding hands or kissing. I think our ideas about intimacy have been shaped by the society we live in. Personally, I think our society teaches men and women to show intimacy in different ways. Particularly when it comes to the intimacy between friends. A group of young girls might hold hands, hug a lot, or have a physical closeness that is generally accepted by society. A group of young men tend to have a different type of intimacy. Usually I see young men giving high fives or slaps on the back rather than hugs and hand holding. I think each society decides what is acceptable and what is not.
I agree with the thoughts expressed about how men seem to have a harder time publicly with intimacy. I believe emotional intimacy is often viewed as a weakness in men, especially by their friends and peers. I hate to admit this, but I am a high school teacher and it usually makes me uncomfortable when I see a broken-hearted male student in class. I don't have that instinctive reaction to female students who are going through the same thing. I don't treat the students differently, but I am almost embarrassed for the boys when they show such raw emotion publicly. I do not treat them differently, but I have recognized this reaction in myself and it bothers me.
I definitely echo the points made by editors above about how intimacy seems to be much harder for men in general than for women. If you think about it, men with their body language find it very hard to express intimacy with other men out of fear of being labelled as "homosexual" or "gay." This also results in men finding it hard to talk honestly about their feelings. This of course is just a generalisation and not a complete rule.
I think that we have a hard time really coming to grips with how we feel about and how we talk about emotional intimacy. This is especially the case with men. We know that emotional intimacy is a very important part of life, but yet we have a hard time talking about it in our culture. It may be that this is inevitable since emotional intimacy is so intensely private. But I think it is seen as something that is A) feminine and B) not really meant to be discussed or promoted.
My first thought in response to this question went straight to physical intimacy. I think society, in America at least, most often dictates what is "appropriate" through the annals of entertainment (including Hollywood, the music industry, and professional sports).
Physical intimacy has been dictated by prime time TV, reality TV stars, and the music industry as something that usually comes first in a relationship or happens completely separate from any other kind of intimacy (emotional, spiritual, etc). I think it is a terribly unhealthy view of intimacy. I think the marriage relationship has be devalued by our society, that teenagers are bombarded with images of sexuality that devalue the friendship part of relationships, and I believe this is why the family unit in America continues to disintegrate.
There are various ways to look at this. In general, I would say that public physical intimacy is frowned upon, whether it's just showing affection or something more sexual, like kissing. It makes people uncomfortable because it is, for the most part, seen as something that should be done in private. I would also say that people are uncomfortable with emotional intimacy in public, especially with strangers. For the most part, people like to keep to themselves.
Private intimacy is a different story; both physical and emotional. It varies on an individual basis. Some people feel perfectly comfortably getting physically and emotionally intimate with someone and can be intimate with many people. Others, however, have trouble getting close to someone and have difficulties getting intimate with anyone, physically or emotionally.
Both of the above posts raise excellent points. To the extent that "intimacy" can be given a blanket definition, it would be those occasions and times when people engage in contact normally reserved for one other person. In most instances, those who are forced to witness it are often uncomfortable and attempt to either avoid it or pretend not to notice. Although most discussion of intimacy involves situations of a romantic or sensual nature; I for one consider telephone calls to be somewhat intimate, intended only for the other party to the conversation. In that regard, I find myself quite annoyed and perplexed when I am forced to listen to one side of another person's cell phone conversation. At times I think there is a certain voyeurism at work here; the speaker flaunts his self importance by purportedly ignoring others but in fact forcing them to listen. I have received some rather pointed looks when I loudly asked to be seated at another table away from the offending party; but again, no one should be forced to be a witness to matters that should be private.
I agree with the above poster in that there seems to be multiple layers of social norms when it comes to the appropriate place, time and situation for intimacy to be considered acceptable. But we should also remember that beyond purely physical intimacy lies emotional intimacy and intellectual intimacy, just to name a couple of others, that are much more subtly expressed. The question is, how much do humans need each kind?
The answer to your question cannot be answered in a generalized or global way. What this means is that different places in society have different tolerances and acceptance levels of intimacy in society.
Another factor which must be considered is the definition of intimacy. Intimacy can be defined from a close friendship to something of a private and/or personal matter. Therefore, the way society sees intimacy depends upon the definition which they choose to align with the acts or behaviors seen.
For example, in the high school environment (a limited society), intimacy is not accepted at all. Students are not allowed to show affection for each other (deemed public displays of affection or PDA). It is looked down upon by administration to hug, kiss, or hold hands. It is simply not accepted.
Outside of that, if one were to align the definition of intimacy with something of a private/personal matter, many in society would be uncomfortable to be around persons having a "private/personal" moment.
As for the general views, one could assume that intimacy tends to lead towards the definition which depicts personal and private matters. People, in general, are uncomfortable when others around them are engrossed in private matters (for example, "making out" or sexually explicit behaviors). Some states even have laws which regard such actions as lewd and lascivious behavior.
The world is full of hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of cultures, religions tec. With regards to each one of them and social norms, they all see things in a different light. What is acceptable in one place, may be treasonous in another. The levels of intimacy that one should show in society are all based on who is around, and what they will deem the 'norm'.