Personal Space around the World

 

If you’ve ever experienced a “close talker” like the one in the above scene from Seinfeld, you probably agree that we all need a certain amount of personal space to feel comfortable. But how close is too close? The answer is highly influenced by our cultural background. According to one study, in Argentina an acceptable amount of space between strangers is 76.2cm, in the U.S. it’s 94.5cm, and Romanians like up to 140.2cm. The numbers change when the space is between close friends—in that case Romanians are comfortable with only 48.8cm compared to 100.6cm in Saudi Arabia. Because comfort levels regarding physical space are embedded in our cultural norms, they are often so unconscious we don’t even realize them…until someone has suddenly crossed our personal boundary.  

 

At I-House, you will have the opportunity to meet people from over 70 countries, and with so many different cultures there’s bound to be some awkward moments navigating the comfort zones of personal space. While there is not a right or wrong size for a “personal space bubble,” it is important to learn about different cultures’ norms to build trust and friendship across cultural differences. Moreover, when working and leading globally diverse teams, understanding and respecting different cultures’ personal space norms is critical for professional success.  

 

So, looking at U.S. American culture, what are some of the norms around personal space and physical touch? If you cozy up to a U.S. American with less than two feet of space you are moving into “close-talker” territory and are likely to trigger their flight, fight, or freeze response. On average, U.S. Americans prefer to be 2-3 feet (60-90cm) away from acquaintances and strangers. During professional interactions, handshakes are expected as a greeting, but other forms of touch are generally not considered appropriate. Hugging is common in U.S. culture but varies widely depending on an individual’s preference, level of comfort, and type of relationship. In a professional context, hugs are not the norm unless colleagues have become personal friends. However, you may see people who aren’t close friends hugging when there is a shared emotional experience—such as colleagues celebrating a major achievement, or hugging at a farewell party. In the U.S. workplace there are strong laws around harassment, and any type of unwelcome physical touch is strictly prohibited, so it is important to make sure your colleague is ok with it before giving them a squeeze. You can always ask “Is it ok if I give you a hug?” to check for consent. Also, staring at strangers in public spaces is generally considered to be rude, and when shopping people do not like to be followed.  

 

In other parts of the world, it’s a different story. For example, in Myanmar it’s the norm for an attendant at a retail store to follow a shopper at close proximity to provide service. In Spain it is common to greet friends and sometimes even colleagues with two kisses and lots of touching of the shoulders, arms, hands, etc. While Spaniards kiss twice, Peruvians only kiss once, and in Lebanon, three kisses are the standard. Also, in many parts of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa (including Lebanon, UAE, Myanmar, India, Uganda Kenya, and more), it’s common to see men holding hands with other men as a sign of friendship and brotherhood. In the U.S. this would likely be interpreted as a romantic relationship.  

 

Because personal space and touch are so deeply embedded in our cultural norms, it’s common for people to experience frustration around these issues when they enter a new culture. For people from cultures that prefer closer proximity, U.S. norms may feel cold or isolating. For others who prefer more personal space or do not touch to greet, the norms in the U.S. may feel disrespectful or violating. So, how might you deal with the challenges around personal space without, well, taking it personally? Here are a few options for appropriate ways to engage in your time at I-House: 

  • Be curious: Take time to inquire and learn about what kind of touch and space is appropriate and inappropriate in the different cultures your fellow residents come from. 
  • Practice observation: pay attention to nonverbal communication, such as bodily cues. For example, if someone doesn’t offer their hand as a greeting, don’t offer your hand. Greeting preferences may be driven by a number of cultural and individual factors such as religious beliefs and customs, comfort levels in certain social dynamics, or temporary circumstance, like a person getting over a cold that does not want to spread it. Either way, observation of others’ behaviors and bodily cues can help you understand what’s important to others and help you avoid a potentially embarrassing situation. 
  • Look deeper: Rather than judging or criticizing, seek to understand the values beneath people’s space and touch practices. For example, in the US the level of distance is connected to a value for respecting the individual. In Argentina, the closer proximity is related to a value for relationships and connection.  
  • Share your preferences: If you prefer not to shake hands or have physical contact, feel free to explain what the greeting practice is in your culture. You will hopefully be helping people to not assume that their cultural norm is the “right” way to do things.  

 

References:  

Erickson, A. (2017, April 24). What ‘personal space’ looks like around the world. The Washington Post. Retrieved June 6, 2018, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/04/24/how-close-is-too-close-depends-on-where-you-live/?utm_term=.137d9248a29d