Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Personal space

It was perhaps, inevitable that I would write about an article about “personal space,” that aspect of human nature that is treated differently across cultures and can thereby cause quite a bit of confusion.

A general observation is that Americans prefer more personal space than Russians. I did a little research and found some writings on the general topic of personal space. Many of the articles contain a lot of interesting cultural observations, but I tried to limit the topic here so as not to get sidetracked.

One article included a chart of different characteristics of several nationalities around the world. I’m not sure exactly where these people got their information, but if it’s true, then personal space needs around the world vary from approximately 5 centimeters to 1 meter. I’ve compiled them here and tried to make the units match, since they didn’t in the original…
U.S.-no closer than 2 ft (.6 meters)
Colombia-no closer than 30 cm
Mexico –no closer than 2 inches (about 5 cm)
Austria-no closer than half a meter
Greece-no further than 50 cm
Italy-closer than 50 cm is okay
Poland-usually no closer than 1 meter, but less if at work
Sweden-no closer than 60 cm
Australia-no closer than 2 ft (.6 meters)
China-no closer than 1 meter
Japan-no closer than 2 ft (.6 meters)
Nigeria-no further than 2 ft (.6 meters)
South Africa –no closer than half a meter
Israel-no closer than half a foot (.15 meters)
Turkey-no farther than one foot (.3 meters)

And here is a first-hand observation from my brother…
Me: “How do Africans relate to personal space?”
Nate (answering for the Democratic Republic of Congo): “It doesn’t exist…”

While most figures have a “no closer than” limit, some nationalities are apparently offended if a person is standing TOO far away. This list unfortunately does not include Russia, which messes up my research. It does portray the U.S. as needing more personal space, although not the maximum amount.

Here is a little more about American expectations, excerpted from an article offering culture advice for international students in the U.S.: “Americans tend to require more personal space than in other cultures. So if you try to get too close to an American during your conversation, he or she will feel that you are "in their face" and will try to back away. Try to be aware of this, so if the person to whom you are speaking backs away a little, don't try to close the gap...Also, try to avoid physical contact while you are speaking, since this may also lead to discomfort. Touching is a bit too intimate for casual acquaintances. So don't put your arm around their shoulder, touch their face, or hold their hand. Shaking hands when you initially meet or part is acceptable, but this is only momentary.”

I also found an informative article about Ukrainian culture, which in my opinion is a fairly close description of Russian culture as well. Disclaimer: definitely written from an American viewpoint!

“Ukrainian culture: On average Ukrainians' personal space is smaller than in Germanic and Anglo-saxon cultures. Some people touch each other quite a bit during conversations if they are standing. Greeting women with a kiss on the cheek is common. On the gesticulation scale Ukrainians are more subdued than southern Europeans but more animate than Scandinavians. Gestures tend to be smaller—no American arm-flapping here!”

I do have one question…what is “American arm-flapping”?

So now that we’ve established that Americans and Russians have different desires for personal space, what effect does this have?

This article pretty much sums it up: http://www.friends-partners.org/oldfriends/spbweb/lifestyl/122/how.html ...

“A problem for visiting Americans is that Russian personal distance lies within an American's intimate distance, just as an American's personal distance lies within northern Europeans' intimate space. The result is that Russians seem pushy or over-amorous to northern Europeans, and Europeans seem cold, and unfriendly to Russians. Americans, existing somewhere in the middle, manage to equally offend both parties, for opposite reasons.”

How to deal with this problem? One way is to simply be aware of the differences in advance and therefore prepare oneself for “strange behavior” from foreigners and not take it as a personal attack. I can protect a good mood fairly well if I associate daily unpleasant experiences with culture shock. Obviously this doesn’t work for all conflicts, but if, everytime someone bothers me, I think “it’s okay, just a different culture, they’re not trying to bother me,” I can often avoid being offended. Sometimes it’s obvious that people are actually being rude, but I don't have to pay attention and risk having my mood ruined!

Everyone’s favorite online encyclopedia has some interesting observations on how people deal psychologically with invasions of their personal space.

“In certain circumstances people can accept having their personal space violated. For instance in romantic encounters the stress from allowing closer personal space distances can be reinterpreted into emotional fervour. Another method of dealing with violated personal space, according to psychologist Robert Sommer, is dehumanization. He argues that, for instance on the subway, crowded people imagine those infiltrating their personal space as inanimate.”

So there you have it. I will also share a few tidbits that I found about eye contact, which relates somewhat to the topic at hand.

This is a fairly amusing account written by a native of Chile.
“I now live in California and have been married for over 20 years to a Californian (of Northern European descent). It is sort of funny because my wife now realizes that I need to have eye contact while we talk. If she is reading, she has learned that I stop talking if I don't have eye contact with her. I have had several people tell me, when I stop talking because I no longer have eye contact, "Keep talking, I'm listening." My kids still give me a bad time about the year my mother came to visit and we drove to Yosemite National Park. They were all panicked because I kept looking at my mother as I drove. They felt I was not looking at the road enough and thought we would drive off the mountain. I have a very high need for eye contact.”

I hadn’t really thought about this much. I was generally taught that it is polite to look at the person talking, in order to communicate that you are paying attention. I try to do so. And like the author, I don’t like speaking if the listeners are not looking at me. However, if I feel shy, I avoid eye contact.

Here is an American look at the Russian situation:
“The Russian "neutral" expression is a blank, unsmiling face, which appears forbiddingly angry to Americans. Americans in turn, often appear to be vulgarly laughing at strangers when they automatically smile at people on the subway.

When in 1993 I brought to Russian a group of American students, without exception they wove elaborate paranoid fantasies about harmless Russian strangers "staring at me with this evil expression."

Conversely, they all had a terrible time getting sales clerks to respond at counters when using the standard American method of simply staring at the clerk till she says "Can I help you?" Fact is, around here you can stare for a week and not get service until you politely say "Devooshka?" ("Girl?").”

This is definitely true! If a clerk doesn’t pay attention to me, I assume that he or she is busy, and I can stand there for several minutes worrying about whether or not I will bother him/her if I ask for help.

And here is one last example to illustrate the dynamics of cross-cultural communication: “Toward the end of my three week trip I was invited by my young Russian host and friend Nicolai Vasilevich and his lovely wife Yulya out to dinner. At the end of a wonderful meal Yulya asked if I would like a banana. I politely declined and thanked her, and explained I was most satisfied with the meal. But the whole while my mind was racing: "What do I do? Do I offer her a banana even though they are as close to her as they are to me? What is the polite thing to do?"”

Yes, these agonizing questions often race through my mind as well. It must look comical when I stall upon being asked simple questions like “Would you like another cup of tea?” But isn’t it better to wonder about the right answer than to not wonder at all and simply answer automatically from one’s ingrained cultural preferences?


  1. I get scared when my husband insists on looking at me while he's driving and telling me a story, but othertimes I wish he would look me in the eye more often while I'm talking to him. Crazy how that works. Thanks for all the research on these issues across cultures, it's really fascinating to see the differences.

  2. Great article. I took an interpersonal communication class in college and we did a section on personal space. There were a lot of different cultures in the class, which made it more interesting. One exercise we did was to have groups of two people walk towards each other across the room until one of them felt uncomfortable and said Stop! Of course, in my pair, I was the one who wanted to stop first.
    Another thing we talked about was how gender affects personal space preferences, but that was limited to the U.S.


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