Crossing Cultures – Personal Space

My son just got back from 3 months in Cambodia, and, together with another son who lived in Peru for 2 years, we have had an interesting time comparing observations.  It has made me realize that I not only need to encourage cultural training for folks entering a new culture, but I need to begin describing some of the things you’ll find “out there”.  Let’s start with personal space.

Americans have a large personal space, relatively speaking.  It can be described as egg-shaped, with the American standing just inside the narrow end of the oval, looking at the wide end.  We can stand in line tightly, as long as all are facing in the same direction, but we don’t want to stand close to anybody in face-to-face encounters.  Four to five feet (a meter to a meter and a half) is comfortable.  If you enter that space without having earned the right (by family relationship, friendship, romance, or a medical license), we get very uncomfortable.  If you stand more than six feet (about 2 meters) away while conversing, we wonder what’s wrong with us, that you don’t want to come closer.

Cambodians, it seems, prefer to stand close to one another, maybe even touching each other occasionally.  Omanis are my favorites; they sometimes stand so close they can rest their hands on each other’s shoulders.  Egyptians not only stand almost touching noses, but they raise their voices, speaking loudly to each other, even to close friends, while doing so.  Men in India and Pakistan might hold hands as they chat.

Result: Americans in some areas abroad are likely to feel that they are surrounded by pushy, intrusive people.  Many foreigners in the U.S may feel that Americans are distant and cold.

Please tell me what you have observed about personal space.

One more anecdote to illustrate the difference in personal spaces:

Coning out of a crowded subway station in Washington, DC, I entered the elevator along with about 15 other people.  More wanted in but could see that it was “full”–meaning that to put more people in the elevator would have intruded on the personal space of everyone all at once, so they formed a small crowd outside the elevator.  (How do we know where that magical point is?  By experience.)  Just as the elevator door was about to close, with everyone contentedly progressing through their day, it suddenly re-opened.  A small woman, Asian in appearance, had pushed through the waiting crowd, pressed the “door open” button, and worked her way into the crowded elevator.  Many people rolled their eyes.  Some grunted.  Some glared angrily into the elevator.  Others glared angily out of the elevator.  And so our days were disturbed by this simple act.  If you want friends in America, don’t do what this woman did.

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