Personal space: Don’t stand too close to me

A cultural view on personal space

It’s a well-known fact that stand-offish Brits prefer a large ‘bubble’ of personal space around them; you only have to travel on the London Underground in rush hour to witness the armor of each individual – headphones, spread out newspapers, hunched body language, grim expressions. Whereas in India, people will pack into trains and buses without a second thought, or stand close to one another in queues, and in South America, a friend may grab you by the arm during conversation to make their point.

Now, a study published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology has looked into why different cultures have such different approaches to personal space.

Some 9,000 people in 42 countries were asked what they considered to be the optimum distance at which they would expect a stranger, an acquaintance and a close friend to stand. One of the theories the researchers wanted to test was whether climate had an effect on perception of personal space, developing an earlier study (E. T. Hall, 1966) that divided individuals into ‘contact’ and ‘non-contact’ cultures. Contact cultures – southern European, Latin American and Arabian – engaged in more touching and stood closer during conversation than non-contact cultures in northern Europe, north America and parts of Asia.

To an extent, this proved correct. Argentina emerged as the most touchy-feely nation; people here keep the same distance from a stranger as a British person would an acquaintance and a Canadian individual a close friend or partner.

Romanians clearly take longer to establish trust; they came out with the widest distance you should stand from a stranger – more than 1.3m – but one of the narrowest gaps for close friends, to whom they cosy up at just 40cm, compared to nearly 60cm for a British person. So the theory of warm versus cold is not as straightforward as it sounds.

The study certainly found that climate, age and gender have an effect on personal distance across cultures. Yes, the higher a country’s average temperature, the closer people will stand to a stranger. But women generally keep a greater distance from someone they don’t know. Older people in warm climates keep a bigger distance from close friends and stand closer to strangers.

All sorts of other factors appear to be at play as your subconscious decides how far to stand from another person. In hot climates, could people stand closer because they are more relaxed and animated, in other words, ‘warm’? And yet avoid very close proximity with their nearest and dearest because of an evolved disease-avoidance mechanism? Women in cultures like Saudi Arabia keep their distance from both strangers and close friends, possibly because they are more sensitive to cultural norms, while men in more macho cultures may stand closer as a subconscious way of asserting dominance.

The academics leading this study admit that there is a lot more to do. But what we do know is to keep your distance in Canada; prepare for an abrazo (a hug) in Argentina; and if you end up on intimate terms with a Norwegian, don’t shrink away; they like to stand closer than anybody. To keep warm, perhaps.

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About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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