This morning I sat in a doctor’s waiting room, happily engrossed in ‘Cosmopolitan’ (I’m always delighted when doctors have good magazines in their waiting rooms, though as a good uncertainty avoider I always take a book along, just in case). There was just one other person in the waiting room, so fourteen of the sixteen chairs were free. An elderly man entered the room and of the fourteen free chairs, he chose the one next to mine. Now, that annoyed me to no end and nearly took the fun out of ‘Cosmo’. In Germany, there is an unwritten rule for waiting rooms: you don’t sit on the chair next to someone if there are enough other free chairs. You at least leave one free chair between yourself and the other person. (Same with benches in the town or a park, by the way: you don’t sit next to someone you don’t know on a bench when there is a free bench nearby). Of course it’s not the law and nobody will say anything if you don’t stick to the rule, but it’s basically how it’s done and the majority of people stick to it. Why is that so? Because of personal space. People have their personal space and one doesn’t get too close because it’s rude. I’m old enough to have seen “Dirty Dancing” in the cinema and when thinking about personal space, I always have this vision of Patrick Swayze telling his Baby: “This is my dance space. This is your dance space. I don’t go into yours, you don’t go into mine.”
The concept of personal space is the same all around the world. What is different though is what is considered ‘personal space’. Compare the United Kingdom with Brazil, for example. In Brazil, standing close to each other (1-2 feet) is not only acceptable, it’s a sign of friendliness. Casually touching the other person’s arm, shoulder or hand is usual. Cheek kisses, hugs or at last a friendly pat on the back are the normal greetings. – In the United Kingdom, the usual distance is 3-5 feet. There is no casual touching (I’m not talking about friends or family here) and the usual form of greeting is the handshake. Pass a British person on the street a bit too closely and he will usually apologize (many of my non-British friends commented on the British tendency to apologize a lot).
I once had a conversation with a Southern European colleague. He stood far too close for my liking. I felt distinctly uncomfortable. So I took a step backwards. The colleague followed. I took another step backwards. The colleague followed. It went on like this until I stood with my back to a wall. Personal space is a difficult thing because it is so hard to bear someone getting too close even if one knows that he comes from a culture where this is normal. Still, withdrawing is perceived as cold or rude. So if you are from a culture with a wide personal space and have much to do with people from cultures with smaller personal space, be prepared for people getting closer than you might feel comfortable with at first. If you are from a culture where standing close and occasionally touching the other person’s hand, arm or shoulder is normal, and you deal a lot with people from more distanced cultures, it’s good to keep in mind that they are not being unfriendly or cold, they just have a different perception of personal space. If you’re not sure about how other cultures handle personal space, it’s always good to watch and learn (and of course the internet provides plenty of information).
As a rule of thumb, personal space seems to get larger the more you go North. In Scandinavia, people are likely to find it very odd if they are casually touched during a conversation and the distance between people is around 3 feet. In Southern Europe, people stand closer and casual touching is normal. In Southern America there is even less distance. As you read at the beginning of this post, this can also affect where you sit in public spaces or how you greet people.
So, just keep in mind: don’t go into theirs :-).