personal space

What You Have To Know About How Different Cultures Handle Personal Space

Global mobility specialists like yourself are trained to observe what is acceptable in one culture and what is prohibited in another. Business etiquette, sign language, and gift-giving traditions fall under this category. It is important to distinguish how each culture treats these behavior patterns separately, because an action that may gain you a game-changing deal in one country may cost you the withdrawal of a potential partner in another.

It’s time to add to this list how the different countries and regions around the world — or at least the individuals in them — react to personal space. As explained in Psychology Today, personal space is the spatial boundaries that you the individual have set for yourselves with the various people you interact with — some closer than others. For example, it’s “normal” for most of us to accept a hug from a family member or a close friend, but we tend to keep strangers at arm’s distance. And that new colleague you just met at work won’t be allowed to peer inside your cubicle until he or she has proven worthy of your trust.

How we react when someone encroaches our personal space can be visceral because it is rooted in our biology. The brain cells in our neural network are trained to classify friendly faces who we can be comfortable with, against non-friendly ones who we may tend to be skeptical about or view as a threat. If a line is crossed — say, that irritating star player of Sales — suddenly jabs your shoulder as a sign of play, those cells in that network will start to fire their synapses. As a result, we start feeling anxious, worried, or angry. We want that stranger who just violated our personal space to move away.

Some of you might have seen the signs among your assignees, especially during their first months of interaction with the colleagues native to their new country of employment. At first, they stand a few feet away from each other during conversations. They might not even shake hands. They tend to sit a few chairs away each other during meetings. But over time, as rapport and trust are built, the space thins, and they stand and or sit closer to each other; their physical distance mirrors their relationship.

The boundaries that one sets with his personal space is not just a matter of individual taste. Entire cultures and communities have their own rules about how far an individual (especially a foreigner) can enter personal space. The Washington Post has separated those which are contact-heavy from those that are not. For example, in  “contact cultures” like the Middle East, South America, and Southern Europe, physical contact among peoples is allowed or even encouraged. Meanwhile, in “non-contact cultures” like Northern America, Northern Europe, and Asia, a little distance is deemed healthy for establishing long-term relationships.

Here’s a bird’s eye view of some of the “personal space” practices that you can expect from your assignees:

Brazil: According to the NPR, Brazilians are very expressive in their love and care for their families. That extends to their culture and society outside of the home. The elderly are greatly respected; adults tend to give them their seats in public places even though they don’t know each other. Hugging and soft kisses are one way to make a family member or a new face on the block feel welcome. In short, personal space can be very close for your Brazilian assignee.

China: The Laoiwai Career advises caution to Chinese individuals when it comes to physical touch. As a standard rule, your Chinese assignee may allow himself to be touched only by family members and by real close friends. A stranger doing so, regardless of his intentions, will appear rude. This applies doubly to a man who is  a stranger touching a female acquaintance. Consider this action taboo.

Egypt:  Based on the NPR study, your Egyptian assignee would not get irked at all if you bump into him accidentally. He is used to living in a very populated country with busy streets and crowded alleys. People who line up in packed restaurants and food stalls frequently brush against each other. The concept of personal space is almost absent.

Romania:  The Independent says that your Romanian assignee will be very measured when it comes to his personal space. If you’re still in the getting-to-know-you phase, chances are he will stand from you from a distance of 1.3 metres. Amp up the friendliness factor, and in a few weeks, that space will narrow down to 40 centimetres.
One way to brush up on your knowledge of your assignee’s personal space is to take a routine but long tour of the more diverse locations in your place, like northern California. Your sharp eye trained to observe human behavior would not have a problem spotting the more recent immigrants from the familiar locals. Watch how they interact, and how much space they allow themselves. It will be an education in itself.