In the American movie “Dirty Dancing,” Frances “Baby” Houseman, played by actor Jennifer Grey, pointed out that about a foot of air space between her and Johnny Castle (played by actor Patrick Swayze) differentiates what is YOUR dance space from what is MY dance space.
This is on the border of what American anthropologist Edward T. Hall, who is remembered for his work on culture and its affects on proximity among people, would call your Intimate Distance (0 to 18 inches / 0 – 46 cm for personal touching and embracing) and the Close Personal Distance (1.5 to 4.5 feet / 46 – 76 cm for interactions with friends and family members). I sometimes wonder how society has changed – only 100 years ago dancing was the closest someone single could get to someone of the opposite sex without causing a scandal. There was touching, closeness, and the opportunity to exchange sweet nothings. Today, dance floors look more like someone let loose a bunch of electric eels. Where’s the charm? Where’s the human interaction? But I digress.
How Personal Space is Interpreted Differently Across Culture
What in the West is reserved for family in friends is often fair game among strangers in Asia. I remember Indian workshop participants coming up to me in the break to ask questions, and I mean coming up to within inches. Automatically, I took a step back – and they took a step forward. It made me smile, and I’m glad I had the awareness and remembered my platinum rule: Treat others the way THEY want to be treated. What I grew up to consider Social Space (4 – 7 feet / 1.2 – 2.1 meters for interaction with acquaintances and colleagues) would be considered too impersonal in India. Since we were in a safe learning environment in the U.S., this brief interaction made for a fun teaching moment.
In Western society we try to compensate and create other barriers when we feel like our personal space is violated. That creates stress, so to compensate, we avoid eye contact and smiling is rare – e.g. on crowded public transportation.
When doing business with nationals whom you feel are “invading” your intimate or personal space, resist the urge to take a step back.
Well, only if you want to do business together.
A) They may take a step forward to be closer to you again, or – worse –
B), they may consider your creating physical distance as a sign that you’re not trustworthy.
Have you ever thought about what makes you trust someone you don’t yet know? Trustworthiness is culturally defined and many clues are in body language and eye contact. In some cultures, mainly Northern and Western, good eye contact indicates trust and paying attention. In others, mainly Eastern and Southern, it is a non-verbal sign of equality, e.g. younger people would not look their elders in the eye, nor would it be culturally acceptable for women to look directly at men.
Various researchers have found other gender differences:
(1) Women smile more than men.
Burgoon, Buller, & Woodall, 1996
(2) Women stand closer to each other than men do and are generally approached more closely than men.
Eakins & Eakins, 1978
(3) Both men and women, when speaking, look at men more than at women.
Pearson, West, & Turner, 1995
(4) Women both touch and are touched more than men.
(5) Men extend their bodies, taking up greater areas of space, more than women.
What’s your experience?