How big is your personal bubble?

Does the distance differ between a stranger, an acquaintance, a friend?

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about kissing across cultures and the intimacy of cultural greetings. This all relates to cultural norms and, particularly, personal distance.

Safe Space

People of every culture like to keep a safe space from others, whether they’re talking, walking, or taking public transport. This invisible boundary, while sometimes particular to an individual, also has roots in the cultural baobab.

When someone trespasses this space, particularly if they’re a stranger or specifically unwanted within the bubble, the person whose space has been invaded will instinctively move away in order to regain their boundary of comfort.

Why do we have this sense of personal space? Do we fear bad breath or B.O.?

Well, that may be an issue…but, more importantly, the close proximity lends itself to a sense of intimacy that may be incongruent to the relationship between two people.

When our space is invaded, a ping of fear is triggered in the amygdala of the brain. Though mostly subconscious, this emotional reaction is established during primary socialization around the age of 3 or 4, which is when personal space starts to develop and is later fully formed in adolescence.

While matters of personal space may be somewhat suppressed when in a particular setting (on an elevator or a packed metro, for instance), the feeling of discomfort is still there. And, as mentioned, it often differs according to an individual’s relationship with the other person.

You’re Getting Warmer…

So, what makes a culture “colder” or “warmer” than another in relation to this bubble?

Funnily enough, often the temperature. 

A study published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology examined cultures and personal space, gathering information from around 9,000 people in 42 countries. Researchers were particularly interested in whether or not climate impacted a culture’s norms regarding personal space.

An earlier study had concluded that there were “contact” cultures ( Latin American, Arabian, and southern European) and “non-contact” cultures (North American, northern European, and areas of Asia).

Individuals were asked at what distance they were comfortable standing next to a close friend, an acquaintance, and a stranger. The study found that it was often the case that the warmer the climate, the thinner the bubble.

Argentina had the narrowest personal gap, being at as comfortable a distance with a stranger as a Canadian was with a close friend. On the other hand, Romanians had the widest bubble when it came to strangers (>1.3 meters) but one of the smallest for close friends (40 cm).

While this doesn’t illustrate a clear cut theory on warm vs. cold climates producing warm vs. cold cultures, in general, the higher a country’s temperature the narrower “the bubble” between strangers.

Next week, we’ll talk about ways of “closing the gap” of personal space across cultures.

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