Culture & “The Bubble”: Closing the Gap of Personal Space

A tennis ball.

A volleyball.

A beach ball.

An ocean.

Whatever size our bubble is, we each walk around inside our own yardstick of personal space.

Last week, we talked about how culture and the climate, along with the level of intimacy in relationships, can all affect the degree of our bubble.

This week, we’ll talk about how to close that gap – or at least become more comfortable with it – when living in a foreign culture.

The American Bubble

Americans value personal space. 

International student guides to the US even highlight this preference:

“If you try to get too close to an American during your conversation, he or she will feel that you are ‘in their face’ and will try to back away. Try to be aware of this, so if the person to whom you are speaking backs away a little, don’t try to close the gap.”

More advice given to international students to the US includes:

  • Shake hands upon meeting
  • Avoid all other physical contact while speaking with casual acquaintances (no arm over the shoulder, arm touching, hand holding, etc.)

Americans clearly have a preference for physical distance and no body contact…at least when it comes to strangers and casual acquaintances.

So, how do American managers deal with more touchy-feely cultures abroad?

Insert Desk Here

Latin America is a physically close culture, as was illustrated in the study discussed in last week’s post.

Imagine an American manager entering into this tennis ball-sized bubble culture.

When speaking with an employee, said employee stands too close for comfort, forcing the manager to step backwards to regain his bubble. But in doing so, the employee steps closer again, because he is uncomfortable with the wide gap.

While savvy American managers who work in Latin America want to adapt cross-culturally, those who can’t bear the physical closeness often use a small trick to avoid it with their colleagues and employees.

Instead of taking a step back, they close the gap with an object – like a table or desk – thereby creating the gap for them. This way, the employee is at a comfortable distance, while not feeling uncomfortable, himself, with the object-made gap.

Sometimes, closing the gap is not easy (see: the Japanese woman who forced herself to adapt to the Spanish greeting of kisses); other times, it’s as easy as a desk.

Step 3 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Adapting in Action

Once you realize you’re the monkey in a foreign culture, you can’t go around, swinging from limb to limb. After being made aware of and accepting your differences, you must start to adapt.

This is where the monkey must come out of his cage and start behaving like a human to “fit in.” Slowly, he’ll begin to adapt some of their behaviors, and the following advice will ease the process.

5 Steps to Adapting

  1. Seek the “Why” – Instead of seeing things as black or white, wrong or right, seek the “why” when faced with cultural differences. Knowing why your host culture believes certain things or behaves in ways that are strange to you will help you understand local culture.
  2. Adopt Your Host’s Worldview – To help you seek the “why,” try to put yourself in the shoes of your host and momentarily adopt their worldview. Leave your gavel and robes at home, because you’re not here to judge or condemn; you’re here to learn. Look at yourself as a student and your host culture as the teacher.
  3. Rely on Analogies – A German businesswoman in France was once advised to forget the clockwork functioning of a business. She was told, instead, to view French companies as “royal courts,” where the CEO is king, and she was an earl, building her network until she earned favor. Analogies like these can help you visualize how to behave in the culture and interpret what’s going on around you.
  4. Apply Stereotypes Wisely – While stereotypes are similar to analogies in that they can aid cultural interpretation, these simplified representations of people shouldn’t be applied in an overarching manner. Doing so can be dangerous and hurtful. However, even though it’s important to remember that we’re all individuals and should never be treated like stereotypes, looking at an individual in a cultural context can allow understanding. As Kevan Hall at the Global Integration Blog notes, “If we focus on individuals irrespective of their cultural context we may assume everything is personality. Using US-normed tests on extraversion and introversion, for example, has led to a very high proportion of mainland Chinese participants scoring as introverted. Not a very useful result.”
  5. Apply Empathy Generously – Remember that empathy – or putting yourself in another’s shoes – is essential to understanding. To truly understand your hosts and their culture, you must be culturally empathetic.

Adapting Inaction

Employee A is from Japan. She’s moved to Spain. Spanish greetings involve a kiss on both cheeks. This makes Employee A very uncomfortable.

The Japanese find touch inappropriate and even intimate. When introduced to the Spanish form of greeting, Employee A does not seek the “why,” adopt her host’s worldview or feel empathetic. Instead, she views this greeting style as wrong and inappropriate and chooses to remain physically distant. Every interaction that follows is awkward, for both Employee A and for her hosts.

Employee A does not adapt to the simplest of cross-cultural differences – greetings – which will make it even harder to fully integrate into the culture.

Adapting in Action

Employee B is also from Japan but looks at this greeting from the Spanish perspective. It is not meant to be uncomfortably intimate; it’s a gesture of friendliness.

She chooses to adapt this simple greeting into her behavior, even though it gives her discomfort at first. After a while, she starts to get used to it, despite the fact that limitations on physical touch are deeply ingrained in her culture.

Her hosts appreciate her effort, and as she starts to adapt other Spanish behaviors, she has a much easier time integrating.

She may even move onto adopting behaviors and ideologies of her host culture, which we’ll talk about next week.

Step 3 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Adapting

Do chopsticks seem illogical to you? Is squatting to use a toilet too unfamiliar to fathom? Have you ever felt your worldview being threatened while traveling or living abroad?

You’re not alone. These thoughts arise when you’re living in a foreign culture. As you start to see how culture shapes our world, accepting behaviors that seem oddly shaped is the first step to integration.

Just as you wish to be accepted by your foreign colleagues, you must accept them. And that means accepting their culture. This is the foundation of successfully leading in a foreign culture.

More than simply accepting, you must also adapt. This is the application of your acceptance, where you begin to integrate foreign behaviors into your daily routine and foreign ideas and attitudes into your thought processes.

How Do You Adapt?

Say, you’re from the UK. You normally take dinner anywhere from 6:30 to 8:30 PM, right after you get home from work. You’re used to this schedule.

Your work relocates you to Spain. Your colleagues invite you out to dinner regularly, but they don’t eat until 9 to 10:30 pm. By then, you’re ready to chew your arm off.

Would you get hangry and call off dinner? Or would you adapt the Spanish eating schedule?

Well, first, you might try and understand why the Spanish eat so late.

According to donquijote.org, lunch is the most important meal of the day in Spain, and it’s also when many take their 2 to 4 pm siesta. This pushes the end of the workday to a later hour, because when they return from lunch, they stay until 8 pm. Then, they usually have a merienda, which is a light snack until dinner is served.

In order to integrate into Spanish culture, eating late is certainly something you can accept and adapt as your own. This will help you become part of your colleagues’ culture, and they’ll start to accept you as one of their own too.

Do My Values Change When I Adapt?

You might be afraid that you’ll lose yourself if you adapt too much of another’s culture. But remember the following:

Adapting requires a change in behavior, not a change in values.

That’s not to say you won’t adopt foreign cultural values at some point. You may consider new ideas, behaviors, or philosophies valid and even truer to yourself than those of your own culture. That’s when you’ll adopt.

But such significant transformations are not fast, easy, nor are they painless. They will take much longer than simply changing your eating schedule. We’ll cover this topic in a later post.