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.

Cultural Must-Adapts: When Is It Mandatory to Adapt to Cultural Norms?

Do you remember our four groupings of social norms – folkways, mores, taboos, and laws?

If not, then here’s our handy chart to recall how each of these norms applies to culture:

norms

As you can imagine, failing to queue up in Britain would not be looked upon as severely as, say, going topless at a beach in America. And this is due to the severity of the norm groupings to which each of these actions belong.

Folkways<Mores<Taboos<Laws

How strict is each cultural norm group?

Folkways are the softest social norms. While you have a choice whether or not to adapt to folkways, failing to adapt won’t lead to ostracism; it will simply lead some in your new cultural environment to consider you a bit rude.

One example: wearing formal attire in a business environment is a European folkway. A suit and tie in Europe is the uniform of choice for men.

So, when an American male manager walks into a business meeting with his European counterparts wearing a casual polo shirt and wrinkled slacks, while this casual attire is, of course, not forbidden, it may result in a negative perception of said businessman as a cross-cultural business leader.

This is one example of a folkway that you can choose to adapt or not, but in making that choice, consider how it’s perceived.

Mores define right versus wrong within a culture, so there is more pressure to adapt to this type of social norm.

For instance, if a female manager travels to a conservative country, and she comes from one where feminine business attire is much more liberal, she may feel pressured – or even be asked – to alter her attire, as it may be considered inappropriate or revealing, based on the culture’s mores.

This is the difference between “right vs rude” and “right vs wrong”. Again, you can choose to adapt or not, but in the process, you may be considered “rude” or “wrong” by the cultural standards of your new colleagues.

Mandatory Adaptions

When it comes to the last two social norm groups – taboos and laws -, you must adapt.

Remember, taboos define what’s forbidden, while laws define what’s illegal. If these norms don’t align with your own, and you believe there’ll be some “wiggle-room”, simply because you’re a foreigner, then you’re very much mistaken.

“Sorry, I didn’t know; I’m foreign,” might work when breaking a queue, but it certainly won’t work when breaking a law.

You must accept that other cultures have values that you must observe if you choose to live there. And if you can’t accept these deeply entrenched values and norms, then stand by your principles and don’t move there.

Because one thing is certain in building cross-cultural relationships: you should not expect an entire culture to bend to your will.