How to Deal with Body Contact & Personal Space in Foreign Cultures

Do you bow, shake hands, or hug when you greet someone? Do you kiss on both cheeks?

How much space do you need to feel comfortable on the metro?

What is appropriate touching in your culture?

We’ve been talking about visual frameworks and the way different cultures perceive the world. Aside from vision, all four of our other senses have cultural sensitivities as well.

And touching is one of them.

Cross-Cultural Business Etiquette

When you live and work in a foreign culture, you might find your colleagues are comfortable with a different level of body contact and personal space.

One example: I was relocated to Madrid, Spain when I was a young manager. In Spain, you often find yourself negotiating over long lunches that wind down toward late afternoon.

I’d always know when the “real deal” was going down, because if my arm was resting on the table, my negotiating partner would place his hand on my arm. That gesture typically meant we were getting down to business.

To one who is accustomed to such a level of body contact, this action would be perceived as ordinary.

But for those from a culture with a different perception of touch, the body contact would probably be exceedingly uncomfortable and might even be viewed as inappropriate. Especially in a business meeting.

To Hug or Not to Hug

At around the same time I was being made uncomfortable in my meeting, my wife was taking a Spanish course alongside the wife of a Japanese diplomat.

Japanese culture views body contact of any kind with strangers or colleagues as intimate – even forbidden.

So, imagine her discomfort with the Spanish greeting of a kiss on both cheeks.

Not only do the Spanish kiss; they greet with effusive familiarity. And this woman had not only grown with the primary socialization of her culture, but was also raised in an aristocratic family, who reinforced those strict values and norms.

She explained to my wife how difficult it was to adapt. And it’s easy to understand why.

Do You Adapt?

Imagine you traveled to Zuma (a made-up country), where people – men and women – greeted you by rubbing their chest on you.

Remember, breasts are not viewed as a sexual part of the body in many cultures.

Knowing that, would you be comfortable with this greeting? And the real question: would you adapt to it?

The alternative is to stubbornly abide by your own cultural norms, awkwardly refusing to greet in this manner the rest of your days in this foreign country. But in doing so, you are saying to the locals: “I am the Monkey! I refuse to embrace your ways.”

And in making this choice, your new culture will not fully embrace you in return.

Respect Culture: How to Respond to Norms that Make You Uncomfortable

What does respect mean to you?

In the face of disagreement, in the face of, perhaps, discomfort or even anger, what does it mean to respect someone with whom you do not share values or norms?

An example:

You’re Japanese, and you’ve moved to Spain. The Spanish are a warm, open and friendly culture. A kiss on both cheeks is a common greeting, whether you’re a friend or a stranger being met for the first time.

This social norm is not only one you’re not used to; it’s one that makes you incredibly uncomfortable.

What do you do?

Discomfort

I actually know a Japanese woman who struggled with this exact scenario.

She was the wife of a diplomat who had recently transferred to Spain. I met her at a language school.

Not only did she grow up in a culture that is as far removed from Spain as it possibly can be, she was also born to an aristocratic family, so her upbringing was even more disciplined than most. From childhood, she had been taught that public spaces and situations were not the place for physical human contact.

Remember: the Japanese greeting is a bow. A handshake is even too intimate. So, imagine then transitioning into a country in which men and women engage in this public display of affectionate greeting.

A kiss on both cheeks seemed too much for her to bear.

Tolerate, Comply and/or Explain

According to LQ Williams of Owlcation:

“Tolerance is the recognition of the universal human rights and freedoms of others… and the recognition of the value of differences without judgement.”

Tolerance, in essence, is respecting diversity, the world over. Despite feeling uncomfortable with certain cultural norms, you can still demonstrate your tolerance and respect for the culture by complying with other cultural behaviors.

In my Japanese friend’s case, she was taking this step: she was actively trying to learn the language.

Lastly, if you find yourself between a rock and a hard place – that is, between an attempt to integrate into the culture and your discomfort with some of this culture’s social norms and values – then explaining yourself goes a long way.

As Core Languages notes: “Often, just trying to be culturally sensitive is appreciated. Even if you don’t execute well, you’ve taken the time to learn about another and invested in a relationship.”

Who knows – maybe somewhere down the road, you’ll become comfortable with those norms that were initially a roadblock for you, just like my Japanese friend did.

Instead of only accepting the norm, she chose to overcome her deep level of physical discomfort and adapt.

These are some of the battles you may face when living and working in a foreign country. It’s up to you where you draw the line.

But know that in some cases, if you draw the line too close to your own cultural comfort, you may be impeding yourself from successful cross cultural integration.