Have you ever been sitting in an empty café and someone walks in and sits right next to you? I mean, every single table is open and they choose to sit closest to you. Or maybe you’re standing in line at the grocery store and the person behind you is standing so close you can feel their breath. You might turn to these people, give them a dirty look and think to yourself, “What is their problem? Give me some space!” This is common for many Americans, we have a very large personal space bubble compared to most countries.
In Spain, I had to get used to crowded bus rides to and from school every day. Proxemics, the difference in people’s personal space, has four different categories: intimate, personal, social and public. Americans consider intimate as standing 0 to 1.5 feet from one another, personal space is generally 1.5 to 4 feet, social is 4 to 12 feet and public is 12 feet and up. Now, these are all ranges. Personal space starts at 1.5 feet, but that is really pushing it. It is more common and comfortable to stand 3 feet away in most situations.
So, knowing that 1.5 is borderline intimate and generally uncomfortable, Latin American and Mediterranean cultures like to stand at 1.5 feet for a personal conversation. An explanation for this is that cultures from colder climates have larger personal space “bubbles” while cultures with warmer climates prefer to be much closer. This explains why North Americans and Northern Europeans like their personal space. South Americans and Southern Europeans will enter your comfort zone.
How do you deal with this issue of your personal space bubble? Well, realize before you travel somewhere if the culture’s proxemics is different than your own. Work on your intercultural sensitivity by trying to stand closer to people. If you step back because you are uncomfortable, you can come across as rude. Keep an open mind because no culture has a right or wrong personal space distance. I personally had to adjust to closer proxemics while living in Spain. Have you had to adjust to any personal space differences while traveling?