Physical Contact Varies By Culture

Ironically, the day after I wrote the post on personal space, we did a very interesting exercise in my Intercultural Communication class. A few students were chosen to observe, and the rest of us picked a partner. Now, we were asked to start a conversation with our partner. Easy enough, right? After a few minutes, we had to cut the distance between us in half. Standing about 1.5 feet from my partner, I found myself leaning back, turning my head more and not making eye contact. After a few more minutes, we were asked to hold hands and continue our conversation. So now we are standing about 1.5 feet from each other, borderline intimate zone, and we awkwardly are holding hands. This went on for about five minutes. Everyone’s hands were clammy and we were all uncomfortable and not making eye contact. Put yourself in our shoes, how would you feel if you had to do the same with someone you didn’t know?

This exercise showed American’s struggle with personal space, but also physical contact. Other than shaking hands, physical contact, such as holding hands or hugging, is reserved for people we are close with. It’s pretty awkward with a stranger. In most Western countries physical contact can mean social dominance. People with a higher status tend to exert more physical contact, whereas lower status individuals receive more of the physical contact. For example, your boss might pat you on the back or maybe grip your shoulder as they’re leaning over you to look at your work. This is not uncommon, yet it can still make employees feel uncomfortable. On the flip side, you would never pat your boss on the back, it’s a superiority thing.

So, what cultures tend have more physical contact? Very similar to personal space, the Middle East, Latin America and southern Europe prefer a lot more physical contact during normal conversations. A common greeting is kissing on the cheek. In Spain, I noticed many conversations with men clasping each other’s arm or placing a hand on the other person’s shoulder. In Northern Europe, you have to apologize if you accidentally brush by someone. They do not appreciate touching at all. The Japanese though, are culturally most opposed to the touch of a stranger. If you think about it, they greet each other with a bow, not a kiss or handshake.

Muslims also have strict cultural rules about touching. Men and women cannot touch, even casually, in public. You will not see couples, even married, walking down the street holding hands. Now, two women often walk holding hands and men can be seen walking arm in arm with one another. We might do a double take if we see two men casually walking with their arms linked. Remember, the appropriateness of touching varies by culture. Don’t make the mistake of touching someone’s arm during a conversation in a culture where it is not appropriate or be horrified if someone from Latin America places their hand on your shoulder during a discussion. Be aware of different culture’s comfort towards touching, as well as your own. Does anyone have an example of being uncomfortable with certain physical contact in a different culture?

2 thoughts on “Physical Contact Varies By Culture

  1. Pingback: 8 Conversational Styles | Cultural Connections

  2. The exercise you did in your class is a great example of how we normally react to close physical contact. I’ve never done an exercise like that, but I am familiar with the Hispanic culture. And there many times that I was pulled into a hug and kiss from some I just met. I knew why they did it, but a part of me would still want to push away. After I would get to know them it was alright. I guess you just get used to it and then it is normal.

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