Suppose you’ve had the opportunity to travel to different places of the world, with various national cultures. In that case, you might have noticed how locals have a preference for the physical distance between each other. In fact, we all have a preference and act automatically to enforce it. For example, when you are about to take an escalator, and the place is relatively crowded, do you use the immediate escalator tread to the person in front of you? Or do you let some treads go by before stepping in? How many do you usually let go? Maybe you don’t even notice this subconscious behavior, and guess what? Our national culture has a direct influence on this.
There’s a name for the study of the use of space: Proxemics. The term was introduced in the ’60s by the famed cultural researcher Edward T. Hall as an essential component of interpersonal communication.
According to Hall, we establish interpersonal distances by zones; four to be exact:
1. Intimate. This is the closest we allow people to be. Usually reserved for our significant others or to whisper.
2. Personal. This is the distance we allow close friends and family to be.
3. Social. Space we allow with acquaintances, coworkers, and other people we must interact with.
4. Public. For public speaking, not only conferences, but think toasts, speeches to coworkers, and similar situations.
Now, here is the interesting part. Each one of those zones has, in our minds, a boundary. And everyone knows clearly, unequivocally, where those invisible boundaries are. Also, have you noticed how uncomfortable we feel when the wrong person crosses them?
The definition of where those boundaries begin and end for each zone is influenced directly by our national culture. Different cultures have different standards of personal space. Realizing and keeping in mind these cultural differences help eliminate discomfort people may feel if we allow an interpersonal distance that’s too large (you may come across as distant and cold) or too small (you may come across as intrusive).
Given that personal spaces vary from culture to culture, we could find ourselves in awkward situations. For example, the expected distance for the social zone is double in the United States (about 4 feet –1.2 m–) compared to some parts of Europe (about 2 feet –0.6m–). Naturally, the American person will take a step back to create a comfortable distance with the European person, who, in turn, will take a step forward to cut the space again, starting a dance as the conversation progresses, creating prime material for comedy routines.
Of course, these distances cannot be enforced in certain, crowded situations, such as elevators, subways, and lines in public events, just to mention a few. However, our proxemics expectations are adjusted for those situations and create a considerably lower degree of discomfort.
Like all other elements of a cultural intelligence report, proxemics is a generalization, and individuals of a given culture can have different degrees of compliance with the behaviors described for this and any other cultural aspect. A reminder: there’s no right or wrong; it just is.