Have you ever found yourself stuck in the subway, uncomfortably fidgeting around, as an armpit sits above your face, and an elbow (dangerously) hangs an inch above your rib cage. Even though no one is actually touching you, you feel icky and claustrophobic. That’s all because you actually do––according to science––need your personal space.
A ton of different factors play into how much you need of it, one including culture (i.e. location, social environment, etc.) That being said, what are the cultural implications of personal space and do why we actually need it?
Why do some cultures value personal space more than others?
Personal space––the measure of how close we stand to our co-workers, family members, strangers, etc.––varies widely between countries. For instance, in France, it’s common to greet friends, loved ones, and strangers with two cheek kisses, and a bit of shoulder touching (for both men and women). As for Hungarians, both romantic interests and strangers are to be kept at arm’s length, or discomfort starts settling in. These behavioral and cultural discrepancies reflect people’s different perceptions of personal space, which scientists attribute to:
The hyper-confident tend to have a smaller buffer zone when compared to those who are more anxious or reserved.
People living in warm climates tend to need less personal space than the ones living in the cold.
In all countries, women prefer more personal space from strangers than men do. In one study, women also preferred protecting the space next to them,versus men preferring to protect the space in front of them.
The older you are, the more space you demand.
Where you grew up, what social environment you live in, and what family culture you were raised in are all key factors in determining how close is too close. Scientists have drilled down which countries enjoy cozying-up (contact cultures) and the ones that simply don’t (non-contact cultures):
- Contact cultures stand closer together and enjoy physical interaction. They’re mostly made up of South American, Middle Eastern, and Southern European countries.
- Non-contact cultures prefer standing farther apart and touching less. They’re mostly made up of Northern European, North American, and Asian countries.
Which cultures value personal space the most?
To get a bigger picture of what personal space looks like around the world, a study in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology ranked countries differently based on the following three verticals:
“Close relationship space”
This is usually the smallest space. Naturally, it’s reserved for loved ones, close friends, and family members––all the people you feel most comfortable with.
“Personal acquaintance space”
This covers an averaged sized sphere dedicated to friends and acquaintances only (i.e. co-workers, friendly neighbors, etc.)
This is the the largest space you keep in between you and all the people you don’t know or don’t want to know (like that weirdo on the New York subway train).
After averaging all three verticals for each country, the study found that Saudi Arabians need the most personal space, and that Argentinians need the least.
Where does the science behind personal space come in?
Needing personal space is a totally natural and normal phenomenon. When you squirm as someone gets strangely close to you, your brain is actually sizing up the space around you. It fires out neurons, called “bubble wrap” neurons, letting you know someone is a bit too close. Like bubble wrap paper, these neurons pop when someone gets a bit too cozy. This neurological process allows you to gauge the space around you, and helps you generate a defense mechanism if a harmful object comes your way. In a sense, it’s kind of like a survival instinct.