North American executives who travel internationally often complain about
how closely people stand next to them in some countries. To the average U.S.
citizen, Latin Americans often seem to stand too close for comfort. And in the
Middle East, people get "right up in your face," as one executive
This discomfort is natural. We are territorial creatures. All of us have a
"personal space," an area around our bodies that we consider our own.
When someone invades that space without our consent, we become uncomfortable,
hostile, or at the least, confused about what the close proximity means. We
immediately try to adjust our position to regain our comfort zone.
Since the 1960s sociologists have been studying how far we stand apart and
other aspects of how we use space. The pioneer in this field, sociologist
Edward T. Hall, calls this area of research proxemics, which he defines
as the study of people's use of space as a function of culture. Proxemics
includes not only personal distances, but also the unstated rules for laying
out houses and towns.
After studying thousands of films on how people interact, Hall concluded that
we maintain our personal space with tremendous accuracy -- to tolerances as
small as a fraction of an inch. The appropriate conversational distance varies
from culture to culture. Because we make minute adjustments to our personal
comfort zones when speaking to people from our own culture, it is not
surprising that we often make larger adjustments when dealing with people from
different cultures. Foreigners aren't playing by the same (cultural) rules, yet
most of us act as if they should.
Hall also discovered that most North Americans made adjustments in
conversational distances unconsciously. In normal conversational situations, we
adjust to a comfortable distance without thinking about it. When abroad, we
sometimes do the same thing. In a culture with a closer conversational space
than is common in the U.S., the result is this: The foreigner approaches too
close, and the U.S. citizen unconsciously backs up. Then the foreigner
unwittingly closes up the space, whereupon the visitor from the U.S. backs up
again. It's not uncommon to see conversants doing this over and over, until
something (a wall, chair, desk, etc.) prevents the U.S. visitor from backing up
U.S. citizens sometimes adopt strategies to keep others at a comfortable
distance. They sit behind desks or stand behind an obstacle, such as a chair or
coffee table, to establish a barrier. This doesn't always work; the foreign
national may try to get around the obstacle until he or she reaches the
appropriate conversational distance for the local culture. But even if it does
work, the foreign counterpart is now uncomfortable. If you're trying to make a
good impression, this is not the way to do it.
Ultimately, the only solution for a traveler is to adopt the conversational
space appropriate to the local culture. In North America and Northern Europe,
businesspeople usually stand close enough to shake hands, about 2 1/2 to three
feet apart. In parts of Southern Europe and most of Latin America, the distance
tends to be closer. In the Middle East, it is closer yet, sometimes under one
In other parts of the world, conversational space is larger than is customary
in the U.S. Some Asians prefer a larger distance than North Americans. Because
people who bow need at least three feet between them to avoid knocking heads,
this is understandable. In Asia, North Americans can be perceived as getting
Of course, the appropriate distance between people varies with the situation.
In a loud environment, people need to stand closer just to be heard. People
also adapt to crowded situations. The same Japanese who maintain four-foot
distances allow themselves to be crammed into subway cars so jammed that fights
would break out if the car was full of New Yorkers.
The study of proxemics involves other issues of interest to businesspeople. In
addition to charting conversational distances, proxemics researchers study the
layout and design of the spaces in which we live.
In North America more people live alone than anywhere else in the world.
Elsewhere, extended families are the norm. North American families are also
likely to have more rooms in their dwellings. Each child often has his or her
own room -- something that other cultures find not only unusual but
undesirable. In Japan, for example, families spend most of their time at home
together in the same room. When larger, American-style houses were built in
Japan, family members were able to retreat to separate rooms. This trend was
seen as very un-Japanese, and was blamed for all sorts of social ills. The same
accusations have been raised in China, where larger houses are just now being
built. Indeed, the very word for privacy in Chinese ("yin si")
has a pejorative connotation. (Foreign visitors in Chinese hotels are often
warned to be undressed only in the bathroom because service personnel may enter
one's rooms at any time.) A builder who wants to bring foreign-style housing to
a new country must consider whether or not the native population wants
those sorts of homes.
Another aspect of growing up in crowded environments is the unwillingness to be
alone in public. In much of Asia, people gravitate towards other people. For
example, if you are alone in an elevator in the Philippines and another person
enters, he will probably stand right next to you. That person doesn't want to
speak to you; it's just the local custom. If you are sitting in an Indian movie
theater surrounded by empty seats and an Indian enters, he is likely to sit
next to you. And in Indonesia, if you are standing on a virtually empty
escalator, an Indonesian may walk down until he is standing on the same step as
you. This sort of behavior often drives North Americans to distraction, but it
is considered appropriate in many parts of the world.
The old maxim "when in Rome, do as the Romans do" is good advice for
travelers. But, when it comes to proxemics issues, this is easier said than
done. Learning to overcome a lifetime of conditioning is a difficult task, but
the rewards for international travelers are well worth the effort.
Reprinted from IndustryWeek, January 11, 2000