Personal Space: Where Do You Stand On Where You Should Stand?

The question of how close to stand to someone or weather touching is accepted or not, is really important in international business communication. You don’t want to be intruding, neither give the impression that you are too distant and untrusting or suspicious! Learn all about differences in personal space.
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I remember meeting Zs., and from then on, constantly feeling uncomfortable. Zs. was a charming colleague of mine in Budapest where I had just arrived. I loved spending time with her, as she was really fun talking to and we had lots of common interests, we liked the same books all for the same reasons. She was smart, talented and really open-minded. She showed me the city, taught me which were the coolest places to get all the artsy-vibes of Budapest. There was only this one thing that made me really uncomfortable around her: she always stood so close to me.

At first, I was shocked by how close she stood, I felt like she was almost touching me when talking to each other. I kept taking steps back, and she kept coming closer and closer. I was puzzled by how this wasn’t unpleasant for her, having almost zero personal space when talking to someone. Then I met O., another new colleague, and we started going to the theatre together. I was once again feeling uncomfortable: she was standing so close to me between the two acts when we went out in the interval! And not so long afterwards I met yet another colleague, E., and I was feeling attacked when she started standing so close to me as well.

How Close Is Too Close?

Then I started watching the office from a new perspective: I wanted to see how close people were standing to each other. And I was shocked, because everyone seemed to stand so impossible close to each other when talking during breaks, or at the buffet when waiting for coffee. For me, this was something I couldn’t understand. How are all these people able to have natural and feel-good conversations like this?

It didn’t take me too long to realize that in Hungary this was the natural way people interacted, and they probably never thought about this, moreover, I might have been the odd one with taking steps back all the time. Turns out that on the scale measuring how far do you stand from the other person Hungary and Romania, where I am from, are located almost on the two ends. Studies and research have shown that while Hungarians stand really close even to strangers, Romanians have a really large personal space, and they prefer keeping their distance when talking to someone. This changes when it comes to close friends and relatives. It seems that Romanians tend to stand closer to each other in these relationships than Hungarians do. But let’s stick to strangers, or acquaintances, business partners rather than friends and family.

Personal Space Around The World

When researching what personal space means around the world, many aspects have been taken into consideration: climate, temperature, the danger of spreading diseases etc. These all might have shaped the proxemics of countries around the world, but by now we can safely say that how we use space in our interactions, how close we stand to each other, how often we chose to communicate with or without touching, are all culturally defined. There are of course personality aspects as well, just as with anything else, but we do not make a mistake when we say that our culture defines our behaviour.

And the question of how close to stand to someone or whether touching is accepted or not, is really important in international business communication as well, so when working in a new environment, or collaborating with people from different cultures always keep in mind their attitude towards personal space! You don’t want to be intruding, neither give the impression that you are too distant and untrusting or suspicious.

In Great Britain for example, people are known to love their personal space, and keep their distance when talking to strangers, while in Argentina standing really close to each other and constantly touching is basically the norm, just as in India, where standing real close to each other in queues is perfectly normal. In these countries touching is also really important, in South America for example when you are really explaining something, it is perfectly acceptable for you to grab the other person’s arm for instance. In Northern Europe in general this might come off as really offensive.

Studying this aspect of different cultures can be really interesting on one hand, and very enlightening, as it can serve as an explanation or addition to other differences in behaviour in comparison with other countries, and at the same time is a very good way of strengthening your cross-cultural skills if working towards international business success.

Eszter Szűcs-Imre

Key Takeaways

  • When researching what personal space means around the world, many aspects have been taken into consideration: climate, temperature, the danger of spreading diseases etc.
  • By now we can safely say that how we use space in our interactions, how close we stand to each other, how often we chose to communicate with or without touching, are all culturally defined.
  • How close to stand to someone or weather touching is accepted or not, is really important in international business communication.
  • When working in a new environment, or collaborating with people from different cultures always keep in mind their attitude towards personal space!
  • You don’t want to be intruding, neither give the impression that you are too distant and untrusting or suspicious.
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