My husband and I walk into a Rischart, a well-known coffee establishment in Germany, with a friend and scan the area for a place to sit down.
I consider myself a pretty easy-going person. I am flexible and not picky. But after my eyes do a quick look around, a slight feeling of anxiety starts creeping up from my stomach.
“Why are all the tables so close to each other?” I sigh.
This is just one of the many reminders that I am American in another country.
Yes, I have issues with personal space.
And no, I don’t like the feeling like someone else is sitting in my lap while I drink my cappuccino.
Having worked with students from all over the world at a university in the U.S., I’ve had the pleasure of learning about different cultures. I’ve also traveled to nearly 15 countries in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. One of my true pleasures is having conversations with people from all over the world and discussing cultural similarities. It’s particularly more fun to discuss cultural differences.
In addition to personal space, one of my other favorite differences to discuss is how Americans are always strict about making appointments and being on time.
“To be early is to be on time, to be on time is to be late, and to be late you might as well not show up at all.” That is our mantra. When I travel, I can easily adjust to things like this.
Well, that’s a lie. Being on time is still very important to me and I have to keep myself from freaking out if I think I’m running late. But that’s for another time. Not something to worry about in Germany, my kind of people!
But when it comes to personal space? The coffee shops with all the tables barely a few inches apart, the grocery stores where two people can’t stand in an aisle at the same time, and the sheer nonchalance of bumping into people in the underground and trollies are just a few examples of what cues horror music in my head.
Wow, I have to consciously make an effort to adjust.
It’s not like I don’t know it. Each time I leave the U.S., I know it’s coming. And I understand some of these things when it comes to personal space are due to the fact I grew up in a rural area. Perhaps people who are from metropolitan areas may not struggle as much with personal space.
But generally speaking, Americans need you at least arm-lengths away.
I need you arm-lengths away.
If you step closer to me, I will take one step back.
You can hug me, but you must step back when you’re done.
Defeating to the fact the only seats left are next to two ladies who are about half an arm-lengths away, we give up and sit down. I can smell the basil on their pizza and the fruit in their sangria-looking drinks.
If I wanted, I can easily bend slightly to the left and take a sip.
“Why do you think Americans have a thing about personal space?” I ask my husband.
“Probably because there is so much space in the United States,” he replies. Originally from Europe and immigrated to the U.S., he always helps me see things from different perspectives. “Houses are huge, cars are huge, there’s so much space for everything.”
He makes a good point. After we enjoy our drinks and wiggle our way out of the café, I decide to dig a little more into why Americans have a thing about personal space.
The Culture of Personal Space
I quickly find a Washington Post article titled What ‘personal space’ looks like around the world.
In summary, sociologist researchers say South America, the Middle East, and Southern Europe are “contact cultures”, while Northern Europe, North America, and Asia are “non-contact cultures”.
Researchers asked 9,000 people in 42 countries about personal space when it comes to three categories: a stranger, a personal acquaintance, and someone close.
- In the United States, the distance of personal space was:
->Stranger: 3.1 feet (.9 meters)
->Personal acquaintance: 2.3 feet (.7 meters)
->Close relationship: 1.6 feet (.5 meters)
The forearm, from the elbow to fingertip, is on average 1.5 feet (.5 meters). So yeah, double that and that is about 3 feet. I need you 3 feet away from me.
I realize we need to take this research with a “grain of salt”. It’s not generalizable to all people and countries.
For example, I would argue about the “personal acquaintance” distance for the United States. To me, either you are at “stranger” distance or “close relationship” distance because there are very few people I consider to be “close”. Those people are my husband, my parents, and my brothers.
Everyone else, you are at “stranger” distance.
Another example, I was particularly surprised by the results for Mexico. When my husband and I were in Mexico for about two weeks a few years ago, I felt people generally were physically closer. But according to this study, Mexico has more distance than the United States in all three categories.
Another layer of complexity to the concept of personal space is that temperature, gender, and age also play roles too. Generally speaking, warmer locations keep less distance than colder places (you would think it would be the opposite?) And older people keep more distance.
I also think the point my husband made is something to consider as well. Most Americans, including myself, grow up in large houses with their own bedrooms and sometimes their own bathrooms. We are a driving culture, so we each drive our own cars. I would also say tables at restaurants for the most part are at least 42 inches (1 meter) apart.
Throwing in some more personal opinion, I also think because the United States is such a young country developers built many of our cities and buildings with specific concepts in mind.
For example, the street layout of Manhattan created more than 200 years ago paved the way for the future of how many other cities would be developed. Most cities in the United States are standardized and organized with a set amount of space.
One of my favorite cities that I consider highly organized is San Diego, California.
Look at the perfection of space!
What do we do about personal space?
Now that I educated myself about personal space, does it help me during my time in Germany?
The more time I spend here, the easier it becomes to adjust. Or at least not hear horror movie music when I have to pick a table.
But exploring the concept of personal space is just an example of why it’s crucial to learn about others who are different from you.
I’m sure for some of you, when you read my feelings when it comes to personal space, you may have concluded that I’m rude or you’re frankly scared to even come in contact with me.
But now that you understand the culture of personal space in the United States, I hope you understand me a little bit better. I’m not rude, I just need you a certain distance away from me.
And in return, I have more appreciation of those from “close contact” countries and embrace the time I have away from home.
Whatever your culture when it comes to personal space, it’s neither good nor bad. It’s just your culture.
Editor in Chief
International Student Voice