Personal space across cultures

People from different cultures perceive space (and place) differently.

How close is too close?  Perception of the levels of intimacy of space is culturally determined. People from different cultures perceive space (and place) differently.  I’ve recently created a module on personal space for the 3A Learning Management System, which includes a blended learning course with lots of interactive content.  Below is some sections I thought I might share.  Here’s a kind of funny commercial that talks about personal space.

Personal space varies across cultures.  I recently came across an article in the Washington Post that I thought was interesting comparing the distances people feel comfortable at with people at varying social levels.

Source

The science of personal space, Proxemics, is the study of human use of space and the effects that population density has on behaviour, communication, and social interaction.  The term was originally coined by Edward T Hall in 1963.

Here is a breakdown of some of the personal space differences:

Source

Intimate distance – 6 to 18 inches (15-45cm)
This level of physical distance often indicates a closer relationship or greater comfort between individuals.
It often occurs during intimate contact such as hugging, whispering, or touching.

Personal distance – 1.5 to 4 feet (45-120cm)
Physical distance at this level usually occurs between people who are family members or close friends.  The closer the people can comfortably stand while interacting can be an indicator of the intimacy of the relationship.

Social distance – 4 to 12 feet (1.2m-3.50m)
This level of physical distance is often used with individuals who are acquaintances.  With someone you know fairly well, such as a co-worker you see several times a week, you might feel more comfortable interacting at a closer distance.

In cases where you do not know the other person well, such as a postal delivery driver you only see once a month, a distance of 10 to 12 feet may feel more comfortable.

Public distance – 12 to 25 feet (3.5m-7.5m)
Physical distance at this level is often used in public speaking situations.  Talking in front of a class full of students or giving a presentation at work are good examples of such situations.


It’s important to know how close you should be standing or interacting with people from other cultures.  Having people feel comfortable is essential to proper international service.  Have you ever had an “uncomfortable personal space” experience?  Share it with us in the comments below.

By James

I'm the creator of the 3A Hospitality English Program and Co-Founder of 3Aenglish.com. I lived and taught in China for a few years and am currently back in BC, Canada. Thanks for joining us here, I hope we can learn some cool new things together!