Post: The definition of personal space around the world

I am by nature a sociable character. I enjoy big crowds, clubs and being one of many, witnessing a special moment. However, the feeling of social togetherness can sometimes be replaced by one of panic and invasion of privacy: a packed underground tube in London is a perfect example. Suffering someone else’s elbow, large protruding cameras (from tourists) or garlicky breath (shudder…) is enough to make the best of us wish for the ability to develop a superhuman force-field, zapping anything that comes within 6 feet.

Why does this feeling exist? When does this concept of “personal space” manifests itself? Is it natural? Does everyone feel the same way when someone is walking too close behind them, or your colleague’s face is too close to you for accepted social interaction (smooching at a Christmas party not included)?

As I have discovered in my travels, invasion of privacy (which I define as personal space) is seen and felt differently across various cultures. Our physical “area” depends on where you are in the world.

Interestingly, the boundaries of our personal space have been studied extensively in the past. The field of “proxemics” developed by E.T. Hall in the 1960s, studies the concept of immediate personal space surrounding a person. Indeed, as the diagram below shows, personal space can be separated into intimate, personal, social and public interactions.

The concept of personal space, developed by Edward T. Hall (click to make larger)

Depending on the type of social situation, a projected “safe” distance was discovered as acceptable interaction between two individuals. If an individual has strayed too close to you, he has invaded your privacy.

As said above, this distance is seen differently around the world, and this may be due to various cultural and physical factors:

  • National population densities: people who were brought up in low to medium population density countries will have been used to more physical space around them than highly populated countries.  This seems obvious to me. We cannot compare the pressure of overcrowding between Olso, Norway, and rush hour in Manila, Philippines.
  • Financial strength: people with greater financial clout will live with more luxury, meaning they have more exclusivity and privacy. For example, a chauffeur driven executive will be more aware of his personal space being invaded when using public transport than a worker bee who regularly uses it.
  • Public infrastructure: On the other side of the coin, if local public infrastructure is modern and well maintained then they should better able to cope with large amount of people using it. These will be more comfortable and have a greater sense of liberty of movement, and more personal space.
  • Existing cultural social interactions: All over the world, families, tribes, castes and neighbours interact differently. A large family in India will share a plot of land, members of the same tribe will share a room  in Democratic Republic of Congo, and secluded regions of Europe, such as the Basque country or the Island of Corsica, will not integrate society as their social bonds are defended aggressively.

All the factors above force individuals to view privacy differently.

For example, in India, which has seen a 300% rise in population since 1961 (compared to 23% in England), their concept of personal space has been shaped by having to cope with a greater amount of people, especially the new generations. Rush hour at the train station in Mumbai truly has to be seen to be believed.

Do people who have been around crowds all their lives act like I do in the tube in London, between Oxford Street and Shepherd’s Bush on the central line (for those who don’t know, trust me it is a horrible adventure)? Not at all. They are passive and almost become one single organism, resting on each other, reading the newspaper together, one even buying chai for their neighbour. Do you imagine buying a can of coke for the dude who kept pushing his metal briefcase against your nether region?

I sincerely bow down to their stoicism and companionship. They know that if they acted selfishly, began to get angry and wanted more space, the sheer press of bodies would become a truly dangerous animal, ready to crush them all.

Indeed, in his fantastic book “Shantaram”, Gregory David Robert ‘s cynical French friend Didier stated: “If India was composed of a billion French people, the rivers would run red”.

We all are an individual, but sometimes we have to accept the inevitable consequence of being 7 billion on this planet. Life will get more busy as we are projected to reach over 9 billion. I accept that I have the right to my own space, but in certain situations, you have to forgive and forget, and become one with everybody around you.

Just not on the London tube… please…


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