Code Switch
3:24 am
Sun May 5, 2013

How Different Cultures Handle Personal Space

Originally published on Sun May 5, 2013 10:03 am

Our perspectives on personal space — the distance we keep between the person in front of us at an ATM, the way we subdivide the area of an elevator — are often heavily influenced by the norms of the places we inhabit.

Jerry Seinfeld once focused an episode of his sitcom on the concept of personal space, giving us a new term: the "close talker."

Of course, invasions of personal space aren't always merely awkward. If you need a primer on the cultural sensitivities the topic can provoke, take a journey through the results of this Google search for "don't touch my hair."

"Cultural space tells us a lot," says Kathryn Sorrells, a professor at California State University-Northridge, whose scholarly interests include perceptions of personal space across cultures. "It tells us a lot about the nature of a relationship, and people are constantly reading those things even if they are not aware of it. ... So if someone comes more into your personal space than you are used to, you can often feel like, 'What's happening here?' And it's easy to misread what someone is actually communicating if you only come from your cultural perspective."

To give you a picture of how these norms play out differently in different corners of the world, here are accounts from two of our international correspondents of what they've observed in two different cities (note that these were written as audio essays, so for the full experience, listen to the segment above):

Leila Fadel

Cairo — This is a noisy city, a crowded city of some 16 million people. In the summer it feels like everyone is sitting on top of you in the smog and heat. On my balcony I can see the lady across the alley ironing her clothes. Last week I was watching television and someone yelled from the building next door to turn it down.

My producer Dina Saleh and I spent one day on a microbus, a type of minivan Egyptians use to get around the city for the equivalent of about 25 cents. We're squished in the back next to two other women, and 12 more people are piled in. But it's a national holiday, and Dina says this is nothing compared to a workday. Young boys with no cash jump on the back for a free ride.

Walking around the city is like dealing with an obstacle course. The narrow streets are made more narrow by cars haphazardly parked on the sidewalks, sometimes even in the middle of the street.

Standing in one of the most crowded parts of Cairo, Giza Square, there's really no sense of personal space. There's just too many people to have that. There's no legal time to cross the street, you just cross when you can. Just now as I was talking a man brushed up right against me, didn't even notice, didn't even apologize because that's normal here.

In the morning Egyptians crowd around breakfast stands throughout the capital. Men serve up hot fava bean mash, with veggies and bread. People eat at the stand as others flash money above their heads to get service, bodies pressed up against each other. A friend jokes that by the time you get your food you need to shake the other patrons out of your clothes.

Without space there is no privacy. In every Cairo apartment building is the bawab, the building guard. He knows the comings and goings of every resident on the street. And to this day when a young woman is getting married, families of the groom will interrogate the bawab about the potential bride. Do men come and go from the apartment? Does she come home late at night?

But the closeness is also comforting. It is a fundamentally kind city. If you fall, a slew of people will rush to your aid. No one will walk by thinking, Not my problem. It is loud, crowded and claustrophobic, and it is maddening and wonderful at the same time.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro

Sao Paulo — I'm in Sao Paulo's metro system. This is a city of 20 million people — one of the largest cities in the world. Some people take three hours everyday just to get to work, going from one side of the city to another.

One thing you will notice when you ride the public transport system here is that it does feel very, very different than it does in the United States. Very Brazilian.

Paula Moura works with NPR in Brazil. The country is just a lot more touchy-feely, she says. "I've been to other countries and nobody touches each other. It seems there is space for everybody. Personal space is bigger in other countries. Here it's not."

PDAs aren't a problem either. "I can see people are kissing each other and they don't worry about other people seeing them," Moura says.

In most countries in the world people are on the metro staring at their feet, or they've got their headphones on and they're in their own little world. But here people are very engaged, talking to one another, interacting. It's a much livelier scene than in many other cities.

Another surprising aspect to life here: There is a lot of respect for the elderly and mothers with children. At the supermarket, at the cinema, at government offices, they have special lines that give these individuals priority.

Family is important here. Because of the high cost of living they tend to be small, but families here are close-knit. Everyone gathers on a Sunday for lunch but they often visit during the week as well. And that sense of caring translates into how people treat others in public spaces.

As I'm standing on the metro I see a young woman offer her seat to an older one with a smile.

Railda is a retiree and is now comfortably sitting down. She says she often gets offered a seat. Still, she tells me, Brazil is an incredibly violent country and she's often nervous when out in the city.

And that's what makes all this all the more surprising. People say that crime is one of their main concerns when they go on public transport, but that doesn't stop them from this important human-to-human contact.

What are your stories about the different ways personal space can play out across cultures? If you've spent time in many places, what have you observed?

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We just heard about one man's longing for a little Germanic order amid the crowded and chaotic streets of Istanbul because, let's be honest, the Germans are really good at order. I spent a year there reporting for NPR, and I can tell you from personal experience it is also a place where people are very conscious about personal space. On the subway, on the sidewalk, Germans are aware of how much space separates them from the nearest person. And while, of course, there are always exceptions, I'd say on the whole they prefer more space rather than less. It's something we all think about. Sometimes it's subconscious. How much physical space do we need around us? One place where this tension is readily apparent: the elevator.

(SOUNDBITE OF DING)

ELEVATOR VOICE: Going up.

MARTIN: Is there any less desirable public space than an elevator? I mean, you get in, no one talks to you, everyone averts their eyes, you shuffle your feet, you try to create as much space between you and the other person as possible. People are forced to intrude on each other's personal space in an elevator. Or what about an ATM? I mean, how close should stand to the person withdrawing cash without creeping them out? Jerry Seinfeld once devoted an entire episode of his old TV show to personal space, and along the way he gave us a new term, the close-talker.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEINFELD")

JERRY SEINFELD: (as Jerry) Yeah?

JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine) It's us.

SEINFELD: (as Jerry) Come on up. It's Elaine. You don't have a problem with her, do you?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We adore Elaine.

SEINFELD: She wants to say hi. She's with her new boyfriend.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What's he like?

SEINFELD: He's nice. Bit of a close talker.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: A what?

SEINFELD: You'll see.

MARTIN: Kathryn Sorrells studies personal space and people's perception of it across cultures. She's a professor at California State University-Northridge. And she says how close you stand depends on where you're from.

KATHRYN SORRELLS: Cultural space tells us a lot. It tells us a lot about the nature of the relationship, and people are constantly reading those things even if they are not aware of it. So, I think one thing that defines it is you're in it and you have a feel for it and you can make sense of it. When you're outside of it, you're not able to define it. You're not able to understand it and you often misinterpret it. And it has to do with kind of deep things like trust. So, when somebody, as you probably know, comes more in your cultural space and into your personal space than you're used to, you often feel like, ooh, what is this person doing? Why are they doing it? What are they suggesting here? And it's easy to misread what the person is actually communicating if you're going to only come from your cultural perspective.

MARTIN: We thought we'd get the view on personal space from two very different parts of the world. We start with NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Sao Paolo, Brazil.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: So, I'm in Sao Paulo's Metro system. This is a city of 20 million people. It's one of the largest cities in the world. Some people take three hours every day just to get to work, going from one side of the city to another. But one thing you will notice when you ride the public transport systems here is that it does feel very, very different than it does in the United States - very Brazilian.

PAULA MOURA: I've been to other countries and nobody touches each other. It seems there is space for everybody. Personal space is bigger in other countries. Here it's not.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Paula Moura works with NPR in Brazil. She says Brazil is just a lot more touchy-feely.

MOURA: If I want to go to another wagon, I say, oh, excuse me, and touch the person.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: PDAs? Not a problem either.

MOURA: I can see people are kissing each other at the Metro and they don't worry about other people seeing them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In most countries in the world people are on the Metro and they're staring at their feet or they've got their headphones on and they're in their own little world. And here people are very engaged. They're talking to one another, they're interacting. It's a much livelier scene than in other cities.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)

TALITA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We pass the time talking amongst ourselves, 16-year-old Talita tells me, giggling with her friends. It's her stop and they got off, but not without a friendly:

TALITA: Ciao. Bye. Ciao.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Another surprising aspect to life here: There is a lot of respect for the elderly and mothers with children. At the supermarket, at the cinema, at government offices, they have special lines that give these individuals priority. Family is important here. Even though, because of the high cost of living, they tend to be small, families here are close-knit. Everyone gathers on a Sunday for lunch but they often visit during the week as well. And that sense of caring translates into how people treat others in public spaces. As I'm standing on the Metro, I see a young woman offer her seat to an older one with a smile.

RAILDA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Railda is a retiree and is now comfortably sitting down. She says she often gets offered a seat. Still, she tells me, Brazil is an incredibly violent country and she's often nervous when out in the city.

And that's what makes all this contact all the more surprising. Many of the people I've spoken to today say that crime is one of their main concerns when they go on public transport, and yet that doesn't stop them from this important human-to-human contact. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, on the Sao Paolo Metro.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: And this is Leila Fadel in Cairo. This is a noisy city, a crowded city of some 16 million people. And in the summer it feels like every one of them is sitting on top of you in the smog and heat. On my balcony, I can see the lady across the alley ironing her clothes. Last week, I was watching TV and someone yelled from the building next door to turn it down.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

FADEL: My producer Dina Saleh and I spent the day on a microbus. Egyptians use these minivans to get around the city for the equivalent of about 25 cents. We're squished in the back next to two other women, and 12 more people are piled in. But it's a national holiday, and Dina says this is nothing compared to a workday.

DINA SALEH, BYLINE: This is not even close. Like visually, people will be sitting on top of each other, maybe hanging off the door.

FADEL: Young boys with no cash jump on the back for a free ride.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Walking around the city is like dealing with an obstacle course. The narrow streets are made more narrow by cars haphazardly parked on the sidewalks, sometimes even in the middle of the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

FADEL: So we're standing in one of the most crowded parts of Cairo in Giza Square, where there's really no sense of personal space. There's just too many people to even have that. There's no legal time to cross the street, you just cross when you can. Just now as I was talking, a man brushed up right against me and didn't even notice, didn't even apologize 'cause that's normal here.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)

FADEL: In the morning, Egyptians crowd around breakfast stands throughout the capital. Men serve up hot fava bean mash with veggies and bread. And people eat at the stand as others flash money above their heads to get service, bodies pressed up against each other. A friend jokes that by the time you get your food you need to shake the other customers out of your clothes.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)

FADEL: And without space there is no privacy. In every Cairo apartment building is the bawab, the building guard. He knows the comings and goings of every resident on the street. And to this day when a young woman is getting married, families of the groom will interrogate the bawab about the potential bride. Do men come and go from the apartment? Does she come home late at night? But the closeness is also comforting. It is a fundamentally kind city. If you fall, a slew of people will rush to your aid. No one will walk by thinking not my problem. It is loud, crowded and claustrophobic, and it is maddening and wonderful at the same time.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Leila Fadel in Cairo. So, whether you're there in Egypt or Sao Paolo, Brazil or Jerry Seinfeld's apartment in Manhattan, remember: if Elaine's boyfriend Aaron shows up, you might want to take a few steps in reverse.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEINFELD")

JUDGE REINHOLD: (as Aaron) Hi. Oh, you must be Kramer. I've heard about you.

(LAUGHTER)

MICHAEL RICHARDS: (as Kramer) You must be Aaron. I've heard about you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: What are your personal space issues? Any awkward moments? We want to know. Write to us on Twitter: @NPRWeekend or @RachelNPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, a man who comes into the homes of millions of Americans every night and challenges them to some wordplay. Pat Sajak has been the host of "Wheel of Fortune" for more than 30 years. Our conversation with Sajak on how he fell into game show hosting and the key to longevity in that business. He says it's all about checking your ego at the door - oh, and not accidentally giving away the answers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.