My own sense of personal space is often dictated by circumstance. Crowded subway car? I get not having much. (I may not like it, but I get it.) Walking with someone I've been friends with for years? Not a big deal if shoulders or arms graze. If I'm walking alone, however, and it's not a crowded street, please maintain at least a two to three person-sized distance behind me, and I will do the same for you.
Personal space can be fluid for me, as I imagine it probably is for you. Some of it may even be a bit unconscious. It's OK being close to one coworker more than another if you simply like that person more; but even getting into a car with that other coworker can be problematic — and the reasons for either response may simply be instinct.
I'm hypothesizing that general circumstance and instinct may play a part, but what isn't hypothetical is location: where you are in the world plays a big role in how close you should expect to be to another person.
A recent study in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology analyzed personal space preferences for almost 9,000 people from 42 countries and found that personal space expectations differed a good bit from country to country.
This may not sound like a surprise, especially to more seasoned world travelers who are used to navigating the social cues of closeness. After all, one person's close proximity may not be a move of aggression, but just the expected way of communicating.
The 'right' amount of space around the world
To figure out what 9,000 people thought about people standing close to them, researchers asked all participants to indicate how close a stranger, an acquaintance and a close person should stand to them using the image below, with them as figure A and the other person as figure B. The scale is 0 to 220 centimeters, or about 7 and a quarter feet.
The researchers took into account other factors that could influence these choices, including temperature, risk of parasites and, of course, age and gender.
When broken down along country lines, the average distance expected for personal space in those three categories of people looked like this:
So if you swing through Romania, they'd kindly like you to remember the popular lyrics from The Police and not stand so close to them — like, maybe on the other side of the street, if possible. But if you start making close friends, that distance shrinks considerably. Canadians, on the other hand, are generally consistent in their personal space expectations, no matter who you are, with no huge changes between strangers and those they're close with. I guess that reputation for friendliness is warranted!
Similarities across countries
Looking at the data beyond home country, trends emerged, particularly when temperature and gender were taken into consideration.
In places where the average annual temperature was higher, people preferred less distance from strangers but more distance from those they're close to. Oddly, people in colder countries preferred more distance from strangers. The researchers noted that these findings were consistent with previous findings regarding personal space and temperatures, and that even in the U.S., warmer weather induces more social proximity. One possible reason? Warmer weather induces warmer feelings.
Except, possibly, if you're a woman. Across the board, women almost always wanted more distance from strangers and acquaintances than men did, with those distances growing longer once they hit their 30s. Women from Switzerland, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, Brazil, Austria and India demonstrated an especially high expectation for distance from strangers while women in Switzerland, Malaysia, China, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Poland and Nigeria showed the same tendency toward acquaintances.
The researchers acknowledged that an explanation for the gendered findings was difficult to parse. Social situations in which sensitivity and dominance were part of the equation could lead to varying expectations of closeness. Additionally, the researchers pointed out that their methodology potentially influenced proximity expectations as they never specified the gender of figure B in their graph. A specified gender might have changed personal space choices, they posit.
I suppose that my hypothetical ideas about circumstance and instinct aren't so hypothetical after all. Our sense of personal space ends up being influenced by a range of factors.