When Does Close Become Too Close?

Eighty psychologists investigate interpersonal distance in 42 countries.

Posted Dec 27, 2017

“Smooches”/Yogi/CC BY-SA 2.0
Source: “Smooches”/Yogi/CC BY-SA 2.0

Anyone who has spent time in the arrival hall of an international airport has observed striking cultural differences in human spatial behavior. Sometimes people stand close and touch each other a lot. Sometimes people stand farther away and hardly touch at all.

Cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall (1966) claimed that the interpersonal distances that people choose when interacting with each other depend on several factors—their feelings toward each other, their gender or age, and the setting in which the interaction takes place. But the most important factor, according to Hall, is cultural norms. Cultural groups often have unconscious habits and unwritten rules about the proper distance to be maintained when two people interact.

When I was living and working in Morocco, I quickly learned that Moroccan men like to stand closer to each other than American men do. The desired distance, according to a Moroccan colleague, is “close enough so I know what you ate for lunch.”

Hall categorized groups as contact cultures or noncontact cultures, based largely on their geographic location. Arabs, Latin Americans, and Southern Europeans like to be close and to touch, claimed Hall (1966), whereas Asians, North Americans, and Northern Europeans prefer more distance and less touching.

Earlier this year, an international team of 80 researchers investigated preferred interpersonal distances around the world. The team was led by Agnieszka Sorokowska of the Institute of Psychology at the University of Wroclaw in Poland.

The researchers recruited nearly 9,000 volunteers—men and women between the ages of 17 and 88—in 42 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, and South America.

Each participant completed a simple task. They looked at a picture that showed two people—Person A and Person B—facing each other and standing 220 centimeters (about 7.2 feet) apart. The distance was indicated by a scale at the bottom of the picture. The participants were told to imagine the following scenario: You are Person A and Person B is a stranger. How close can Person B approach you, so that you feel comfortable in a conversation with Person B?

The participants repeated the task with different scenarios. In the second scenario, Person B was identified as an acquaintance instead of a stranger. In the third scenario, Person B was described as a close person.

The three scenarios used by the researchers correspond to what Hall called social distance (with a stranger), personal distance (with an acquaintance or colleague), and intimate distance (with a close friend or family member).

As expected, people in different countries differed in terms of their preferred interpersonal distances. Sometimes the differences were large. Norwegians, for example, wanted to be twice as close to an intimate as Hungarians did. Kenyans chose to be about 40% farther away from an acquaintance than Poles did.

When the researchers ranked all 42 countries in terms of their preferred distances, they discovered that the country rankings did not support Hall’s claims about which cultures are high contact and which are low contact. The preferred distance with a stranger in Saudi Arabia, for example, was about 30% greater than the preferred distance in Germany. The preferred distance with an acquaintance in the U.S. was the same as the preferred distance in Italy.

On all three measures, Hungarians and Saudis chose distances that were greater than those chosen by people from other countries, no matter the relationship between Person A and Person B. At the other end of the range, Argentinians, Peruvians, and Bulgarians consistently chose the smallest distances.

The three strongest predictors of preferred distance were gender, age, and a country’s annual temperature, but the predictors didn’t always operate as expected. Compared to men, women preferred to maintain a greater distance when interacting with a stranger or an acquaintance, but there were no gender differences when Person B was an intimate. Older people liked to maintain a greater distance when interacting with an acquaintance or an intimate, but there were no age differences when Person B was a stranger.

The most surprising finding was related to temperature. The preferred distance with a stranger was smaller in warmer countries than in colder countries. But the relationship was reversed in the case of an intimate: With a close friend, people in colder countries preferred less distance than people in warmer countries.

The results regarding temperature are difficult to explain. The authors of the study were quick to point out that other variables—variables not measured in their study—may be responsible for cultural norms regarding interpersonal distances. They also acknowledged that Person B’s gender was unspecified. The size of your personal bubble may depend on the gender of the person who approaches you.

Any study with nearly 9,000 participants in 42 countries is deserving of our attention. Nevertheless, seasoned travelers probably won’t adjust their spatial behavior because of findings like these. They presumably learned long ago that, when one visits a new place, the most reliable guide to “proper behavior” is to carefully observe what the locals do—and then copy that. When in Rome …

References

Hall, E. T. (1966). The Hidden Dimension. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Sorokowska, A., and 79 others. (2017). Preferred interpersonal distances: A global comparison. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 48(4), 577-592.