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Boundaries, Privacy and Intimacy Are Cultural Phenomena

Traveling in Vietnam highlights what intimacy is and isn't in different cultures

Source: K7197927/Fotosearch

Couple arguments often erupt because partners differ in their viewpionts and expectations. Particularly for couples who come from different cultural backgrounds, what each partner regards as public to everyone as opposed to what is intimate, shared only between the two partners.

She may talk with her friends, for instance, about the couple's recent quarrel. He then may feel violated, appalled at what feels to him like a violation of his personal privacy and of their intimate couple relationship.

What is the purpose of boundaries?

All living things have boundaries. Fences for instance define the outside limits of what belongs to the owner of the land. Cell membranes similarly define what is in the cell and what is outside the cell. Cell walls also determine what will be allowed into the cell, and what is to stay external.

Boundaries also define what is to be public, viewable to all, and what is to be private, known only to the living organism itself. The outside of a flower is public. The inner parts are hidden and private.

What do public-private boundaries have to do with intimacy?

Actually the word intimacy, which refers to the sharing of private personal information or acts between a couple, comes from an ancient Latin word intus, which means within. The superlative or strongest form of intus is intumus, meaning inmost. The vulnerable innermost walls of the arteries and veins thus are called intima. Our most personal thoughts are intimate. Sharing these with a loved one builds an intimate relationship. For most of us, our bodies, similarly, are open for touching and sharing only with those whom we consider our "intimates." In this regard, sexual intercourse creates the most intimate of physical sharing of our "private parts."

Perspectives from Asia.

Many aspects of what we think of as private and what as public, what as intimate and what as appropriate for public viewing, turn out to be culturally determined. One culture's private is another's public.

The following writing by my friend Alyssa Kapnik helped me to understand the cultural roots of differences in concepts of public-private boundaries.

Alyssa, a photographer and writer, is currently traveling for multiple months through Asia. Right now she's writing from Vietnam.

You can read more of her postings, and sign up to receive the emailed versions, at

Thanks Alyssa for your permission to let me share your thought-provoking observations on boundaries with my blog readers here at

The Back Room

from For a Day, a blog by Alyssa Kapnik

I’ve been spending nearly every day walking the cities, exploring by motorbike taxi, by bicycle, by foot. Things we in the West think of as “back room”, like spitting, nose picking, dish washing, butchering meat, and even, to some extent, child rearing, are very much out in the open in Vietnam. Rosie says it’s as if there is no back room. As if nothing is truly private, nothing must be hidden or disguised.

Women sit on designated corners, right near the curb, sloshing cold water around in a giant bowl, washing dishes for other women on the block who are selling various street food. The dish washer then dries the dishes, and pours the excess water over her feet to cool down. She’s got a bike basket filled with plastic bowls, and she delivers stacks of ten or twelve to each of the nearby street food vendors.

Children are everywhere here. Every other young Vietnamese woman I see seems to be pregnant, and nearly full term. It’s hard to tell, even if you pay attention, which young person handling the various children is the mother or father. They all seem equally invested. They all take turns jumping up to keep the babies from walking into the road, or from touching their baby feet on the hot pavement. The adults all reprimand one child for hitting another, they all comfort those who are crying. Coworkers seem to all call each other “brother” and “sister”, and are rarely actually related. Family here feels more fluid. The boundaries less tight, the lines less clear.

The boundaries around homes are blurred as well. In Hanoi, I asked to use a bathroom in a small storefront, and the shop owner pointed upstairs. I climbed over various items piled on the sides of the stairs, to the second floor, where a toddler was sleeping on a bed next to a whirring fan. I’d so easily climbed past the shop, and into her home. I’d imagined so many times being invited into a Vietnamese house. Seeing what it’s like on the inside, becoming a part of their world. And this was it. Studio photographs of children, buddha statues, a sleeping kid on a mattress on the floor.

I wanted to apologize to the shopkeeper for invading her space, for overstepping my bounds. But I hadn’t invaded her space. She’d pointed the way. It’s happened again, a number of times. Visiting a shop or restaurant that seems quite Western, and then asking to use the toilet, or wanting to try on clothes, and stepping, somehow, beyond the facade of a storefront, and into a home. Beyond the backpacks and purses, scarves and shirts for sale, and to hanging pots and pans, bird cages, and a husband whistling upstairs.

There’s no back room.

The women here touch constantly. A shop keeper this afternoon hit my butt a few times while trying to convince me to buy a jacket. When our tailor led me to her changing room—a hallway between her shop and her kitchen—she proceeded to undress and dress me, without talking me through it at all. She was gentle and efficient, helping me try on the dress much quicker than I would have by myself. Women walk down the street here holding hands, men sling their arms around other men.

But men and women rarely touch each other in public. Sex is guarded. Women are often demure and quiet, and men hardly let you know if they’ve been looking at you, avoiding entirely any sort of eye contact.

Being here is at once fully immersive, and strangely isolating. The boundaries are still there, they’re just shifted. I know less what to expect from the Vietnamese. I find myself wanting to put my whole self in, offer as much kindness and affection as I receive, and I find myself wanting to distance. To define, for myself, what must be done in private. To define for myself what I want upon my return to my “real” life at home.


The bottom line? The more differences, the more vital it becomes for couples to learn strong collaborative communication skills. If they can talk over their differences in a mutually respectful way and then create from his-way and her-way a mutually acceptable our-way, they'll be fine. If not...learn the skills!!!


Susan Heitler, Ph.D., a graduate of Harvard with a doctorate from NYU, specializes in helping couples build strong positive relationships. Her books include From Conflict to Resolution for therapists, and for couples, The Power of Two. Check out Dr. Heitler's website based on her book for couples,, an interactive website that teaches the communication, anger control and conflict resolution skills for sustaining intimate relationships.

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