smason edit.jpg (23187 bytes)Look At It This Way
by Dr. Steve Mason

We make some of our greatest gains
When we see old things
In new ways

Keep Your Distance

How close do you stand when talking with someone? That area of separation is called your Personal Space and whether you get in close or keep your distance can tell something about you even before your first words.

Traveling around the world, it becomes obvious that one's need for personal space is very much a function of their culture. At a United Nations gathering I watched two men (one from Spain and the other from England) who were having a conversation. Whenever the Spanish gentleman moved in to create what he felt was a comfortable personal space of about a foot, the Englishman pulled back to reestablish the two-foot separation with which he was accustom. It appeared as though the one was chasing the other around the room. Neither was aware of what was happening but any chance of a friendship developing between them was probably unlikely. This is why simply getting different nationalities together and talking to each other can turn out to be counterproductive. The one seems pushy while the other seems aloof. And did you ever wonder why Prince Charles keeps his hands so firmly clasped behind his back? That's just in case a foreigner might think it's appropriate to come up and shake hands with a Royal.

The Japanese are so accustomed to living and working in crowded conditions that it's been said their language doesn't have a word for "privacy." Yet they manage because their social interactions are so tightly scripted that commingling with crowds of strangers seems normal and comfortable. Privacy has become an internal mindset rather than an external fact among the people of that densely populated island nation. Just watch them pack aboard a train during rush hour.

For many years, Americans have had problems establishing personal relations with Russians. Over there, deep silence and close eye contact make for intimacy. Over here, such behavior is considered threatening and obtrusive. We use small talk as a kind of social lubricant while they think it's being evasive. Those twin notions of the Russians trying to start something and the Americans trying to hide something bedeviled years of attempts at détente.

And there's a gender gap too as males and females have different needs for privacy. Women find security in the physical closeness of other women while groups of men are just the opposite. For that reason, a man will stand further away from a male friend than a woman will stand next to a female stranger. However, while a woman may need less in the way of personal space that need is still readily apparent. I know a male lawyer who told me that he will purposely step into and out of a female attorney's personal space as a means of causing stress and gaining the upper hand during negotiations.

Look At It This Way

Privacy may be defined in a number of different ways. Call it personal space or social distance or an alone zone but remember that from culture to culture, class-to-class and across age, race and gender, people differ in their personal notion of personal space. Keep that in mind the next time you're thinking about getting close.

Contact Dr. Mason directly at

Return to DaBelly

© 2017   DaBelly Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.