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Personal Space across Cultures

The continued expansion of globalization means that a multicultural environment has become the norm for most workplaces. Whether your job necessitates international travel or you have colleagues or clients from other cultures, odds are you interact with people from a variety of backgrounds on a regular basis. In addition to the obvious language barriers that can arise with multicultural interactions, there are also a variety of ways in which we use language differently across cultures. These differences, if you are unfamiliar with them, may cause misunderstandings or discomfort. Today, we’ll discuss how personal space may play a role in communication.

You may not often put active thought into how close you stand to someone you’re talking with, but odds are you can’t help but notice when someone stands uncomfortably close to or far from you. We all have a specific distance at which we’re naturally comfortable, whether we realize it or not. While this can vary from person to person, people who come from the same cultural background often have similar “rules” for distance. For example, in casual conversation, the typical American will maintain a distance of roughly 1.5 to 3 feet from their conversation partner. This distance will typically change based on the situation and the relationship of the people involved. For instance, professional conversation takes place at a slightly further distance, and conversations between close friends or family members will be slightly closer when speaking. While these rules are fairly standard for Americans, those from other cultural backgrounds may have an entirely different idea of what is appropriate or comfortable. Those from Mediterranean, Hispanic or Middle Eastern cultures typically have a smaller personal space “bubble” than Americans. In many cultures, standing closer to someone and even making physical contact while speaking may signify a closer bond or be used to convey a sense of personal connection. For those in East Asian cultures, the personal space “bubble” is typically wider, with physical contact being somewhat rare, particularly in professional situations.

While you should never make assumptions based on an individual’s cultural background, having a general awareness of the norms for their culture may help avoid offense or misunderstanding. For those who would like more in-depth information on multicultural interactions in business, Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands by Terri Morrison and Wayne Conaway is an excellent reference.

Do you want to improve your communication skills and sharpen your speech? At Corporate Speech Solutions, our team of corporate speech-language pathologists can help you reach your professional potential through strong, confident communication. Give us a call at 212-308-7725 or visit us on the web at www.corporatespeechsolutions.com. Don’t live in NYC? No problem! Our services are Skype ready, so Corporate Speech Solutions can help you improve your communication from anywhere in the world.


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