Terra: Personal Space is a Relative Thing
For anyone going to stay in France as more than just a tourist, it is important to realize something about the French people you may live with and befriend- they will not respect your ideals of personal space. The next time you interact with your friends, think about how far away you stand from them when you talk to them. Then try the same with your friend’s parents and your teachers. There is probably a lot more space between you and them than you ever really noticed. Americans in particular like a good chunk of space to themselves. If you are just acquaintances or even friends you might have four feet or more between you when you talk.
This is not the same in Europe, and I can speak from experience on this topic in France. The French don’t really believe in excess space. If you walk down a street in town you will notice all the cafes have chairs almost on top of one another. If you stay in a four star hotel you will be comfortable but there will not be room for anything besides sleeping and dressing.
The French have a much smaller expectation of personal space- nor do the French realize how much space we as Americans usually look for. One time I remember my host mother having a serious, almost debate-like conversation with me. I started to feel her come close to me, she devoted her attention to her point and me alone in that moment. I turned away a little and she came closer without even missing a beat. I on the other hand, was distracted and slightly uncomfortable in my position. This made her much stronger and more in control of our conversation.
Another custom that may feel invasive is that the French “kiss” each other every time they see each other. When they meet and when they depart. It is so important to them that if one person is forgotten or avoided it is very offensive and off putting. As an American it was intimidating. I thought I would mess up or that maybe it wasn’t normal to do to everyone. I eventually found out that, as a young person it is the norm. At a party of 20 or more people I was still expected to “faire la bise” with each and every one of them.
This invasion of space was scary at first but fear not. It was explained to me by a Franco-American in a sense that hadn’t occurred to me. By breaking that personal space we were also breaking the ice. There was no option to ignore that friend of a friend over in the corner. This prompted me to realize how many amazing relationships we may be missing out on all because we were afraid to approach the person. In France, you meet everyone at the party and at least have a fighting chance to befriend them. So don’t be afraid of this odd custom. Stay strong and let your space be invaded because it’s all part of the exposure to the beautiful and rich culture of France.