Folium: Two Is A Crowd via NYTimes


Image via The New York Times

Folium: Two Is A Crowd via NYTimes

“Physical contact between two people…can be perfectly correct in one culture, and absolutely taboo in another”. Edward T Hall, 1968

So… about 93 to 97% of all communication between human beings is non-verbal – an encouraging statistic for those who never really understood the benefit of learning all those irregular verbs… Our facial expressions, gestures, postures, tone of voice, eye contact and the space between ourselves and another person we are comfortable with in different situations are all part of what is called non-verbal communication.

We all get irritated with someone who stands too close to us for no apparent reason or talks too loudly about embarrassing subjects on the cell phone or makes eye contact in such a way that it feels like we are being stalked. What makes us irritated in these situations is a personal space issue called Proxemics.

The reality of proxemics was first discovered by the anthropologist Edward T. Hall. Proxemics is the study of how much space people need between themselves and another person. It varies depending on the situation one is in and on the culture one grows up in. Proxemics, or the unspoken rules governing use of space between humans, is such an unconscious behavior that it is evident and adhered to even in virtual reality video games.

People who have been brought up in different cultures have been conditioned to have different expectations about what is appropriate or inappropriate, (read moral or immoral), behaviors in any given situation. Awareness of these expectations is crucial for friendly cross-cultural experiences as we visit each other in our global community.

So let’s take a look at what is perfectly acceptable or absolutely taboo in a few different cultures during the greeting ritual.

Brazil: In Brazil physical contact is part of any conversation. Touching someone’s arm or back as a sign of friendship or to draw their attention to what you are saying is perfectly acceptable. When speaking with a Brazilian you will find they stand very close. Do not back away.

Spain: In Spain it is customary to shake hands with everyone present both when saying hello and when saying good-bye. It is perfectly acceptable for men to embrace other male friends and family members. Women kiss each other on the cheek and embrace. Conversation takes place at close quarters, however never touch or back slap a Spaniard you do not know well unless you are touched first.

Middle East: Men have a lot of physical contact with each other when communicating. However, because of their religious beliefs, men and women are not allowed to have contact; disciplinary actions are pursued if this type of communication occurs. Standing close enough to your conversation partner (of the same gender) to exchange breath when conversing is considered polite. Sharing each others odors is desirable. The American who backs away is automatically expressing shame.

China: You may find yourself shaking hands, nodding or bowing when greeting someone in China, depending on the person. When being introduced to a group, they may applaud you as a greeting,. Applaud back. Let any senior person begin the greeting. The Chinese dislike being touched by strangers. However, young schoolboys will often hold hands when walking or talking together. Whatever you do, avoid pointing at any Chinese person with your index finger.

India: Greeting with “Namaste” is appreciated. It is also acceptable for men to shake hands (only with their right hand!) when greeting or leave-taking but men do not touch women during this ritual. Normally an arm’s length of space between people is acceptable: Indian peoples value personal space as much as Americans. It is taboo to display your affection publicly and avoid ever patting someone on the head. If you have to point, use your thumb.

Egypt: If you are a male and invited over to another male friend’s house for dinner, expect to be invited to sit on his grandfather’s lap for a nice long conversation after dinner, even if you are 20 years old! In spite of what any American comedian would say about this, you are being warmly welcomed as a member of the family in a very open-minded and open-hearted way.

The norms for personal space can be vastly different from culture to culture.

In order to fit into the global community, we get to avoid looking upon personal space as “the wrong way or my way”. When we can step past the judgement of “this is really weird, what would my friends say” we find the freedom to enjoy the moment for what it really is: simply an act of kindness and familial love being expressed via the norms learned in a different home.

Fellow Americans? It is okay to be touched by your global family!

[ED. Make sure to check out the eDiplomat resource below. There’s a LOT to explore!]

Leona Denne
LEAF Contributor


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