At Arm’s Length
From The Rotarian:
Some years ago, my wife and I went to the south of Thailand to teach English at an elementary school. It was a poor school in a small town. The principal did his best to accommodate us, building a room for us to live in at the school. It had a bathroom and a shower and many, many photos of the school’s owner. By local standards it was luxurious.
By our standards, however, it was missing one main thing: privacy. A buffer zone between ourselves and everyone else. The room was situated right next to the principal’s office, and our shared wall stopped about a foot short of the ceiling. Our bed sat against one side of this wall. On the other side was the principal’s desk. It felt, in a way, as though we were in bed with him.
This was not the first time I had noticed cultural differences regarding personal space. When I lived in East Africa, I saw how my need for space seemed strange and possibly hostile in a very people-oriented culture. But Americans have long been notorious for the vast expanses of personal space we need. An article titled “Understanding American Culture” on the International Student Guide to the USA website advises: “Americans tend to require more personal space than in other cultures. If you try to get too close to an American during your conversation, he or she will feel that you are ‘in their face’ and will try to back away. Try to avoid physical contact while you are speaking, since this may lead to discomfort.”