Cultural Proxemics and the Immediacy of Interpersonal Communication

Humans are territorial species, even though their notions of territorial space and proxemics are different from many other animals and vary between hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies. Humans, as social animals, tend to form a sense of in-groups and out-groups, as well as in-group space. People identify certain territorial spaces as “ours” and “mine,” whereas they identify other spaces as “theirs.”

Furthermore, social evolution has been changing how people in different cultures understand basic territorial ideas (Hall & Hall, 1990; Karandashev, 2021).

In another post, I briefly explained the typical Western interpretations of proxemics and immediacy. However, the cultural norms of appropriate spatial distance in relationships and the ideas of personal, in-group, and out-group space vary across societies (Karandashev, 2021).

Proxemics, Personal and Public Space Across Cultures and Individual Differences

How close is too close? It depends on where people live. The cultural traditions of some societies make people sensitive to crowds and situations when others intrude on their personal bubble. They may consider the larger space their personal one. In other societies, people can be less sensitive to crowding and view their personal bubbles as smaller.

Cultural Sensitivity to Personal Space

The cultures of different countries also vary in their territorial concepts and sensitivity. People may feel uncomfortable, anxious, or even aggressive when others invade their personal space or in-group territory. Some can be tolerant of such an intrusion, but only for a short period of time. Others can be totally intolerant. Individual differences in personality, as well as cultural traditions, play a role in all these cases.

Such differences, for instance, are evident in rural and urban cultural settings. Across many societies, women value more personal space from strangers than do men. Older people tend to spatially distance themselves from others. On the other hand, young people prefer closer distances in communication (Sorokowska et al., 2017).

Researchers thought that variations in climate and the availability of air conditioning could cause cultural proxemics in spatial behavior. People in warmer climates tend to keep a shorter distance from others than those in colder climates (Andersen, 1988; Sorokowska et al., 2017; Sussman & Rosenfeld, 1982).

These preferences can differ in different types of relationships. Those living in colder climates often prefer to be quite near their friends, perhaps to stay warm. A warm room makes people socially closer. However, those living in warm climates often get closer to strangers.

Cultural Preferences for Interpersonal Distance

People’s preferences for interpersonal distance vary across societies around the world.

For instance, people in Peru, Argentina, and Bulgaria tend to stay spatially close to strangers, whereas those from Hungary, Romania, and Saudi Arabia want to keep the most space. Americans are different from both groups of those countries; they are somewhere in the middle of the range between these two opposite types of cultures (see Sorokowska et al., 2017).

Personal bubbles of people are relatively small in several South American and South European countries, such as Argentina, Peru, Spain, southern France, Greece, and Italy. They are able to communicate easily across a short distance. For example, in Argentina, many people tend to be “close-talkers” and stand about 1 meter, or a little less, away from strangers when chatting.

In general, people in many South American and South European countries expect less personal space in communication than people in Asia. Some exceptions may occur. For example, people in Romania prefer more personal space, standing a spacious 1.5 meters away from strangers. 

Personal bubbles are bigger in North America and many northern European countries, such as England, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden. People tend to preserve their personal distance at all times. People in northern Europe generally feel uneasy when someone touches them or brushes their overcoat sleeve, which is related to their cultural feature of interpersonal spatial communication. For people in the north, the conversational distance that is typical of southern European cultures can be viewed as overly close and intimate.

For example, in some cultures, people may crowd instead of standing in line in front of ATMs or waiting for other public services.

Cultural Proxemics Depend on the Types of Interpersonal Relationships

How close we are to our partners, friends, coworkers, and strangers differs greatly across societies.

It appears that we all understand that our relatives and friends may stay closer to us than strangers. Strangers are expected to keep a public distance, while friends naturally stay closer. For example, in Romania, strangers are expected to keep their distance, but friends can creep up on you.

Surprisingly, however, Saudi Arabians are more distant from their friends than Argentinians are from strangers. Hungarians like to keep strangers and loved ones at arm’s length, or at least 75 centimeters apart. Norwegians want their close friends to be close to them (expected to be about half a meter away), even though they prefer a farther distance with strangers.

Proxemics of High-Contact and Low-Contact Cultures

The American anthropologist Edward Hall (1966) proposed grouping societies into contact and noncontact cultures. Their cultural norms define the social distance that people should prefer in interpersonal communication. Accordingly, people from high-contact cultures favor immediate nonverbal behaviors compared to those from low-contact cultures. They may interpret the same distance differently. It depends on their typical cultural norms of spatial behavior. In non-contact cultures, people stand farther apart and don’t touch as much as in contact cultures. We saw some examples of these social norms above.

All societies across the world have been classified into “contact cultures” (South America, the Middle East, and Southern Europe) and “non-contact cultures” (Northern Europe, North America, and Asia). Generally, those in high-contact cultures communicate with a shorter interpersonal distance and greater touch, whereas people in low-contact cultures prefer to keep their distance and avoid touch. Those from high-contact cultures favor tactile and olfactory ways of communication over people from low-contact cultures (Andersen, 1988; Sussman & Rosenfeld, 1982).

Arabs, Latin Americans, and southern and eastern Europeans are the people of high-contact cultures. They tend to keep interpersonal immediacy in relationships. They do this by increasing sensory input, interacting at closer distances, maintaining more direct body orientations, and touching more frequently. Asians, North Americans, and northern Europeans tend to be relatively low in such spatial behavioral tendencies as people of low-contact cultures (Andersen, 1988; Sussman & Rosenfeld, 1982).

Certain patterns of interpersonal special behaviors of people from high-contact and low-contact cultures are visible in many other situations of everyday life and affective relationships (Karandashev, 2021; Patterson, 1983).