Thursday, June 2, 2011

Travel Learnings #2: Personal Space

Travel Learnings is an occasional feature where I share things that I've learned while "out on the road". The topics, which are intended to help you when you travel, will include travel tips, how-to tips, photography tips, an occasional random topic related to travel, or even just fun "hmmm...that's interesting" stuff. To make them easier to find, they'll all have the title and tag "Travel Learnings:". I hope you find them helpful and entertaining. I'd love your feedback via email and/or in the comments section below.

Today's travel learning is about personal space. In the U.S. we tend to have lots of space around us; we get our own bedrooms as kids, we drive to work solo in our cars, and we often have cubicles or offices at work. Each one of those places is OUR space--no one else's. It wasn't until I started traveling a lot more to a lot more places that I learned that my idea of personal space wasn't everyone's idea of personal space. From what I can tell, everyone else's idea of personal space ranges from smaller than mine to much smaller than mine.

To try to illustrate my view of various places' personal space, I'm going to use the example of when people (who you don't know) are waiting in line at the airport/bus station or when you're waiting in line to enter something like a museum. Leonardo Da Vinci did a famous drawing called the Vitruvian Man to demonstrate the proportions of the human body but I'm going to hack that up to show the relative personal space that I've experienced. I'm not saying that one version of personal space is better than another, just that they're different and it's a cultural feature that I find interesting.

First up, in the U.S., we will generally allow about an arm's length's of distance between us and the person in front of us or behind us. If the space gets smaller or we actually touch, we'll tend to back away a little bit until the proper distance is restored. It looks something like this:

That's how I was brought up and how I feel comfortable. My first out-of-the-U.S. experience was working in Mexico and people there generally tend to line up much closer to each other. In my observation, there's no sense that people shouldn't touch accidentally or that they need to leave any more (or "extra") space than necessary. I'd guess that people leave somewhere between six-to-twelve inches between each other. I've traveled a lot since my two years in Mexico and I've seen that in Guatemala, Peru, and Colombia also have similar space expectations. This gives you a rough idea of what I've seen:

Needless to say, I'm not very comfortable when I'm in line in Latin America but it's bearable. Part of the difference I'm guessing is that people in Latin America tend to have less space to live in and are more comfortable "sharing" that space.

Now that I've spent considerable time in Europe, I find that personal space is somewhere between that of the U.S. and Latin America but it's definitely smaller. If a 5 is the average personal space in Latin America and the U.S. is a 10, Europe on average is probably like an 7. Compare that to when I've been in China. China's probably a 1 when compared to Europe and the U.S. I remember one time when I was checking in for a flight at an airport in China that the guy "behind" me in line was actually physically in front of me at the ticket counter and already had his bag on the scale before I did. The lines look something like this to me:

You can probably guess how I feel in that situation. U.N.C.O.M.F.O.R.T.A.B.L.E. Based on personal space alone, I'm guessing that the average Chinese person lives in a space that's the size of a closet in the U.S. :-)

Personal space is what it is around the world but you need to be ready for it when you go. I always try to remember in those situations when I'm a bit uncomfortable that I'm there to experience new things and that varying personal space is one of those things. It's definitely fun and makes for great stories later.

Now get out there and see some of the world!


  1. You should watch the documentary that is in small theaters now titled "I AM." It deals with space, physical and emotional, the community idea, and how everything is individualized and leading us away from that sense of a community, country, or world as a whole. There's a lot more to it, and it really is a well done documentary worth the 77 minutes.

  2. @david_j: I'll add it to my to-do list. It's not playing outside the U.S. but I'll be back for xmas and will try to see it then. It looks like a great movie. Thanks for the heads up!


All comments are reviewed prior to being posted.