How close is too close to stand next to a stranger in Malaysia? Or to a colleague in the Czech Republic?
In a massive study of almost 9,000 people in 42 countries, an international team of researchers has attempted to measure just how physically close people around the world are willing to get to strangers, acquaintances, and loved ones—and to understand why differences between countries exist.
Researchers handed each subject a graph showing two figures and asked them to imagine themselves as Person A. They then asked the subjects to note how close Person B should approach for a conversation if the figure was a stranger, or an acquaintance, or a close friend.
Answers varied widely between countries. Respondents in Romania preferred strangers to keep the most distance, but were among the most comfortable having friends get close. People in Saudi Arabia like to stand farther away from intimates than Argentinians do from strangers. Hungarians kept loved ones and strangers alike at arm’s length (or at least 75 centimeters, to be precise).
No grand unified theory of personal space emerged, but some generalities did. Women preferred more personal space when strangers or acquaintances approached than men did (in commenting on this finding, the researchers noted that they didn’t specify the gender of Person B). People in warmer countries tended to let strangers come closer than respondents in cold countries did, but kept more distance from intimates.
Social scientists have studied cultural conceptions of personal space for decades. The size and breadth of this survey revealed how difficult it is to draw sweeping conclusions about what constitutes a “close talker” in any part of the world.