From the US to India: How personal space varies across borders

Image: Reuters/Abhishek N. Chinnappa
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This question originally appeared on Quora: Why Do Indians Stare At Other People? Answer by Ben A. Wise, world traveler, part-time resident of India.

I’ve spent a long time in India, so I feel compelled to contribute my observations on the matter.

Apart from statistically insignificant circles of educated individuals with a high socio-economic standing, there is no sense of personal space in India. It’s okay to be crowded, and it happens a lot—there are over a billion people there.

​(Image: Real Travel: What About My Space? — National Geographic Traveler)

In a place like the United States there’s more space, and people have a strong sense of personal ego or identity, and arising from that, a natural, subconscious need to protect the vehicle of that sentiment—their bodies.

There is no judgement in this dichotomy, it is merely a generalization of what I’ve observed.

The Bus

I remember very clearly waiting for a bus in Goa years ago. It was an unbearably hot day, and I was happy when the bus finally came. When I got on it, there weren’t many people on board. I enjoyed the relief that the breeze blowing through the open windows brought. Little by little, at every station along the way, people trickled into the bus. Needless to say, everyone coming in stared at me freely.

The radius of free space around me gradually diminished, until I was surrounded by people pressing against my body on all sides. Finally, the bus was so crowded that I couldn’t even move my limbs—that’s how tightly sandwiched I was by the people around me. There was a young boy who had been pinned against my crotch with his head; a young man had the misfortune of having his face stuck to my perspiring armpit; and a woman had been pressed against my side so tightly that our rib cages interlocked.

Yet somehow, everything was fine. It was okay. Looking around me, I saw that no one was upset, there was no alarm on anybody’s face, and even though we were all in this unbearably intimate situation, everybody calmly waited until, perhaps 20 minutes later, people started disembarking, and the interior of the bus regained its former spaciousness.

(Image: Perilous adventure travel celebrated in spring books)

The Supermarket

Fast forward a few years to the U.S. I’d just gotten there from India. I was in a supermarket standing in front of a shelf, trying to decide on what kind of pasta to get. Linguine? Spaghetti? Tagliatelle?

“Excuse me,” the voice of a woman interrupted my thoughts. I turned my head, and saw a woman with a shopping cart several feet away looking at me. It took me a few moments to realize that she was about to pass by me and was alerting me of her intention, and although the cart will probably not have made contact with my body, we would be crossing each other’s personal space. I apologized and dutifully squeezed up against the shelf so that we were absolutely certain not to touch each other. After she passed, I chuckled to myself as I imagined this woman on the crowded bus in Goa.

(Image: Store Isle Stock Footage Video)

Holding Hands

When I arrived to India I saw men holding hands. I found it amazing that a country like India would be so tolerant of homosexuality. Later I felt a bit silly learning that in India it was okay for guys to hold hands—it’s a sign of platonic affection. Some months later, after I’d befriended some locals, I was walking down the street having a pleasant conversation with a friend when he reached out his hand and held mine. I felt extremely uncomfortable initially, but realized that he was enjoying my company, and so it was natural for him to want to hold my hand.

​(Image: Men holding hands in India  | Yo Kerala)

By contrast, I’ve been to places in the US where you could get in trouble for simply holding the wrong person’s gaze for too long.

​(Image: Mayweather Vs. Cotto: Press Conference Staredown Photos)


So why am I focusing on personal space when the question is about staring? Because they are one and the same—they are two expressions of the same cultural tendency. In India, it’s okay for people to look at you, just like it’s okay for you to look at them; unless you’re a guy and you’re ogling women, it is culturally acceptable. And, obviously, foreigners whose appearance differs from Indians, are more interesting to look at…

For the most part, no offense is meant; it is simply curiosity. But with a different cultural mindset, it may be interpreted as strange, offensive or improper.

(Image: Understanding Cultural Differences – Staring)

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