Personal space race: How the world likes to keep its distance

A new global study reveals how much space we like to maintain between us and strangers

Personal space race: How the world likes to keep its distance


When it comes to interacting with people on a day-to-day basis, the amount of personal space we maintain as a mark of politeness says a lot about where we’re from, a new study claims.

We all know that feeling when a casual conversation with someone on a bus or looking for directions on a city street can instantly change when he or she steps just a little too close. What was a pleasant interlocutory exchange becomes an inescapable grilling just by bringing two bodies a little bit closer.

It appears that having your personal space invaded is a universally loathed part of the human condition, but the problem may lie in the world’s cultures having no defined benchmark of where and when that space begins.

To find out more about how preferred interpersonal distances differ around the globe, a new study in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology asked nearly 9,000 participants in 42 countries to weigh in. Each person was asked to indicate how closely they would ideally let a stranger, friend, or intimate relation stand in their presence during a conversation without things getting weird.

When it comes to shooting the breeze with strangers, Romanians like to keep the widest gap, coming in at 140cm, followed by Hungarians (130cm) and Saudi Arabians (127cm).

At the opposite end of the scale, exchanging gossip between strangers is best achieved in Argentina (80cm), Peru (80cm), and Bulgaria (81cm).

Ireland was not represented in the study, but our closest neighbours the United Kingdom were, with England the only country in the union polled. English men and women placed in the middle of the study, coming in at about 1m in terms of international preferences when chatting to strangers.

Participants in the study were shown this chart and asked to say at what distance they would be comfortable holding a conversation with a stranger, friend or loved one [Journal of Cross Cultural Psychology]

When it came to how much distance people would prefer was maintained when conversing with a friend or acquaintance, the gaps were understandably smaller than with strangers, but similar distance preferences as the stranger question were noted.

But when it came to chatting with – or indeed up – a loved one, the preference for personal space went out the window; Romanians, who like to maintain the furthest distance from strangers, are also among the nationalities with the smallest preferred gap between themselves and a loved one, coming in at 50cm.

Norwegians, who ranked like English people for strangers, were the most embracing of loved ones, liking to reduce their personal space boundaries to just 40cm when engaging with a family member.

The study's findings across all 42 countries [Journal of Cross Cultural Psychology]

After gathering the data, the study’s lead author Agnieszka Sorokowska and the dozens of other researchers all over the world analysed the numbers to see if there was a correlation of personal space preferences to climatic conditions or vulnerability to parasites.

The good news for germaphobes was that parasitic prevalence proved meaningless, but temperature was significant: in warmer countries, people were happier to stand closer to complete strangers when chatting. But in cooler climes, it is only with our most intimate partners that we like to get close to, with the study authors speculating that this is a way to stay cosy.

Other differences were observed between male & female and younger & older participants, with the latter in both preferring to maintain a greater distance.

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