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Personal Space in Psychology: Definition, Cultural Differences & Issues

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  • 0:01 Definition of Personal Space
  • 0:33 Reasons for Personal Space
  • 1:34 American Standards
  • 2:56 Cultural Differences
  • 4:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

In this lesson, you will learn the definition of personal space and will learn three reasons different cultures differ on issues regarding personal space. Following the lesson will be a brief quiz to test your new knowledge.

What Is Personal Space?

One thing is for certain. We all have a personal space, or the physical space surrounding us that encompasses the area that we feel safe, and where any threat to that personal space would make us feel uncomfortable. Some may call personal spaces their personal bubbles. Another thing is certain, the size of our personal bubbles depends very largely on our cultural background. People in the United States, for instance, have a larger personal space than people in Spain. But why do we have personal spaces, and why are they different across cultures?

Reasons for Personal Space

One beautiful thing about an infant is that they don't mind if you put your face directly against theirs and give them kisses. It's because they have not yet formed their own personal space bubbles. Our personal space bubbles start forming between the ages of 3-4 and they are a fixed size around the time that we are in adolescence. How do these bubbles form? Scientists have confirmed that they are socially and culturally constructed. But they are also formed with the help of a part of our brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of our brain that feels fear and is activated when there is a perceived threat to our safety.

Daniel Kennedy and colleagues wrote an article in the journal, Nature, confirming that personal space bubbles are constructed by the amygdala. They observed a woman with damage to her amygdala who consequently had no personal space. They also explained how autistic individuals have defects in the amygdala of the brain, therefore having difficulties knowing appropriate personal space limits.

American Standards

Edward T. Hall (1914- 2009) was an anthropologist fascinated by personal space or what he called, proxemics, man's use of space, taking culture into account. He actually defined the distance that most Americans would be comfortable within interactions with various people. For instance, we are more comfortable with our spouse and have a smaller personal bubble with them than we would with a stranger. Let's look at Hall's standards for personal space based on the population in the United States.

When someone violates your personal space, your tendency may be to take a step back, or turn to regain your bubble. Defensive body language may ensue like crossed arms, a frown, reduced eye contact, or a downward gaze. You may exhibit limited body movement and look very uncomfortable and self-conscious with a slumped posture. In order to mask your uncomfortableness, you may exhibit an emotionless facial expression. You may stop a conversation or exchange with another who violates your space.

It has been said that people in the United States are comfortable with speaking to people at an arm's length distance, while people in Europe are comfortable wrist-length distance apart. Furthermore, people in the Middle East can be comfortable speaking to each other within an elbow's length distance. Why are there differences in cultures regarding personal space?

Cultural Differences

Strangers in the metro of San Paolo, Brazil, touch each other while speaking. They don't look uncomfortable, although in the United States they would completely be violating the other's personal space. If you go into another culture, like Brazil or Spain, you may notice that what you may consider a violation to personal space may not be considered a violation there. It actually may be normative and a sign of friendliness. Here are several explanations for differences in personal space amongst different cultures:

Population Density

In crowded cities, like Cairo, Egypt and Mexico City, Mexico, there may not be a lot of room on buses, streets, and in buildings to give everyone a personal space bubble. People may be breathing, spitting while talking, or even rubbing sweat on each other! But in some cities that are overpopulated, busy, and crowded, this is the norm because people are used to sharing space in order to co-habitate in the city.

Territorial Attitudes

Are people in the United States more territorial and used to having their own property and large grassy yards? If so, this may affect the size of their personal space. Americans value bigger spaces, in general. Look at a map to see how big the USA is compared to other countries. Territory and geography may play a big part in the personal space that people living in the USA desire to have.

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