How is Personal Space Affected by Culture?

John Hamilton, Karin Gonzalez
  • Author
    John Hamilton

    John has tutored algebra and SAT Prep and has a B.A. degree with a major in psychology and a minor in mathematics from Christopher Newport University.

  • Instructor
    Karin Gonzalez

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

Learn about personal space. Read a personal space definition. Discover how personal space varies in different cultures, and view personal space violation examples. Updated: 01/28/2022

Table of Contents


What Is Personal Space?

Personal space is defined as the distance that a human being requires between themselves and another human being to feel comfortable. What constitutes personal space is defined as that specific area in which a person feels safe from harm, whether emotional or physical. Furthermore, when that area is violated the person feels ill at ease.

Personal space is important, because when it is violated the amygdala, or almond-shaped emotional center of the brain's hemisphere, is activated, signaling fear. It is believed the amygdala is where personal space bubbles develop. As a matter of fact, maintaining personal space keeps a person's stress levels in check, and protects them from potential unwanted aggressive behaviors. The study of personal space is known by the term proxemics.

A personal space bubble is an imaginary region that helps to protect someone from others intruding and coming into close personal contact. Each human has a different sized bubble and a different level of comfort when their bubble is violated by someone. Personal space bubbles are constructed for cultural and social reasons.

The amygdala is the portion of the brain which deals with proxemics

The amygdala is the portion of the brain which deals with proxemics

An important factor to consider in proxemics is whether a person resides in an individualistic nation versus a collectivistic nation. For instance, Jerry lives on a ranch in Texas in the United States of America. Personal liberties, along with open spaces, are important to him and define his comfort zone. Judy is an English teacher who was raised by her mother and diplomat father in Lima, Peru. In this country citizens have no problem standing while almost touching during conversations with one another, and to Judy this is a normal situation.

One factor which will almost certainly change the personal boundaries of humans across the globe is the pandemic which began in 2020.

Violation of Personal Space

According to famed proxemics expert Edward T. Hall, personal space zones vary between:

1) Intimate = Partners and Core Family = 0 - 1.5 feet in distance

2) Personal = Friends and Extended Family = 1.5 - 4 feet in distance

3) Social = Acquaintances and Colleagues = 4 - 10 feet in distance

4) Public = Passers-by and Strangers = 10 or more feet in distance

This would probably be viewed as a personal space violation in America

This would probably be viewed as a personal space violation in America

A personal space violation can result in the victim of the violation:

  • Curtly ending a conversation
  • Folding arms
  • Frowning
  • Gazing downward
  • Hurrying away in embarrassment
  • Reducing eye contact
  • Slumping in posture
  • Staring emotionless
  • Stepping back
  • Turning to the side

In the most extreme cases, a person whose personal space has been violated may shout in anger at the offender, push the offender in the chest, or even resort to physical violence such as punching or tackling the person.

Now, personal space violations vary not only from person to person, but also from country to country and from culture to culture. For example, in America it has been commonly recommended to maintain a distance of one arm's length from others. However, in some European countries people often greet each other with kisses to the cheeks, and sometimes strangers even touch each other on the arms in public.

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  • 0:01 Definition of Personal Space
  • 0:33 Reasons for Personal Space
  • 1:34 American Standards
  • 2:56 Cultural Differences
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Personal Space in Different Cultures

A person doesn't even begin developing their own personal space bubble until around age three to four, and in adolescence, sometime between age ten and age 19, the personal space bubble becomes permanent.

The three major variables that are at play when influencing proxemics are:

  • Population density
  • Territorial attitudes
  • Cultural norms and rules

Population Density

High population density, also known as social crowding, can greatly influence personal space. For example, Amelia visits Tokyo and rides the subway for the first time. She is surprised to find that people are packed into the subway car as tightly as possible, and citizens are literally leaning against one another. On the other hand, Amelia visits the Grand Canyon and is amazed while hiking at how much space she has between herself and other tourists. While leaning against a rail enjoying a view at an overlook, she is a bit startled when a man stands right next to her, as there exists literally hundreds of yards of open railing space nearby.

Territorial Attitudes

In the United States, many people envision the "American Dream", which might be a large stately home on a hill set back from an expansive front lawn. Some people almost feel it is their birthright to have this home, or own a farm, a ranch, or at least a few acres of land. Furthermore, as mentioned previously, America is what is known as an individualistic society, or one which values personal liberties, as opposed to a collectivist society such as Guatemala, or one which values cooperation. Someone in that country may not feel the same intrinsic need to own a large farm, but could be content with a smaller lawn and a humbler garden on the side of a home instead.

Cultural Norms and Rules

While the rules for different cultures are not completely cut and dried, some studies have shown that in many countries older citizens prefer more personal space than younger citizens. Furthermore, women tend to prefer a bit more personal space than men from strangers, and interestingly, people in colder regions tend to prefer more personal space than people in warmer regions. Personal space varies from Europe to the Americas as well.

In Sidney Jourard's fascinating coffee study undertaken in various coffehouses, in a one-hour period:

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is an example of personal space?

One example of personal space is an individual maintaining an arm's length distance when chatting with a coworker. If the other person took a step inward, this would constitute a violation of that personal space.

What is a personal space bubble?

A personal space bubble is an imaginary region around a person. This serves as a buffer against other persons coming in too close of contact.

What is personal space and why is it important?

Personal space is the physical area which surrounds a given person in which they feel comfortable. It is important because it protects human beings both from high levels of stress and possible aggressive behaviors.

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