Personal space can be described as the amount of space around individuals that allows them to feel comfortable. People’s expectations and needs for personal space may differ based on race, ethnicity, gender, and/or social class. For some people, this may mean keeping others at arm’s length, whereas for others it may entail moving in very closely when they communicate. From a cultural point of view, different cultures have different ideas about appropriate personal space, and personal space holds different meanings when one considers the variables of social class and gender. People have their own individual ideas about what is comfortable to them and what is not comfortable in terms of personal space.
The world of business has brought the idea of personal space into the forefront as a vital consideration. For example, when conducting business, it is important and considered proper to maintain appropriate personal space based on what the host or majority culture considers to be personal space. Within dominant White American cultures, this may mean a firm handshake, staying about 3 feet away from other people during interactions, and not touching them in any way other than a handshake. However, in, Japan, a bow between two people, placed 2 to 3 feet apart, is a standard greeting and a sign of respect; further, the extent of the bow may differ across social and professional contexts.
Personal space is a form of nonverbal communication. For human beings, ideas and expectations about personal space may differ depending on whether interactions are occurring with strangers, family members, or intimate partners. Furthermore, in some cultural contexts, norms and expectations about personal space may be directly related to the social standing or class of the people involved. For example, in some cultures, people from higher social standings or classes tend to be more formal and maintain larger distances in personal space, whereas those who are from lower social standings or classes tend to have smaller distances of personal space. Moreover, gender differences can play an important role in personal space, as men, in general, find it more difficult to touch or be touched than do women.
In a counseling situation, maintaining appropriate personal space while trying to develop a therapeutic and empathic relationship can be a challenge. Personal space is an important aspect of therapy and when misused, it can be seen as threatening; further, when cultural norms are not respected or are violated, lapses in the working alliance may ensue. In cross-cultural counseling dyads, personal space may be a valuable means of communicating cultural respect. For example, if a client who identifies with a culture that endorses greater physical expression of care and support shares a personal, emotional story, the client may be expecting a hug or gentle touch on the arm from her or his counselor. However, if the counselor does not ascribe to those norms and does not express her or his empathy through such physical displays, the client may feel unheard or disrespected. On the other hand, if the counselor wants to offer a hug or gentle touch and the client has distinct ideas about personal space and boundaries, the client may feel threatened by the touch. It is very important for counselors to remember that their own racial/cultural worldview may differ from their client’s worldview, and that will, in turn, have an impact on the therapeutic relationship that they are able to develop.
- Hall, E. T. (1966). The hidden dimension. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.