It’s really awkward when you’re chatting to someone whose sense of appropriate interpersonal space is way too close. There’s the option of performing a subtle backward shuffle, but what if they simply close the gap again?
Our judgments about such things obviously vary with individual personality – people with more social anxiety tend to prefer a greater distance – and also on the nature of the relationship we have with the other person. But culture must surely play a part too.
To find out how preferred interpersonal distances vary across the world, the authors of a new study in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology approached – not too close, presumably – nearly 9,000 participants in 42 countries and asked them to indicate on a simple graphic how close another person – either a stranger, friend or more intimate relation – could get to them during a conversation for things to remain comfortable.
The three countries where participants’ preferred minimal distance from a stranger was largest were Romania (approximately 140cm), Hungary and Saudi Arabia; conversely the three countries where participants were happiest being most up close with a stranger were Argentina (80cm), Peru and Bulgaria. The UK was represented by England, with participants here coming out near the middle (approximately 1 metre) in terms of the spread of international preferences for when talking with a stranger.
The averaged preferred minimal distances from a friend or acquaintance during conversation were smaller, as you’d expect, but the rank order across countries was fairly similar to the order for stranger distance. So, in countries where people tended to prefer a greater distance from strangers during conversation, they also tended to prefer a greater distance from friends.
Intriguingly, this wasn’t so much the case for preferred minimal distance when conversing with a close or more intimate other person. For instance, Romanians, who you remember liked the largest distance from a stranger, actually came out as having among the smallest preferred minimal distances from an intimate relation (about 50cm). Likewise, Norwegians came out near the middle in the distribution of preferred minimal distances from a stranger, but were happy with the smallest amount of physical distance (approx 40cm) from a close other.
Lead author Agnieszka Sorokowska and her dozens of colleagues around the world also looked to see if international differences in climate and vulnerability to parasites might correlate with preferred interpersonal differences. The parasite measure wasn’t relevant, but average temperature was: in warmer countries, participants tended to be happier with smaller distances when chatting to strangers, perhaps because people feel socially closer in warmer climes, the researchers speculated; in contrast, when it came to intimate relationships, it was colder countries that were happier with smaller distances, perhaps as a way to stay cosy!
Across countries, women tended to prefer greater distances from the other person, as did older participants. An obvious limitation of the study is that it was based on participants’ judgments of the interpersonal distances they think they would prefer, not on actual observations of their behaviour. Still, the researchers collected an impressive amount of data from a huge range of countries, providing a fascinating global perspective on an everyday personal experience: just how close is too close when you’re chatting to another person?
Image via gettyimages.co.uk