Cultural Space



About once a year, I do an activity with my students that I learned in my undergraduate days. It looks like this:

I call two volunteers to the front of the class. One is male, the other is female.

I ask them to walk toward me one at a time and put my hand up when they’ve walked close enough for my comfort level. I put my hand up to stop the walker at the distance I would be comfortable speaking to them. With men, I stop them about a foot and a half away. With women, I’m comfortable being a few inches closer.

I point out the differences between male and female space and then pull another volunteer, either male or female. We test the space comfort for different people as they decide when someone is close enough. Usually, people from the same culture have similar space requests. We talk about how many cultures can exist within countries. It’s always enlightening to see a visual demonstration of the influence of our backgrounds.

The power of culture fascinates me. I’ve worked with people from across the seven continents, and I intellectually understand cultural distance. Still, when women from Asia want to touch me, I pull back before I can stop myself. And one day a man from Mexico stepped back twice while I was talking to him. I kept moving closer. He kept moving away. We were both trying to get to our comfort space and doing a sort of dance. Finally, I stopped to let him get some distance. My cultural instinct drives my actions before my intellect can catch up. When I see countries arguing with each other in the news, I wonder how many dances we are doing unconsciously.

An article on NPR about this cultural distance reassured me in a strange way.  Even better than the written discussion, I found a link to a Seinfeld episode with a hilarious demonstration of what it looks like to break cultural norms. I’ve never seen anyone talk as in-your-face as Judge Reinhold no matter what culture he or she is from. A ‘close talker’ would struggle in most places, I expect.

It’s time for us to do our space exercise again. And this time, I’ll work in a bit of Seinfeld to help us laugh a little more at ourselves. When I start to stress about how we will ever all get along, a good chuckle always helps me breathe again.

2 thoughts on “Cultural Space

  1. When I was in community college, I had many Iranian friends. It was fascinating to notice their common cultural personal space between males was much closer that was the norm among the student body. They would often walk with shoulders touching. One day, I was walking between buildings with one friend, headed across a large lawn. We ended up 100 feet away from the destination because I kept moving away from him as we walked, and he kept moving closer to me.

    • Karrie Zylstra

      Funny! I bet that’s how the student from Mexico felt when I was trying to ‘chase’ him as we spoke.

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