Traveling and Personal Space

crowd - personal space and traveling,

Personal Space and TRAVEL

Each and every culture the world over has a concept of personal space. Every being has an idea of how much personal space is needed for them to feel most comfortable. Even plants have an optimal amount of space to be planted from the next plant so they can thrive.

That space is how close you can stand to someone while waiting in line…too close and you bother people….not close enough and people cut in front of you. It can be tricky to figure out how much is the right amount… the experiences are always interesting.

How much personal space you need to feel most comfortable is largely a function of the culture in which you grew up.

One my first trip to Europe I was sitting with a friend in a very small cafe having lunch. We were two people sitting at a table for four. After a few minutes, in the middle of our meal, 2 people came in and sat down at our table. This seemed odd to us since in the US, where we are from, you would never sit at a table that already has people sitting at it – even if there was more room. In Europe, where space is more at a premium, they would never think of NOT sitting in those empty seats because it is a waste of space. What a learning experience!

In the United States, where wide open spaces exist, we have a lot of personal space. Homes are set back from the street with large front lawns as a buffer from the street and neighbors. Consequently, we don’t hear our neighbors and we might not even seen our neighbors often. It is not uncommon, if neighbors do not keep the same schedules for coming and going each day, for neighbors not to even know each other at all. So, as you might expect, the zone of personal space in the United States is quite large.

Contrast that with Japan. In Japan large cities have so many people that space is at a premium. Living quarters are small and it is common to live with extended family. People are quite comfortable being close to each other. People often are packed so close together on a subway, for example, that there is a specific occupation to help. Pushers, or ohsiya, in uniforms and white gloves, actually – physically push people onto the train so the door will close.

Imagine the expectations of personal space…Japanese vs United States.

When you travel to a country with a smaller idea of personal space than you have, you might encounter things that seem very rude to you.

**A person might be standing in line behind you so close they can breath on you. It might feel like they are being pushy as they are in your space. To them they might be standing a normal distance away from you.

**A person might cut in line in front of you into the personal space area that you left between you and the person in front of you. In the United States this would be very rude because everyone here knows that space is to be left open. To the person who ‘cut in front of you’ that might have looked like so much space you might not have even been in the line at all in their eyes.

crowd of soldiers - personal space: Tips for travel,

What to do?

1 – Take a DEEP breath. You are not at home. The rules from home do not apply.

2 – Talk about it to the kids. Warn them so they know what to expect. Discuss your feelings.

For example, you might know to expect to be standing shoulder to shoulder on the late afternoon regional train heading south from Naples, Italy (If you do not expect that, let me be the one to tell you. That afternoon regional train is CRAZY crowded. They need the Italian version of pushers!) and that many people squished together might work HARD on your nerves. Do you feel irritated? Tell the kids! Explain that you feel annoyed and irritated yet you are NOT acting like you are annoyed and irritated – and you aren’t throwing a fit. (Your mom would be so proud)

Teach the kids how to maneuver life’s unpleasant moments calmly. You might be surprised to learn that the kids do not even realize these things upset you.

3 – Assert yourself. When you are queuing up for a line and people are very clearly cutting it line, it is perfectly acceptable to speak up.  Say, “Excuse me, the line is here.”

This demonstrates to the kids the difference between standing up for yourself in a healthy way and being obnoxious. Demonstrate the way you want your kids to act!

By the way – this doesn’t always work. We saw some CRAZY things at the Athens airport with line skipping. These were not Greeks, they were people like us from other parts of the world. I took several deep breaths.

Traveling as a family gives you so many opportunities to learn….and to teach. Explore the world and show your kids how to be global citizens!

Family of four in Santorini at sunset

Happy Travels,

Natalie, The Educational Tourist

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19 Responses

  1. Raghav says:

    Interesting write-up and something that is important for people who travel to know because personal space as you said differs from place to place and knowing about it in advance can make all the difference. I for one am someone who likes my distance no matter where in the world, but am aware of the cultures so I can act accordingly without feeling uncomfortable.

  2. Jennifer says:

    I had a difficult time keeping my personal space in India. I’m an introvert,so I need a lot of quiet time to myself. But the people there thought something was wrong with me for wanting to be alone.

  3. This is an excellent idea for a post. It’s so true that something as simple as personal space differs so greatly around the world but many of us don’t realize this and are offended by someone else’s actions. I think everyone should read this before they travel!

  4. I am from India, and personal space concept here differs from one region to another. In Gujarat, people are fine almost sticking to you. On the other hand, in Mumbai, people give you a fair amount of space whenever possible. I agree, it is important to be assertive and make your point clear.

  5. Lisa says:

    This is a really useful post, and something I rarely think about when travelling. I’m from London, so I’m used to being a packed sardine on the tube! That said, I don’t think I could handle the rush hour trains in Tokyo, they look insane! It’s lovely you’re able to teach your kids about this while young; it’s something we overlook!

  6. thesecretlifeofanactress says:

    This is an interesting post. It’s important to understand all the differences we discover while traveling. And to understand new culture is one of the good thing of traveling. Although I live in Europe, and it’s very uncommon to seat at a table where there are already other people sitting. It happens only in some specific places, where they have very big tables for instance.

  7. Jamie Joyner says:

    I LOVE this article – we often have to practice patience and courtesy at US National Park with visitors from other countries. I will now look at some of the actions I considered rude in a new light. Thank you!

  8. Sara Essop -In Africa and Beyond says:

    This is a very interesting and pertinent topic. It’s a pity that it’s not discussed more often. Here, in South Africa, different cultures have different perceptions of what is acceptable personal space and we often have issues with that.

  9. Hi Natalie – I loved this article! Its true what you say: the experiences gives us opportunities to learn and to teach. The concept of space varies from culture to culture and sometimes we forget about empathy or to determine whats right or wrong in a situation ( for us and to them). To avoid any conflicts in difficult situation I always keep in mind positive vibes 🙂 Safe travels. – Mariella

  10. Interesting article. I really found it hard to get some ‘personal space’ in China. People there are so different then we are used to in other Asian country’s. Here in Australia we can’t complain about our personal space 😉

  11. Esther says:

    Funny, in The Netherlands it’s also not common to sit down with people who are already sitting at a table. Unless it’s extremely crowded and you ask their permission first. Where were you? I got very upset recently when people (4) asked me and my table-partner to move, as we were only 2. We were in a business meeting, and I had every right to be there. So, assertiveness was needed!! In Spain, people are very relaxed about personal space, they stand so close when you’re talking!! And yes… many deep breaths when you stand in line 😉

  12. Sheree says:

    This is such an interesting topic for an article, I never realised how much I valued my personal space until I moved to China! Different cultures definitely have different comfort zones! #flyawayfriday

  13. Katherine says:

    Personal space is a big thing for me. Even when I was a kid I’d want everyone to be arms-distance away from me so I didn’t feel claustrophobic (talk about high maintenance). But you’re right, you’re not at home and there are different definitions of personal space in different countries. You gotta suck it up and go with the flow. #FlyAwayFriday

  14. This is a really good post since I believe a lot of travelers have problems with this in one way or another. I know I do. My main thing has to do with people pushing, elbowing and stepping over my foot on public spaces. I am not sure this is a cultural issue (some people are just rude) but I try to take a deep breath (like you mentioned) since it is difficult to determine what is going on. I have experienced the table situation but we were told by the hostess this was going to happen. It turned out to be an excellent experience since we engaged in communication with locals for more than an hour. #FlyAwayFriday

  15. This is a very thoughtful and intelligent piece on the varying concept of personal space across cultures. I love your use of specific examples to add some colour to your narrative. And your advice for speaking to kids about what is going on is really great. Thank you for putting this out there.

  16. Original post here – but one that I’m sure resonates with lots of people. Certainly growing up in NZ has meant we all have plenty of space and it can be quite odd getting used to larger places where everyone is in each other’s space a lot more.

  17. Janine says:

    I need personal space. Case closed! I struggle when I am limited and do get anxiety. These are great tips on handling this issue! Thanks for coming to Fly Away Friday! Hope to see you this week!

  18. Kana Imamura says:

    Such an interesting post! I totally agree that everyone needs to respect each other’s space since cultures can be very different! Thanks for joining Fly Away Friday, hope to see you again this week! xo

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