Traveling and Personal Space
Personal Distance 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.
What is the right amount of personal distance?
That perfect amount of personal space is how close you can stand to someone while waiting in line. If you stand too close you bother people but if you don’t stand close enough then people cut in front of you.
It can be tricky to figure out how much is the right amount of personal space is the norm for your new travel destination. The experiences you have while figuring that out are always interesting.
How much personal space is the right amount?
How much personal space you need to feel most comfortable is largely a function of the culture in which you grew up.
Personal space and culture is an important part of learning about your destination.
On 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 because 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. Personal space is America is really different than personal space in Europe. In general, 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!
We have a lot of personal space in the United States because we have a lot more room and wide open spaces.
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 see 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 the United States.
What about personal space when you travel?
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 breathe 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.
What should you do when your personal space is invaded when you travel?
1 – Take a DEEP breath.
You are not at home. The rules from home do not apply. Consider the fact that here, you might be the one that is wrong.
Personal distance is defined differently all around the world. Be sure to consider the personal distance of the people you will encounter before you travel so you aren’t caught off guard and you know how to act.
2 – Talk about it to the kids.
Warn them so they know what to expect. Tell them that rules are different wherever you go.
YOU have to adjust to the new rules.
Discuss your feelings with the kids. Tell them how you feel about your experiences – are you frustrated?
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? We did! We got on the train and it was so crowded that my, then 5-year-old son, was literally crammed under the railing.
Tell the kids the kids how you feel. Walk them through your feelings. Don’t let them think, incorrectly, that since you aren’t ACTING irritated that you aren’t FEELING irritated. Let them know you can FEEL something and NOT act on it. Restraint is a learned behavior.
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.”
Demonstrate the way you want your kids to act! This shows to the kids the difference between standing up for yourself in a healthy way and being obnoxious.
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.
We opted to remain calm and not say anything. Traveling is stressful and brings out the worst in people a lot of the time. Try to think about that and give people a little more room for obnoxious behavior if you can.
4 – Enjoy trying on new cultures for a little bit when you travel.
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!
Don’t let the American definition of personal space get in the way of enjoying your vacation to explore the world.
Natalie, The Educational Tourist