Understanding Personal Space: Distance

Most people have a physical "comfort zone" in relation to friends, acquaintances, and strangers. The distance they stand or sit from someone may depend on the situation and the relationship, but it can vary in different cultures, too.

Part I: For each situation illustrated below, write down the letter for the best response for North American culture. Then discuss your opinions in small groups. (There may be more than one correct answer.)

1. A man meets a woman at a party. They make small talk and find out that they have a lot in common. He is interested in her, so he moves closer, but she keeps stepping back from him. He thinks,

  1. "I didn't take a bath tonight, so she may not want to stand close to me."
  2. "She must not like me very much."
  3. "She may need more personal space around her than I do."

2. You are having lunch alone at a cafeteria in the city. There are many empty tables but you'd like to talk to someone, so you

  1. put your tray on a table where someone is eating, sit down, and begin a conversation.
  2. sit at a table by yourself and read a book during lunch.
  3. approach someone of the same sex and say, "Excuse me. May I join you?"


Part II: In small groups, answer this question: For each situation in Part I, which is the best answer for your culture? Explain.












Answers to Part I:

1. In the United States or Canada, all three answers are possible. Personal cleanliness is important, of course, and people have different ideas about smells. But the woman may be moving away from the man as a "signal" that she is not interested in him. On the other hand, she may like him but feel uncomfortable at such a close distance because she needs more personal space.

2. If you sit down and begin making small talk, the person at the table may think you are crazy and feel uncomfortable. North Americans do not usually speak to strangers unless they have a specific purpose or feel the situation is very safe. On the other hand, if you eat lunch by yourself, you might miss an interesting conversation and won't get a chance to practice your English. You may want to ask someone politely if he or she would like company during lunch. If you choose someone of the same sex, he or she will probably not feel afraid.