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“Courtesy costs nothing.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), American writer, philosopher
How close is too close? How can English language learners – and native speakers too! – create more comfortable conversation spaces with strangers, friends and family alike?
It often starts with an awareness of others’ personal space. Personal space is the invisible amount of physical distance considered culturally appropriate between yourself and others when meeting and talking. This can vary from country to country.
For instance, Americans tend to require more “elbow room” than other cultures. Standing too close to an American during a conversation might make them feel as though you’re “in their face;” as a result, many Americans will pull back to restore a more comfortable distance.
These boundaries also change depending on social settings and the nature of your relationship with your conversation partner(s). So, let’s review some potential conversation settings and how they affect the concept of personal space.
Public Setting 12 ft. or more (3.6 m.)
Events such as concerts, assemblies, worship services, graduations, and similar communal gatherings fall under this category. The greater the guest of honor’s status, the larger their distance from the audience must be so that all attendees are included. A good example of this is how congregation leaders often speak from behind an elevated podium in houses of worship.
Social Setting 4ft. (1.2 m.)
We often meet acquaintances and strangers in social settings such as parties and museums. The distance and comfort level in social settings vary. In the beginning, it is safer to keep more of a distance. As you continue speaking with the individual, a closer distance may gradually feel comfortable. The easiest way to handle this: when you first meet someone, say your greeting, shake hands, and step back a bit.
Personal Setting 1.5 ft. (0.45 m.)
Personal settings are reserved for conversations with family and close friends that you’ve come to trust and treasure.
Intimate Setting 0 – 1.5 ft. (0 – 0.45 m.)
Closer, more private settings between close friends, lovers, and family can be called intimate space. When entering such an intimate space, permission is needed or else it could be perceived as a threat. In situations like a crowded elevator or subway, where close physical contact is unavoidable, keep it impersonal by avoiding eye contact and keeping your hands to yourself.
While these guidelines an excellent rule of thumb, keep in mind that they are flexible. Encourage your students to be observant; paying attention to a conversation partner’s body language goes a long way in determining how receptive they are to moving closer or initiating physical contact. People are much more open to continuing a conversation if you respect their space from the get go!
For further classroom discussion, pair up your students. Ask them to compare notions of personal space in the United States with another country they’ve lived in or visited. How are they similar? How are they different?
How do you define your own personal space? How would you ask others to respect it?
This blog post features content from the second edition of Compelling Conversations – Vietnam, released in November and available now on Amazon! Check out our featured sample chapter, Delicious Choices, here. For more sample chapters from this and our other titles, click here.