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How Different Cultures Handle Personal Space

Egyptians wander through a popular market in Cairo.
Amr Nabil
Egyptians wander through a popular market in Cairo.

Our perspectives on personal space — the distance we keep between the person in front of us at an ATM, the way we subdivide the area of an elevator — are often heavily influenced by the norms of the places we inhabit.

Jerry Seinfeld once focused an episode of his sitcom on the concept of personal space, giving us a new term: the "close talker."

Of course, invasions of personal space aren't always merely awkward. If you need a primer on the cultural sensitivities the topic can provoke, take a journey through the results of this Google search for "don't touch my hair."

"Cultural space tells us a lot," says Kathryn Sorrells, a professor at California State University-Northridge, whose scholarly interests include perceptions of personal space across cultures. "It tells us a lot about the nature of a relationship, and people are constantly reading those things even if they are not aware of it. ... So if someone comes more into your personal space than you are used to, you can often feel like, 'What's happening here?' And it's easy to misread what someone is actually communicating if you only come from your cultural perspective."

To give you a picture of how these norms play out differently in different corners of the world, here are accounts from two of our international correspondents of what they've observed in two different cities (note that these were written as audio essays, so for the full experience, listen to the segment above):

Leila Fadel

Cairo — This is a noisy city, a crowded city of some 16 million people. In the summer it feels like everyone is sitting on top of you in the smog and heat. On my balcony I can see the lady across the alley ironing her clothes. Last week I was watching television and someone yelled from the building next door to turn it down.

My producer Dina Saleh and I spent one day on a microbus, a type of minivan Egyptians use to get around the city for the equivalent of about 25 cents. We're squished in the back next to two other women, and 12 more people are piled in. But it's a national holiday, and Dina says this is nothing compared to a workday. Young boys with no cash jump on the back for a free ride.

Walking around the city is like dealing with an obstacle course. The narrow streets are made more narrow by cars haphazardly parked on the sidewalks, sometimes even in the middle of the street.

Standing in one of the most crowded parts of Cairo, Giza Square, there's really no sense of personal space. There's just too many people to have that. There's no legal time to cross the street, you just cross when you can. Just now as I was talking a man brushed up right against me, didn't even notice, didn't even apologize because that's normal here.

In the morning Egyptians crowd around breakfast stands throughout the capital. Men serve up hot fava bean mash, with veggies and bread. People eat at the stand as others flash money above their heads to get service, bodies pressed up against each other. A friend jokes that by the time you get your food you need to shake the other patrons out of your clothes.

Without space there is no privacy. In every Cairo apartment building is the bawab, the building guard. He knows the comings and goings of every resident on the street. And to this day when a young woman is getting married, families of the groom will interrogate the bawab about the potential bride. Do men come and go from the apartment? Does she come home late at night?

But the closeness is also comforting. It is a fundamentally kind city. If you fall, a slew of people will rush to your aid. No one will walk by thinking, Not my problem. It is loud, crowded and claustrophobic, and it is maddening and wonderful at the same time.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro

Sao Paulo — I'm in Sao Paulo's metro system. This is a city of 20 million people — one of the largest cities in the world. Some people take three hours everyday just to get to work, going from one side of the city to another.

One thing you will notice when you ride the public transport system here is that it does feel very, very different than it does in the United States. Very Brazilian.

Paula Moura works with NPR in Brazil. The country is just a lot more touchy-feely, she says. "I've been to other countries and nobody touches each other. It seems there is space for everybody. Personal space is bigger in other countries. Here it's not."

PDAs aren't a problem either. "I can see people are kissing each other and they don't worry about other people seeing them," Moura says.

In most countries in the world people are on the metro staring at their feet, or they've got their headphones on and they're in their own little world. But here people are very engaged, talking to one another, interacting. It's a much livelier scene than in many other cities.

Another surprising aspect to life here: There is a lot of respect for the elderly and mothers with children. At the supermarket, at the cinema, at government offices, they have special lines that give these individuals priority.

Family is important here. Because of the high cost of living they tend to be small, but families here are close-knit. Everyone gathers on a Sunday for lunch but they often visit during the week as well. And that sense of caring translates into how people treat others in public spaces.

As I'm standing on the metro I see a young woman offer her seat to an older one with a smile.

Railda is a retiree and is now comfortably sitting down. She says she often gets offered a seat. Still, she tells me, Brazil is an incredibly violent country and she's often nervous when out in the city.

And that's what makes all this all the more surprising. People say that crime is one of their main concerns when they go on public transport, but that doesn't stop them from this important human-to-human contact.

What are your stories about the different ways personal space can play out across cultures? If you've spent time in many places, what have you observed?

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Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.