Skip to main content

Column: Americans love wide open spaces – between people


Some years ago, my wife and I went to the south of Thailand to teach English at an elementary school. It was a poor school in a small town. The principal did his best to accommodate us, building a room for us to live in at the school. It had a bathroom and a shower and many, many photos of the school’s owner. By local standards it was luxurious.

By our standards, however, it was missing one main thing: privacy. A buffer zone between ourselves and everyone else. The room was situated right next to the principal’s office, and our shared wall stopped about a foot short of the ceiling. Our bed sat against one side of this wall. On the other side was the principal’s desk. It felt, in a way, as though we were in bed with him.

This was not the first time I had noticed cultural differences regarding personal space. When I lived in East Africa, I saw how my need for space seemed strange and possibly hostile in a very people-oriented culture. But Americans have long been notorious for the vast expanses of personal space we need. An article titled “Understanding American Culture” on the International Student Guide to the USA website advises: “Americans tend to require more personal space than in other cultures. If you try to get too close to an American during your conversation, he or she will feel that you are ‘in their face’ and will try to back away. Try to avoid physical contact while you are speaking, since this may lead to discomfort.”

For me, being touched during a conversation does, in fact, lead to discomfort, as does sitting unnecessarily close to my compatriots. Whenever I get on a bus or sit in a theater, I look around, take in the distances between people, and triangulate to find the seat that is as far as possible from everyone. Anthropologist Edward Hall, who coined the term “proxemics” to describe the ways humans use space, argued that this tendency stems from the fact that America is a “noncontact culture,” like some others in Asia, northern Europe, and Britain. A characteristic of those cultures is an aversion to being touched by strangers. 

Americans, Hall found, reserve the space up to 18 inches away from ourselves for intimate contact; the space from 18 inches to 4 feet away is our “personal distance,” appropriate for good friends or family members; and we relegate our acquaintances to an area 4 to 10 feet from us (our “social distance”). Our “public distance” is about 10 feet. If the seats on the bus were each 10 feet apart, we would all be very happy.

Hall contrasted us with “contact cultures” like those found in the Arab world, southern Europe, and much of Africa, where people stand closer, touch more, and hold eye contact longer. In Europe generally, he found, people preferred a conversational distance of 2 to 3 feet.

More recent studies have shown how personal space can also vary according to who people are conversing with and even what language they are using. In Iran, ethnic Kurdish and Mazandarani women had an average personal distance of about 3 feet with women from their own ethnic group. But with women from other groups, the Mazandarani women’s personal space dropped to 2.4 feet while the Kurdish women pushed their boundary out to almost 4 feet. 

Another study looked at American, Japanese, and Venezuelan students at a Midwestern university and found that when speaking Spanish, Venezuelans sat 32 inches apart, but when speaking English, they sat 40 inches apart. The Japanese students, whose preferred interpersonal space was 5 inches greater than either of the other groups, actually moved slightly closer to each other when speaking English (38.5 inches) than they did when speaking Japanese (40 inches).

Where does our American need for space come from? Is it a remnant of our country’s frontier mentality? An inheritance from our cool northern European forebears? A vestige of our tradition of extreme individualism? Whatever the case, it runs deep in our culture, as evidenced by the long-popular dream to escape the crowd, to go off the grid, to retreat to a cabin in the woods.

“To be in company, even with the best,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden, “is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion as companionable as solitude.”

Like Thoreau, I prefer spending vast stretches of time alone. Yet as our society has become more prosperous and our technology has advanced, our ability to keep others at a distance has grown, and I’ve begun to wonder about how our hunger for space vies with our need for company. 

Some researchers have grown alarmed at rising rates of loneliness: In 1985, the most common answer to the question, “How many confidants do you have?” was “three.” But in 2004, the most common answer was “none” – given by 25 percent of respondents. And if you exclude family members, that figure jumped to 50 percent.

Solitude and loneliness are different things. Solitude is simply being alone with oneself. Loneliness stems from a lack of a desired social connection. If your relationships are superficial, or you feel misunderstood, this, too, can create a feeling of loneliness. (As Thoreau also said, “We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers.”) Solitude is something you can choose. Loneliness is not.

According to psychologist John Cacioppo, author of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, the feeling is “an alarm signal, embedded in the genes,” that warns us to “do something to alter an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous condition.” Our physiological response to loneliness is similar to the experience of physical pain. 

But while loneliness may have evolved as a warning sign, we now know that it is also a dangerous condition in itself. Loneliness suppresses immune response, raises blood pressure, and can increase the risk of heart attack by 29 percent and stroke by 32 percent. Loneliness can lead to depression, paranoia, and social anxiety. The overall health risk is on par with smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Chronic loneliness can increase overall risk of mortality by 26 percent. 

In her book The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter, psychologist Susan Pinker argues that personal contact is the key to reversing many of those effects. It creates a shield against disease, helping decrease inflammation, improve metabolism, and boost immune response. She makes the case that most of the mental and physical benefits associated with attending church or sharing family meals actually are the result of having meaningful interactions with others on a regular basis. 

I still don’t want to share a wall with the school principal. But I do worry about the premium our culture puts on personal space. As it becomes easier to fill the gaps in the walls around us, each of us inside our own digital fortress, it’s possible to imagine a day when we’ve managed to create a personal space with only enough room for one. 

• Frank Bures is a frequent contributor to The Rotarian. His book, The Geography of Madness, was published last year. Read more stories from The Rotarian.