Alexa and I are taking a surprisingly interesting class called International Organizational Behavior this semester. Now, that name probably doesn’t mean much to a lot of you because you aren’t business students, but this is where we learn how to deal with/work with/coexist with someone from a different culture, how our values differ, how our perspectives on the world differ, and how we do business differently.
Today we did an exercise on personal space. We were all told to stand up and just start a conversation with someone near us (Alexa and I obviously paired up). About 30 seconds later, our teacher told us to look around the room and see how far away we were standing from each other. About 2-3 feet was the average. He then told us that in a place such as Spain or Mexico, the participants would have been standing about 18 inches apart. Let’s just say you’d be surprised about how close 18″ is. I don’t think I would be able to have a full conversation standing that close to someone without bursting into a fit of awkward giggles.
For all of you who have visited or lived in a different country, this may not come as a surprise and you may have experienced this limited personal space thing yourselves. I was well-aware that people in other cultures stand a lot closer together, but I was never shown the difference so blatantly like that. And for all of you that know me personally, you know I am very conscious of personal space and don’t like standing extremely close to many people. (There’s actually a running joke at work about me hugging people (or not hugging people, rather). I’m just not a big hugger!)
This whole exercise made me think about what I experienced in Argentina. The first example I could think of was how our host mom, Elda, would always come up and put her hands on your cheeks when you went to talk with her. It was usually quite funny to watch people talk to her when she was kinda squeezing your cheeks together! (She would also just throw around words like “bonita” and “hermosa” when you were talking, so you’d constantly be throwing in thank-yous in the middle of trying to form intelligent Spanish sentences!)
This class made me reflect on personal space differences that I saw when we were in Argentina and made me love the US culture of not standing close together even more. As long as none of my future international coworkers don’t caress my face when we’re in a meeting, I think I’ll be fine! Do you (Alexa, Maddy, anyone?!) have any stories about big cultural differences like this?