Cultural Factors Affecting Zone Distances

A young couple who recently migrated from Denmark to live in Sydney were invited to join the local branch of the Jaycees. Some weeks after their admission to the club, several female members complained that the Danish man was making advances towards them, so that they felt uncomfortable in his presence and the male members of the club felt that the Danish woman had been indicating non-verbally that she would be sexually available to them.

This situation illustrates the fact that many Europeans have an intimate distance of only 20 to 30 centimetres (9 or 10 inches) and in some cultures it is even less. The Danish couple felt quite at ease and relaxed when standing at a distance of 25 centimetres from the Australians, being totally unaware of their intrusion into the 46-centimetre intimate zone. The Danes also used eye gaze more frequently than the Australians, which gave rise to further misjudgments against them.

Kitiunp 10 1%e acceptable totuttvattonai dutanct for most mty dimlieft

Figure 11 rt^uhif reatiiioii a woman tin jyiiafj1 territory u man r£ encrOiLiihtng She it Icanmg backwards, attempting to maintain a cam fori able distance The pmblrm h. however, that the man may be from a country with a smaller personal tone and t« moving forward to ft and at a distance that a comfortabtc for him The woman may in terprel this as a HtirnJ ttiove

Figure 11 rt^uhif reatiiioii a woman tin jyiiafj1 territory u man r£ encrOiLiihtng She it Icanmg backwards, attempting to maintain a cam fori able distance The pmblrm h. however, that the man may be from a country with a smaller personal tone and t« moving forward to ft and at a distance that a comfortabtc for him The woman may in terprel this as a HtirnJ ttiove

Moving into the intimate territory of someone of the opposite sex is a method that people use to show interest in that person and is commonly called an 'advance'. If the advance into the intimate zone is rejected, the other person will step backwards to maintain the zone distance. If the advance is accepted, the other person holds his or her ground and allows the intruder to remain within the intimate zone. What seemed to the Danish couple to be a normal social encounter was being interpreted by the Australians as a sexual advance. The Danes thought the Australians were cold and unfriendly because they kept moving away to maintain the distance at which they felt comfortable.

At a recent conference in the USA, I noticed that when the American attendees met and conversed, they stood at an acceptable 46 to 122 centimetres from each other and remained standing in the same place while talking. However, when a Japanese attendee spoke with an American, the two slowly began to move around the room, the American moving backwards away from the Japanese and the Japanese gradually moving towards the American. This was an attempt by both the American and Japanese to adjust to a culturally comfortable distance from each other. The Japanese, with his smaller 25-centimetre intimate zone, continually stepped forward to adjust to his spatial need, but by doing so he invaded the American's intimate space; causing him to step backwards to make his own spatial adjustment. Video recordings of this phenomenon replayed at high speed give the impression that both men are dancing around the conference room with the Japanese leading. It is therefore obvious why, when negotiating business, Asians and Europeans or Americans look upon each other with some suspicion, the Europeans or Americans referring to the Asians as 'pushy' and 'familiar' and Asians referring to the Europeans or Americans as 'cold', 'stand-offish' and 'cool'. The lack of awareness of the distance variation of the intimate zones in different cultures can easily lead to misconceptions and inaccurate assumptions about one culture by another.

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