Most social situations North Americans require a comfort zone of six to eight square feet per person, and any violation of that buffer can trigger a reaction (Bowen). “People use avoidance responses,” says Robert Sommer, a psychologist at the University of California-Davis and author of the book Personal Space (qtd. in Bowen). But where does the standard of personal space come from? According to Sommer, “a comfort distance for conversation varies from culture to culture.”
Because Mediterranean and Asian countries are more densely populated, their personal space zones are much closer to the body than those of North Americans and Northern Europeans (qtd. in Bowen). The westerns are certainly planning on keeping this standard in the future. In fact, the world’s population is increasing at an incredible rate. Even the country offers its citizens plenty of spaces everywhere; they have to learn to make compromises on their personal space not only to accept the inevitable reality but also for the benefit of this compromise.
First of all, urban Americans should make compromises on personal space when they are using public transportations. The New York City subway system is a really great representative example of personal space; the total number of urban citizens is more than 18 million, thus making the subway system extremely crowded every day. But even during the rush hours, the passengers are still careful about their distance with the others.
If one person has a minor physical contact with someone and doesn’t express the apology, the other person will raise their voice instantly and say “excuse me” and certainly feels offended. This is totally unnecessary, especially during the rush hours, because some people might be late for work or school already, and someone might be thinking about today’s schedule. The rest of them are doing things that indeed catch their attention. Under such circumstances, it’s highly possible for passengers to have minor physical contact with others out of negligence they don’t notice.
On the other hand, there is Shanghai, the second largest city in China with more than 20 million residents and most of them use the subway for daily transportation. It’s even more crowded compared to the New York City subway. So close to each other with their shoulders and backs passengers may nudge 2 or 3 persons at the same time, and they have been totally adapted to this situation without any discomfort. The Tokyo subway system passengers have even less personal space during the rush hours.
The metro staff will push the passengers back so that more people will have the opportunity to get in the train in the morning. What are the passengers’ reactions? They don’t feel offended at all. They are actually grateful because all of them can get to work on time, and their personal sacrifice is helping many people. Their joint efforts make the subway system much more efficient and indeed prevent lots of unpleasant arguments. “When they’re moving, they tend to keep a distance of three or four steps so as not to violate each other’s personal space.” said Larry Gould, director of operations analysis at New York City Transit (qtd. in Gardy).
But the sheer density of the population is giving the Chinese a very different sense of personal space (Toy, 2). “Personal spaces overlap,” said Stuart Strother, an economist who has lived in China and who wrote a travel guide, “Living Abroad in China”. “It’s not that you don’t have any personal space, but I may have to share your space,” he said. Perhaps as a consequence, Strother said, pointing at and touching people, even total strangers, is not considered rude (Toy).
There’s also another interesting phenomenon. You will never see two strangers sitting together in the New York City subway if there’s empty space somewhere else. The definition for “empty” means nobody is sitting next to you, and there’s at least one seat separating you from your surroundings. Most of the time, even during the rush hours, passengers prefer to stand rather than take the single seat between two passengers. Based on Robert Sommer’s theory, “The violation of personal space increases tension levels enormously (qtd. in Bowen)”.
In other words, urban Americans prefer to sacrifice many things in order to sustain their high standard of personal space. But with the expansion of population, Americans eventually have to make compromises on personal space. So why not prepare to adjust the situation ahead of time? There’re also many benefits if they’re willing to do so. The most direct benefit is to increase the capacity of the train; more passengers can get in the train if most of them are willing to have less personal space. On top of that, more empty seats will be occupied if they sit close to each other.
The amounts of seats are designed for a reason; it’s common to see 3 people occupy 4 or more seats. They sit apart simply because they want to have more personal space. Nothing bad will happen if Americans make compromises on personal space. Urban Americans don’t need to create those invisible walls to protect themselves. They probably waste a great opportunity to make new friends sitting away from each other in the subway. Society will be filled with harmony and peace if people are not so suspicious and stop creating those invisible walls subconsciously.
Lots of Americans are having a hard time adjusting to Chinese culture during their visit in Chinese cities. Some locals may come to them in order to take photos with the foreigners. Other locals are probably looking at the foreigners out of curiosity. Those actions are really common in China but the Americans are quite sensitive to those actions and sometimes feel offended. Their invisible walls are necessary to isolate them but indeed increase the tension levels. Americans’ perceptions and standards of personal space are definitely hard to change, but if they do, it always comes with a greater good.
The United States is currently the No.1 country in the world, which receives millions of immigrants every year. By receiving those immigrants, United States not only receives the knowledge but also accepts their different cultural standards. Urban Americans can neither apply all the American standards to new immigrants nor expect them to adopt the entire standards by themselves. Personal space is only the tip of the iceberg, but it’s fairly important to live in the big cultural melting pot of New York. Subway passengers are highly diversified, and there’re probably people from 50 different countries taking the same train at the same time.
According to Shuhan Wang, the executive director for Chinese language initiatives at the Asia Society, there’s an old Chinese saying “you treat other people’s elderly as if they’re your own, and you treat other people’s children as if they’re your own∙∙∙ So in a way, everybody in society is extended family” (qtd. in Toy). This is a good concept that urban Americans should take a look at to make compromises. By lowering the standard of personal space, it will be easier for foreign immigrants to be part of the society, and lower standards are always easier to be adopted gradually.
The standards of personal space can also be interpreted through sociological perspective. According to Robert Pepper, a sociology professor at New York Institute of Technology, conflict theory can be used to explain the standards of personal space because people are competing for scarce resources; every single passenger would like to have some extra space in the subway especially during the rush hour. He used the term “ethnocentrism” to suggest that Americans to make compromises on personal space. He believes Americans should not place their own cultural group above the rest.
The standards of personal space are definitely different based on the culture, and the Americans should respect all customs and religions. “Chinese society emphasizes a collective mentality over an individualistic one.” said Stuart Strother (qtd. in Toy). But the American culture is exactly the opposite, thus making it even harder for urban Americans to accept. Having the idea of individualism, Americans are rewarded for behaving independently, making their own plans, and working toward achieving their personal goals. Under such circumstance, individuals are hired and promoted largely based on individual achievement and qualifications (“Culture”).
And the Americans expand this idea of individualism into all areas; they want to be unique, to be easily distinguished from the crowd, and a high standard of personal space is definitely necessary. Chinese people are different, they emphasize the idea of the group, and everyone in the group shares things equally, so no one is necessarily better than the rest. People will stay together to achieve the group goal. No one wants to be unique because if you are unique that means you are isolated.
The overall impact from high population density and idea of big groups are helping the Chinese adjust the lower standard of personal space in the long run. If Americans could learn some of the concepts, it will be much easier for them to make personal sacrifices in exchange for the greater good of the society. But some people may argue that lack of personal space can indicate people’s lack of manners and this is not right. In Lee, Patrick P’s article “Rush Hour,” he introduced his own life experience in Hong Kong which at the time was still a British colony.
Hong Kong adopted the language, social order, peoples’ perceptions of things and especially manners. They are taught with the British gentlemen’s style, but on the other hand, there’s no need to say “excuse me” in the subway, or any doorway. The locals aren’t being rude when they invade your personal space. They simply need to go everywhere, nowhere, fast. In tiny and overcrowded Hong Kong, the concept of “personal space” is a luxury which one can’t afford and probably doesn’t exist (Lee, 2).
This kind of situation will eventually happen in big US cities. If they’re making the compromise now, it can be beneficial in the long run. The United States doesn’t have mandatory birth control which will inevitably make the population expansion even faster, and as a result the personal space will shrink. So to be prepared ahead of time is always a good thing. The younger generation will have different mind sets in the future in order to adjust the situation. Driven by individualism, urban Americans are treating their personal space as one of their birth rights.
It’s complicated even verbally to ask them to make compromises on their personal space. But the whole world population just passed 7 billion 1 month ago; this inevitable reality should give urban Americans a wakeup call. If they choose to live in the big cities, they’re going to have to face the overcrowded society. They’re going to feel disappointed because their old standards cannot apply anymore. So, make the changes of mind from now and it will eventually give them greater benefits.
They can have a good mood to start the new day with the crowded subway, if they’re willing to make minor sacrifice on personal space. They’re still very gentle persons even they sit next to someone because the society accept the different mind and adapt to the situation of fast expanded population and less personal space. Foreigners won’t feel the indivisible walls anymore because urban Americans don’t need them anymore. The whole society could be filled with harmony and urban Americans could be living more like a big family.