Elements of Culture: Treatment of Space and Proximity

In case you’re jumping in now, just a reminder. I’m back where I love to be, starting a new book and building the world where the story will grow. Background work for this new project has me digging into the history of conquest and nation building, and my research is intersecting directly with the rest of my life, where I’m an active member of a community focused on valuing diversity. Culture and identity are on my mind, and I find that I live in a place where both things are misunderstood or more often, never considered. That’s why for the next couple of months, I’m using this space to open a discussion of culture: what it is, why it matters, and how we bridge cultural gaps. This whole conversation a bit like trying to move an ocean with a child’s bucket, but being destined to fall short is no reason not to begin. And so we dip our bucket in.

If you want to start back at the beginning of this series, you can find it here. If you want to look at the first two elements of culture, you can read about language here and time here.

If our goal is to understand each other, we’re just going to keep asking questions and answering as honestly as we can. Ready for another round?

Treatment of Space/Proximity

When you talk to someone, how close do you stand? How do you feel if they stand closer than normal? How do you feel if they stand further away than normal? Do you even notice?

How do you prefer to greet someone you’ve just met? With a hug, a kiss, a handshake, a bow, or no contact at all? How do you greet someone you’ve known a long time? How do you say good-bye?

What difference does it make to the above things if you are at work? What difference does it make if the person is of the opposite gender? What difference does it make if they are of a different social class than you? What difference does their age make?

As with our questions about time, the answers to all the above are largely determined by your culture. Of course, your personality plays a part, as do your past experiences, but the bounds of what feels acceptable to you are determined by the culture that shaped you.

The acceptable distance between people, and what it means when it’s violated, varies widely between cultures, as does the appropriateness of physical contact and the ways those things are influenced by gender, social standing, setting, etc. You seldom think consciously about those kinds of expectations (unless they’re violated), but they are hard-wired into your day-to-day behavior.

As we did with time, let’s do a quick dive into one behavior. I’ve picked one from my adopted culture this time: the Argentine custom of greeting everyone with a kiss on the cheek.

Any new resident of Argentina (and most visitors, too) discovers this behavior immediately. From the first time you are introduced to someone right through every other time you see them, you greet acquaintances and friends by leaning in close, touching their cheek with yours and making a kissing noise. (Believe me, when you are from a more distant culture, it helps to know this in advance. Otherwise, your natural reaction to a near-stranger leaning in for a kiss is to back away. I’m not aware of any culture in which backing away from someone projects friendliness.) When you leave, you repeat the kiss, and you do it with everyone there, individually. It can take some time to get out of a party.

Regardless of the history of this Argentine custom (which is shared by many other cultures around the world), let’s look at some of the values and beliefs that underly it.

What are some assumptions a greeting kiss relies on?

1. Physical contact is a sign of warmth.

2. Showing outward warmth means I place value on this relationship.

What are some values it reveals?

1. Relationship (over individuality) It’s important to take the time to greet you, let you into my personal space, and risk any vulnerability that comes with that because this relationship is my priority in this moment.

2. Personal importance (a kiss is given to each person both upon entering and leaving, acknowledging the importance of each individual in a group)

3. Equality. A kiss on the cheek is an equalizing action. We’re all brothers here.

4. Warmth. The external display of positive emotion is a good thing for everyone.

What are some beliefs that fuel those values?

1. Everyone deserves to be acknowledged and accepted into relationship. (Unless, of course, they’ve specifically done something to become unworthy. You can intentionally slight someone by refusing to greet them with a kiss. But the baseline is acceptance.)

2. A good person shows warmth to the people around him and is rewarded with the happiness that comes from strong relationships.

3. Holding myself apart from others won’t keep me safer (physically or emotionally), but will actually be worse for me.

If you’re originally from a more physically distant culture like I am, think about how your values and beliefs are different from this. Perhaps I believe that everyone deserves basic respect, but I don’t believe everyone deserves access to relationship, so I naturally keep a more wary distance until people have earned my trust. I’ll hug a dear friend, but I wouldn’t hug a stranger. Perhaps I believe that showing warmth is easily faked and has nothing to do with being a good person, but rather, a good person works hard and accomplishes things. Then I don’t care if you just give me a wave and a nod and are on your way. Likely you just have a lot to do, and good for you. Perhaps I believe that a more guarded manner is wiser, that it spreads less germs and leaves me less open to creeps. This would stem from a basic belief in my ability to control my own health and safety.

I know it’s just a small thing. A hug, a handshake, or a nod. But our lives are made up of small things, and while they may be automatic, they aren’t random. Those small things mean something to us, even if we don’t understand what.

Don’t believe me? Try kissing the next person you meet.

Just for fun: the next time you are talking to a friend you feel comfortable with, take a tiny step closer every few minutes. Don’t warn them. See how close you become before you feel uncomfortable or before they step back or call you out. Try it with someone else but step further away. How much distance is between you before the conversation gets awkward or ends?

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