Psychologists, especially those taking a sociocultural approach, have investigated social and cultural differences in interpersonal space.
Four categories of personal space have been identified: public, social, personal, and intimate. Hall (1966) argues that cultural norms are the most important factor influencing a person’s preferred social distance in each of these social situations.
He divided cultures into “contact cultures”, which use closer interpersonal distances and more touching, and “non-contact cultures”, which use greater distances and less contact. Mediterranean, Latin American, and Middle Eastern societies are often cited as contact cultures, while American and Northern European societies are often classified as non-contact cultures.
Sorokowska et al. (2017) conducted a study to compare preferred interpersonal distances from a wide range of countries. The team of researchers also aimed to determine if factors other than cultural norms influenced this behaviour.
Type of study: Survey of 8,943 participants from 42 countries. Participants were volunteers. Ages ranged from 17-88, with a mean age of 39. There were 4,013 men and 4,887 women in the sample.
Hypotheses: This study had three hypotheses.
Hypothesis 1: That there would be significant variability in preferred interpersonal distances across countries when approaching a stranger (social distance), an acquaintance (personal distance), or a close person (intimate distance).
Hypothesis 2: That gender and age would influence the preferences participants would have for interpersonal distance, with women and younger people maintaining closer interpersonal distances.
Hypothesis 3: That some environmental and psychological factors could predict variability of interpersonal distance across countries. Lower population growth rate and higher in-group favouritism would be associated with closer interpersonal distance preferences and closer interpersonal distances would be seen in areas of higher temperature.
Procedures: Participants completed a questionnaire consisting of demographic questions (age, sex) and three questions using graphics to depict their preferred interpersonal distance. Three separate categories of preferred interpersonal distances were measured: distance to a) a stranger, b) an acquaintance, and c) a close person.
Main results: Mean comparisons showed significant variability in interpersonal distance across countries for different social interactions. The higher the annual temperature of a country, the closer the preferred distance from strangers.
Woman on average preferred to maintain greater distance with acquaintances and strangers, and older participants also preferred greater distance.
Conclusion: Individual characteristics (age and gender), as well as cultural norms associated with various regions influence interpersonal space preferences. Some variation in results can be explained by the climatic temperature of a given region.
Hall, E. T. (1966). The Hidden dimension. New York, NY: Doubleday.