The Elevator Experiment: The Cultural Implications of Personal Space

The basis for the Elevator Experiment (and this blog)

This morning, as I took the elevator to the fifth floor of my office building, I was reminded of a course I took during my final year of studies at Ottawa University, called Mondialisation : aspects sociologiques et anthropologiques or, The Sociological and Anthropological Aspects of Globalization. Since Ottawa offers students the chance to take both French and English courses, I took the opportunity to fulfill a course requirement while brushing up on my “français” and preparing for an up and coming semester abroad. Thankfully students can take courses in either language while taking exams and submit papers in their mother tongue. This greatly facilitated my taking the class seeing as though my french grammar was atrocious, but I digress. Let’s back it up shall we?

The Sociological and Anthropological Aspects of Globalization: While I remember little about the course itself, I will always remember one lesson on cultural differences and what my teacher referred to as “The Elevator Experiment”. The experiment itself is simple. Walk into an elevator and stand directly next to the person inside; now watch them squirm. The point of the exercise was to illustrate the differences between cultures when it comes to the concept of personal space. For example, elevator riders in Canada are (more often than not) uncomfortable when others come too close to popping their personal bubble. Have you ever watched the elevator dance? One person enters and chooses a corner in the rear. The next passenger then filters directly to the corner opposed them, and so on. If, heaven forbid, there are too many people in the elevator and the centre fills up, the dance works in reverse. As people leave the elevator, others shift in order to create the appropriate distance between bodies. But why? 

Personal Space: Understanding the Cultural Divide

In their book, “Understanding Cultural Differences”, Edward T. Hall and Mildred Reed Hall refer to the “invisible bubble of space” that hovers around each person and expands, or contracts, based on a number of things including the relationship to the people around them; their emotional state; cultural background and activity being performed. The Halls point out that while in northern Europe,the bubbles are quite large, meaning that people need their space, the bubble lessens significantly the more you move South. In southern France, Italy, Spain and Greece for example, the bubble is very  small – to the chagrin of visiting Germans or Scandinavians who prefer to keep their distance.

Unfortunately, the same holds true for many North Americans who find it difficult to understand that “personal space” isn’t a right, but a cultural norm or preference. Here’s a great short video produced by HSBC illustrating the awkward experience of a European traveler on business (whose tendencies in this case parallel those of a North American) who ends his trip in Mexico:

I  find it fascinating that neighbouring countries like Mexico and the United States can be so different in defining the bubble! But the truth of the matter is that North Americans are indeed much more hesitant to invade personal space, and have someone burst their bubble.

Don’t let your fear of intimacy get in the way of travel

What does this mean for the North American traveler? Unfortunately, this means that North Americans are easily put-off or dissuaded from visiting countries whose citizens like to touch, or have simply too many people for it to be successfully avoided. In countries like India for example, with over 1.2 billion people, it is impossible to claim your own bubble; it’s just not going to happen. As a result, many North Americans and northern or western Europeans are put-off when traveling to densely populated countries. Being swarmed, followed  by hoards of children or beggars who are “in your space”, so to speak, can be a deciding factor when choosing the next port of call.

But let’s flip the coin for a second. As hard as it is for outbound travelers who have to deal with bodily odors they’d rather avoid and a lot of hand to hand contact, which for a germ-aware gent like my husband, would send him running for the hills – what about those who make the reverse journey? Imagine how cold (without taking the actual temperature into consideration) a North American or northern/western European country might seem to someone from India, or China, or Brazil!? The impression would be that North Americans are rude, unfriendly and very closed minded.

This being said, it is impossible to generalize among countries, even ones that seem to share tendencies. Germans for example, prefer to shake hands, while Canadians love to hug (like really, really, really love to hug). Canadians love to hug so much in fact, that we’ll often hug someone goodbye after meeting them for the first time. We, of course, shake hands hello for an initial introduction, but then we dive right in. This invasion of personal space became very clear during my time living in Germany, and still today when we visit family or friends abroad. To this day, every time I say goodbye to an acquaintance and even certain family members in Germany, I have to bite back my instinct to offer up a great big Canadian bear hug and settle instead for kisses on the cheeks from the women and a handshake from the men (unless we’re really tight, then I kiss them too). And it all comes down to personal space. For me, kissing is much more intimate than hugging; for Germans, it’s simply the reverse. Bodily contact is a big part of personal space. Most North Americans do not want to be touched by a complete stranger (even shaking hands with random people on the street can be a tad off-putting) and I’m willing to bet that most guys would feel a bit weird about kissing their male relatives in public (or private for that matter). That being said, men in certain Arab countries kiss multiple times on the cheek while men in many African countries walk down the street hand in hand.

All this to say that, there is no normal. Realizing the absence of normal makes it a whole lot easier to be open-minded and tolerant when traveling internationally or within the borders of your own country. Be open to the possibility that other people’s normal may be drastically different than what you’re used to, start slow – start with an elevator perhaps – and work your way up to visiting a country where you’ll be crowded, bombarded and crushed between bodies. The worst that can happen is you’ll have a great story to tell upon your return (see Giraffe in the Homeland for a fun anecdote from my travels to Tanzania) and some solid material to start a blog of your very own.

One thought on “The Elevator Experiment: The Cultural Implications of Personal Space

  1. This was an interesting article for its time (ie: the world pre covid). However, since the plague in 2020 changed everything, it seems almost alien to think of a world where people would pack into elevators in large numbers, etc… With more than 4.5 million people dying from this new virus and no end in sight for this plague, it seems likely that the recent changes are going to become the new ‘normal’ rather than just being a temporary measure. Finally, now that people who have died from the covid virus have started rising from the grave, it seems that the final chapter of humanity has been written in blood and entrails…

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