Egyptians wander through a popular market in Cairo.
Our perspectives on personal space — the distance we keep between
the person in front of us at an ATM, the way we subdivide the area of an
elevator — are often heavily influenced by the norms of the places we
Jerry Seinfeld once focused an episode of his sitcom on the concept of personal space, giving us a new term:
course, invasions of personal space aren't always merely awkward. If
you need a primer on the cultural sensitivities the topic can provoke,
take a journey through the results of
"Cultural space tells us
a lot," says Kathryn Sorrells, a professor at California State
University-Northridge, whose scholarly interests include perceptions of
personal space across cultures. "It tells us a lot about the nature of a
relationship, and people are constantly reading those things even if
they are not aware of it. ... So if someone comes more into your
personal space than you are used to, you can often feel like, 'What's
happening here?' And it's easy to misread what someone is actually
communicating if you only come from your cultural perspective."
give you a picture of how these norms play out differently in different
corners of the world, here are accounts from two of our international
correspondents of what they've observed in two different cities (note
that these were written as audio essays, so for the full experience,
listen to the segment above):
— This is a noisy city, a crowded city of some 16 million people. In
the summer it feels like everyone is sitting on top of you in the smog
and heat. On my balcony I can see the lady across the alley ironing her
clothes. Last week I was watching television and someone yelled from the
building next door to turn it down.
My producer Dina Saleh and
I spent one day on a microbus, a type of minivan Egyptians use to get
around the city for the equivalent of about 25 cents. We're squished in
the back next to two other women, and 12 more people are piled in. But
it's a national holiday, and Dina says this is nothing compared to a
workday. Young boys with no cash jump on the back for a free ride.
around the city is like dealing with an obstacle course. The narrow
streets are made more narrow by cars haphazardly parked on the
sidewalks, sometimes even in the middle of the street.
in one of the most crowded parts of Cairo, Giza Square, there's really
no sense of personal space. There's just too many people to have that.
There's no legal time to cross the street, you just cross when you can.
Just now as I was talking a man brushed up right against me, didn't even
notice, didn't even apologize because that's normal here.
the morning Egyptians crowd around breakfast stands throughout the
capital. Men serve up hot fava bean mash, with veggies and bread. People
eat at the stand as others flash money above their heads to get
service, bodies pressed up against each other. A friend jokes that by
the time you get your food you need to shake the other patrons out of
Without space there is no privacy. In every Cairo
apartment building is the bawab, the building guard. He knows the
comings and goings of every resident on the street. And to this day when
a young woman is getting married, families of the groom will
interrogate the bawab about the potential bride. Do men come and go from the apartment? Does she come home late at night?
the closeness is also comforting. It is a fundamentally kind city. If
you fall, a slew of people will rush to your aid. No one will walk by
thinking, Not my problem. It is loud, crowded and claustrophobic, and it is maddening and wonderful at the same time.
— I'm in Sao Paulo's metro system. This is a city of 20 million people —
one of the largest cities in the world. Some people take three hours
everyday just to get to work, going from one side of the city to
One thing you will notice when you ride the public
transport system here is that it does feel very, very different than it
does in the United States. Very Brazilian.
Paula Moura works
with NPR in Brazil. The country is just a lot more touchy-feely, she
says. "I've been to other countries and nobody touches each other. It
seems there is space for everybody. Personal space is bigger in other
countries. Here it's not."
PDAs aren't a problem either. "I can
see people are kissing each other and they don't worry about other
people seeing them," Moura says.
In most countries in the world
people are on the metro staring at their feet, or they've got their
headphones on and they're in their own little world. But here people are
very engaged, talking to one another, interacting. It's a much livelier
scene than in many other cities.
Another surprising aspect to
life here: There is a lot of respect for the elderly and mothers with
children. At the supermarket, at the cinema, at government offices, they
have special lines that give these individuals priority.
is important here. Because of the high cost of living they tend to be
small, but families here are close-knit. Everyone gathers on a Sunday
for lunch but they often visit during the week as well. And that sense
of caring translates into how people treat others in public spaces.
As I'm standing on the metro I see a young woman offer her seat to an older one with a smile.
is a retiree and is now comfortably sitting down. She says she often
gets offered a seat. Still, she tells me, Brazil is an incredibly
violent country and she's often nervous when out in the city.
that's what makes all this all the more surprising. People say that
crime is one of their main concerns when they go on public transport,
but that doesn't stop them from this important human-to-human contact.
are your stories about the different ways personal space can play out
across cultures? If you've spent time in many places, what have you