Remember Star Trek?
Space: The final frontier.
Outer space is vast, limitless, infinite, isn’t it?
In contrast, another type of space, one which is severely limited, is our personal space. It is our circle of comfort. Personal space is a small area around us that is based on all sorts of factors: culture, individual preferences and so on. These are our boundaries. If someone is too close or too far away, we feel uncomfortable. As with Goldilocks, it has to be just right.
I was thinking of this as I read the book, Business English, by Dr Maria Cid. In the book she advises international students who are coming to study in the United States as follows:
“Americans are very particular when it comes to personal space. It is important to maintain a certain distance when speaking to someone, especially in a more formal situation. You should also avoid touching or patting the person to whom you are speaking. Americans feel uncomfortable if the person speaking to them is standing too close to them. The appropriate distance is one meter between the two speakers. Physical contact is only appropriate when the person wants to show affection in a more informal situation with friends and family.”
This made me think. Of course, I have my own personal space and maybe it has been modified after eight years in Peru, but what Dr. Cid describes seems extreme. I usually feel quite natural with my friends and colleagues in this regard. However, I will make one exception.
When I meet a woman for the first time, I feel awkwardness on both sides. Do we shake or hug? I sense a hesitation on both sides. Neither one of us knows really what to do. Sometimes, I offer my hand for a shake and the other person is moving for a hug. We sort of collide in the middle. So, we wind up doing a little of both. Then we back away with both feeling a little strange.
The same problem arises in the classroom at the university where I teach. After our final class, I shake hands with the guys and wish them well. Then, I wait for the women to signal whether they want to shake or hug. I guess I need more advice in this area.
Therefore, let’s look at what Dr. Cid recommends in these situations:
“It is customary to shake hands when meeting someone for the first time. Hugging and patting on the back are not appropriate in this type of situation. When greeting someone, you may want to extend your hand, but normally the greeting is done only in a verbal manner. When saying goodbye in a formal or business situation, you may shake hands but you should avoid hugs, pats on the back or other forms of physical contact.”
OK, Doc, we gringos are cold, but not that cold.
Despite your advice, I am going to go for the hugs.
*Larry is the author of the website “Learn English for Business Success”:http://www.learn-english-for-business-success.com/. You can also find his thoughts on expatriate life at his new website, “My Expatriate Life”:http://www.my-expatriate-life.com/.*
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