Personal Space in China

Posted by Jason Sharp on Nov 22, 2010 in China | 1 Comment
Personal Space in China

The first thing that most people notice when they come to China is that there are a LOT of people. ?The population density in China has a great affect on what personal space means to people here. ?Chinese people grow up in small houses, and study in crowded rooms. ?They shower together in big bathhouses (*Not everyone, and maybe mainly in schools/universities), and the older-style bathrooms don t have dividers between toilets. ?Their dorm rooms have 6-8 people in a space that usually fits 1-2 Americans; they are piled on top of each other like sardines. ? To an American, this is a completely different world.

Personal Space, quoting Michael Ellsberg from the four hour work week blog, includes the following:

- (Being in close proximity to you)
- Making direct eye contact with you
- Facing you directly (as opposed to standing side-by-side looking into the crowd)
- Touching you (i.e., rubbing elbows in a crowd, patting your back, touching your arm or shoulder)
- Raising their voice
- Talking about you (as opposed to a neutral subject)

In America, our personal boundaries are large. ?In terms of distance, our idea of personal space ?encompasses?a radius of probably a meter, give or take. ?Much of the things above give us the jitters. ??When people step our space (as described above) we notice and start to feel uncomfortable, unless it s someone that we ve invited into our space (lover etc), or someone that knows how to make us feel comfortable (Bill Clinton  check out the link above). ?We are very aware of things that go on near by us, and are careful about it.

Personal space in China is different. They grew up with much less space, so what is required to make them feel uncomfortable also changes. ?I would guess that people from large cities in the US also have different personal space comfort levels than people from rural areas. ?If a 200 kilo guerilla were standing nose to nose with a Chinese person, he might not even notice; but take that?guerrilla?and put him 1 meter from an American, and the American will start to sweat.

Even when there is plenty of space, people will choose to stand close to each other. ?In the bathroom, Chinese people almost always choose the stall closest to whoever is already there  I ve been alone in a bathroom large enough for a football team and had the next Chinese person walk over and take the stall next to me.

Some examples of common personal space differences in China:

- Pushing in line
- Looking over your shoulder and touching you
- Standing very close to you while talking
- Talking about you with someone else while your standing nearby
- Touching: ?arm, shoulder, head
- Strangers looking at what your doing, getting very close, and not caring (watch a movie on the subway and see how many people come over to watch)
- Blowing smoke in/around your face
- GF/BF/lover going to the bathroom while you re in the room
- Staring for long periods of time, often accompanied by pointing
- Cell phones ringing with really loud ringtones (noise space)
- Talking really loud on the phone, even at work.
- Answering ?phones/ Talking?in movie theaters
- Direct and blunt comments about certain things (weight, skin color)
- Asking you how much money you make
- Asking you how old you are (women)

Some awkward scenarios I ve been in:

- Getting naked with my co-workers at a spa (common)
- Squatting at a no-divider bathroom with my soccer team : just 10 holes in the ground in a circle. ?They had a smoke and a laugh, while I said to myself   TIC (not so common)
- Getting scrubbed down in private places before entering a spa (common theme here)
- Sitting on a train full of sweaty, shirtless men
- Baby pissing on the subway (under mother s direction), with me not noticing until the piss stream hits my shoe (semi-common)
- Taxi driver said must be easy to sleep with Chinese women, asked how many I ve slept with, and began talking about sex (not common, except guy to guy; very rare type of guy)

I can t think of anymore right now. ?Maybe I m just too comfortable already? ?I already almost don t notice any of the above things anymore.

 Talking about you is actually one of the most uncomfortable things here. ?People in China love to compare. ?They compare salary, looks, height, grades, background& everything, and they aren t?subtle?about it. ?Recently I met my girlfriend s parents, and the first thing that they did was compare me to her sister s boyfriend. ?I ll probably talk about this in another post.

In summary, Chinese people are more comfortable with up-close and personal interaction. ?As an American in China, this takes a long time to get used to. ?This is the feeling of uneasiness that people from the suburbs feel when they walk into the crowded streets of the city, and coming to China multiplies this feeling tenfold. ?A lot of people here try to avoid this feeling at all costs and the result is less interaction with locals. ?In order to get used to interacting with locals, you have to get used to a different realm of personal space, and start letting people get closer to you.

I ve seen many people not able to adapt to these things, and immediately want to leave the country. ?When our personal space is violated, we get uncomfortable, thus it s very important to understand how it works and actively try to adjust, especially for women I think, who may feel extra uncomfortable when men crowd them. ?Men aren t going to notice this as much.

Chinese people do have their limits. They aren t comfortable with everything! They aren t comfortable dancing outside of group dances (*changing). ?They aren t comfortable being picked out of a crowd, such as at work or at a party. ?They aren t comfortable talking about many topics when you first meet them, especially anything personal (relationships, family, etc). ?They aren t comfortable talking about their emotions with strangers either.

Some of these things may change over time, while some of them probably won t. ?The things that are associated with wealth and social organization will probably change, while other things may or may not  like being comfortable with being naked around strangers, and being comfortable with being very close to each other. ?Most likely Americans will change first, as the world s populations migrate more to the cities, and populations continue to increase.

This is actually very interesting, considering that Chinese society seemingly has more restrictions than American society does; yet Americans have more personal restrictions on interactions with others. ?We feel violated and uneasy around others more often than Chinese people do, yet in non-stress environments. ?A lot of this has to do with population density. It s incredibly interesting to see the differences in behavior that stems from simple proximity and wealth. ?What is good or bad though, is up to you. ? Overall, learning to live in China has been a huge growth experience on stepping outside of my comfort zones.