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Many years ago, I learnt of the concept of "personal space" - the idea that people carry a small territory around them that they do not like strangers to invade.

In particular, the size of one's personal space is claimed to be inversely related to the population density of one's culture.

I probably read about it in some variant of the Pease's Body Language franchise.

Here's one (plagiarised?) source:

Like most animals, each human has his own personal Portable 'air bubble', which he carries around with him; its size is dependent on the density of the population in the place where he grew up. Personal Space is therefore culturally determined. Where some cultures, such as the Japanese, are accustomed to crowding, others prefer the 'wide open spaces' and like you to keep your distance.

[...]

As mentioned, the amount of Personal Space someone needs is relative to the population density where they live. People raised in sparsely populated rural areas for example, need more Personal Space than those raised in densely populated cities. Watching how far a person extends his arm to shake hands gives a clue to whether he is from a large city or a country area. City dwellers typically have their private 18-inch (46cm) 'bubble'; this is also the measured distance between wrist and torso when they reach to shake hands.

Here is another (copyright infringing?) source (from slide 19) attributing similar words to Allan Pease.

Note: An anecdote about different cultural expectations has quietly changed from Danish to Italians between the two stories, which should ring alarm bells about its veracity.

In my experience, on the rare occasions I have found people who don't respect the social norms of my personal space, they have turned out to be from similar - or even slightly more rural - cultures to me. [Sampling bias alert - that probably accounts for most of the people I meet in person.]

So, to my question:

Is there a relationship between the population density in the area a person grew up, and their preferred distance apart when standing with others?

  • My personal experience is similar to yours. As cross-country comparison, typical distance at which Spaniards would be standing when talking would be much closer than for example Dutch. Spain has population density of 93/km², while the Netherlands 404/km² – vartec May 11 '12 at 8:48
  • I noticed that Saudis have a much closer space than many other people I have interracted with, but I don't think they have that great a population density (even accounting for the clustered population areas). Great question. – JasonR May 11 '12 at 11:26
  • I've noticed that this 'personal bubble' changes also with respect to how much interactive sports training/dancing someone has. Martial arts training taught me exactly what arms length is (ie, how far away I can hit someone, or they can hit me), as well as whether or not I want to let them within a certain range. Dancers I know seem to have a similar sense of physical range or presence. – mmr May 11 '12 at 17:42
  • How does one measure a person's "personal space" empirically? – Joel Cornett Jun 11 '12 at 1:48
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I can think of a couple of counterexamples.

Index Mundi has population density for North America and for the Middle East.

One would observe that North America has these population densities (people per square KM):

  • Mexico: 58
  • US: 32
  • Canada: 3

Counterexample one: Although there is a ten-fold difference in density between Canada and the US, there is not an appreciable difference in personal space, to my knowledge.

In the Middle East, here are some selected population densities:

  • Lebanon: 398
  • UAE: 62
  • Saudi: 12

Many sites have noted that the concept of personal space is quite different for Arabs. For example, this Arab Cultural Awareness PDF says

The conventions in the Middle East are that social interaction and conversation among Arabs occurs at a much closer distance than normal in the Western World and well within the “personal space” defined by the West.

Counterexample two: The population densities bracket the North American population densities, but in general, personal space is more similar in the Middle East than between Middle Eastern countries and North American countries of similar population density. Specifically, one would expect Saudis to stand farther apart from each other than those in the US; however, the opposite is true.

I think that a different question about population density among similar cultures might yield a different answer.

  • 4
    Country comparisons are nowhere near granular enough to answer this; consider also that you've given people÷area, but that's different than the density around the average person. E.g., no one lives in Canada's northern regions, so the overall density is low, but also no one grew up with that density (because, no one lives there). – derobert May 11 '12 at 16:57
  • OK, then consider the cities with the highest population density at citymayors.com/statistics/largest-cities-density-125.html. Dubai is the only city in the top 125 (#95), yet many Londoners (#43) think they stand too close for comfort. The latter had about twice the population density. – rajah9 May 11 '12 at 17:15
  • Consider the vast majority of Canadians live close to the US border, that measurement of population density is meaningless. – Sam I Am May 11 '12 at 17:35

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