Personal Space and American Individualism

The United States has one of the most individualistic cultures in the world. Americans are more likely to prioritize themselves over a group and they value independence and autonomy. This societal ethos can be seen in how Americans relate to each other–Americans do not tend to touch each other during interpersonal interactions. Americans maintain a greater distance of personal space between themselves and others, compared to more touch-oriented, collectivistic cultures like in Latin American or Mediterranean countries. As such, there is less physical contact and touch between friends, family, and strangers. Studies have revealed that touch increases social bonding and feelings of goodwill towards others. Touch, as a social-psychological phenomenon, is fundamentally linked to a culture’s level of individualism. Americans’ individualistic culture makes non-sexual, interpersonal touch less frequent. However, the lack of touch–the distant, American way of interacting–also contributes to its individualistic culture, in a self-reinforcing cycle.

Anthropological definitions, which describe the values of a society, are useful in considering the value of touch currently present in America. In a cultural context, “individualistic” and “collectivist cultures” refer to how individuals define themselves in the context of the groupit does not refer to the political or social systems of a country. Defined by Dr. Hofstede, people from individualistic cultures like the United States and Western Europe, “are highly independent and have strong feelings of autonomy within the group.” In contrast, collectivistic cultures in South America and the Middle East “rely to a considerable degree on close intragroup relationships.” Essentially, people in individualistic cultures view themselves separately from the group, whereas people in collectivist cultures view themselves as part of the group.

People in individualistic cultures, like the United States, tend to maintain greater personal space between themselves and others. Personal space is defined as the invisible bubble that surrounds a person’s body during an interaction. In 2001, researchers analyzed the distance that people of different cultures maintained when talking with someone, and found that people from the US and the UK maintained the largest personal distance (81.43 cm), whereas people from Latin American countries maintained the least distance (an average of 60 cm). Within cultural groups, distance depends on whether the person is a stranger or a friend, as well as the gender and age of the people. The people in women-women pair generally stand closer together than a man-women or a man-man pair. This also depends on age, as younger people are more likely to stand closer together. In addition to culture, other theories to explain differences in personal distances are temperature of the country (people maintain closer distances in warmer climates) and religion (atheists touch more). Nonetheless, it is clear that culture influences how close people stand and how much they touch. Moreover, the amount that people touch in a particular society influences their culture due to its social psychological effects.

"Human touch fundamentally creates social connection–less touch means less connection with others. When people do not touch, they entrench their individualism. "

It is important to note that touch, in this sense, is an acceptable social communicator, like the brushing of a hand–it is not a sexual touch. Examples include greeting people with brief kisses on the cheek in Spain or France. Of course, what touch is acceptable depends on the context and situation. Touch is a powerful and innate tool of communication for humans. Babies understand what certain touch means long before they can understand verbal communication. People maintain an ability to communicate by touch throughout adulthood. Researchers conducted experiments where people wore blindfolds and were asked to transmit certain emotions only utilizing touch. They found that Americans were able to send and receive eight distinct emotions exclusively using touch–anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, sympathy, happiness and sadness–with accuracy rates as high as 78 percent. This experiment was also repeated in Spain, a more collectivist culture, where these rates were even higher.

This corroborates the theory of communication that was laid out by two social psychologists, Yuri Miyamoto and Norbert Schwarz. They define two main functions of communication: informational (to convey information to others) and relational (to build and maintain relationships with others). They found that individualistic cultures place a “greater value on the informational function of communication, whereas collectivistic cultures place a greater emphasis on the relational function.” It makes sense that individualistic cultures rely less on touch, a form of communication that cultivates relationships, simply because they value that less.

Similarly, touch is also a means of forming social bonds. Akin to chimpanzees, who strengthen social bonds by grooming each other, human “touch strengthens relationships and is a marker of closeness,” according to psychologist Michael Kraus. “It increases cooperation but is also an indicator of how strong bonds are between people.” A study by Michael Kraus revealed that NBA teams that touched more in the beginning of the season (ie, chest bumps, high fives and backslaps), improved more drastically over the course of the season, independent of salary or initial skill. This is because those teams that developed a quick method of communicating and connecting were better able to act as a cohesive group. Individualistic cultures that don’t touch as much don’t experience this form of communication and group-bonding as often, reinforcing people’s individualism.

Furthermore, being touched in a non-sexual, acceptable way increases fondness for the person who touched them. For example, even fleeting contact with a stranger has a measurable impact in fostering cooperation. Studies reveal that when people receive an insignificant touch (like the brief hand-contact), they tip higher, rate the store or establishment more highly, and evaluate the other person more favorably, even if they don’t remember being touched. Thus, touch creates social connections, not only for its communicative abilities, but also because it increases closeness.

Therefore, the amount of touch in a society is inextricably linked with a culture’s level of individualism because touch is inherent within people’s social-psychology. How people interact in social settings shapes a culture – when two people stand far apart, this signifies “We are not close. I am an individual.” Demarcating personal space is one of the clearest and easiest ways to demonstrate independence. Human touch fundamentally creates social connection–less touch means less connection with others. When people do not touch, they entrench their individualism. In individualistic cultures, like that of the United States, people are more likely to define themselves as separate from the group and as autonomous. Inherently, there is a certain social disconnect from the group. Lack of touch and human contact reflect and reinforce this social disconnect. Because of ingrained notions of the purpose of communication and the relationship of the individual to the group, people in individualistic cultures touch less. This enforces their individualism–and so the cycle continues.

Photo: Baby-Child-Father

About the Author

Ava Rosenbaum '20 is a Staff Writer for the Culture Section of the Brown Political Review. Ava can be reached at ava_rosenbaum@brown.edu

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