Sunday, August 5, 2007

The Personal Space Issue

Recently I had a conversation with a friend of mine who was complaining about a mutual acquaintance of ours who is Japanese. My friend thought it was extremely rude that our new Japanese friend, I'll call her "Michiko," had no concept of personal space, would stand very close to her during a conversation and was very touchy feely - for example, she likes to grab your hand or hug you when she is happy or excited. Now, I myself do not like to be touched and am very American in my need for keeping a distance between me and another person, but I did not take Michiko's behavior as rude because I know it was a case of so called "American manners" versus "Japanese manners." In many Asian countries, it is very commonplace for female friends to hold hands while walking or talking. It is a sign of affection. And there is no real concept of what we consider our "personal space."

So I was surprised to hear that my friend had sharply taken our Japanese friend to task and in the process had hurt her feelings deeply. Now there is a reserve to Michiko's manner that was not there before and I fear our relationship is damaged. When I told my friend I thought she had been rude and unkind in how she approached the matter, she disagreed. She thought it was important for someone to explain to her what was proper manners in the country she now lived in. So maybe she was right and she wasn't being unkind. But when manners clash due to culture, some amount of respect needs to be considered on both parts. And perhaps a little tolerance is wise.


Anonymous said...

living in new york city you are cramped for space. so, you always want to make sure that you are not in anyone's personal space. you want to make sure that there is enough elbow room, so to speak. most new yorkers are aware of this space issue but there are some out there that need to realize this. there have been a number of times when i am on the bus or subway and someone has a backpack on. that's fine and dandy to carry one but once you step on the bus or subway, the proper thing to do is to take it off your back and hold it in your hands. this way you are not bumping that bag into everybody as you make your way through. and you know when you bump someone with your bag. you totally do especiallly if it's a big, oversized backpack! let's try to be mindful of others when carrying a big bag.

Anonymous said...

Hiya, ello, I read this entry a day or two ago, but never got around to commenting or saying "ello". Now that you have done so on my blog, I decided to return the compliment. (Incidentally, I just put up a big ill-informed post, largely in response to your comment on my blog.)

My take here is that if your friend really sat down and explained as a friend that people expect more space in the U.S., then it could be alright. But if she told her that she was being rude and people didn't like it.... Well, that's not handling it that well. She should imagine going to live in Japan and then one day a friend of hers tells her she is cold and removed and no one likes it. Moreover (in this counter scenario), since she is in Japan now, she should stop acting this way.

I doubt she'd take it well. It would also be really hard for her to change and start holding someone's hand when you have learned since childhood not to. Every time she did it, she'd probably feel self-conscious and false.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with you, which is why I'm not too happy about how my friend handled the situation. But she is abrupt and bossy by nature and finds it difficult to be diplomatic. Good point about the reversal! People never think about the reverse, it's because we are all so ego-centric.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it was unintentionally cruel. I'm about the most undiplomatic person you'll ever meet, but I would not have said that to her. But perhaps that is because I have worked with a number of foreign nationals and know that teh Japanese are like that.

Anonymous said...

Hi WW! I think that you developed a tolerance for behavior that was different from your experience with other nationals. I think that sometimes you have AMericans that have a "US is the center of the universe" kind of mentality that makes them intolerant to others. Had she been more understanding of another culture, she might have tempered her approach. At least, I would hope so!

Anonymous said...

This makes me sad. When I was growing up in Boston I was very averse to touchy feely people because my family was just not affectionate. Later when I was dating a guy whose family was Italian, I had to get out of my comfort zone because they were always touching and hugging each other -- and me. I wished I could be more accepting of touch (and eventually got used to it) because -- well, isn't it nicer? I think what makes me feel sad about this is that I suspect that your friend who chastized the other was doing it less to be helpful and more because perhaps she felt it somehow reflected poorly on her.

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