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Conversational Distance

Culture Learning Questions

1 In your culture, how close do you stand to people when you are talking to them? Demonstrate the distance.

2 Do you think this space differs across cultures?

Cultural Note

Unconsciously, we all keep a comfortable distance around us when we interact with other people. This distance has had several names over the years, including “personal space,” “interpersonal distance,” “comfort zone,” and “body bubble.” This space between us and another person forms invisible walls that define how comfortable we feel at various distances from other people.

The amount of space changes depending on the nature of the relationship. For example, we are usually more comfortable standing closer to family members than to strangers. Cultural styles are important. Latin Americans and Arabs tend to stand closer than Americans do when talking.

For Americans, the usual distance in social conversation ranges from about an arm’s length to four feet. Less space in the American culture may be associated with either greater intimacy or aggressive behaviour. The common practice of saying, “Excuse me,” for the slightest accidental touching of another person reveals how uncomfortable Americans are if people get too close. Thus, a person whose “space” has been intruded upon by another may feel threatened and react defensively. In cultures where close physical contact is acceptable and even desirable, Americans may be perceived as cold and distant.

Culture does not always determine the message of nonverbal communication. The individual’s personality, the context, and the relationship also influence its meaning. However, like verbal language, nonverbal language is linked to a person’s cultural background. People are generally comfortable with others who have “body language” similar to their own. One research study demonstrated that when British graduate students imitated some Arab patterns of nonverbal behaviour (making increased eye contact, smiling and directly gazing their Arab partners), the Arabs felt that these students were more likeable and trustworthy than most of the other British students.

When one person’s nonverbal language matches that of another, there is increased comfort. In nonverbal communication across cultures there are similarities and differences. Whether we choose to emphasize the former or the latter, the “silent language” is much louder than it first appears.

The Anglo-American male rarely touches or embraces other males. Distance is usually greater between men in the Anglo-American culture than between men, for example, in the Mexican-American culture.

There are four categories of informal use of space among white, professional-class Americans:

For intimate friends From actual physical contact

to 18 inches

For friends and personal conversation 18 inches to 4 feet

For impersonal conversation 4 feet to 12 feet

For public speaking 12 feet or more

During the farewell stage of a conversation, Americans will often move gradually from each other and decrease eye contact.


Date: 2016-04-22; view: 5982

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