What is culture, and how does it affect proxemics?

     Culture is “learned knowledge, used to interpret experience and to generate behavior. (Moran: 2000; p.342)  

     From an anthropological standpoint, it determines how people will react not only to their environment but also those around them. Since culture is used to interpret experience and generate behavior, it plays a very significant role the amount of space that people like to keep around themselves.

     First, let's define culture. Then we will take a look at how it affects people's behavior and use of proxemics.In Western societies, for example, anthropologist Edward T. Hall found that people keep more space around themselves than other ethnic groups do. According to Hall, "People
from different cultures inhabit different sensory worlds. They not only structure spaces differently, but experience it differently because the sensorium is differently ‘programmed’" (1968; 87). Because of the way people's beliefs are shaped in a certain culture, they perceive things differently. They do not see eye-to-eye on how to space themselves from others because they are 'programmed' or influenced to act in accordance with their cultural values. 

     Hall also suggested that "physical contact between two people […] can be perfectly correct in one culture, and absolutely taboo in another" (1968; p. 88). Hall's research demonstrated that fact that there can be extremely different views on proxemics, and one's culture is of significant influence. In Western cultures for example, is perfectly acceptable for a man and woman to be together in public. They can engage in intimate contact with one another, as it is perfectly acceptable in their culture. In India, however, women cannot interact so freely with men, or there could be serious consequences. As a result, the use of proxemics differs greatly among people of different cultures. 

   Let's look at an example of how cultural differences influence individuals to respond differently to the same situation. In Latin America, people who may be complete strangers may engage in very close contact. They often greet one another by kissing on the cheeks. North Americans, on the other hand, prefer to shake hands. While they have made some physical contact with the shaking of the hand, they still maintain a certain amount of physical space between the other person. 

     Problems can arise when people of different cultures come into contact with one another. If a North American were to be greeted by a Latin American person, the American may feel as though his or her space has been invaded, due to the fact that people of Latin descent tend to prefer less spatial proximity. As a result, the American may consciously or subconsciously step back to regain his physical space. According to Farnell, in the Annual Review of Anthropology, "the body is portrayed as a social and cultural entity [...] but [its] actions may actually be out of awareness" (1999; p. 348). Although the American did not intend it, his actions may be portrayed by the Latin American individual as being very rude. It would also be rude for the North American individual to extend his hand rather than kiss on the cheek when greeting people in South America, since that is what they do.

     As you can see, different cultures have different expectations of what is socially acceptable in regard to proxemics. North Americans prefer more social distance, while Latin Americans prefer more intimate contact when interacting with others.  According to Hall: “It [is] quite obvious that these apparently inconsequential differences in spatial behavior resulted in significant misunderstandings and intensified cultural shock […] (1968; 87). People of different cultures have different beliefs regarding which spatial zones are appropriate in a given situation. Being aware of such differences is critical to successful cross-cultural communication.