News Stories

Keep Your Distance

People from different cultures often do not always read each other right. One example of this is the distance that they stand apart when talking face to face to strangers or acquaintances. In some cultures, people stand much closer to each other than we do, meaning that the American keeps backing up when talking with someone he doesn't know well.

Now neuroscientists have found the brain structure that is responsible for our sense of personal space. Since different cultures express it differently, are our BRAINS different as well? The brain structure that controls this is the amygdale, a pair of almond-shaped regions located in the medial temporal lobes in the front of the brain. It is also considered the source of emotion in the brain.

Scientists who have studied this know that the average distance that people who don't know each other well prefer to stand apart from each other is about two feet. Across cultures, accepted interpersonal distances can vary dramatically, with individuals who live in cultures where space is at a premium (such as China or Japan) tolerant of much closer distances than individuals than in the US. Our preferred personal distance can vary depending on our situation, making us far more willing to accept less space in a crowded subway car than we would be at the office.

Biologist Daniel P. Kennedy says, "If you're in a culture where standing close to someone is the norm, you'd learn that was acceptable and your personal space would vary accordingly. Even then, if you violate the accepted cultural distance, it will make people uncomfortable, and the amygdala will drive that feeling."

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Art credit: Dreamstime.com

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