If you’ve ever lived or travelled abroad and felt uncomfortable at the frequent invasions of your personal space, you are, most probably, British.
But it’s not just in your head - different nationalities really do have different perceptions of what constitutes personal space and how close is acceptable to stand to various acquaintances.
According to a new study, Brits like to keep a metre from a stranger, 80cm from an acquaintance and just over 50cm from an intimate or close friend.
This is in contrast to Argentinians who keep a 76cm distance for a stranger, 59cm for an acquaintance and 40cm for a friend.
And in news that will come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever entered a salsa club, Argentinians are the most touchy-feely nation.
The results of the study suggest that cultural differences could result in misconceived rudeness.
Carried out by scientists across the world, the research was intended to find out how culture, wealth and even weather affect our ideas of personal space.
By studying 8,943 people from 42 countries, it was hoped that the results would be more conclusive than previous studies where the sample sizes have been too small.
“We attempted to relate the preferred social, personal, and intimate distances observed in each country to a set of individual characteristics of the participants, and some attributes of their cultures,” the researchers wrote.
“Our study indicates that individual characteristics (age and gender) influence interpersonal space preferences and that some variation in results can be explained by temperature in a given region.”
One theory was that people are more likely to stand in closer proximity in warmer climes because the hotter weather creates a friendly atmosphere. However other theories suggest that people should be more likely to stand further away to reduce the risk of spreading disease.
The participants were asked how close to someone they’d stand depending on the relationship.
Whilst Argentinians have the smallest personal space, Romanians have the largest, preferring to keep 1.3 metres from someone they’ve just met.
However once Romanians become friends with someone, they’re comfortable standing just 40 centimetres apart.
The greatest variations did seem to be between hot and cold countries - people in warmer places stand nearer strangers. However, perhaps peculiarly, they stand closer to strangers than people they knew.
The researchers found that the concept of personal space is universal, and one of the main theories as to why is that it’s a defensive measure - we stand at a distance from people to protect ourselves from danger.
It’s important to get the distance right though, because if you make someone feel like their personal space is being invaded they’ll focus on that and not the interaction you’re having.
According to etiquette guide Debrett’s: “When someone steps over that invisible line, when you start to feel troubled, you want to step backwards away from the space-invader, and you focus less on what they are saying than on how close they are to you.”
So how do you create more personal space without offending the person?
“The trick here is not to back away but to somehow create a whole new space,” Debrett’s advises. “Turn to wave hello to someone passing, turn away to get something out of a bag, at the same time subtly putting some clear water between you and the invader.”
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies