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The Gap Year Blog

Physical Contact in Different Cultures

3 May 2018 15:10 PM

Photo Credit: flickr | Richard.Asia
Edited with Permission by Frontier

When Riccardo arrived in Rwanda, he was welcomed by strong pats on his back and handshakes that would almost hurt his fingers. People would greet him loudly in Ikinyarwanda, the local language, grab one of his hands as in a firm handshake and put their free hand more or less on Riccardo’s elbow, squeezing it with mild force.

Soon he learned how to greet everyone the same way, yet he would often be taken aback by the intense physical communication people would engage him in. He certainly wasn’t used to it but he learned that these strong gestures and the unusual physical contact were all genuine signs of affection and respect.

Like Riccardo, many of us travel to foreign countries and suddenly find out that even the smallest habits they are accustomed to might not be recognized for what they are. The meaning of actions, body language, expressions or the boundaries of personal space change from culture to culture and the impact of our interactions goes beyond our intentions.

The further one goes, the stranger social conventions might appear. We don’t have to travel to the other side of the globe however: take a train from the UK to France and you’ll find yourself kissing people on their cheeks when they introduce themselves. Touch someone’s head in Thailand and the looks on people’s faces will tell you you’ve done something terribly offensive.

Photo Credit: flickr | Amtec Staffing

The list could go on. Not only do habits and rules change from culture to culture but they also differ in intensity – if not entirely – within the same country. In southern Italy, an unexpected visitor might knock on their neighbour’s door, be greeted enthusiastically and offered a coffee. Do the same somewhere in the northern part of the country and you might not see the happiest smile on your neighbour’s face. 

Of course, these generalizations do not always match reality. Still, travellers witness significant differences in how people engage with each other which are worth exploring and very important to learn a bit about before you go.

Touch and emotional bond

The customs of social touching change across cultures but normally they all vary according to the strength of the social relationship between people. Studies show that the emotional bond that regulates a relationship determines the type of touching that is allowed and this is something that most people know intrinsically too.

Photo Credit: flickr | - EMR -

Although the body areas involved in the interaction and the kind of gestures employed are different, touch patterns are consistent around the world. According to a study conducted by the Department of Experimental Psychology of University of Oxford, the stronger the emotional bond, the more touching is allowed. Emotional closeness determines the pleasantness of touch and shapes the physical boundaries that modulate the relationships among people. The study found that while the frequency of social contact does not regulate the area allowed for social touch, emotional intimacy promotes the so-called skin to skin contact, thus developing and reshaping one of the earliest forms of communications human beings ever employ.

Personal space

When our interpretations of physical contact intersect the non-tangible elements of differing cultures, the cultural understanding of personal space reflects how social relationships are modelled.

Photo Credit: flickr | Henrik Jagels

A 2017 study showed that people’s personal boundaries vary significantly according to their nationality. While British people like to be a meter away from a stranger, Argentinians keep a 76cm distance for strangers and only 40cm for a close friend.

Analysing a sample of 8,943 people from 42 countries, the study also revealed that different temperatures influence the perception of personal space. Strangely enough, people living in warmer countries tend to have more body interactions than people living at colder temperatures. The researchers do not have a definitive explanation of these discrepancies but one hypothesis is that higher temperatures favour a friendlier atmosphere, thus encouraging people to stand closer.

Although each country presents its peculiarities, the study identified important commonalities across some cultures: South American, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries are defined as “contact cultures”, whereas in Asia, Northern Europe and North America (“non-contact cultures”) people prefer to stand farther apart.

Photo Credit: flickr | Jason Hargrove

Interestingly, the researchers also found that some populations – Argentinians are one example – tend to stand closer in proximity with strangers than what they do with people they know.

Albeit the various nonverbal distinctions between cultures, the study shows that the concept of personal space is universal. Cultural factors do influence the appropriateness of the interaction but the fact that physical contact is so culturally charged demonstrates that it is a vital component of our nonverbal communication.

In one way or another we all engage with different people from different countries and discovering and adapting to new customs is a challenge each traveller faces. Trying to understand one’s concept of personal space and the meaning of their physical interactions is certainly not easy but it is part of the charm of travelling to a foreign land. Openness to different social circumstances offers an insight into people’s emotional habits and opens up the opportunity to establish unique relationships. It would be unreasonable to expect a perfect grasp of each different culture but when in doubt, be curious and be mindful and respectful.

By Erika Mastrorosa - Online Journalism Intern

Frontier runs terrestrial & marine conservation, community, teaching and adventure projects in over 50 countries - join us and explore the world!