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Personal Space and Courtesy in America

15. January 2010 by Daniel 0 Comments

If you live in the city in Russia, you may be used to getting onto a rail car or a public bus and standing close enough to touch the other passengers. You may be used to seeing people converse in loud voices while standing near to each other. And you may be used to having other people pass in front of you as you wait in a line.


You may be used to these things, and as such you may not notice them. But in America, such behaviors are regarded as unusual – and possibly even rude.


The density of cities in Russia accounts for the tendency for Russians (and Europeans in general) to speak and interact with each other at a more intimate distance. But Americans in general are more accustomed to living conditions that give them much space to call their own.


As such, it is a general rule that people in America maintain a two to three-foot “bubble” of personal space around their person. If another person moves into this three-foot boundary (about 1 meter), the person may feel threatened or uncomfortable. Hence, while you may interact with an American in the same way – and at the same distance – that you would with a Russian, the American may be taken aback by your closeness or mistake your actions for threats or suggestions of intimacy or something else.


In order to prevent these cultural miscommunications, keep in mind the following points when you are interacting with Americans in an in-person setting:


The Three-Foot Rule – Always stand at least an arm’s length away from other people in a public setting. Any closer than this could make people uneasy or send signals of intimacy.


No Yelling – Speak softly, but loud enough to be heard. Talking in a loud voice will naturally suggest to people that you are angry or somehow upset. Or it may just annoy others. Americans have been known to speak loudly from time-to-time, but even when they do it, there is likely someone nearby who wishes they would quiet down.

Smile – When out in public, some Americans tend to keep a smile on their face no matter with whom they are interacting. You don’t have to smile at everyone. But in general, sending a smile to people is a subtle way of wishing them well or saying “thank you.”


Wait Your Turn – When waiting for service at a store or other public place, always remember to wait for other patrons ahead of you to receive their service before you do. Avoid moving in front of people who are waiting in a line.

Being that America includes many different ethnic and immigrant groups, these rules may not hold true for all people. But if you travel to the U.S., keep them in mind when interacting with all people.