Touching and personal space varies around the world, from no physical contact permitted (common in some Muslim countries) to all out dry-humping in parks. I recall being unable to tear my eyes away from dozens of guys spread-eagle on their girlfriends at a Mexican university. While you may save full-body contact for indoor recreation, Latins and Latin Europe is demonstrative. They are comfortable standing near you. South Americans, Europeans, and Asians have smaller space standards. People from the Middle East may stand close when talking with each other. On the other hand, in some Muslim cultures, a woman may be alarmed if a man, even a male physician, stands or sits too close to her.

Personal space is an elaboration of culture shaped by geography and population density. 


Depending on where you’re from in North America, you’ve got certain expectations about your personal space. We have one of the largest personal-space requirements in the world. On the other hand, it takes on different regional nuances. For example, someone from New York, accustomed to the tight spaces of wall to wall skyscrapers, has a fairly high tolerance for living like a sardine (though they probably don’t like it). The further west you travel, not so much. 

In Latin Europe (Italy, Greece, Spain) there’s a lot of affectionate touching and general invasion of personal space. It’s a reflection of a history of jumbled dwellings (arranged to protect each other) and they still live comparatively “small” and within close proximity. 

So, it isn’t uncommon in Italy to see men and women of the same sex (and the few same-sex couples who are out) strolling arm in arm during the ritual after-dinner Passegiatta. What a marvelous feeling, arms linked, chatting away in forward motion. The French of course, “kiss-kiss” hello and goodbye on the cheek and the Belgians kiss-kiss-kiss three times. Whatever your disposition, body language is a lot like getting used to topless sunbathing, you’ll feel out of place if you don’t do it. 


Americans are unaccustomed to reading non-verbal signals, so learning the boundaries of personal space takes time to develop. For example, if you’re speaking with someone who takes a step forward, you may be too far from them without realizing it. Don’t get too anxious. It just means you weren’t close enough for them. Be aware of the possible shifts that may occur and when in doubt, mimic behavior.

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