There’s usually a hard limit to how close you can stand to someone else without feeling uncomfortable. These limits vary person by person, of course, depending on how well you know each other, but your body is hardwired to know exactly when the line has been crossed. According to neuroscientist Michael Graziano, personal space is actually a function of the brain, which “computes a buffer zone around the body.”
This invisible boundary serves a few important functions. Key among them is basic protection from predators — kind of like how you’re supposed to maintain a certain amount of following distance behind another car in order to give yourself time to brake or react. When people cross that threshold, it makes us deeply uneasy for a whole host of perfectly logical reasons that make sense to our primal brains.
Personal space isn’t just a neurological thing, however; it’s also a cultural thing. Your limits aren’t only determined by the internal barometer your brain regulates, but also, it turns out, the culture you grew up in, your gender, and how well you know the person you’re talking to.
The study that’s cited most often regarding this question surveyed 9,000 people in 42 countries to find out roughly where they’d feel comfortable standing in relation to a friend, acquaintance and total stranger. The leading premise of the study was to test an existing theory that “contact” cultures — those that exist in warmer climates — have lesser needs for personal space than “non-contact” cultures, or those that exist in colder climates. Perhaps the idea here is that warm weather makes people more relaxed, though many people would also surely agree that when they’re hot, they really don’t want to touch or stand close to others.
This climate-related hypothesis actually did prove true, but only to a certain extent. There’s a lot more nuance involved — like the age and gender of the people involved. And even then, the results weren’t completely consistent across the board.
For instance, Romanians have the greatest personal space requirements when interacting with strangers (1.3 meters), but they’re more up close and personal with their friends than most other cultures surveyed (40 cm). The reverse seems to be true in warmer countries, with participants revealing that they’re comfortable standing close to strangers, but not as close to people they actually know. Additionally, women tend to stand farther away from strangers no matter where they’re from.
For some perspective, the countries that followed Romania in order of “biggest personal space requirements” were Hungary, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Uganda, Pakistan, Estonia, Colombia, Hong Kong and China. You can see where the “colder versus warmer” climates theory doesn’t seem consistent. Perhaps in predominantly Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Pakistan, cultural norms would also play a strong role in determining how much physical contact would be appropriate.
Argentinians took the lead as the most “all up in your space” country, requiring a distance of 76 cm for a stranger, 59 cm for an acquaintance and 40 cm for a friend. After Argentina came Peru, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Austria, Slovakia, Russia, Greece, Serbia and Italy. Americans and Brits fell somewhere in the middle.
One final thought: being from a crowded or overpopulated area may lead to a less pronounced expectation of personal space. NPR profiled two of its correspondents who have lived in Cairo and São Paolo, and they both attested to a certain amount of nonchalance around body contact with strangers.
Ultimately, there’s no one-size-fits-all formula for determining how much personal space someone might require. When in doubt, let someone’s body language lead the way.