Popping the Personal Bubble: Cultural Differences in Personal Space

Okay, usually it isn’t THIS crowded in Bologna, but the Pope was in town for the day

Italy is a beautiful country with amazing people, delicious food, and spectacular sights. It’s not difficult to embrace the warm culture and inviting, friendly people. While I love their smiles and enthusiastic greetings, there is one cultural difference between Italians and Americans that remains a challenge for me: the concept of personal space.

Personal space in America

Generally, I stand 3 to 4 feet from someone when engaging in conversation with them, even my mom. I am certainly no scientist and I don’t speak for all Americans, but I think our need for a large personal bubble might stem from our independent nature and the importance we put on self-reliance. America is a very individualistic country where people often keep a considerable distance between themselves and others. Our houses are separated by big yards and fences, we leave empty seats between ourselves and strangers at the movie theater, and we move out of the way of oncoming people on the sidewalk nearly 10 seconds before we cross paths. Sometimes I feel like I am in a spy movie, maneuvering around people like they are laser tripwires, trying not to touch them.

Personal Space in Italy

I’m tempted to say that personal space does not exist in Italy, but I do believe it’s possible that people from other countries might even be more physically and emotionally open with each other than Italians are. In America, other than hugging my parents or my friends after I have not seen them for a while, I honestly can’t remember the last time I actually touched someone else. However, nearly every day in Italy I greet someone by kissing them on the cheek or hug a friend when saying goodbye. Every time I leave a dinner party or a meeting at the café (yes, I know it’s called a bar in Italy) I become momentarily paralyzed with fear, trying to figure out how to say goodbye. Do I go in for the cheek kiss? Which cheek do I kiss first? Should we hug instead? Why am I so awkward?

It’s not uncommon to cross the street and have a Vespa swerve around you, mere inches from your face. Don’t be alarmed if you are walking down the street and you brush shoulders with a group of people walking side-by-side on the sidewalk. And certainly don’t be surprised if your friend’s relatives make comments about your weight or that zit on your face. There have even been a few times at the grocery store where I felt someone else’s warm breath on the back of my neck in the checkout line.

I have also become increasingly aware of many times a day I have the desire to say “I’m sorry.” In America it’s fairly common to apologize for bumping into someone, knocking something over, being too close to someone, or basically just doing anything at all. In Italy, they do use the word scusa (or formal scusi) but it isn’t used quite as often as “sorry” is in America.

No judgment Zone

It can be easy to judge a country based on the cultural differences you notice; however, it is important to make observations instead of judgments. Living abroad is not always easy and some days you will feel like no one understands you. “Invisible” cultural practices can be difficult to learn and you will inevitably break these social rules many, many times. Use these times as an opportunity to understand the culture and why it is different from yours, instead of labeling these practices as good or bad.

I’m curious to hear about other people’s opinions and experiences regarding personal space in Italy. Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below!

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