Here’s a riddle for you: Three people walk into a bar, a Saudi Arabian, an Argentine, and a Swiss guy. When they order, how close do they stand next to each other? What about if the Argentine and Saudi Arabian are close friends? If the Swiss and Saudi Arabian are acquaintances?
A study published in the newest edition of the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, “Preferred Interpersonal Distances: A Global Comparison,” surveyed nearly nine thousand people across 42 countries to determine country preferences in personal distance between social, personal, and intimate distances, considering individual characteristics and cultural attributes.
The researchers handed the participants a chart with two characters standing on a measured line. They asked the participant to determine how close each person should stand to each other based on how well they know each other, including the following meetings: social (stranger), personal (acquaintance) and intimate (close person).
They also asked participants personal characteristics, including age and gender. For each country, the researchers collected influential data, including the prevalence of parasitic disease, population growth rate, “ingroup favoritism,” average yearly temperature, and the country’s ranking on the Human Development Index.
Of the country-specific indicators of personal space, regions with warmer temperatures preferred less personal space compared to cooler regions, especially during shorter interactions. Prior research indicates that temperature affects emotional intensity, which may influence the amount of contact. While not statistically relevant in this study, the weight of parasitic transfer in close personal spaces, as well as the aggression associated with close physical contact in growing populations may negatively affect warm temperature proximity.
The personal characteristic that may affect personal distances the most is gender, as women generally preferred greater distance in social and personal meetings. Previous research suggests that closer physical contact is a form of dominance, which some social scientists correlate with masculine traits. While this is not the case for every woman, it may explain general trends. The researchers also note that their character chart was not gender-specific, and they did not specify gender of the approaching individual with participants. Other studies suggest that women prefer closer intimate distances, so results are mixed.
Argentina scored as the country with the lowest amount of space between strangers and acquaintances, and almost the lowest between intimate relationships (what a curveball from you, Norway!). Here’s the national rankings of countries, ordered from most social distance to least:
Previous research has tried to establish contact and non-contact cultures, but this research’s findings indicate geographical assumptions are more complex. More research into interpersonal characteristics, like height, attraction, as well as geographic factors, like communicable disease, could prove insightful.
To answer the riddle: the three people in the bar, as strangers, would stand apart from each other at their greatest personal distance preference, but the Argentine would need less. If the Argentine and Saudi Arabian were dating, the Argentine would be very close to the Saudi Arabian, likely causing him or her distress. The Swiss guy, regardless of how well he or she knew the others, would keep about the same distance.
But really, did we need a study to tell us Argentines practice atomic levels of personal space?