Conflicts over personal space

Bodylanguage and the use of personal space define your comfortzone just as much as language does. It seems that when it comes to personal space I still miss living in Brussels.

I’m interviewing a list of people for a side project of mine, a documentary on intercultural conflicts. That’s why I had a long conversation with an energetic young Spanish woman who works as a nurse at a hospital in Amsterdam Oost. It has only been a year since she came to live here. Without giving away the conflict, and thus the interview, I can say she had a very rough first couple of months. Luckily a lot has changed since she found a job in a healthy working environment and masters the harsh Dutch language.

At the end of the extensive interview I ask her what she misses most compared to her life back in Spain? Her response is immediate, as well as the sadness that comes over her as she answers my question.

ʿI miss being allowed to make physical contact. I know the Dutch find it intrusive when you touch them and I try consciously not to do so. But it’s so hard. Most of the time I just don’t know what to do with my hands anymoreʾ.

Listening to her I realise that for someone who uses her hands so vividly (during the entire interview in fact) letting go of it must be a hard task. And even though Dutch are very direct and social they really do not like to be touched by anyone who’s not part of their innercircle. That Spanish people on the other hand are very touchy is not new to me, but I realise now how painful it is for them not to.

Richard D. Lewis describes the cultural difference on the use of personal space accurately (source: When cultures collide):

ʿYou need to talk to Spaniards with a twinkle in your eye. Their distance of comfort is much closer than that of most Europeans and they like both physical and eye contactʾ.

ʿAs far as personal space is concerned, the Dutch keep formal contacts and strangers outside of 1.1 meter radius space bubble. Physical contact is not welcomed and body language is limitedʾ.

Talking about colliding cultures!

As much as I like using bodylanguage when connecting with people I believe I can also do without. I don’t have the same warmblooded etnicity and I have been in the Netherlands for several years now.

On a Thursday night, weeks after the interview, I’m having drinks with a close Dutch friend in a bar in downtown Amsterdam. We are seated by the window and while we’re busy chatting, the French girl who has just moved in to my building walks by. She catches my eye and runs into the bar to greet me. It strikes me that as soon as she is right next to me we make more physical contact than my Dutch friend and I have in the last hour and a half. And yes ofcourse it has to do with personal preference, but this is clearly cultural too. For those five minutes with my French neighbour I am in Brussels again, where touching people on the arm or on the shoulder while speaking to them is part of social life.

I am sure I can do without, but now I am wondering why I’d want to?

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