August 21, 2005

Personal Space

Arabs are very physically friendly. As an American, I often find this uncomfortable.

This morning, for instance, the cleaning lady stuck her head into my shower to ask how much longer I would be staying in the dorm. I stuttered to remember the days of the week in Arabic with her face a foot from mine.

In the U.S., we like to keep about two feet (a half meter) of space between us and the next person at all times. Only the people you are really close to… your mother, your lover, are welcome inside this space. Here, that rule just does not apply.

On the subways, I often see young men with their arms draped around a friend, sitting on each others laps, or just generally getting way closer than is acceptable for two adults not in a romantic relationship where I come from. It’s even common to see strangers touch each other in friendly ways (but always same-gender).

A week ago, I was trying to use an ATM machine, which was giving me problems. A Tunisian man stood very close, ostensibly trying to help me out. Now, either he stole my card, or the machine ate it, I’m not sure. (I cancelled it quickly and no money was stolen.) The point is, I couldn’t tell at the time whether his closeness was suspicious or not, because people commonly stand way closer than seems reasonable to me. Today I noticed several other people using ATM machines, with the next person waiting standing within a foot.

I don’t know what larger point this reveals about differences between Arab and Anglo-American culture. But it’s just one of those little things that contributes to the culture shock.


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