I think The Police said it best in 1980 with their lyric “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”. While the song may be about a schoolgirl’s crush on her teacher, it’s the line itself that echoed in my mind during our lesson in proxemics during the intercultural workshop. This nonverbal world of body language is always what strikes me first when meeting people from diverse cultures and adapting to a new environment. I never realize just how ‘territorial’ I may be until the moment my space is invaded… and did I ever feel like it was!
During the intercultural training, we were divided into two groups. One would over-express a certain nonverbal behavior, like that of establishing an almost negligible distance between us during a conversation. The more the intimate space between my partner and myself diminished, the more it impeded our communication, or at least my end of the communication. In that moment, all I could hear myself think was…
“Don’t stand, don’t stand so
Don’t stand so close to me”
I felt uncomfortable, nervous, and borderline unsafe. I know this sounds slightly over-dramatic for an in-class activity with friendly peers, but the truth is, we all have our own personal boundaries that are shaped by the cultures we have grown up in. Acknowledging this informal space each one of us has is crucial in developing successful communication lines.
This activity really struck a cord with me because I realized just how difficult it is to communicate with someone who interacts with his or her immediate environment differently from myself. As our conversation continued, I was quick to realize that my partner was not picking up on my cues for personal space and instead I was the one forced to ‘adapt’ to the situation. But what if the situation was in fact reversed? And my partner was the one who felt (even more) uncomfortable because I wasn’t reciprocating the closeness and friendliness they were trying to show me?
The truth is, it all comes down to knowing how to hone in on the nonverbal cues we send and receive between each other. As I adapt to my new surroundings, here in the Netherlands or later in Italy, I need to remember that I am not the only one in a conversation who needs to feel at ease, but rather, be certain that my own nonverbal behavior makes the others feel equally comfortable. Like anything else in life, it’s all about give-and-take, and I need to learn to let go of my secret love affair with personal space. Or do I…?
By Barbara Kubica, currently studying at Hanze University of Applied Sciences for her first semester at the MIC.