How's your personal distance -- watch this space

By Tara Maginnis

Westerners visiting St Petersburg usually experience culture shock when they first come to Russia and are jostled on the bus, crammed onto the metro, and leaned into when overlooking store counters.

They watch ordinary exchanges of conversation on the street and in shops that seem, by Western standards, to be angry shouting matches. People constantly appear to be trying to cut in front of them in lines. And getting store clerks to respond to Western signals that they want service is nearly impossible.

The standard newcomers' conclusion is that Russians are indescribably rude.

But next time you hear two sales clerks "arguing" look closely at their faces. Watch as they part from the "argument" and see if they are smiling. Usually they will be.

Most of what sounds and looks to foreigners like an argument between two Russians is only an ordinary exchange in an emphatic mode. What we read as anger is in fact often only the raised volume and close distance of a personal conversation.

But foreigners' mistaken perceptions are one of the chief reasons why so many of them seem so jumpy when they first arrive. In western eyes people are yelling at and shoving them, flirting with them, perhaps even molesting them by "intimate" touching -- all signs of "space-invasion".

For many foreigners such behavior in their home cultures would be the precursor to being pick-pocketed, challenged to a fight, or being seduced.

A few days of such "molestation" by dozens of Russian strangers can scramble the nerves of all but the most traveled foreign visitor.

But then, inevitably, as one begins to meet Russians at home, or at a business meetings, where hospitality, formality, and elaborate courtesy are far more developed than in the West, one finally sees that Russians in fact have manners bordering on the baroque.

The solution to the mystery? Personal distance.

Personal distance, or interpersonal space, is what anthropologists and sociologists might define as the distance consistently separating members of non-contact species.

But people, unlike animals, determine personal distance culturally, not genetically, and so acceptable distance varies widely from country to country.

An American such as myself in a queue at the bank to change money will stand directly behind the person in front, at a culturally acceptable distance of between 1.5-4 feet (0.5-1.3 meters). I would also be at pains to avoid looking at the transaction taking place ahead, lest I be thought nosy, or worse, a thief.

A Russian entering the scene will assume that I am waiting for somebody or am undecided about which line to get in, and will unashamedly sidle in to the right of what seems to be the only person in line, at a distance of about 1-2 inches.

If I don't immediately follow his example, others will come and do so, and I'll be standing, slightly to one side, of a line of a dozen people, still not getting my money changed. But personal distance is not just about proximity. It can be about emotions too.

The Russian "neutral" expression is a blank, unsmiling face, which appears forbiddingly angry to Americans. Americans in turn, often appear to be vulgarly laughing at strangers when they automatically smile at people on the subway.

Eye contact is also varies between the cultures. Russians often seem to be staring rudely by Western standards of eye contact, which allows for little or no eye contact between strangers.

When in 1993 I brought to Russian a group of American students, without exception they wove elaborate paranoid fantasies about harmless Russian strangers "staring at me with this evil expression."

Conversely, they all had a terrible time getting sales clerks to respond at counters when using the standard American method of simply staring at the clerk till she says "Can I help you?" Fact is, around here you can stare for a week and not get service until you politely say "Devooshka?" ("Girl?").

Understanding personal space in a different culture from your own is a matter of reading the signs right.

A problem for visiting Americans is that Russian personal distance lies within an American's intimate distance, just as an American's personal distance lies within northern Europeans' intimate space. The result is that Russians seem pushy or over-amorous to northern Europeans, and Europeans seem cold, and unfriendly to Russians. Americans, existing somewhere in the middle, manage to equally offend both parties, for opposite reasons.

And this affects sexual, as well as other relationships, between the nationalities as well.

To American men, all Russian women appear to be flirting outrageously. It is that level of unintentional flattery that makes Russian women so sexy to western men. On the other hand, many Western men, by using their own national norms for greater distance, little touching, and low eye contact, strike many Russian women as far more "respectful" and "polite" than Russian men. This, as much or more than economic factors, contributes to the growing trend for US-Russian romance.

The key here is awareness. Westerners living in Russia need to temporarily adapt their spatial relationships to the Russian style for day to day survival.

Conversely, Russians working regularly with short term tourists (who won't have time to adapt themselves) need to respect the spatial conventions of the nationalities they service, or risk annoying their customers.

Once you understand the rules on space, it's easy to fit in.

© 1995 St Petersburg Press