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Don't touch me, I'm British

An English rose in Georgia

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POSTED: February 7, 2014 2:30 p.m.

During the last few months, we have had a lot more European influences in our home as we have been the main host family to a university exchange student from the Czech Republic as part of our Rotary Club’s involvement in the Georgia Rotary Student Program.  
This lovely girl has two roommates at college also from Europe, one from Norway and the other from Germany. We have had some fun times with these three lively young ladies, and I hope we have helped them navigate life here in the good ol’ USA, which, as I know from personal experience, can be complex to newcomers.
One difference is the rules of personal space and intimacy — not romantic intimacy, but in terms of normal social interaction. Every culture has its own mostly unspoken rules surrounding how people, especially strangers and new acquaintances, deal with each other.  Every country has its own unique code.
In 1987, Raymonde Carroll, a French anthropologist who emigrated to the USA, published a little-known book on this topic. “Cultural Misunderstandings” identifies key cultural divides between the French and the Americans.
She says, “The French will only have conversations with people with whom they are intimate, while Americans will only touch people with whom they are already intimate.”
In my experience, this is true, and the British take this a step further as we generally do not talk, touch or make eye contact with strangers (just try traveling on the London Underground to see this in action). Here in America, the extreme verbal friendliness of strangers can be disconcerting to young Europeans, who are not always sure exactly how to interpret this behavior.
Generalizing to make a point, Americans will chat to people at neighboring tables at restaurants or in line at the grocery store. That conversation is friendly, but does not necessarily turn the speakers into a friend — a mistake Europeans sometimes make.
Americans, of course, often hug friends of both sexes, but these hugs are respectful. During the hug, only the shoulders touch and participants often end by patting or rubbing each other’s backs to indicate to both the one being hugged and anyone else watching that it is strictly platonic — no funny business intended! Americans have large personal zones and are respectful of personal space.
I often have wondered if this is because the USA has so much space compared to most of the rest of the world.  
On the other hand, the United Kingdom is pretty crowded everywhere.  It is only about as big as the states of Georgia and South Carolina combined and, according to www.worldatlas.com, has a population density eight times higher than the U.S. — 639 people per square mile versus only 80 here. By further comparison, India has a density of 851, Korea’s is 1,274, and Singapore is more than 16,500. In crowded cities all over the world, including here, people protect their own personal zone — however small — even in busy places. Subway systems at rush hour again come to mind.
Of course, no column on cultural confusion, intimacy zones and personal space would be complete without mentioning Finland and some other areas of Scandinavia, where it is not uncommon for groups — families, business associates, friends and neighbors — to strip naked, sit in the sauna for an animated discussion after a big dinner or a long day at work, and then round the evening off with a (still naked) run through the snow or a dive into a cold lake. So maybe the unwritten rules on hugging and talking to strangers in line at the grocery store are not so strange after all.
God bless America!

Francis grew up in London, England, and moved to Richmond Hill in 2009 with her American husband, Carl, and English dogs. She can be contacted at lesley@francis.com or www.lesleyfrancispr.com.

 

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