Personal Space

One of the things mentioned repeatedly in training is that English speaking people tend to be rather more sensitive than Georgians (and much of the rest of the non-Western-European world) to personal space and personal time. In particular, we usually have a space which we consider our own usually a bedroom, where we go not to be disturbed — and we don’t appreciate it when people enter it without asking first. We tend to feel like our privacy is being disturbed, Speaking of privacy, we tend to find it strange and nosey when people ask about things like our salaries and personal relationships, unless we know in advance that they have a good reason for asking. Going along with those two aspects of personal privacy, we often like to have personal time that we know in advance we can spend in whatever way we want — perhaps by retreating into our personal room and attending to personal matters that it would be nosey to ask about. As with everything, I’m sure that there are English speaking Westerners who are much less private than I am, and some who are more so — but it is a common enough difference to be worth mentioning, along with the Georgian tendency to feed people until they protest rather strongly (No, no!, no! I do not want it!!! Yes, it’s good, but, no, I don’t want it!).

The issue of personal space, time, and privacy is, I think, related to another potential area of cultural conflict: planning and timeliness. In this area language differences don’t help, but I don’t think that’s all of what’s going on — if it were we could prevent conflict simply by putting a calendar on the wall and writing all our respective engagements in it. The real issue is that we don’t necessarily know whether we have any engagements or not until they happen — or fail to happen. This can be difficult for several reasons. The main reason is that we make decisions based upon prior commitments, and can obviously not commit to two things at once — so there is a large potential to either decline to make plans because one supposes that one will already be engaged, and then to learn otherwise too late and have nothing to do, or to go do something, and then find out that someone else had planned something else to which you were invited, but had simply failed to invite you, assuming you would be available. Situations like these have already happened to me several times, and I have heard similar reports from other volunteers and at last month’s training. In Tuluksak I encountered a similar phenomenon — people weren’t consciously trying to exclude me from things, because if they happened to run into me when they were about to do something they would invite me — but they would not tell me where or when particular things were going to happen so that I would actually be able to attend; I would simply have to wander about enough to find out. In a Peace Corps file I’ve been reading about different models for looking at cultural differences they mention a continuum between “high-context” and “low-context” cultures. In a high-context culture people tend to keep more or less continuously updated on everything that’s going on with the people they know, and therefore don’t need very much new information in order to understand what people are doing, and how they might be able to see them. In a low context culture, on the other hand, people tend to participate in several different groups which rarely overlap, and therefore will often need quite a lot of explicit information in order to know when people will be available or how they might be able to interact with them. America is a fairly low-context culture, because we tend, by and large, to not know very much about our friend’s, and even family’s other relational spheres — their work, church community, clubs, extended family, etc — and will need a lot of information in order to understand what’s happening, and will need to be explicitly invited in order to know whether it would be appropriate to join them in an unfamiliar context. At least that’s how I interpreted what the article said.

This can work very well, I imagine, in a small, stable town, but it can be very difficult for outsiders, because we have a very difficult time understanding what’s happening, when it’s happening, whether we’re invited, and on what terms. People in a low-context culture are more likely to notice this and be very explicit about what’s going on. If I were to show up at a church in America, for instance, someone would probably give me a service book, a pamphlet with announcements and service times, perhaps a Bible, perhaps another pamphlet with their denominational beliefs and ministries, etc. At the very least they will have this information sitting on a table in the narthex, arranged in a very obvious fashion. They expect people tomove about and just show up. Here, on the other hand, not even the impressive 12th century monastery lists service times. They suppose, I think, that anyone determined enough to go to a service will be able to figure out when to come. The same is true in Tuluksak. Someone did think to warn me about Slavicing, because that’s kind of an epic party, but I spent a lot of time being clueless because people forgot to be explicit about what was happening.

Fr Nicholas, who was with the Peace Corps in South America, mentioned that they send people alone to foreign places, rather than in small groups, and he thinks that this is “the only way to do it,” because otherwise people will tend to have fairly intense relationships with their peers, and not integrate very well into the community they’re sent to serve. That does make sense — in Tuluksak, for instance, there is certainly a tendency for the teachers to make a little enclave and rarely interact socially with the rest of the village. This does seem to be a temptation when there are other English speaking people around.

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2 thoughts on “Personal Space

    • It’s hard to tell, since I don’t have anything to compare it with. Alright, I think, though I don’t practice as much as I no doubt ought. How was your trip? Have you been using your note taking software?

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