Melanie is a missionary serving with her husband in Southeast Asia. The specific culture in Asia in which they serve is not presented in order to protect their ministry.

The Languages of Culture: Space

LISTEN TO MELANIE’S STORY AND HEAR how the people in her new community approach the use of public and private space, and how it helped her understand – and be understood – among the people of Southeast Asia.


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Melanie’s Story

My family and I are serving in Southeast Asia and we’ve noticed that body language and space play a huge part in daily conversations and just interacting with people. For instance, the space between one another while speaking or walking.

Too close for comfort.

In the area that we’re in, people don’t really seem to value the idea of personal space. You can be shoulder to shoulder with another individual, whether it be in the train or at a mall or walking down the street, and they don’t really value that space very much. So you’re going to sometimes be in a very uncomfortable situation where you are very close with one another — where you could even be touching one another.

In America it seems like we do value our personal space more. We don’t want people in our “bubble.” But Southeast Asia really doesn’t care about your bubble. For instance, when you’re walking in a mall and bump into someone in the states, there would be an immediate apology . . . “Oh, I’m so sorry. Pardon me.” That doesn’t tend to happen here.

You can knock shoulders with somebody and you just keep going.

A manner of speaking.

Space is a factor even in relation to communicating with one another and how closely you stand. People will be less than an arm’s length away from you while you’re having a conversation. I don’t really like people that close to me while they’re speaking, but that’s just something in this culture they see as friendly and they’re wanting to have a conversation with you. They don’t want you far away. They want you to be close.

That’s something that my family and I have tried to adjust to. To the best of our ability, when we are speaking with someone, we try not to naturally distance ourselves as we would in our home culture. But rather, to engage with them and the way that they want to be engaged, which is to be in close proximity.

Cultural space differs.

However, we probably interact with about five different nationalities each day in our cultural setting. And because we deal with many cultures, we don’t want to roll them all into one. Here, people want you to handle them according to their nationality and culture. So sometimes they want to be close to you. Sometimes they want to be away from you because they are a different culture.

So, in our home culture we are Southerners, and Southerners hug. So that is a thing that I’m used to when I greet someone at home — whether I know them or not — to hug them. I guess I didn’t really think about the fact that not everyone is a hugger.

It took some time to realize that just because we greet someone a certain way in our home culture, does not mean that a person wants to be greeted in the same way in our new culture.

A space invasion.

I remember vividly we had a couple come over for dinner to our home and when they walked in the door, I immediately hugged them. The dynamic completely changed after that. It was almost like I had invaded the little bit of personal space that they did want to have. I didn’t greet them with a handshake or no physical touch at all, which is what they were wanting. But instead I hugged them and that was completely different for them. It seems like only very close family members will hug one another, not friends or acquaintances.

So, it was from that point, when I read their body language, I realized I’d almost insulted them. I made it a point to not immediately hug somebody even though that was my instinct upon greeting somebody. I tried to be especially conscious of individuals and not invading their deeply personal space.

For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His love for those who fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us. Psalm 103:11–12

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