MANY expats relocating to Malaysia are requested by their employer to participate in a cross-cultural training programme prior to moving here. Unfortunately, proper understanding of personal space is often missing from such classes.
Typically, cultural awareness programmes will cover subjects such as the notorious Asian issue of “keeping face”, communication, hierarchy and respect and of course the distinction between halal and haram in the context of food, pets, even banking and insurance policies. All very likely pitfalls if foreigners are not made aware of them before they relocate.
We don’t need to elaborate on each of these subjects here, but the face-keeping business deserves a short detour, I find. While it is clearly a touchy subject, it is not really an exclusively Asian one. Potential rookies to Asian territories are often told about it in great detail only to find out that they, too, don’t particularly like to be on the receiving end of “losing face” in their own culture. Nobody likes to be singled out and reprimanded for shortcomings in front of others.
Communication on the other hand is a different matter altogether. Especially what I have become accustomed to calling the Asian “yes”.
In Western culture, yes means yes, maybe leaves room for further consideration and no is a final negative. Not having partaken in cross-culture training myself, I have learned the hard way that here, a polite yes can mean many things.
Proper management of personal space is often not given due consideration in cultural awareness instruction. A grave oversight, as it is a complex and multi-layered issue.
Studies have shown that the perception of comfortable distance between people varies greatly from one national background to another. Besides cultural heritage however, gender, age and even average climate influence our concept of personal space.
As a rule of thumb, Westerners from the northern hemisphere like to keep a stranger at arm’s length, while warmer climates seem to encourage a slightly shorter distance during personal interactions.
Couples holding hands in public and acquaintances hugging and kissing as a means of greeting each other might be deemed reasonable behaviour in Europe and cultures of Latin heritage. Our Malaysian hosts, however, will feel quite disconcerted if greeted in this manner by strangers and friends alike.
Even a strong handshake as a sign of either power and confidence or trust and enthusiasm becomes second nature only to individuals with longstanding practice of the Western ways.
Observance of correct distance to one’s counterpart is of paramount importance in social interactions. Anyone whose personal space has ever been invaded during a casual conversation will attest to the fact that it is highly distracting. So much so, that the invaded party will be absolutely unable to focus on the topic at hand or even their interlocutor. Instead, all their attention will be drawn to their discomfort and possible ways of rectifying the situation.
Etiquette gurus like to share a number of suggestions. Especially since taking a big step backwards will not alleviate the problem. Your nemesis will simply close the gap until a wall leaves you with no room for further retreat. Instead, you can attempt to create a new situation by rummaging in a bag, pretending to look for something, and casually keeping the bag as a makeshift placeholder in front of you. Or you can try to nonchalantly circle behind a chair or a table and resume the conversation from that safer distance.
Asians, and Malaysians in particular, seem to feel most at ease with at least a metre of personal space around them. Or so the studies find.
Somehow, this makes me wonder.
How come then, I feel slightly claustrophobic every time I step into a fashion boutique in downtown Kuala Lumpur, having to endure the sales assistant following me around at an uncomfortably close range?
How come then, I very regularly feel people breathing down my neck at the ATM, at the supermarket check-out counter, at the post office and on the escalator?
The writer is a long-term expatriate, a restless traveller, an observer of the human condition and unapologetically insubordinate