Almost everyone who visits Spain for the first time talks about how sociable Spaniards are. We love to mingle with our friends at restaurants, bars and on sidewalk terraces. Bars are our social clubs, where we have breakfast, read the newspaper, meet with our cuadrilla (group of friends) to have a few drinks and some tapas before lunch and/or dinner, have an after dinner drink, gossip, talk politics, soccer, the economy or any other topic. And we don’t mind if our friends get up close and personal when we’re together – with lots of touching, handshakes, hugs and air kisses. In fact, when we see an empty bar, we usually don’t go inside. In short, keeping our distance from others is not part of our DNA.
But that was in the good old days.
I’ve always thought that Spain was one of the countries where one’s personal space was small until I read an article in the Washington Post about a study published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology in 2017 that analyzed a sample of almost 9,000 people from 42 countries.
The authors of the study showed subjects a card with the outline of two people (A and B) facing each other with a scale underneath ranging from zero to 220cm for reference. The subjects were asked if they were A, how close in centimeters they would be comfortable with B as a stranger, an acquaintance or a close friend. The results were surprising.
(Credit above and below: Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology via the Washington Post)
Argentines were the most comfortable at close range with strangers, acquaintances and close friends, while Romanians, the most standoffish in the study with strangers, were comfortable with close friends at a distance of about 45cm.
Spaniards kept strangers at about 90cm, acquaintances at about 75cm and close friends at about 60cm.
Curiously, the study showed that citizens of the USA were comfortable with good friends at a closer range than Spaniards (45 vs. 60cm) while Norwegians didn’t feel uncomfortable standing about 35cm away from a close friend.
Unfortunately, there was no evidence about Swedes and their much-celebrated penchant for keeping their distance from everyone. That might explain why Sweden and Norway have chosen to deal with the coronavirus in widely differing ways.
This academic experiment, while undoubtedly carried out with the strictest scientific rigor, offers different results from my own empirical experience. One instance was at a cocktail party at the US Embassy in Madrid in 1976 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Latin American diplomats and Spanish businessmen tried to talk practically nose-to-nose with US Embassy personnel while the Americans moved backwards to give themselves space. It was obvious that neither side realized that diplomacy also means consciously respecting others’ personal space.
Perhaps the best lesson I’ve learned about personal space is many years attending some of Spain’s most popular festivals like San Fermín in Pamplona, San Mateo in Logroño and Aste Nagusia in Bilbao and San Sebastian. When you’re surrounded by thousands of others while watching fireworks or the chupinazo (the firing of the rocket signaling the opening of the festival), defending your personal space, whether you’re from Argentina, Chicago or Madrid, is impossible. The best way to handle it is to go with the flow and have fun.
Let’s hope that soon we’ll be able to return to the good old days.
(Photos: Tom Perry)