A Question of Space

Everyone has a personal “space,” whether they know it or not. Cultural prompting tells us the “right” distance to stand from another person when conversing, the “right” way to enter the platform, and even the “right” way to give a silent greeting that sends a very clear message, either positive or negative.

Cultural mores draw an invisible circle around a person, and the diameter changes from culture to culture. Let me illustrate. Anthropologists tell us that people with a western European background tend to draw a 12-foot circle around themselves. If you happen to appear inside that space, you will probably get a relatively warm greeting, or at least your existence will be noticed and you won’t be totally ignored. On the other hand, if you happen to be outside that space, you will probably not get a wave of the hand or even a smile of recognition. You’re culturally invisible. 

Watch Closely

If you are from a different cultural background, however, your personal space may have a far larger diameter. People all the way out in the parking lot may be perfectly visible and get a major arm wave or some other form of greeting. 

Watch two people from different cultures in personal conversation. How close do they stand to each other? Is one trying to “run away” by backing up? Is the other person trying to get closer, to catch up with the runaway?

Mr. Backing Away is thinking, Why is this person pushing me? I’m not deaf. I can hear! Why is he so aggressive?

Mr. Close Up is thinking, Why is this man so unfriendly? I keep trying to get close, and he keeps running away. I guess he doesn’t like me!

So the seeds of discord are sown, and neither person realizes the real reason. Both people may feel insulted, snubbed, or “put down.” In reality, neither has the slightest perception of what is actually happening.

Next thing you know, Mr. Backing Away is saying in a board meeting, “These people [a favorite phrase] are taking over. Let’s get them out of here!”

Mr. Close Up is saying in his meeting, “These people [same phrase] are impossible. They don’t like us. You can’t even talk to them.”

Let’s Get Personal

Let me illustrate the point. You can see from my picture what my background is—northern European. I have a doctorate in cultural anthropology, so I’m supposed to know all about personal space in all kinds of cultures and how to act accordingly. 

My wife is from an entirely different cultural background. When I was a church pastor, often when we returned home from church she would say to me, “Well, you certainly made Mr. X feel bad!”

“I did? I didn’t even see Mr. X in church today.”

“That’s exactly the problem. I saw him and said hello and waved, blew a kiss, etc., but you didn’t even see him.”

Despite my formal training and many years of service overseas, my cultural background still tends to kick in subconsciously to dictate my actions. So what’s the solution to all this cultural preconditioning and the resultant diversity in a multiethnic/multicultural church? Some basic understandings:

  • Cultural space is not a matter of right or wrong. No culture is superior or inferior to any other. It’s a matter of understanding and being conscious of the issue.
  • To be successful, diverse church members must intentionally get together and talk about personal space; describe it, illustrate it, role-play it. Cultural conditioning is a learned behavior. It doesn’t have to be totally unlearned; it simply has to be understood.
  • Diverse cultures thrown together in a church setting must have their consciousness raised so that they recognize certain actions for what they are. They must not allow themselves to become upset about the situation. You will be amazed at how many hurt feelings, suspicions, confrontations, etc., will go away when communication opens up and people begin to tolerate one another.

Eight Principles

The Bible lists eight principles of interpersonal relationships. These supersede all natural cultural conditioning and establish a new type of cultural filter with a new type of space, a Christian space, one that leads to the practice of the “mind of Christ.”

Here they are:

  1. Love one another.
  2. Receive one another. 
  3. Greet one another. 
  4. Have the same care for one another. 
  5. Submit to one another. 
  6. Forbear one another. 
  7. Confess your sins to one another. 
  8. Forgive one another.  

 My space or yours? In a multiethnic/multicultural situation, it’s everyone’s space, sanctified by the personality of Jesus living in us.

James W. Zackrison
© 2014 General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists