A direct quote from a friend who has also lived overseas. She was in the Middle East. I am in South East Asia. We were catching-up and sharing experiences when she said this, and it made me howl with laughter.

As she was saying the words, “personal space“, in my head I was ending it with, “ends at your gate.”

View of my Gate

Her ending, was a more vivid, slightly alarming, and possibly the best description of the lack of privacy/your own space that you may encounter in ‘hot climate cultures’*. It also made me think, I don’t have it so bad after all!

The term and concept of ‘Personal Space’ is credited to Edward Hall, an American Anthropologist. It is a widely understood and accepted term. However if, like my friend and myself, you live or work cross-culturally, its real-time meaning can be vastly different. As well as hard to fathom, and difficult to get right.

I remember during my first trip to Indonesia (with no language bar a couple of polite greetings) being at a rehearsal for a massive uni event in Yogyakarta. During a break, I thought this is it, my chance for a moment to myself. I did my best to communicate this to the students who I’d been entrusted to. I thought I’d succeeded. I sat on the end fold-up chair of a row of appx. 15 chairs long. I put my head on the back of the chair in front, and exhaled. Alone at last. And then I sensed something. I looked up, and then around. And there, at the end of the row behind, was one of the students who was looking after me. I put my head back down, and laughed.

When I later shared this experience with a friend. Someone who had been living in Indonesia for years. She told me that unless you are old, Indonesians don’t get you wanting be alone. It’s strange.**

So how do you hold in tension your own understanding -and possibly need- of personal space, with the desire to embrace and enter in as fully as possible to the culture that you are currently in?

Here’s a few things (by no means a complete list) that I’ve picked up from others/books/experience:

  • Adopt the posture of a learner. Being open to seeing the value in your host cultures’ different points of view helps!
  • Find someone who can answer your questions. Someone who can help you make sense of the culture. Like my friend in the Yogyakarta story. These people can also be called ‘cultural interpreters’.
  • Consider the principle (as shared with me) of ‘Maintaining Relationships. Simply put, are my needs – be it for personal space, or other things- more important than the possible barrier, or even damage to my relationships with others.- Please note, the ‘more’ as I’m not saying your needs aren’t important.
  • Use the gift of humour! I and a friend find sharing our frustrating moments with the added #indonesiaproblems or something else random, often lightens the situation. That, and rambling voice notes! #yayforwhatsapp!
  • Be creative about how you can get the personal space you need i.e. plan in mini-breaks, spend the night/weekend at the place of a friend who gets it, take up getting a pedicure = 30-40 mins where I can lock off, and be pampered
  • Learn to ‘go with the flow’. I’m naturally disposed to this, but it can still be a challenge. Cos there’s ‘go with the flow’ and then there’s kacau!
  • Embrace, and Enjoy where you are.

*The term ‘hot climate cultures’ is from Sarah Lanier’s book ‘Foreign to Familiar‘. If interested in a short summary of her main concept, you can find a pdf here, and a podcast here.

**A study published early this year researched what ‘personal space’ looks like around the world.