Social Norms of Personal Space – Holding People’s Hands (Part 1 and 2)

Some people are very touchy. Literally. Some others preferred to keep at least an arms-length distance from everyone at all times, and may freak out if hugged or even tapped on the shoulder. Most babies are born with the desire for touch, to be held and comforted, and if the parent(s) is/are not completely sadistic, will oblige to the child’s wants. As one gets older though, he/she is weaned off from getting everything he/she wants, and picked up less, etc. We eventually learn about “personal space” and what kind of physical touch is acceptable between strangers, acquaintances, friends, and family.

In the U.S., with a general individualistic culture, we take our personal space very personally. Whenever possible, we try to keep as much distance from the next person (ex. not sitting next to the only person on an otherwise empty subway car, or male restroom etiquette for using urinals).  It’s interesting to actively think about something that seems so innate or common sense, when it is in fact not. I had a bit of culture shock, when I visited China a few years back, and found that people will pass right next to you on the sidewalk when there is so much space around. At first I was nervous that they were pickpocket-ers, then I realized that that’s just how people in China are socialized. It may be due to the large population that is usually packed like sardines, or possibly influenced by their communal culture which doesn’t quite have the ideal of personal space (since most stuff is shared).

In the two videos above, Andrew and Jacqueline Hales (siblings) conduct a social experiment of walking close to random people and holding their hands to see their reactions. The results are hilarious. First you think, “Man, that’s ballsy” and see most people react instinctively by flinching or retracting their hands with a “WTH?!” face. Then there are the few that go along with it. The conversations and puzzled faces that follow are most fascinating!

Imagine the relations we could have with people if we didn’t have so many learned social inhibitions.

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4 Responses to Social Norms of Personal Space – Holding People’s Hands (Part 1 and 2)

  1. kpss says:

    better than being hoverhand 😛

  2. Xiaoou Chen says:

    Thank you for mentioning of China. Your post reminds me that how guys occupy two or three space by opening their legs as wide as they can, when they are siting on the bench in the Subway. I met these serial times. In your viewpoint, those Americans tend to learn “communal” culture in this way or tend to share some spaces with others? Does it what you say so called “social Norm” in the United States?

    Please don’t take a part to abroad picture. Otherwise, you will lose your points.

  3. Zhuolin Li says:

    Since personal space is an element that depends on the culture, this reminds me of the differences in the expression of emotion across different cultures. For example, in an individualistic country such as the United States, people are more expressive than their collectivistic counterparts in Asia. This is due to the point that individualistic cultures cherish freedom, free will, and expressiveness that represents one’s unique character. On the other hand, people in collectivistic cultures are less expressive, as this type of culture emphasizes interdependence and group interests over individual goals. Moreover, the expression of negative emotion can potentially affect the whole group, which goes against the values of collectivistic cultures. However, even if people in collectivistic cultures were to express negative emotions, it will be less expressive than people in individualistic societies will. For example, in a study that analyzes the intensity of Japanese and American people, the Japanese were more likely to mask their negative emotions by covering their faces or suppressing them.

    It is interesting that minor things in our everyday lives such as personal space and emotion are heavily influenced by our society and culture. This seems to contradict “free will,” as we seem to have none at all since the norms of society direct our behavior. Those who defy these norms however, are met with criticism, disapproval, and rejection. As shown in that video, the people were surprised and even aggressive when a stranger went to hold their hands. The breaching of society norms may lead to dangerous consequences.

  4. bj130526 says:

    I also found the topic of “social norms” interesting when I read Chapter 4 of Sociology and even more interesting when Professor McKinney gave us some examples and situations revolved our everyday lives. For instance, when New Yorkers ride public transportation we have become accustom to not staring each other directly in the face, it has become a norm for us to either, look down, close our eyes or occupy ourselves with a book as well as our phones. Likewise, in your example of the lifestyle difference in New York in comparison to China, where those who live in China has gotten use to traveling in such a large population. New Yorkers have developed the reputation of being the most unsocial human beings on Earth, therefore when there is space available to walk or sit, we’ll most likely take it. We’re known for not being openly and willingly to talk to strangers, and more so known for being to ourselves when we’re out in public. Whereas, those who may live in the mid-west, or in the south are very social amongst each other and will not hesitate to help a stranger who may be in need. Unlike Professor McKinney’s example where he mislead a stranger with directions. Nevertheless, has David Newman mentions in Chapter 4, civilians across the globe have “take-for-granted” the cultures in which we live in. What may be the most everyday basic thing for us in New York may be complete neurotic to someone living in another city, state or country.

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