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The Languages of Culture | Space

Updated: Mar 20

March 10, 2022

Melanie is a missionary serving with her husband in Southeast Asia. The specific culture in Asia where they serve is not presented to protect their ministry.

Listen to Melanie's story and hear how the people in her new community approach the use of public and private space and how it helped her understand the people of Southeast Asia.

My family and I are serving in Southeast Asia and we've noticed that body language and space play a huge part in daily conversations and interacting with people. This includes space between one another while speaking or walking.

In the area that we're in, people don't really seem to value the idea of personal space. You can be shoulder-to-shoulder with another individual in the train or at the mall and they don't value that space much. Sometimes this presents uncomfortable situations where you are very close or touching other people.

In America, we value personal space more. We don't like people in our "bubble." Southeast Asia doesn't consider your "bubble." If you were to bump into someone, no apology would be given or would be needed. You knock shoulders with someone and you keep going.

Space is a factor in relation to communicating with each other and how you stand. People in Southeast Asia will be less than an arms length away from you while you're having a conversation. I don't really enjoy that type of closeness, but this culture see that as friendly and engaged in conversation. They want you to be close.

That's something we have had to adjust to. When we are speaking with people, we try not to naturally distance ourselves as we would at home. We want to engage with them the way they want to be engaged, which means being in close proximity.

We interact with about five different nationalities each day in our cultural setting. Because we deal with many cultures, we don't want to roll them all into one. People want you to handle them according to their nationality here. Sometimes they want to be close and sometimes they want you to be far away, depending on their culture. At home as a Southerner, we are used to greeting with hugs. I didn't really thing about the fact that not everyone is a hugger.

It took some time to realize that just because we greet someone a certain way in our home culture does not mean that a person wants to be greeted the same way in our new culture.

I remember vividly when we had a couple come over for dinner to our home and I immediately hugged them when they walked in the door. The dynamic completely changed after that. It was almost like I had invaded the little bit of personal space they did want to have. I didn't greet them with a handshake or no physical touch, which is what they would have wanted. In their culture, only very close family members will hug each other.

At that point, I realized I had insulted them. I used my training to learn from this instance and make a rule to not hug anyone, even though that was my instinct. I tried to be especially conscious of individuals and to not invade their personal space.

"For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us."

Psalm 103:11-12


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