Invasions of Privacy! Explaining the Issue of Personal Space in China

Invasions of Privacy! Explaining the Issue of Personal Space in China
Oct 27, 2012 By Trey Archer ,

American anthropologist Edward T Hall is renowned for developing Proxemics—the study of how human beings react and behave in regards to personal space. Hall's concept of a "personal reaction bubble" describes the various "invisible zones" that surround each and every one of us and who we'll allow in each. Outside of a 3.6 m bubble is the "public space", which is reserved for strangers; 1.2-3.6 m is the "social space" for new acquaintances; .45-1.2 m is the "personal space" for close friends and family; and inside .45 m is simply coined "intimate space" for significant others. On the whole, Hall's "bubble" theory helps describe why strangers getting "too close for comfort" always seem to make for an awkward situation. However, there's one major problem with this theory—its Western/American bias doesn't take into consideration "bubble" concepts in other cultures, as is immediately obviously to most Western expats in China, where it seems the personal bubble is completely nonexistent.


Popping the Expat's Personal Bubble in China

At one time or another, pretty much every Western expat in China has felt his or her personal bubble burst. With a sense of bemusement, we note that Chinese tend to be more "touchy-feely", especially with members of the same sex. For someone new to China, the sight of women walking hand-in-hand and men with an arm wrapped around male friend's shoulder—as customs very different from those back home for many expats—certainly take some time to get used to. We also notice that in taxis, single passengers tend to sit in the front seat right next to the driver (as opposed to the back behind the guard rails) and that the passengers riding in trains—who are literally stacked on top of each other like sardines—don't seem to be bothered in the slightest. And Chinese are also notorious for not queuing up properly, pushing you aside if you're in their way and cutting you off while walking, driving or riding a bike. In fact, at this very moment, a Chinese stranger is standing behind my shoulder inside my perceived "intimate space" watching me type this! Actions like these are clear violations of one's space in the West, where they are even seen as uncouth and irritating.

Many Western expats also remark that their psychological space is invaded while living in China, due to the perceived Chinese tendency of "interrogating" both new acquaintances and close friends and family alike—a communication style which makes many of us feel uncomfortable. A common question I'm asked when meeting new people is "Are you married?" When I respond that I'm not, they immediately demand to know why not!? The marriage question is often followed up by "How much money do you make?" and "Can I have your phone number and QQ number?" It should be said, that an expat's emotional space can also be invaded: when a car is repeatedly honking in your ear; being stared at relentlessly; a teen blasting the latest techno pop remix at you; or when someone sitting next to you is shouting at the top of their lungs into a cell phone.

Explanations for the Chinese Personal Bubble

While it's difficult to put a finger on exactly what determines a culture's concept of personal space, there are a few indicators that may help explain this social institution. First, China is not only the world's most populated country; it's also one of the most urbanized and densely populated. When you have so many people living in such close proximity, it's only natural to adapt, by deflating your own personal bubble and disregarding others' presence. At many Chinese universities, for example, students still bathe together in one large shower room, are crammed 6-8 people into a single dormitory room and use the bathroom openly in a communal stall. In the countryside especially, entire generations of family members still share the same living quarters, thus leaving their "private lives" wide open to everyone else. Residing in such surroundings may explain why Western visitors to India, (another dense populous country) also experience a personal bubble intrusion. It's easy to see why people living in heavily populated regions often neglect others' personal territory—simply because it's impossible not to in such a crowded environment.

Second, it's possible that remnants of China's staunch communist past also play a role. One example of this is "The People's Commune" (人民公社)—a social institution implemented by Chairman Mao during his progressive "Great Leap Forward" campaign. Residents of entire villages were organized into work units and made to live, cook, eat, shower, use the bathroom and sleep together in one large commune, forcing the individual to surrender their personal space due to the lack of privacy. With such radical ideas implemented from an authoritarian centralized government institution, the philosophy of creating a socialist utopia by eliminating individuality, private property and even personal space permeated society at nearly all levels and regions up until the late 1980s. It definitely seems plausible that the anti-individualistic mentality of the recent past could have left a mark on society that's still present today in New China.

Lastly, the personal bubble, like so many other customs around the world, could also be nothing more than a cultural phenomenon. Psychologists Roy Baumeister and Brad Bushman explain in "Social Psychology and Human Nature" that personal space greatly varies between cultures, countries, professions, socio-economic class, genders and ages. Within the Western world, Brazilians and Italians prefer a kiss (or kisses) on the cheek when meeting a stranger while the Americans and Germans opt to keep their distance with a handshake. According to other studies, Arabs and Latinos interact at closer distances than North Americans and Northern Europeans. It's also documented that women intermingle with other females at a closer distance than with males, while babies don't even gain a sense of personal space until the age of four or five. It's also hypothesized that the wealthier an individual is, the larger their personal bubble inflates. With so many variables, it's no wonder why tackling the issue of personal space proves to be so difficult. But due to its vast discrepancies, it's safe to say that the lack of personal space in China could very well be deeply rooted in their culture for undocumented reasons. In other words, it's just the way their culture is.

Related links
Hybrids of Trade and Leisure – How China Changes International Chains
Got a Light? The Status of Smoking in China
A Royal Flush: Exploring the Paradoxes of China's Toilet Culture

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Keywords: Personal space in China personal bubble in China lack of privacy in China


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It's no longer a personal bubble, but a community bubble.

Feb 15, 2014 09:03 Report Abuse



I have had the contents of my bag examined in class - without my permission. I leave my bag closed at my desk. Also, personal items in my apartment closely examined by local guests. Granted, these items have been in the living room, but tidied away from general places. I know a certain amount of scrutiny would be expected from guests in a home, but not to the extent i was subjected to by first-time visitors. It is curiosity i suppose, but i felt invaded.

Feb 15, 2014 06:10 Report Abuse



China is not even in the top 100 of the world's most urbanized countries, over 800 million people in China still live in largely rural/ agricultural areas. It is also not one of the world's most densely populated nations. Countries such as UK, Germany, Holland and Japan are all much more densely populated than China is.

Feb 15, 2014 01:30 Report Abuse



This article is amazingly true. I find that these things annoy me very much about living in China. Invasion of personal space, so they almost touch you. Staring at you. Bumping into you when walking. shouting into their mobile phones. Playing music through loudspeakers at a very high volume. Honking of their car horns. Not queing up for anything, so constantly pushing you to get to their target, which is usualy a seat on the bus. I would like to add two more things, spitting on the pavement in front of you and riding their quiet electric scooters in all directions on the pavement and jumping the red light at traffic lights. They do have some good points, but I am hard pressed to know what they are. All in all, an excellent article and a very true one.

Dec 26, 2012 13:23 Report Abuse


space jam

Finally, an answer to ever so longed question. There have times when i'm standing in the lines at banks and there's a local person at a very close proximity. Can be annoying.

Oct 28, 2012 23:21 Report Abuse



Yep, specialy in the metro in morning, when some nice girl stick to you because there is no other way ...

Oct 29, 2012 18:07 Report Abuse



Sooooo right!

Oct 29, 2012 02:13 Report Abuse



take away tibet, xinjiang and inner mongolia- that's about 50% of china's total land area. these areas are sparsely populated with a lack of just about anything. so, looking at it this way, china proper from chengdu to shanghai is extremely dense. look at a population density map and most of china is dark red!

Oct 29, 2012 03:00 Report Abuse


Sun bee

My experience as an expat in China - mid-day going to a large swimming pool with only perhaps five people swimming at that time: me, my friend, a Mom with her child and some other guy. I swim to a corner to basically execise in the water, and suddenly I get bumped; I move to another end supposedly away from everyone else and still I'm invaribly crashed into - 'I'm thinking isn't this large empty pool big enough for only five people?' Next, I'm at a popular tourist beach area, only (as I don't particularly favor crowds) try to find a secluded sot off the beaten track. I and my friend climb out to some rocks overhanging a cliff - the next thing I know is that suddenly we are not alone. Just being somewhere tends attracts other people. As others, I try to go with the flow, but when I purposely set out to enjoy some scenic space with my gf I am not looking for other company. I, AS A PERSON (regardless of nationality) just wish there was more common courtesy and respect, or understanding, or something... I do martial arts (but no, not every style is "Chinese gung-fu" and I'll find a temporary secluded spot in a park to workout, and lo and behold, although I might be in the middle of a strong punch or kicking move, someone will just walk right in front of it and start asking questions! (for one, it's dangerous, and two) rude to interrupt someone's practice. There are times when I like the attention, and moments when I feel annoyed and unwelcomed, alike - then there are times when I just need time to myself in order to recoop face the world again.

Oct 31, 2012 00:53 Report Abuse


Sun bee

When people approach me, I cannot tell if they are friend or foe sometimes! I've been followed by thugs before (but took simple precautions since I was aware of their presence). One person asking a seemingly harmless yet personal question could be innocently curious, while another could be plotting to use this information against you. For example, my older Chinese mentors tell me how it used to be okay to ask 'how much money you make' - that was conversaton then; Now I'm adviced those times are over; (whether you are Chinese or a foreigner) it's not good to reveal those things as you might become a target of sorts!

In a city in Sichuan my first year, my neighbors were very cordial with me and made me feel like one with the local community; yet, one day I revealed some information about myself - nothing bad - to a not-so-close acquaintance, deeming nothing to hide, and later the neighbors of one section would no longer say "hi" with the usual inviting nature they once carried, but would only turned to point and gossip towards me. I became a only figure or enigma by my age, marital status, salary, nationality, etc. but not as the "person" they first treated me like beforehand. Lesson learned - I don't tell too much about myself any longer. When one neighbor shouts in the street crowd, "ta shi laowai" ("He's an Outsider") I spin around in gest, using Chinese asking "Really? Where, where?" or sometimes respond sarcastically, "Thanks, I didn't realize who I was". The bottom line is we (expats) have feelings and find it difficult to pretend we don't notice something we see, hear, feel, etc. Unless we also experience some sort of desensitivity - desensitised to life and its surroundings. In any land, even a compliment can be contemptuous if you are constantly reminded of some feature or status. Stares are just annoying no matter how hard one tries not to notice. How we handle it is a different story. Often it depends on our mood. And, I don't want my other senses like, hearing or touch, to fade, just for the sake of getting used to it. My (Chinese) wife has been robbed (of her purse, cell phones, etc) several times, while in comparison, I had only a cell phone ripped off from me once in my first of many years in China - I explain that she is used to letting people distract, or push and bump into her more than I am. And, the one time I tried to not let it (shoving) phase me was totally regretful - it was exactly the time when I let my guard down and someone stole my first cell phone. Now people need a good reason to bump into me as I try to cover myself and stay vigilent - reckoning friendly folk with an attempt to smile, and warning potential threats with my own sense of caution and self-protection!

Oct 31, 2012 01:56 Report Abuse



Foreign Guy : can you demonstrate an " incoherent step backward"...sounds like it might be fun!

Nov 07, 2012 01:18 Report Abuse



I hope the whole, "Whites are teh devil! They all go around killing and raping the poor innocent everyone else!" comment from Benny (and the equally ignorant comment reflecting China worship from Kelly) are meant to be making fun of the yellow-supremacist racism found in China... since if they actually feel that way... well, I guess it's hard to tell satire from genuine ignorance.

Aug 09, 2013 22:07 Report Abuse



Hey bro, not all of us are here as native english teachers. I am not native english and i do not teach english nowhere. the writer may be in the same sort as me. do not blame all of the teachers, because, from where can u learn english other better ?

Oct 28, 2012 16:13 Report Abuse



Gibson. I think that your comment is unnecessary, unproductive, uncouth and unrepresentative. Go back to bed.

Nov 07, 2012 01:15 Report Abuse



Mel: I assume you're the same Mel who used to go on about her Journalism degree. Instead of focusing on the article, you have (once again) decided to passively praise yourself, this time by criticising the grammar. Unfortunately for you, "Good article with an interesting psychological aspect of living in China" is grammatical nonsense. Gibson: What have you accomplished that makes you superior to me? I am financially stable (and was before I came to China), rarely drink, and never turn up to work late or hung over. I take my job seriously and have the time and money to pursue my own interests. Relying on the imagined shortcomings of other people in order to feel good about yourself isn't quite the same thing as success. Really it's just insecurity.

Feb 15, 2014 12:30 Report Abuse