Personal Space in India vs the US

Posted On: November 16, 2012

I’m realizing a lot about my own culture now that I’ve had a fair amount of exposure to Punjabi culture. One thing I was thinking about today is personal space in India vs. the US.

Many Indians think Americans are too individualistic. While I see their point, I don’t think this is an accurate description. Yes, we are taught to take care of ourselves but we still take care of others. We are not born into and raised with the same thinking process that Indians have.

From my experience, Indians are raised that the family is one unit. As an individual person, you come last in respect to the family. If someone hurts or upsets you, you are trained to let it go because they are family. Parents have the right to tell you that you’re fat, you’re stupid, etc. and you are taught that this is not malicious and life goes on. They’re still your family, you still have obligations to them and you must continue with your duty as part of the family unit.

In the US we are taught that our parents don’t have the right to tell us we are stupid, they can’t beat or spank us and as children we do not have duty to our parents. Another major concept is personal space. We are taught from very young ages that no one is to touch us in a way that makes us uncomfortable (sexually or non-sexually). For etiquette we are taught to keep at least an arms length away from people so they don’t feel crowded, uncomfortable or offended, etc.

Because we are taught this way, we tend not to choose seats that are away from people when possible (which means we don’t take the seat next to another person if there’s an empty spot available further away). When we walk, we instinctively move out of the way for people coming toward us. That could mean stepping off the side walk or leaning our bodies away from the person so we can pass without touching.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t care for other people. We do these things because we care. We care about their feelings and thoughts. We don’t want to upset or offend them. While this could be misconceived as being individualistic or self-centered, it is actually about the bond we share as Americans. Our bond is just different than people in India where it’s expected people will get in your way and that you have to work closely to each other the majority of the time.

This same concept of personal space applies to our belongings, our homes, etc. For most of the people I know in the US, the bedroom is considered an extremely personal place. You don’t invite people into your bedroom and if someone goes to their bedroom to get something, you don’t follow. This is very different in many Indian homes where they still sit in their beds to eat and whole families share one room. Just about everyone comes into your bedroom and it’s generally thought of in a good way. As in, they are sharing in your life by being in your personal space.

It’s a generally understood principle in American culture that if you have an item (let’s use an iPod for example) and you lay it on your dresser where everyone can see it, that no one will touch it because it is yours. Of course, that doesn’t apply to your parents cleaning up your room when you’re a child but once you get to be a teenager or adult, no one would move or use your iPod without asking you first.

In India, I often got upset when my things were moved or taken because I was not accustomed to the communal nature of families. In general, if you have something and someone needs or wants to use it, they take it without asking and use it. I’ve heard of shoes being used by family members, phones being borrowed and never returned and more. It’s understood there that if you don’t want someone to take it, you lock it up. It may not always be your family taking it, it could be someone coming into your home to steal so you had to make sure it was locked up. (For the record, people break into homes in the US as well but not in the same way as in tightly packed cities like Amritsar.)

These are differences in culture. They are neither good nor bad, just the way each culture has learned to live. When crossing cultures – whether marrying inter-culturally or moving to a new culture – you will have to learn to adjust to issues like this. Adjustment doesn’t mean changing who you are, it means learning to keep your culture while surrounded by another. Using my own life as an example, I kept most of my belongings locked up. It wasn’t what I was used to but was much better than not knowing where my things were when I wanted or needed them. It was less stressful than the feeling I got knowing someone took my things without asking.

How do you feel about personal space?

How do you feel about communal living?
What are some differences you have noticed in personal space in India vs. the US?
What are some adjustments you made to blend cultures?

Written by American Punjaban PI, an American writer and blogger with close familial ties to Amritsar, Punjab.

Previous Guest Posts:
Generalizations, Stereotypes and How They Differ
10 Tips for Adjusting to the US Culture 
Practical Tips for Daily Life in the US  

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