When it comes to interacting with acquaintances
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that personal space varies from culture to culture. In Saudi Arabia, for example, if a stranger moves close to you to converse, you might find yourself unconsciously backing away (as in the case of Kramer and the close talker). In the Middle East, social distance is closer than it is in the United States, so as you back up, your conversational partner may attempt to close the gap once again. It’s easy to imagine an awkward dance down a sidewalk, with one party retreating and the other advancing as the conversation progresses.
The point here is that where you stand when you talk to someone is reflexive. Although you certainly don’t measure the distance physically, you are calculating it mentally. When a mismatch occurs between what you think the distance should be and what the distance is, you then must make an attribution. Why is this person standing so close? Hall’s theory about personal space can help answer this question. Sometimes a person is standing too close because it is typical of their culture. Sometimes a person is standing too close because they really are pushy or aggressive. Cross-cultural miscommunication arises when you make the wrong attribution. For example, you might decide someone is pushy (personal attribution) instead of realizing that their idea of social distance may be different (situational attribution).
In Mongolia, when two people inadvertently bump each other (such as kicking someone’s leg under a table), they must immediately shake hands, which in a sense reestablishes the correct personal distance. But when someone bumps into you on a crowded sidewalk in Ulaanbaatar, should you shake his hand or tighten your grip on your purse? Unfortunately Hall’s theory won’t help you there.