Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Personal Space: India vs. The US

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.

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 adjustments you made to blend cultures?


  1. Swiss are placing the utmost importance to personnal space. You don't push, you don't come closer than an arm legth toward an aquaintance, you don't go into a person's bedroom and your host will never invite you in it either. You don't take stuff without asking first, and any closets is totally off limit if they aren't in your home. You don't stare at people and kids are told from an early age not to do it no matter how odd a person look in a crowd, this is considered rude behaviour. In a family if a door to a room is closed you knock and wait for the person in it to invite you in.
    We don't live in a joint setting in India, but it never fails when we have in-laws family coming over in our home or when we go to their place all notion of boundaries are absent, in my own home I had my stuff used without permission, my closets opened, stuff in the kitchen put somewhere else, jars being opened but not closed after use, laundry left all over the place, dirty shoes used in the house, and people barging into my room without knocking, DH been caught half naked while dressing by his mom in the morning. When it's my family and friend coming over the contrast is huge, they knock on every door including the bathroom to make sure they can come in, ask before even getting some water, and pitch in with anything household related, their duty as guests as per Swiss culture standards is not to burden the host in anyway and not disturb a system put in place.
    In all the years spent in India I actually find it funny when my Swiss guests come over and ask "can I have some water" or food, so I make it clear that they can help themselves to anything there, but I strongly appreciate the respect for personnal space and the knocking. 9 years in India and I still find it highly invasive to have in-laws just help themselves to anything including my body lotion without asking and I absolutely LOATHE this no knocking on door business, if a door is closed that means it is shut for a reason...period!

  2. Well, American Punjaban PI - you and I are both Americans so we've been taught at home and at school since birth to-
    That means out of respect and and consideration of others you do not 'touch' other people without asking permission nor do you put your hands on their belongings without asking permission. To do so without asking permission is EXTREMELY DISRESPECTFUL to the person & OUTRIGHT RUDE in American culture.
    This is one aspect of Indian culture that really needs to change, I've had more of my belongings broken and or stolen by nosy/greedy/jealous Indian family members. From a 100 yr old family heirloom porcelain figurine, hairdryers, makeup, clothing, my iPhone,- you name it they've either stolen it or broken it.
    Taking things without asking is considered THEFT in American culture.
    Currently I'm quite peeved because my very expensive western style 'range' (gas stove top with electric oven on the bottom) has been destroyed by yet another nosy family member.
    Instead of ASKING HOW to use the 'range' with it's dazzling array of knobs & controls or even PERMISSION to use the 'range'- he just went and randomly twisted or forced various knobs on the 'range' until they broke. I came into the kitchen & found the electric oven blazing at full blast and gas spewing out of all 4 burners on top. No way to turn the oven off because the knobs/controls were all broken off. Why is it so hard to ask for permission & instructions on how to use something when you OBVIOUSLY don't know what you're doing?!? This was not a curious child but an adult male member of my husband's family!!
    The house could've burned down!!!!
    WTF was he thinking???
    Oh yes, that's right, Indians aren't taught to think for themselves.
    Daughter in laws seem to get the worst treatment as far as respect for 'belongings' go also.
    Dear husband has often 'gifted' my belongings to members of his family without asking my permission also. Our last quarrel about 3 months ago was when he 'gifted' my 'smart phone' to a nephew without asking. Mind you this 'smart phone' still had pics of my kids & other info I'd like to have kept. All was deleted by my nephew. I was furious, and told the usual 'These are small things'. No they aren't. Soon after this dear husband decided I should 'gift' this same nephew with my ancient but reliable Dell laptop. That resulted in a 2 hour screaming match (where a lot of nasty things were said) & me threatening to move into a 5 star hotel.
    Oh the drama.
    I told him it wasn't his to give, and he should respect my belongings if he respects me- dear husband looks at me completely clueless.
    I pointed out that he ALWAYS throws these hugely emotional tantrums when he doesn't get his way & ends up saying many stupid things he later regrets.
    The light bulb finally came on in dear husband's usually 'reasonable' brain & he ran over to hug me.
    The entire Dell laptop & 'gifting' issue was dropped & I haven't had anything of mine 'gifted' since.
    Anyway, sorry about the rant- but unicorns farting rainbows ain't happening in my world either. It seems it is a continuous battle setting basic boundaries in my Indian family also.

  3. As a Japanese student of mine said: if you borrow something and don't give it back, that is stealing.
    As I mentioned in another comment related to this topic, the giving/borrowing thing in India is very often a one-way street. I've had the same issue with my husband, giving away things I gave him as a present to all and sundry. Naturally I am deeply hurt and offended. He just doesn't get it. And Bibi, if your husband is so into giving stuff away, why doesn't he give his OWN things to family members??? As for the person who broke your stove, what an idiot!! I hope you gave him what-for.
    Back to the one-way borrowing/giving/stealing: I think Indians like to give things (especially if they didn't pay for it) as a power and prestige strategy. It's a way of saying, look how "rich" I am to give you this expensive thing and how generous, you are beholden to me and owe me something. And Ladies, please don't buy into the 'this is our culture and why are you so selfish/individualistic, etc." I've lived in other countries that have much stronger communal living roots (Thailand and Timor Leste) and people don't behave like they do in India. It's a totally Indian thing, and it's rude and it's all about power, control, status, and bullying.
    American PI- I do have to strongly disagree with your comment that Americans have no 'duty' to their parents. That very much depends on what kind of family you grow up in. certainly in my family we all have a duty to each other-siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, children.

  4. Oh my the gifting your stuff thing, DH attempted it after his dad showed an interest in our digital cameras after our daughter was born! DH decided that since he purchases a huge SLR we could keep that one and give his dad MY old tiny sony one, his reasoning was that it was old anyway and his dad would probably never use it much. I told him to get lost and that no the camera would stay with me, I needed something I could opperate easily to capture our newborn daughter's life on, and added that on top of everything the camera in question was a GIFT that my mom gave ME a couple of years ago and that he had no right whatsoever about it simply because his dad suddenly out of the blue thought digital cameras were cool. DH got the message and thetone fortunately, but even if he didn't the camera would have stayed mine I would have seen to that.
    A few months later my mom visited us and my camera started to act up quite a bit, so she decided to buy me a new one as my belated birthday gift. DH could not comprehend why I let her spend that money on it and I told him to shut up and be happy, then told him that now if he still thought giving my old camera to his dad was a good idea he could do it, he told me that "nah he never takes pictures anyway"...roll eyes. But since that thing he never asked anything or gave anything. One thing I hate is each and every time my in-laws came to our place they always asked us to prepare a whole food bag for their way back home, I'm fine, but MIL always eyes all our best boxes and bags to carry these home, I prevented her from going after my costly boxes, because the plastic take out containers we keep around just work as fine. last time they came just overnight, and left in the mornign with one of my canevas bag, half the fruits in my fruit bowls asked my maid to cook a big meal and took a juice carton from our place, so that they could "subside" on the 6 hour bus ride to their next destination...geez I never pack that much food even for a day trip! And the ridiculous thing is that they don't eat fruits much, MIL even once inthe past criticised our spending money on such costly things!

  5. And that is exactly why your MIL took your fruit! She's too cheap to buy it herself, but happy to take it from you, if you provide it for free. Free-loaders, all of them!

  6. I remember your earlier comment about the borrowing/stealing. I agree. I feel the same way about it. It's not borrowing if you don't ask and you don't return it.

    Perhaps in some American families there is a duty to the parents. I see plenty of American women take care of their mothers in old age but it isn't the same kind of obligation duty that you see in Indians. From what I've seen in India taking care of the parents is done because they have to. In this part of the US most take care of their parents because no one else will or because assisted living is too expensive or sometimes because they want to. You make a good point though. There are many cultures here in the US and there's probably several that expect a child to care for their parents. From what you have seen, how do these cultures relate to the Indian sense of duty and obligation to the parents?

  7. Wow. That is a lot of food. Do they even use these containers after they take them home? Or is it just something that they want because they think it is nice?

  8. We are taught the same in the US. In India the only person who knocked on my door were the kids. The rest just walked in regardless of what I was doing. It really bothered me when I was sick and trying to sleep and they would walk in and wake me up to check on me or leave the door fully open while the AC was running and then stand there and either go through my cabinets or start talking as if I wasn't sleeping. I used to get so angry over this kind of thing.

  9. I enjoyed your rant. I have had the same yelling matches, the same discussions and the same reactions. I too used the "you throw a tantrum" type line and that solved a lot as well. It's amazing the levels we must stoop to as grown and cultured women isn't it? I'm sorry about your phone. I can only imagine how heart breaking that would be to lose those pictures.

    I hoping (but sure it will never happen) that after hubby gets here he will learn to understand why we don't touch or take other peoples belongings.

    And OMG on the stove. Even if he was never taught to use it he had to at least known how ot turn knobs properly! Even most Indian burners have knobs that adjust the gas. I can't believe how bad he messed up your stove! That whole gas leaking out thing would absolutely terrify me. Thank God you got it turned off before it caused an explosion.

  10. A couple of years ago I baked a lot of cookies for my in-laws whcih I packed in some lock and lock boxes to gift them when we visited for Diwali. it was in 2007, I haven't seen these boxes around anywhere since then, they aren't using them in their kitchen at all, so when MIL tried to claim one of my own lock and lock box to pack food for her trip back home after visiting us when my daughter was born, a box that I might add she have seen me use the whole time she was there as it contained all my different types of tea and fruit tea bags...yup she wanted me to empty it and give it to her! I told her that it was old and leaking because I knew she would not understand a simple no, and took some nice take out plastic containers from the drawer telling her these were better at holding food. She agreed but not without mumbling. If she liked it and used hers I would have bought some for her really, but she still store leftovers in steel pans in the fridge, and I am sure she probably gave the boxes I gave her in 2007 to somebody else, so her stealing one I use all the time simply because she thinks she is entitled to them...hell no

  11. I agree with Mary, this 'gifting'/borrowing thing is a one way street with Indians & is mostly done to 'show off'.
    My husband rarely 'gifts' anything to his family that belongs to him, worn out clothing being the only exception I can think of- even that is a bit of a struggle for him. Why he chooses to 'gift' my stuff is beyond me. Why does he need an iPhone, a Blackberry, a Samsung tablet, and 2 laptops?
    My husband also has no qualms going through my purse and 'helping himself' to whatever- I tell him that is DANGEROUS territory that no American man would dare to enter!!!!
    So one day I went through his wallet & 'helped myself' to some cash & a credit card. He had an absolute FIT!!! I said - 'You do that to me ALL the time, what's the problem?' He just grimaced.
    You know when I've visited his family & have asked to 'borrow' something as simple as a hairdryer- the answer was some lame excuse like 'it is packed somewhere we can't get to'. Maybe they thought I was going to borrow it forever 'Indian style'?

  12. For me personally I love my personal space. Although I don't mind if somebody hugs/kisses me I wouldn't go upto them and do it because its not in my Japanese culture to do so. However in Japan the definition of personal space is different. When its rush hour on the trains your personal space will be violated and foreigners who aren't used to this usually freak out thus avoid 7 ~ 9am and 5~8pm because of how crowded the trains get. Japanese find this acceptable because its inedible thus tolerable. So excessive touching in a social gathering is a definite no no but on a train/crowded area its ok. western countries its the opposite.

    I wouldn't live in a joint household because I like my privacy. If I was married and living with my family or his family I would be embarrassed when we're all mushy and everybody is watching. Besides it would be too cramped and impossible in both homes. His house has more room but also more people. My house has less people but no rooms.

  13. I think in the US, as in many western countries, (including South America) your attitudes towards your parents often have to do with the way they treated you when you were a child. Whereas in India, even if the parents were monsters to their children, the children will still take care of them when they are old. Usually for us, if older relatives were nasty to us as kids, then they can't expect much if any support later on. Also, in India-and this is a big difference and also a big difference with south east Asian cultures-the sons take care of the parents. Although I don't think Indian males necessarily "care" about their parents more, or are interested in their emotional well-being. They just do their "duty" and provide a home, food and healthcare for their parents, or their wives/the daughters in law do.
    Generally speaking for Americans, it's the daughter who is more likely to care for parents as they age. This is also true in Thailand and other parts of the south east Asia. Also, the US, Canada, Australia are countries of immigrants, so that too affects the family dynamics. I grew up in a small southern town, and from early on I was taught that I had to learn to get along with my siblings and support each other, and, through my mother's example, shown what a loving supportive relationship with parents, as an adult, should be like.

  14. Hehe, love this post! I have found that this is a totally different territory--and one I didn't expect. To be honest, personal space was something I've been taught since infancy, and figured was a human right (HA!). Anyway, opening my life up to my Indian family has changed that understanding (see: bags packed for me, laundry done while I was out..)

  15. I love your form of justice. You just happened into his wallet and took some cash and his credit card. Nice. Lol.

  16. I kept my stuff locked up. That was the only way to keep everyone out of it.

    You're right about culture. I'm learning a lot about my own culture now that I've been to India.

  17. Thanks Amelia. I'm like you, I was taught about personal space as well and before moving to India I thought I could expect some things to be respected there. I was wrong. I wound up keeping a lot of things locked up while other things I relaxed my standards on. I do enjoy some communal aspects of Indian living and others I learned to respect but at the same time, I never got used to having things taken without my knowledge.

    I think the worst part for me is that I'm extremely organized and when something is taken I can't manage why it wasn't where I put it, etc. I keep a mental catalog of things in my life so it throws all that off balance when things turn up missing. Lol. I know, I have issues.