Personal space in Finland: Is everything you’ve heard true?

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You’ve all seen the memes of Finns standing several meters away from each other waiting for the bus to arrive. You’ve also already seen memes where the exact same image is used as a before and after image depicting Finnish social distancing measures during this Coronavirus pandemic. As we all are now distancing ourselves from others, we thought it might be a good time to talk about personal space in Finland. 

What is personal space?

Personal space is the invisible bubble we all have around us. Its limits are fluid and difficult to determine. You know when someone has violated your personal space when you become irritated, anxious, or even afraid by their proximity.

Our personal space protects us. We use the physical distance between us and others to control our stress levels, to manage our surroundings. We need others to be close, but still far enough. Moreover, we use our personal space as a non-verbal method of communication.

The limits of our personal space fluctuate depending on the identity of the other person. The same level of physical proximity feels different when the other person is one’s partner rather than a complete stranger. Thus, we can use this proximity to communicate our closeness with others. The closer we are together, the closer is our relationship.

Those limits can also differ based on the context. In a crowded subway, you accept that strangers can be very close to you. If you are sitting alone on a park bench, a stranger placing him/herself right next to you although there’s plenty of space elsewhere might make you feel anxious or even scared. Same proximity, different feelings based on the context.

Our sense of personal space changes as we age. Children normally have a smaller personal space than adults. It also varies according to our gender. Researchers have found that men tend to prefer more personal space, particularly in face-to-face contacts. Women, on the other hand, prefer more space when someone is next to them.

Researchers have also found that some of those dimensions of personal space differ based on culture.

Low and high contact cultures

In the 1960s, an American anthropologist Edward T. Hall developed a new field of study called proxemics. Proxemics studies the human use of space both in terms of personal space and public space.

Hall divided cultures into contact and non-contact cultures. People from non-contact cultures don’t touch as often, they stay further apart, don’t have as much eye contact, and speak at a lower tone of voice than those from contact cultures. 

Non-verbal communication styles in contact and non-contact cultures

Hall classified South European, Latin American, and Arab countries as contact cultures. North American, North European, and Asian cultures in turn are non-contact cultures in his opinion. As a North European country, Finland falls within the non-contact cultures.

Later studies have since confirmed at least some of these early understandings although Hall’s ideas have also been criticized. Later studies have also tried to find out why such differences exist.

Researchers have suggested that environmental factors may have something to do with this. Temperature, for example, may be one reason. Temperature can influence social distances, especially during shorter interactions. Researchers have also claimed that hotter climates affect emotional intensity. This results in intense and close interpersonal contacts. 

In addition to environmental factors, other types of social characteristics have been used to explain these differences. Some researchers have suggested, for example, that more individualistic cultures also have larger personal spaces. Individualistic refers to cultures where people are highly independent and have a strong sense of autonomy.

Personal space in Finland: what does the research say?

So, what do researchers actually say about personal space in Finland? Turns out that not that much. Despite the prevalence of those memes and the well-known cultural stereotype, there really hasn’t been that much research on the subject. But we do know something. 

Henrik Høgh-Olesen’s research has shown that there are some universal principles of personal space we all have in common. We, for example, all tend to leave more personal space when we encounter more than one stranger at a time. 

People at a bus stop in Seattle, Washington (Photo: Oran Viriyincy/Flickr)

When we are on our home turf we allow strangers to come closer to us than when we approach them on their turf. In social places, such as cafes, our personal space is smaller than in non-social places. 

In his study of personal space in six different countries, he discovered that Finns together with other Northern Europeans kept a significantly larger distance to strangers than the Italians, Indians, and Cameroonians in his study. This applied in cafes, park benches, and libraries. 

One of this Finnish study participants explained his/her answer to one spacing question:

…..If I went to sit right next to a stranger on a bench, people would think I was odd.

Research has shown that European cultures that fall in Hall’s classification as contact (France and Italy) and non-contact (UK and Finland) have still surprisingly similar attitudes towards social touching. In this study, the researchers examined who is allowed a person and where. They concluded that Finns tolerate a stranger’s touch better than people from the UK and even better than Italians!

Personal space in Finland: what does it mean?

So, what does this mean then?

Well, it means that you do have to keep your distance from others in Finland. But you do have to do that elsewhere as well, not just in Finland. 

A good rule of thumb for all of us might be that the colder the climate of a place is, the larger the preferred personal space gets. And in Finland, the climate can get really cold!

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