Home » Cultural Differences, Defining Root Problems, The Face of America

The Diplomatic Shuffle

8 May 2009 2 Comments

There is a piece of fancy footwork known as the “diplomatic shuffle” to Americans who work overseas.  It refers to the fact that in many countries, the circles of personal space that people are comfortable with are much smaller.   For example, when someone from an Asian country speaks to an American, they often stand closer to the American than the American is comfortable with.  This causes the American to shuffle backwards.  The Asian then shuffles forwards, to maintain the circle of personal space that they are comfortable with.  The American, personal space violated, shuffles backwards again.  This continues until the American’s back hits a wall and s/he begins to perspire with discomfort.

We Americans like personal space.  Most of us keep a boundary of about two feet around us free of persons at all times.  (Well, most times.)  We are funny about touch, too.   Even amongst ourselves and those we know well.  Too little..too much.. a delicate balance.  To hug or not to hug upon meeting- an error in judgment as to the expectation of the other will be met with the dreaded awkwardness.

In larger issues of cultural exchange, it is critical to recognize that personal boundaries are tied into one’s sense of safety.  Interference with personal boundaries results in a vague sense of threat.   A sense not conducive to productive dialogue.

Understanding the comfort range of others is important to creating comfort for ourselves.   Assuring comfort for others as well as ourselves is an essential foundation to the building of relations and relationships.  This becomes complex when factors like differing cultural backgrounds and even different languages factor into the mix.   Yet it is critical that we take the time to understand cultural differences in frames of reference, interpretations of meaning, and even nuances of gestures.

How many Iraqis, do you suppose, died at check points, because when the American military raised a fist to signify “stop,” the Iraqi took that as a signal to “go”?


  • Hobosic said:

    I have already seen it somewhere…
    Have a nice day

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