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Space Invaders on the Neva

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Space Invaders on the Neva

Westerners visiting St. Petersburg usually undergo an attack of culture shock when they first come to Russia and are jostled on the bus, crammed onto the Metro, and leaned into when overlooking store counters. They watch ordinary exchanges of conversation on the street and in shops that seem (by Western standards) to turn into angry shouting matches. People constantly appear to be trying to cut in front of them in line. And getting store clerks to respond to Western signals that they want service is nearly impossible. The standard tourist reaction, for the first week in Russia, is that Russians simply have an incredible capacity for rudeness. But then, inevitably, one meets Russians at home, or at a business meeting, where hospitality, formality, and elaborate courtesy are far more developed than in the West, and one finally sees that Russians in fact have manners bordering on the baroque. The solution to the mystery? Personal Distance.

Personal Distance is "...the distance consistently separating the members of non-contact species [like humans]." While some species, like walruses (a contact species), prefer physical contact, and happily sprawl all over each other, other species like foxes, birds and humans, don't. Humans however, determine the size of optimum personal distance culturally, not genetically, and so acceptable distance varies widely from country to country. Sociologists have extensively studied the way space, body position and distance between people affects their behavior. Edward T. Hall in The Hidden Dimension, for example, describes the social values applied by Americans to certain distances between people as falling into four main categories: "Intimate distance (0-1&1/2 feet), Personal distance (1&1/2-4 feet), Social/Consultive distance (4-10 feet), and Public distance (10 or more feet)." The problem is, while these same four categories exist in other parts of the world, the distances used to display them are quite different. In Russia these distances are much, much shorter, in Northern Europe, they are even longer.

This can make an expat American's life deeply confusing. I get up, I go to the bank to change money, and unthinking, I stand directly behind the person ahead of me in line at a regulation American space of 1&1/2-4 feet. I also conspicuously do not look at the transaction taking place, lest I be thought nosy, or worse, a thief. Immediately, a Russian comes in, and, seeing that I am obviously (to him) waiting for somebody or am undecided about which line to get in, he sidles in to the right of what seems to be the only person in line, at a distance of about 1-2 inches. If I don't immediately follow his example, others will come and do so, and I'll be standing, slightly to one side, of a line of a dozen people, still not getting my money changed.

Then, at my new job I'm introduced to another expat, an Englishman, Jeremy Noble, a tall handsome Brit so completely the stereotypical upper class English intellectual/writer that I feel like I've inadvertently walked into a comedy by Coward. Trying to make a good impression, I stand up, lean forward, and thrust out my hand preparing for a textbook American business handshake of job-interview firmness. As I watch Jeremy back up a foot, and his face register a brief panic (looking at my hand in horrified fascination as though it were an exotic, possibly poisonous, insect), I recall too late one of my father's favorite quotations "If an Englishman offers you his hand, take it, it may never happen again." Jeremy does in fact shake my hand, but I can see him mentally chalking me up as pushy and rude, precisely because I did what is the accepted polite greeting in America. English distance is longer than American distance, and the accepted occasions for minor physical contact much fewer.

Russians going abroad often have difficulties like this. I recall meeting my first "straight off the boat" Russian, Petersburg theatre designer Danila, in 1990. After our brief introduction we had a design conference at a worktable reserved for such meetings. Instead of sitting across the table from me, as was usual, he sat next to me about 1-2 inches away. My first impression was that he was making a "pass" at me, a seemingly odd occurrence in the middle of a discussion of Gulag prisoner uniforms. But when when he began leaning into my face and raising his voice to a near shout, I was convinced he was angry. Shortly thereafter I worked out that sitting that close was simply normal for Russians like himself, and that the "shouting" and leaning were signs he was interested in our discussion. Two years later, after Danila had become an American University professor like myself, I met him again. He now sits, moves and stands at American distances, but still cranks up the volume whenever he is excited about designs.

Another Russian-American college professor I know, Anatoly does the same. Despite over a decade in America he goes into Russian conversational mode whenever he gets into a serious discussion. I recall one occasion when I had to rapidly comfort and enlighten a confused new scene designer who came out of a design conference nearly in tears: "HE HATES ME!" he wailed. "What makes you say that?" I asked. "He was shouting at me, and leaning into my face, and pointing his finger in my face through the whole thing!" "Was he smiling like a higher primate during a dominance ritual?" I asked. "Yes! He has horrible teeth, and he was baring all of them!" "Great! That means he was interested in what you had to say." Next time you hear two salesclerks "arguing" look closely at their faces. Watch as they part from the "argument" and see if they are smiling. Four cases out of five you'll see they are. Most of what sounds/looks like an argument between two Russians, to foreigners, is only an ordinary exchange done in the emphatic mode. What we read as anger is in fact often only the raised volume and close distance of a personal conversation.

Russians need to know this is why foreigners seem so jumpy when they first arrive. In Western eyes people are yelling at and shoving them (the usual precursors to a fistfight back home), or flirting or even sexually molesting them by "intimate" touching and "space-invasion". Naturally foreigners are imagining that you are either trying to lift their wallets by being so close, or are attempting to start a fight or begin a seduction. A few days of this "molestation" by dozens of Russian strangers, often reduces tourists to hysterical panicked rabbits. Add to this that the Russian "neutral" expression is a blank, not smiling face. This means Russians also appear forbiddingly angry to Americans even when they say nothing at all. Americans in turn, often appear to be vulgarly laughing at strangers when they automatically smile at people on the subway.

Eye contact is also different from culture to culture. Russians, often seem to be staring rudely by Western standards of eye contact which allows for little or no contact between strangers. In 1993 I brought over a group of American students to Russia. Without exception they all wove elaborate paranoid fantasies about harmless Russian strangers "staring at me with this evil expression" on the bus. Conversely, they all had a terrible time getting salesclerks to respond at counters when using the standard American method of simply staring at the clerk till she says "Can I help you?" Fact is, around here you can stare for a week and not get service until you politely say "Devooshka?"

Edward T. Hall describes some of the main sensations that go through Americans minds at the 0-1&1/2 feet of American Intimate distance: "The presence of the other person is unmistakable and may at times be overwhelming because of the greatly stepped-up sensory inputs. Sight (often distorted), olfaction, heat from the other person's body, sound, smell, and feel of the breath all combine to signal unmistakable involvement with another body. This is the distance of love-making...the high possibility of physical involvement is uppermost in the awareness of both persons." The problem is that Russian Personal distance lies within an American's Intimate distance, just as American's Personal distance lies within Northern Europe's Intimate space. The result is that Russians seem pushy or over-amorous to Northern Europeans, and Europeans seem cold, and unfriendly to Russians. Americans, existing somewhere in the middle, manage to equally offend both parties, for opposite reasons.

And this effects sexual relationships between nationalities as well. The standard methods (advocated by no less an authority than Cynthia Heimel in her humorous but practical book Sex Tips For Girls) with which American women hint that they are highly attracted to a man are twofold. One, a woman will "maintain eye-contact a second or two longer than is proper." Two, she will then sidle up to him, without speaking, into a distance of a few inches. In America this is usually a strong hint to a man that the woman wants sex with him. Needless to say with normal Russian eye contact and distance behavior, Russian women make American men feel like they are all flirting outrageously. This is the sort of unintentional flattery that makes Western men find Russian women so sexy. On the other hand, many Western men, by using their own national norms for greater distance, little touching, and low eye contact, strike many Russian women as far more "respectful" and "polite" than Russian men. This, as much or more than economic considerations, contributes to the growing trend for Russian-American romance.

The key here is awareness. Westerners living in Russia need to temporarily adapt their spatial relationships to the Russian style for day to day survival. Russians working regularly with short term tourists (who won't have time to adapt themselves), need to respect the spatial conventions of the nationalities they service, or risk annoying their customers. Once you understand the rules, it's easy to fit in.

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