September 05, 2007
What's Your Comfort Level with Space?
There's a cultural phenomenon with space. Americans love it. A lot of it. Even the die-hard New Yorkers I know retreat to the Hamptons, eat out at restaurants rather than at home in their 700 square foot flats and marvel when they walk through a WalMart in the burbs. Trust me, I've seen them do it. Even a trip to a large Target draws a reaction.
Space and our relationship with it identifies us to one nationality or another, and can bring us together in almost the same way animals respond to pheromones at mating season.
When you meet someone new -- for business or pleasure -- begin to test their boundaries with space by moving closer at surprising times or retreating by a foot or so just as you are beginning to build rapport. Watch what happens.
You can also test this concept to a lesser degree by exaggerating a handshake or a casual hug when saying goodbye after a friendly dinner. The more aware you are of people's comfort levels and therefore relationship with space, the more you can alter your energy to increase human rapport. Warning (or not :-): this energy shift can be instantaneous.
Those who have had serious sales training may have practiced some of these techniques through something called mirroring, a non-verbal communication and body language that can be a powerful way to connect with people. In essence, you create rapport by adopting the body language of the person you are communicating with.
Mirroring is an effective process that can make you feel closer to an individual and them to you, by both observing and replicating their gestures, including things like their comfort level with space, accent, voice tone and volume.
It was on my first trip to Europe as a teenager that I first learned that Americans not only give each other more space than Europeans, but why they do. One visual which represents this well is in a Tom Cruise movie where he securely affixes his flag in the ground to claim ownership of his new land.
Space, wilderness, the final frontier of our century. Driving through the Dakotas or Montana are golden reminders of the beauty and intensity that comes with wide open spaces, land that stretches for miles and miles without another soul in sight. It's something the American midwest takes for granted.....the miles upon miles is always there and you don't need to rub elbows with anyone else. The American desert extends this bareness a step further.
I grew accustomed to tiny quarters and rubbing elbows with everyone -- all the time -- when I lived in Europe. Amsterdam is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. One of my flats along the Waalstraat was so small that your knees touched the door when you sat on the toilet.
In Italy, it has less to do with available land and more to do with culture, although both come into play in places like Rome and Venice. In an afternoon sitting on the beach in Stintino a couple of weeks ago, I chose an umbrellaed chair in a corner, a quiet corner. It was the one day I avoided the remote and wound up in a heavily touristed area by accident, so I made sure to select a chair with several empties around it.
As the day wore on, some of these chairs filled up, yet people were not choosing the empties five or ten feet away, but ones which were nearly touching my chair on both sides. Others came throughout the day and this pattern continued.
I also noticed this trend in coffee bars and restaurants, which was fabulous during this trip as it opened up a dialogue with people you would never reach out to otherwise. How was their food? Were they traveling too? Were they Italian, French, from somewhere else? And a few selfish moments: how's my bad Italian? My marginally better French?
Here in this place, this place of closeness, you learn a lot more about a culture than you ever anticipated you would. It's very different from America's wide open spaces, where instead, you have conversations with nature in ways that can blow your mind. Both are relevant. Both important. Both you must do.
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