As Americans, we are conditioned from a young age to have a very distinct self of self. We are individualistic in our thinking, spanning from our first bedroom to our individual burial lots. Americans, as a society, look to advance the interests of the “I.” In 2006, the Josephson Institute of Ethics conducted a survey of 36,000 students in Los Angeles and asked questions such as, “would you be willing to lie or deceive another individual to advance yourself in your own career?” Not so surprisingly, more than sixty percent of students chose an individualistic approach in answering.
This is a great example of Americans drawing a circle around the “I” in our culture. According to Crouch’s article, Mexicans and Americans: A Different Sense of Space, “when we draw circles around ourselves, we are inside the circle looking out” (Crouch, 2004).
Our sense of space is directly linked to our behavior. As our space is encroached upon, we become increasingly defensive and uncomfortable. We have also associated spatial distances with romance. Crouch mentions that if a Mexican female comes near in conversation to an American male, the male should not take this gesture as a come-on (Crouch, 2004). However, if this was an American female, closing a gap of space could be considered a romantic gesture. This notion of space is embedded into our culture; having an individualistic perspective is rooted in generations of American traditions and family life.
Mexican culture draws its circle very differently. As opposed to thinking of the individual, Mexicans use a collective “we” – drawing a circle around their family. Defining this family space is important; it is the comfort and safety of a home that provides nurturing and support to Mexican children. Crouch writes that “physical closeness goes along with closer families and less sibling rivalry” (Crouch, 2004).
American perception of Mexican culture’s sense of space is usually negative; we “see them piled onto a train” (Crouch, 2004) and make jokes about how many can fit in a car. In reality, Mexican culture encourages this element of together-ness; “Mexicans will always feel more comfortable being part of a group” (Crouch, 2004). Within this sacred space, they are in control of what is going on – not something that can necessarily be promised outside of their homes.
In conjunction with this notion of space, however, comes a ferocity to protect the family circle. Mexicans traditionally have walls between their houses; they are concerned with “sharply demarcating one family’s living space from another family’s” (Crouch, 2004). This is not to say, though, that Mexicans are leery of those around them.
Many families in Mexican culture celebrate unity among their neighbors and host group meals. When a member is accepted into this family circle, he or she is embraced wholeheartedly. When they are in their group space, “they behave according to what that space is dedicated to” (Crouch, 2004).
Understanding the two distinct approaches to space is important to intercultural communication because it explains why a Mexican would approach situations differently than an American. I recall visiting a Mexican restaurant one time and feeling sorry for the Mexican children that had to help out their parents. However, in understanding the cultural perspective of Mexican families, children helping at a restaurant may be considered a family duty. As part of a group dynamic, it only seems natural that the children would also learn the customs and traditions of their family.
American and Mexican concepts of space not only differ in terms of family and personal space, but also in the realm of business communication. In American culture, we encourage employees to work side by side with a team; questions can be asked freely among higher ranking executives and interaction is recommended. This is ironically different from our individualistic concepts of personal space. However, within business, collaboration and creating an equal playing field facilitates a healthy working environment. Employers look specifically at whether or not a prospective employee could work well in a team.
In Mexican culture, the warmth and security of a personal, family space does not translate into the workplace. According to the text, creating a distinct hierarchy between boss and worker is normal for Mexicans. Crouch writes, “the Mexican boss will have an exaggeratedly large office and desk to emphasize the hierarchal distance between himself and his minions. This is his power distance” (Crouch, 2004).
In America, businesses strive to create an environment where lower employees feel just as valued in the company as higher employees. In Mexican culture, businesses rely on the fact that the boss is the “big man” (Crouch, 2004) and deserves a higher level of respect than other employees. In this way, their culture does not facilitate an open door for questions; it would be considered beneath the boss’ skill set.
Understanding the difference between an American’s sense of space in business verses a Mexican’s will surely save business deals. As Mexican’s value their group space immensely, an American must adapt his or her sense of space as not to disrespect their coworker. This would include approaching the Mexican’s space with “a proper greeting, avoiding flamboyant gestures, not shouting, and general circumspection (Crouch, 2004). It is crucial that Americans adjust their individualistic tendencies as not to threaten or “disrupt the harmony of the group” (Crouch, 2004).
This may translate to an American making a conscious effort to preserve the hierarchal status of the Mexican’s business practices by not undercutting his or her authority in front of other employees. It could also mean accepting a personal invitation for dinner, understanding that this welcoming into a Mexican’s personal and protected space is more than just a nicety.
When entering the space of someone from another culture, it is crucial to the relationship that respect is the primary offering. Being sensitive to the perceptions of space held by Mexicans requires Americans to be cooperative in our actions and gracious in communicating within that group. Once we have been welcomed into the circle, cultivating those relationships should be the number one priority.
Crouch, N. (2004). Mexicans and Americans: A different sense of space. Intercultural Communication: A Reader. (Larry A. Samovar, Richard E. Porter, Edwin R. McDaniel, eds.) 13th edition, USA, 2012, 189-197.