Interpersonal distance, body orientation, and touch present interesting and sometimes unconscious ways of communicating. Even without knowing, people react to the striking cultural differences in the use of space and touch. Kennedy, Gläscher, Tyszka, and Adolphs (2009) found personal space is regulated by the human amygdala. In fact, patients with dysfunctional amygdalas lack any proximity sense. Although this research explains the location of regulatory function, proximity sense and the frequency and manner with which people use touch is the combined affect of culture, gender, and sometimes, age (Remland, Jones, & Brinkman, 1991).
Generally speaking, French people expect far less personal space than is typically preferred by Americans. They do not, however, implement casual touch more often than Americans (Remland, Jones, & Brinkman, 1991). These authors found that American dyads were less proximate than were French dyads. Additionally, the French tend to squarely face each other when interacting and are far more at ease with confrontation in social situations (Dion & Bonnin, 2004). Like many Americans, French people do not use casual touch unless they are familiar.
From personal experience, the French seem to feel more comfortable with less space between them and the person with whom they are communicating. After living in France for a relatively substantial amount of time, my French friends would tease me about the distance I kept, saying I didn't like the smell of the French! I never did get used to them speaking so close to my face.
Implications in Counseling
If I were counseling someone from France, I would make sure I prepared a seating arrangement that would accommodate their preference for less personal space between individuals. Keeping a typical American distance might be off-putting, or make them feel ill at ease. Furthermore, distance could convey the counselor's lack of interest.
The French have long been known as a society that will take it to the streets, so to speak. They are not afraid of confrontation and consider themselves equals to governmental or secular powers and will literally demonstrate in the streets to display their dissatisfaction. They typically face controversy head on. Considering their penchant toward equality and squarely facing challenge, I would be prepared to accommodate sitting squarely, facing each other, if that appeared his or her preference.
Regarding touch, I would feel uncomfortable using casual touch. When counseling someone from France, I would not use touch as a means of non-verbal communication. I might, however, respond to their typical way of greeting and separating by kissing on both cheeks. They would most likely use cheek kissing (faire la bise) when they were leaving, especially if we had a therapeutically intimate session.
Edward T. Hall argued that "differing cultural frameworks for defining and organizing space, which are internalized in all people at an unconscious level, can lead to serious failures of communication and understanding in cross-cultural settings" (Brown, 2011, para. 2). Additionally, Hall (1960) explains societies thrive on the basis of agreements. Haptics and proxemics are customs to which people agree without knowing they are doing so. I thought Hall's (1960) description of a fundamental error in business was particularly poignant and applicable to the therapeutic environment: the most common error is "ignorance of the secret and hidden language of foreign cultures" (p. 96). As counselors, it seems important to learn these silent languages.
Brown, N. (2011). CSISS Classics. Edward T. Hall: Proxemic Theory. Retrieved July 9, 2012, from http://www.csiss.org/classics/content/13/
Dion, D., & Bonnin, G. (2004). Une étude comparative des systèmes proxémiques français et tunisiens. (French). Recherche Et Applications En Marketing, 19(3), 45-60.
Hall, E. T. (1960). The silent language in overseas business. Harvard Business Review, 38, 1960. Pp. 87-96., 38, 87-96.
Kennedy, D. P., Gläscher, J., Tyszka, J. M., & Adolphs, R. (2009). Personal space regulation by the human amygdala. Nature Neuroscience, 12(10), 1226-1227. doi: 10.1038/nn.2381
Remland, M. S., Jones, T. S., & Brinkman, H. (1991). Proxemic and haptic behavior in three European countries. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 15(4), 215-232. doi: 10.1007/BF00986923