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Woah woah woah – Personal bubble space and Korea

Bubble space. 개인공간.

To fully appreciate the invasion of personal bubble space, allow me to narrate my first bromance experience. You never forget your first:

Wow what a great party. Good friends, good food, good drinks. Oh hey, there’s one of my new buddies now. Oh he’s coming over here. Cool. Maybe he has something to tell me. Nope. Just standing. Smiling. Oh, standing and smiling a little closer than usual. No problem. Woah. Uh…I hate to pop his bubble but he’s standing too close to me. Seriously. What? You want to hold hands with me? Wait…why are we walking together with our arms around each other. Am I drunk? Am I gay?

Heterosexually unintoxicated, my Korean friend was just being friendly. But who deserves to feel weirded out? Was I the one homophobically over-analyzing the situation or was he just way over the “friend” line? Where exactly do we draw the line at invading personal space? Are Koreans just natural bubble poppers?

Many foreigners find it a little disturbing and even a few Koreans are aware that some foreigners are a little weirded out by it. Most foreigners require a specific amount of space in which to comfortably function. Some of us may wonder if this space has a measurement. What would be an acceptable distance for personal space? Well wouldn’t you know it? Someone figured it out a while back.

Personal bubble space Korea friendship

I would imagine that a standard Korean bubble would be a whole lot more orange and red and less blue and green. As we saw before, Korean friendships can be pretty hardcore. They start early and they start heavy. If a friend is a friend, it starts at kindergarten and lasts a lifetime. So consider that personal space invaded daily. Touchy-feely much?
Korea friendship boys holding hands personal space bubble

I don’t have much to say on the subject of maintaining my own bubble. Like some other foreigners, I have a ‘switch’. When around Koreans, my space shrinks and I’m more comfortable with same-sex friends hanging around my neck. Around other Westerners, I give the ‘back that train up’ look if anyone gets in my bubble. Like other situations, when appropriate I make the switch to whatever is considered normal.

But like AAK pointed out, why isn’t my ‘switch’ always on? Am I that insecure that I can only display affection towards Koreans but not friends from other countries? I mean, even writing that sentence makes me sound a little gay. This is coming from someone who has no personal problem with homosexuality in any way whatsoever but yet I feel bound by my cultural standard that demands that I appear as straight as possible at all times. No need to confuse the masses, it seems.

What about straight Korean men? Aren’t they afraid of looking…you know. Sure it may look a little strange from the Western perspective but then again, we’re talking about a very small aspect of Korean culture. It looks big and scary from a Western perspective but what is transpiring is very natural. What you see is two people of the same sex expressing their affection for each other in a platonic way that can only be described as ‘friendship’. Looking deep into the meaning of why two guys are all over each other would be placing a non-standard cultural judgment on something that already has a judgment. In Korea, it’s fine. So if you find yourself staring and waiting for two Korean guys to kiss, wait a bit longer because it likely won’t happen.
true love KC101 friendship guys

However, the question begs – who determines the normalness if there are members of different cultures present? If one American and one Korean are in a room, whose rules do you follow? Does it matter if you’re in Korea versus America? Is there a spoken arrangement beforehand? Does it matter if you’re speaking English or Korean? What about Korean versus Korean-American?