Personal space in Tibet
Personal space is an important topic in terms of interculturality. People from different parts of the world will not have the same physical behaviour when interacting with other people. Therefore, knowing about personal space and body language is quite important when building a relationship.
Tibetans’ behaviour with known people
Tibetans here in Lhasa do not fear physical interaction with people from the same gender.
Among friends, girls will hold hands with girls in the street, or will link arms with their friend. Contrary to western culture, boys will also do the exact same thing. A boy holding a boy’s hand in the street is a perfectly normal sign of friendship. It’s not uncommon to see a group of boys forming a line, holding each other’s hands. It’s also usual for same gender friends to sit on each others’ laps, hug and hang out lying entangled on the same bed, without any other thought. Young people behave this way a lot. Older people do too, but less.
This comfortability is not only limited to close friends. Even when you have just met someone, if that person liked you, she or he might shake your hand and then not let go for 10 minutes. Possibly, that person will gently squeeze your hand, or even caress it. A girl will do that to another girl. A boy would definitely do that to another boy too. Leaving you time to feel really weird about it, if you are not used to it. However, you get used to it pretty easily, to the point where you will grab your same-gender friends’ arm or hand very often too.
Among family members, this physical proximity is usually even more natural. You can witness male cousins hugging, holding hands for endless moments or putting their hand on each other’s leg. When it comes to family members, gender does not seem to matter. A girl could hold hands with her male cousin on the street. Also, older relatives seem to like patting you on the cheek to show you their appreciation (even if you are already 35 years old).
Seeing these behaviours as perfectly commonplace here, what you originally found awkward ends up becoming normal after some time.
This is the funny part. You do not have to be introduced to each other to share physical contact. If you use the public transportation, or stand in crowded places, you will quickly realise it.
You will most likely first experience this with an old Tibetan grandmother (“Mo-la” in Tibetan ; རྨོ་བོ་ལགས།). Old Tibetan grand-mothers often use Lhasa’s public bus system. Some of them are going to pick up their grandchildren at school, which is very common in Lhasa. Some will ride the bus to get to their daily religious circumambulation around a holy monument. Some of them look like they are 100 years old, missing their teeth, wearing messy white braids and walking with an extremely bent back. Some are very elegant, moving slowly in the bus so as not to be shaken by the buses turns. The rest of them look a bit younger, most fit, almost jumping in and out of the public bus.
Most of those grandmas will lean on you when they feel a bit tired or will grab your arm when they get off the bus, so they will not fall. Younger people will actually also spontaneously go help older people (we will talk about people’s behaviour in the bus another time).
The same applies in crowded places. If you are lining up, grandmothers will probably lean on you when they feel tired. All while wearing a huge smile on their face.
What do you think about Tibetan version of personal space? In your opinion, is it very different from what you know?
Special thanks to Thomas Pan who proofread this article!