In the News: Colors and Culture

In The Science of Speaking, I wrote about both color and cultural differences, but not hadn’t yet found this wonderful graphic about cultural differences in the meaning of colors, produced by David McCandless of Information Is Beautiful.

The letters represent different cultures, while the numbers represent different meanings—the colors represent themselves. By reading around a given ring of the chart, you can see the corresponding culture’s color palette. By reading down the radii, you can see which colors are used around the world for each meaning.

As you design your presentations for different audiences, be sure to keep in mind these differences. While some colors and meanings are universal—for example, heat and passion are always red, others are not: while green represents life and growth in China, it actually represents death in South America.

From the Lab: Don’t Stand So Close to Me

In a recent study including almost 9,000 participants in 42 countries, researchers investigated cultural differences in the size of our “preferred interpersonal distance.” Specifically, participants were asked to indicate the minimum distance (in centimeters) they would need to feel comfortable standing next to a stranger, an acquaintance, or a close friend. The results are presented in the chart below.

In Romania, for example, the preferred distance from a stranger was about 135 cm (4.4 feet), while in Argentina, it was about 80 cm (2.6 feet). In the United States, it’s around 95 cm (3.1 feet).

While these specific findings are quite interesting, what I find most relevant here is the reminder of the general principle: there can be major cultural differences in expectations for social interactions, including all aspects of public speaking. Whether it’s in how much distance we expect to have between people, or differences in the meaning of common gestures, or the amount of eye contact we feel comfortable with, it’s always important to keep your audience in mind, and adapt your presentations to their expectations. Just as no two speakers are exactly alike, no two audiences are either—and our presentations should always take that into account.