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Personal Space: Why Two Can Be a Crowd

Personal Space: Why Two Can Be a Crowd

Allison Ford | Divine Caroline

It could happen just about any time you step out in public. You get onto an almost-empty bus, but the next passenger inexplicably decides to bypass dozens of vacant seats to sit right next to you. While you’re waiting in line at the supermarket, the next customer insists on standing only two inches behind you and shouting into his cell phone.

You go into a public restroom, and the next person to enter decides to use the adjacent stall. Transgressions like these don’t just make us feel uncomfortable; we often feel squeamish, anxious, alarmed, and downright violated. It’s the attack of the personal-space invaders.

In any society, shared definitions of personal space govern how we interact with other people. We all have an unspoken expectation that we’ll be granted a small “bubble” of sanctuary around our bodies, and when someone pops that bubble by standing or sitting too close or extending an unexpected touch, we feel intruded upon.

Our perception of personal space is one of our deepest and most powerful forms of nonverbal communication, and we expect other people to play by the rules. Not only is it upsetting to experience an invasion into our physical space, but we also react to breaches in our psychological space, like intrusive scents, sights, and sounds, such as overpowering perfume, lecherous gazes, or loud music.

Based on our understanding of how personal space works, researchers can accurately predict which stall people will choose when they walk into a bathroom, and which seat they’ll take at a communal table. They also know that humans react to personal-space invasions with stunning similarity.

The Study of Space

In 1966, an anthropologist named Edward Hall coined the term proxemics, which he called the study of the distance between people as they interact. Hall found that people’s body language, posture, and need for personal space changed subtly depending on their precise circumstances. He visualized a person’s personal-space requirements as a target, with the person standing at the center, and designated four zones, radiating outward in concentric circles, that marked acceptable distances for interaction:

Intimate distance, from six to eighteen inches away from the body, is used for interacting in intimate relationships and kissing, hugging, or embracing.
Personal distance ranges from 1.5 feet to four feet away from the body, and is used for talking with good friends, family members, and those the person knows well.
Social distance, from four to twelve feet away, marks the space required for interacting with coworkers, acquaintances, or professional service providers, or having other polite but impersonal encounters.
Public distance is the required space for public speaking, and can range from twelve feet to twenty-five feet away.

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