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Personal Space: Why Two Can Be a Crowd

Personal Space: Why Two Can Be a Crowd

Allison Ford | Divine Caroline

Room of One’s Own

Our adherence to personal-space rules is so strong, it’s even been found that people who play virtual-reality games like Second Life follow real-life personal-space rules within the game. But one big problem with personal space is that every person has a slightly different definition.

In general terms, cultural influence is a major determinant of personal-space requirements. People in the United States, Canada, England, and Nordic countries have the largest personal-space requirements. Those living in South America, Europe, and Asia have far smaller standards of personal space.

Even within a country, people’s definitions of personal space vary depending on the population density where they live. People living in densely populated cities like Mumbai, Beijing, or Mexico City tend to require less personal space than people living in sparsely populated places within the country. In America, New Yorkers often have smaller requirements than residents of western states, like Montana and Wyoming.

Because everyone has different standards, gestures that are innocent in one place can be interpreted as hostile in another. Some people might see those with small personal-space requirements as pushy or rude, while those with large personal-space requirements are sometimes seen as cold or aloof.

Sometimes it simply depends on the individual person and his or her mental state, gender, social status, and history. Psychologists have found that women have smaller comfort zones than men. People of higher social stature demand more personal space than those of lower classes. Victims of abuse usually display a need for larger amounts of personal space than other people, and demands for extensive personal space are common traits of certain psychiatric diseases, like schizophrenia.

It may even be possible that damage to certain regions of the brain could result in lessened perception of personal space. A study from the California Institute of Technology, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, found that people with damage to their amygdala, an organ that processes memory and emotions, had a lessened concept of personal space. Ultimately, most of the personal-space invaders we encounter are simply people who are inept at reading social cues and don’t realize that their behavior is intrusive.

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