Hi there, in the previous post I talked about the importance of personal space – from the negative outcome - what happens when we break this social rule. Now I want to move on to the next phase – understanding the mechanics behind it. This background is important even if your interest in the body language of distance is purely practical because you need to draw the right conclusion before you act.
I mentioned that the size of personal space is subjective and varies in size depending on diverse factors. In this post my aim is to explain these factors and their possible interpretation in body language.
Let's start with something we can't really do anything about:
Women are more sociable than men: they get social cues better, more emotionally expressive and are generally better than us men when it comes to emotional communication. It's only natural then that women will feel more comfortable being closer to each other than men.
Men are more territorial and aggressive by nature and will keep more distance from other men, but when it comes to women we will usually prefer to get a little closer (except the really shy ones among us).
The culture we grew up in has a tremendous affect on who we are as individuals, whether we like it or not. One of its direct influences is on the size of the individual personal space.
'Distant' cultures (northern Europe, US, and many other westerns cultures) tend to keep more personal space and use less touching than other more 'warm' cultures.
Asian cultures are characterized by more accommodating accepting attitude when it comes to personal space, the theory says it's due to more crowded living conditions.
Other cultures including south Europe, Middle East and South American's are considered to be more 'warm' by nature – touch and close proximity are more welcome and socially accepted.
An example from my personal life – I'm Russian by origin but I migrated to Israel in early age. That's why culturally I'm much closer to the Israeli culture than the Russian, and I'm used to have a shorter personal distance than some of my relatives who lived in the Russian culture. A thing that I always need to adjust myself to when meeting them.
How do you like your crowd?
Obviously, generalizing this information is a big mistake. It's not my intention to say that all Europeans are distant and Asians like to crowd, it's merely an overall cultural code.
Don't let this stereotypes affect you judgment of other cultures either, like Einstein said – "it's all relative". If you come from a "warmer" culture, for example, western cultures may seem distant – but only for you. Among themselves, Europeans feel natural and "OK" with their personal space.
So when arriving to a foreign country it would be smart to adjust yourself to the cultural codes of personal space of the place - it will only serve you better in creating good connections.
There's also a difference between country living culture and the urban city lifestyle – country people are used to live in a vast and mildly populated areas while city dwellers are more used to crowding. This means that city dwellers will usually have a smaller personal space than country people due to this habit of density.
Your status has a huge effect on your personal space size and demand. First of all – like the alpha male of the pack, the higher your status the more space you consider to be yours. It's no surprise that the first class seats are bigger and have more space per individual.
Status also affects the size of the territory you require. Just Like the kings of old owned a huge palace – not because they needed 20 bedrooms and an Olympic swimming pool, but because it showed the measure of their power and influence. In modern days we have the equivalent mansions of the rich and famous to demonstrate their wealth and rich lifestyle.
When it comes to dominant – subordinate relationships it means that the high status person can invade the space of the lower status person without too much resistance, and sometimes he's even encouraged to do so.
E.g. if you'll meet your favorite movie star – you will welcome his company and even his touch – even though he's almost a complete stranger to you. But it won't go the other way around – it will be highly inappropriate to get too close to that star without a clear invitation to do so.
Just like the lion - the alpha male needs more territory to call his own.
Obviously, this rule applies even if you don't really like the person of the higher status. Even if you hate your boss, it's completely acceptable for him to visit you in your office without a direct invitation. Getting uninvited into your boss's office and seating on his chair however can lead to some interesting results.
What type of social situation is this? Is it a cocktail party? Is it a staff meeting in the boardroom? A fishing trip with some friends? A public lecture?
In each of these situations you'll act and keep your space differently. Even if these are the exact same people.
For example – you'll probably keep a distance from your boss (probably the same one from the previous example) during work, but on a fishing trip together some of the social borders will fall down, and you'll feel more comfortable being in closer distance. However, when you'll get back to work again, you'll retain the appropriate work space between you.
It's most relevant when talking about children. Children are much more open and naïve in nature than adults – that's because they lack some of the 'social boundaries' that limit us as adults. Therefore – if a kid really likes you he'll run and hug you when he sees you, without too much worry about your readiness for such an "assault" (:
So far I was talking about environmental and general factors that affect the size of our personal space, but we also need to take into consideration some personal or character based reasons behind it.
What do I mean?
It means that if we put aside all the other factors, the reason why someone acts as he does is entirely depends on his attitude, mood, intention or relation to you. It's the most obvious factor that we almost always consider to be the right one.
"Why does he stand so far away from me?" – "Because he's a snob" "because he doesn't like me" "because he's introvert and shy"
It's usually the first thing that comes to our mind automatically – because we tend to judge people subjectively, focusing on the reasons that involves us and our point of view – after all, the world is about "me", right? And sometimes it's justified, just make sure to rule out the other factors first.
Is this personal?
Some people, for example, invade personal space on purpose – both to intimidate them and consequently manipulate them. Other people try to use this tactic to further advance a relationship into a more intimate level, ironically, this very thing can cause the opposite reaction.
When it comes to personality, extrovert people naturally tend to keep less distance than introverts. It doesn't mean that's good, it means that extroverts will get along fine with other extroverts and probably annoy the introverts.
Well as you can see, there is no single thing that affects the way we keep our personal space. The purpose of this list is just to give you a clue about what's going on behind the scenes.
Knowing this gives you a huge edge when dealing with people because you can analyze their actions better and understand what they really think, rather than being offended by their behavior. So next time don't take it personally when you think someone is a cold snob – maybe you're communicating on a different level.
In the next, and last, post on the importance of personal space
and its application I will focus on how you can take this knowledge and use it
- How to defend your space, how you can use space invasion to intimidate or
flirt, and perhaps the most important thing: how to measure the right distance.