In this post I want to show the value of what most of us take for granted – the personal space. This air space around us is not only a buffer zone so we won't stumble into each other, but also a private area that we consider almost as an extension of our body.
I say for granted not because we don't appreciate it enough, but because we hardly even think, or aware about it. In this post I want to open your eyes to its existence - a thing that perhaps will provide you with some insights to your social interactions.
In this series of articles I will talk about what happens when personal space is invaded by unwelcome company, why this happens and the factors that affect this zone. And, of course, what is the practical application of this knowledge.
Let's start with:
I think the best way to understand the importance of personal space is to look at what happens when it's invaded. Let's start with a little metaphor:
Do you know by chance the movie "Bubble Boy"? – It's a film about a boy who lives inside an actual plastic bubble. Due to his very weak immune system he needs the bubble to protect him from the environmental hazards around him.
What this has to do with us? Not the intention of publicizing the movie, believe me, it's not that great. But the bubble is a great metaphor to our personal space – we treat it as our "private air space" and we feel very vulnerable when someone intrudes it without invitation. Obviously, it's not the environmental hazards that we fear, but rather that awkward, annoying feeling when someone stands too close.
There are actually many psychological and physical effects that are immediately activated when someone is getting too close. They cause us to behave a little different than usual, some examples (not all of them must occur):
● Extreme self awareness – suddenly we forget how to act 'naturally'
● Limited movements and gestures
● Reduced eye contact
● Turning aside or away from the intruder
● We'll usually immediately take a step back.
● Adopting a defensive position – folded arms, less smiles, frowning, tense posture.
● Stopping the conversation entirely.
To demonstrate how space invasion can be a real pain, let me tell you how kids sometimes really like to mess out with each other:
When caught fighting and stopped, some kids like to tease the other party with a simple trick- they reach out with their hand and almost touch the other kid (or even worse, stuck the palm in front of their face), then they say something like "I don't touch you". It's actually an invitation for a fight, without taking responsibility for starting it, because it's impossible not to respond to this kind of irritation.
In short – space invasion puts us in a very uncomfortable and protective position. We can feel vulnerable and angry, or just wonder at the intentions of the invader.
All that occurs when this intimate space is invaded by unwelcome or unexpected company of course. People we love and feel intimate with are usually welcomed to our zone, and often are invited to enter it.
The complexity of personal space comes from the fact that its size is affected by many factors; some of them are very varied from person to person. These factors actually cause a social 'accident', when different people have a different concept about the 'right distance' to stand from each other. Some of these factors are:
● The social situation
● The personal relation with that person
● The status of the people involved
● Our personal liking or disliking towards that specific person
● The gender
● Culture– perhaps the most major factor.
Different cultures have their own measurement of the 'right' personal space.
● The density of our living space.
Wow… with so many factors, how can we possibly 'get' what is the right distance to keep from someone? First of all, somehow you survived so far in our social world without thinking about it –you can pat yourself on the back, you're doing fine. Remember that body language is mostly subconscious, you can leave it on autopilot and you'll be quite alright.
But what happens when we make mistakes, when we misinterpret the social signals of others? Or when a cultural clash occurs? How do we know that we accidentally pushed too far? Because let me tell you – most people won't say to you: "hey, you just invaded my space and I'm uncomfortable with it!"
I'll answer these questions and more on the next post.
Now that we know that keeping personal space is important, and
invading it is the 'bad' (we'll see about that, too) I recommend you to read
the article on the different personal zones from the perspective of Proxemics,
as observed by Edward T Hall. (coming soon)
Or let's just continue with the application of what we have just discussed. Just before we jump into the practical aspect, I want to give you a better background on the factors that affect personal space I mentioned above.