Have you ever met someone who stands too close when they talk to you? Occasionally, we come across such people who will stand in our faces so that we get a light spraying whenever they talk and usually this can make us feel rather uncomfortable (not to mention wet). Not only is this a social faux pas, but it also seems to upset some basic natural desire to avoid getting so close to other people – and it can be a little unsettling.
But what is this sensation all about? Where does it come from? And why do some people insist on invading that personal space? Let’s take a closer look…
What Is Personal Space?
Our personal space is essentially the distance that we want people to stand outside of when we talk to them for us to feel comfortable. We reserve this space only for people who we are romantically involved with and if someone is forced to cross this threshold, then we would prefer to avoid eye contact (in a crowded lift for instance).
Our personal space though is just one of the several ‘invisible bubbles’ that we think of as ‘psychologically ours’. Accordingly to anthropologist Edward T. Hall, we actually have a total of four. These are:
Public Space: This is the region that is a comfortable distance for strangers to exist in and is generally around 12ft+. People who you don’t know can stand 12 feet away from you and look in your general direction and you should find you don’t generally feel uncomfortable.
Social Space: Social space is the distance that we want people to stand when they talk to us. Anything closer than this will make us feel uncomfortable, while anything further will feel rude and awkward. Generally, social pace is anywhere between 4ft to 12ft.
Personal Space: Personal space is the area that we reserve just for ourselves. It is assumed that once someone crosses this threshold that they are either being aggressive or intimate. For most, personal space ranges from 1.5ft to 4ft.
Intimate Space: Finally, intimate space is anything lower than 1.5ft and is a space we reserve only for those that we are already intimate with. If someone should invade our intimate space against our will, we will likely feel very uncomfortable.
If everyone agreed with these strict rules, then we would live in a world where no-one ever felt ‘in our face’ and we would all be happy. Unfortunately, it’s actually a little more complicated than that and some researchers even argue that measuring by distance is effectively useless.
The first consideration is situational and environmental factors that might force people into our personal space. As mentioned briefly, when we pack ourselves into a small elevator we might be forced to violate one another’s personal or even intimate space. In such scenarios, it seems that it is eye contact that is most important; if someone’s arm is pressed up against ours then we generally won’t mind, but if their face is pressed up against ours, then this can be distressing. This is likely due to the role of eye contact when combined with proximity in displaying aggression or intimacy (1).
There are also individual differences to consider. For instance, personal space appears to increase in size between the ages of 3-21 years (2), thus meaning that young children are happy to stand in closer proximity. This points to personal space perhaps being a learned trait, and what further suggests this, is the fact that those from more densely populated areas actually have smaller personal spaces than those from areas that are more sparsely populated. The implication here, is that being brought up in crowded areas means that some people are forced to become used to having their personal space violated within reason.
Personality also plays a role in our perception of personal space. For instance, someone who is generally anxious is likely to have a larger personal space than someone who has a more relaxed and laid back disposition.
Going back to the earlier question of why some people seem to fail to respect your personal space, it’s also possibly due to a lack of awareness for social cues – and could even be due to mild Asperger’s. Otherwise, it may be that they’re just young, that they come from a big city… or that you’re of an anxious disposition and have a smaller-than-average personal space!