Personal Distance

Stefan Speaks

Stefan Speaks


Table of Contents

Personal distance in a more structured way – divided into zones.

Why is this important?

Why should you care about this separation into zones?

Why is Personal Distance Important?

First, I’ve talked about the importance of personal distance in the article of how invading the personal space of another’s can be a trivial yet a serious mistake. People are very touchy when it comes to their private space – by respecting that you get credibility and trust from them. By understanding how people divide their space – you can have a better notion of where your presence is welcome, and where it’s not, and to act accordingly.

Secondly, on the flip side, by careful observation of the personal distance others keep from you (and the alignment of their body) you can measure the amount of trust and affection they feel towards you.

Let’s first start with a little background on the person who divided the personal space into zones – Edward T Hall

The 4 Main Zones

Edward T. Hall (1914-2009) was an American anthropologist who developed the concept of ‘Proxemics’. He made a lot of research about how we divide our personal distance, how it’s affected by our culture and what is the difference between personal space and territory.

He concluded that there is a direct correlation between social standings and physical distances between people. It means that when you consider someone to be in your ‘friend’s zone’ you literally prefer him in a certain distance, away from your intimate space, but close enough to be a friend.

So he divided the personal distance we keep from other into 4 main zones. These zones serve as ‘reaction bubbles’ – when you enter a specific zone, you automatically activate certain psychological and physical reactions in that person.

Keep in mind, these zones serve as general guidelines. They vary and affected by many factors, most importantly by the context of your culture. So don’t niggle about every cm (or inch) – get the main idea and see how that works in your culture.

Public Distance Zone

It’s the most outer ‘bubble’ and is usually larger than 3.6 meters (approx. 12 feet).This zone is reserved for public speaking, or generally, when talking to a large group. It’s just feels much comfortable to address a large group from a distance – it’s as if you consider the whole group as one individual with a great amount of personal space.This is comfortable for the audience too – they all get to see you (and hopefully hear you well enough too).

This zone is also great for general observation of other people without really interacting with them. A neutral zone so to say. Imagine, for example, that you found someone attractive and you look at them from this far distance – it’s probably OK and perhaps even flattering for them. Getting closer and stare, though, can send chills down their spine.

Social Distance Zone

This space is between 1.5 – 3 meters (5 – 10 feet).It’s the most neutral and comfortable zone to start a conversation between people who don’t know each other well.

It’s the distance you keep from strangers that you may have some interaction with them like: shopkeepers, clerks in the bank and other sales or service providers.

Sometimes you will find that this distance is actually shorter, especially in a sitting scenario. The explanation I find most fitting to this behavior is that in those cases there is usually some kind of an artificial barrier between you and the stranger – a desk or some board/book/paper you or they hold. This barrier helps to relax and maintain the comfort zone and in the meanwhile allows you to be in closer proximity to discuss and examine details.

Personal Distance Zone

Personal distance between friends

Ranges from 60cm to 1.5 meters (2-5 feet).

This space is reserved for friends and family – people you know and trust. It’s an easy and relaxed space for talking, shaking hands, gesturing and making faces.

Now, there’s also some division inside this personal space, it depends on personal preferences and affection. The guideline here is this: the more you like someone – the closer you’ll stand to him.

I’ve talked about leaning forward in positive body language posture article, and the main idea is that leaning forward towards someone usually show’s interest, affection and it builds rapport. 

If possible, you should avoid getting too close to prevent invading personal space. But getting closer, in an acceptable level, shows that you like the other person. So you start the magical circle of rapport – they see that you like them, they like that you like them and in turn they will like you back. (so many likes..!)

Intimate Distance Zone

intimate distance - couple

Rangesfrom direct contact to 60 cm (2 feet).

Obviously it’s the space reserved only for the most trusted and loved in our social circles: partners and siblings. It doesn’t mean that we’re offended by a friend’s hug or anything, only it’s going to be brief and less intimate.

This space (especially the 15 cm (1/2 foot) zone bubble) is like a private bubble of breathing space, almost as an extension of our body. When someone is getting that close, our body and mind automatically reacts – it’s being put on flight or fight mode. If it’s someone acceptable in our most inner circle – we relax and enjoy the intimacy, but if the presence is unwelcome, we will shut down and try to retain somehow our comfort zone.

Some people use “power plays” to invade that space and to take advantage of this state of confusion and vulnerability. For example, one of the popular interrogation techniques is to intimidate the suspect by getting very close to invade his intimate zone. Then, while he’s helpless, try to exploit his vulnerability and discomfort to extract information.

Another optional interpretation for getting this close is: sexual advancement (or a faked sexual interest – to seduce and manipulate) –it’s an indication that the other party wants more than a mere friendship – they want intimacy.

What about Crowds?

What about crowded conditions? Like when standing in a full elevator or bus? A crowded concert or a long line in the DMV office?

While we certainly don’t feel very comfortable in these situations, we’re not on our edge either, so what really happen?

Obviously we don’t welcome these strangers to our intimate zone by will, but on the other hand we know that we have no choice in that matter and neither do them. So our brain found an elegant solution – we avoid treating them as other individuals in an act called dehumanization. Since we subconsciously choose to ‘ignore’ them as human beings, to feel more secure about ourselves, we automatically avoid any human contact with them:

  •   We avoid eye contact –staring at the ceiling or floor.
  •   We wear blank face expressions.
  •   We make the minimal movements and gestures possible to avoid contact

That’s why crowded public spaces often viewed as cold and distant, there is a big contrast between having so much people in one place and so little human contact. But that’s understandable, since we don’t have much choice in that matter – we just don’t feel secure enough surrounded by strangers standing so close.

If you’re bold or adventurous enough you can try making eye contact and smile (or express some other human quality) while ‘stuck’ in such crowded situation. I bet you’ll find it extremely awkward and the results varied: some will meet you with a bewildered, frightened face “what do you want, psycho?” kind of thing, others may send you a smile back… (:

Bottom Line

In this post I introduced you with one of the main concepts of Proxemics – the division of personal distance into zones. Don’t confuse it with personal territory – think about it as a bubble that encircle you all the time and affects your reactions to others.

Your territory on the other hand is the places and things you consider to be yours, even when you’re not there near them: your country, your city, your house, your room, your chair, your phone etc.


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