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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 are aware of it. In this post I want to open your eyes to its existence – a thing that perhaps will provide you with some insights into 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:

Space Invasion

image 106 1

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 a bubble to protect him from the environmental hazards around him.

What does this have 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 for our personal space – we treat it as our “private air space” and we feel very vulnerable when someone intrudes on it without invitation. Obviously, it’s not the environmental hazards that we fear, but rather that awkward, annoying feeling when someone stands too close.

Effect of Invasion of Our Space

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 differently 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, stick the palm in front of their face), then they say something like “I won’t touch you.” It’s 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 an 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.

people in a crowded place

Why Does the Size of Personal Space Differ?

The complexity of personal space comes from the fact that its size is affected by many factors; some of which are very varied from person to person. These factors actually cause a social ‘accident’, when different people have different concepts 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 is perhaps the most major factor.

Different cultures have their own measurement of the ‘right’ personal space.

  •  Intention
  • 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 right.

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 in 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 the personal space I mentioned above.

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.

woman and man talking while respecting their personal space

How does Gender affect Personal Space?

Women are more sociable than men: they get social cues better, are 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).

How does Culture affect Personal Space?

The culture we grew up in has a tremendous effect on who we are as individuals, whether we like it or not. One of its direct influences is the size of the individual personal space.

‘Distant’ cultures (northern Europe, the US, and many other Western cultures) tend to keep more personal space and use less touching than other more ‘warm’ cultures.

Asian cultures are characterized by a more accommodating and accepting attitude when it comes to personal space, the theory says it’s due to more crowded living conditions.

Other cultures including South Europe, the Middle East, and South America 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 at an early age. That’s why culturally I’m much closer to the Israeli culture than the Russian, and I’m used to having 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.

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 these stereotypes affect your 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 in 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 living in 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.

four people sitting with distance from each other while using their phones

What is Status’s Impact on Personal Space?

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.

The 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 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.

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 sitting on his chair, however, can lead to some interesting results.

How Do Social Situations Impact Personal Space?

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 get back to work again, you’ll retain the appropriate workspace between you.

Does Personal Space Change with Age?

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.”

Does Purpose & Personality Impact Personal Space?

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 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 introverted 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 involve 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.

many people inside an elevator

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 to 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.

Now it’s time to get practical: how to keep your distance, know what to do when we invade another’s space by mistake, and even how to use space invasion to get some personal benefits.

What to do when your Personal Space is Invaded

Man stopping hand sign

First, let’s see what are our options and what considerations should we make when our personal space is invaded.

While you simply can say: “hey, you’re standing too close” to someone; it will still be quite awkward and you may come out a little as a snob in the eyes of others surrounding you. It’s a nonverbal game that is better resolved by nonverbal means.

Another option is to push them back – that’s an even worse course of action since now you’re taking hostile action against them.

This scenario happens a lot between 2 angry cocky males – one is getting too close with his chest puffed up, head up and a flaring nose, and a really bad attitude, the other guy pushes him back away to retain his space – a cue to start a fight.

So since most of our meetings are made in a peaceful context, we need to treat space invasion in more subtle and elegant ways.

First, you need to stay calm and try to understand what is the meaning behind such a move. If the reason is a cultural one or status-related, consider if that’s worth resisting, since it’s an honest “mistake”. I mean, one of you won’t be satisfied with the distance you will stand at – either it’s too far for him, or it’s too close for you (obviously, this can be the other way around).

I know that this may sound hopeless but this knowledge gives you the edge – you get to make a conscious decision about it – and take action to prevent it or to accept it; because you understand what happens behind the scenes, the other party probably doesn’t.

Another option to consider is when the invasion is done on purpose:  as an attempt to intimidate you or, on the opposite, to try getting closer to you to warm up the relations between you (paradoxically it often gets the opposite result).

After this ‘evaluation’ phase is over it’s time to decide what action to take (if any):

Tips on Handling Space Invaders

Okay, a little patience… I’m getting to it…

Instinctively, the first move you’ll probably make is to step back.

You need to retain your space so you naturally move backward. If your company is observant enough, they will notice it and hopefully respect that. 

If they’re not, this little play can occur several times during a conversation and you may find yourself traveling in the whole room before the conversation is over.

Like I said before, if the specific relationship is important enough for you, and you need something from the other party, it may be worth it to “suffer” their comfortable personal distance to leave a better impression on them.

If, on the other hand, you decide to stay on guard and to keep away the invader you can create a barrier: either to find an actual barrier like a table or to fold your arms.

It will make you feel more secure and will deter the other party from getting closer. As a bonus you can stare with an unblinking gaze and a motionless head, it sends a very standoffish attitude all that fails, and you still have one option left – get even closer. Take the initiative and invade their space too. It may feel very awkward, now that you stand even closer, but it shows that you’re not intimidated and in control.

What if you’re the intruder? 

If you make a step and notice a change in the ‘tone’ of the conversation – to a more hostile or defensive one, take a casual step back and continue the conversation from that distance. I know that it may feel weird to stand too far by your standards, but it’s much better to keep more distance than intruding on someone else’s space.

Can I Use Space Invasion to My Benefit?

Yes, sure you can, but it can backfire on you.

Invading another’s personal space can be an effective tactic to confuse them and then manipulate them to do your will. But it’s a very risky tactic, you can’t be 100 % sure how they will react, some people may seem like easy targets but can burst when put under this kind of pressure.

So unless you truly believe it’s better to be feared than loved – use it with caution, or even better, avoid it. Is it helpful in flirting or to warm up relationships? Again, it’s a risky move but can be done.

The question is this: is the person you’re trying to get into you at all? If you’re on a date and everything goes well – you can try to get closer, if it is met without resistance (i.e. they won’t recoil and stand back with bewildered expression on their face) it’s a great sign.

Take into consideration that it’s a process; it doesn’t mean that if they recoil back they don’t like you, it can simply mean that you’re not there yet.

Let’s Finish This

We began with a talk about our “bubble” of personal space that we consider our private ‘breathing’ space. We learned that the size of that bubble is affected by many factors –cultural, habitual, status-related and some are more personal.

The invasion of that bubble is a big “no-no” in our social interaction and should be generally avoided unless you try some power plays. Space invasion causes us to be very aware of ourselves and our actions and thus a very confusing and annoying experience. Seriously, try it – stand closer than usual and observe how you and the other person feel.

And lastly, we saw how we can use this knowledge to our benefit and protection. I hope this will prove helpful next time in your social interactions.

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Stefan Speaks AI
Stefan Speaks AI
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