Tom and his brother, Ernie, share a room. One day as Tom was reading a letter from his girlfriend, Ernie came over to Tom’s side of the room and made like he was reading over his brother’s shoulder.
“Get out of my face,” Tom shouted as he pushed Ernie away.
Most people need space around them to feel comfortable. The amount of space needed depends on many things, including what culture they were raised in, what relationship they have with the person who is near them, and what their own personality is like.
According to sociologist Erving Goffman, there are three types of space settings or territories: public, home, and body.
There are differences among the three territories: In public territories, people can come and go at will. Most private business is conducted in home territories. Body territories are conceived of as personal space.
As an example, if you wanted to invite someone to a dance, you probably wouldn’t announce it over the loudspeaker at a football game. That request is a personal matter, which needs to be handled in a private setting.
Personal Space Defined
Dr. Edward T. Hall, an anthropology professor, coined the word proxemics to describe the territorial zones we have around our bodies. He said we have four zones for personal space: 1. intimate distance, 2. personal distance, 3. social distance, and 4. public distance.
These zones are the areas we operate in. Intimate distance is the closest. It can be actual touching or up to 18 inches.
Usually, only close friends or family will be in range.
When people violate intimate space, they make others anxious and angry. Policemen will often get very close to suspects–sometimes to seem like a friend, sometimes to intimidate them. Other people who violate your space may be trying to show they are more important or powerful than you.
Another way people can violate intimate space is inadvertent, such as in sporting events or social situations. Have you ever seen a basketball player make a rebound, then move his elbows back and forth to claim distance? Have you ever felt a little claustrophobic under a pileup in football? How about in a crowded elevator? The next time you ride in one, watch the other people. Most of them will look up at the numbers or will stare at the floor. They do this out of respect for other people’s space.
How Much Distance Do You Need?
The next zone of personal space is the personal distance zone. Here, Dr. Hall further breaks it down into close personal distance (1-1/2 to 2-1/2 feet), where you can still touch someone, to the far phase, which extends up to 4 feet.
Remember Mary, who was mad because Sally the cheerleader stood too close to her boyfriend, Steve? Sally probably had invaded Steve’s close personal distance. That is considered major flirting to most people. Sally should have stayed at the next range, the social distance.
Social distance also has two ranges: close is from 4 to 7 feet and is generally where we conduct business. Far is from 7 to 12 feet, where your teacher might sit at his or her desk to show authority.
The final type is public distance, which ranges from 12 feet and beyond. Generally, this distance is reserved for public gatherings, such as auditorium addresses or political speeches.
Traditionally, the amount of space you need to feel comfortable depends on you, but the reason you need space at all comes from the fact that humans are “territorial” animals. That means that when humans were hunting and gathering their food, they would stake out land. Because some places were more productive, ancient peoples would fight over them.
Today, people still fight over the best land, and they still stake out their personal space. “No Trespassing” signs and fences around yards to keep others out are seen everywhere. No Trespassing body language, such as a cold shoulder, is also effective at keeping people away.
Space: The Final Frontier
When someone confronts you, personal space violation is still difficult to define. With personal space, even eye contact or body language can trigger negative feelings. Staring at a person usually means that you think there may be something peculiar about that person. So, although you may be several feet away, they may feel threatened because you are staring at them.
Being conscious of personal space may be difficult. The important thing to remember is that everyone is different. If you feel closed in, the best thing to do is let your feelings be known. Chances are the other person was never aware of personal space.