Have you ever been uncomfortable when someone stands too close? Some people don't seem to understand that putting their face inches from yours during a conversation can have you squirming and looking for the nearest exit. That person has invaded your personal space.
About Personal Space
The term “personal space” generally refers to the physical distance between two people in a social, family, or work environment. Think of your personal space as the air between your body and an invisible shield, or bubble, you have formed around yourself for any relationship.
The distance between you and your shield most likely varies from one person to another, depending on a variety of factors, including how well you know the person, your relationship to that person, how much you trust him or her, and your culture. In order to put others at ease, it's important to understand the importance of personal space.
Determining Factors for Personal Space
The comfortable space between you and someone you know well will probably be much smaller than it would be if you barely knew the other person. With a stranger, it is even greater. Typically, people who live in crowded cities have smaller personal space preferences than those who live in wide-open spaces.
Other factors that determine a comfortable personal space:
- Male to male
- Female to female
- Male to female
- Professional relationship – any combination of male and female
- Romantic versus platonic relationship
- Culture and country
Average comfort levels of personal space distance in the U.S.:
- Approximately 0 to 20 inches for intimate couples
- Approximately 1-1/2 feet to 3 feet for good friends and family members
- Approximately 3 feet to 10 feet for casual acquaintances and coworkers
- More than 4 feet for strangers
- More than 12 feet for speaking to a large group
General Rules of Personal Space:
These rules vary according to culture and location, so they're not etched in stone. They're here as a guideline for social and professional etiquette.
Here are some basic rules:
- Never touch anyone you don’t know.
- Don’t reach for anyone else’s children, regardless of your intentions.
- Stand at least 4 feet away from a person unless you know him or her well.
- When someone leans away from you, you are probably in that person’s space that makes him or her uncomfortable. Take a step back.
- If you walk into an auditorium or theater that isn’t crowded, leave an extra seat between you and the next person. However, it is acceptable to sit next to someone if the room is crowded.
- Never lean over someone else’s shoulder to read something unless invited.
- Never go through anyone else’s personal belongings.
- Don’t allow your dog to go to the bathroom on someone else’s property.
- Acknowledge personal space on the road. Don’t tailgate when driving.
- Don’t fling your arm around someone’s shoulder or slap anyone on the back unless you know the person very well.
- Don’t enter a room or office without knocking first.
- Don’t cut in front of people in line.
Personal Space at Work
Observing boundaries in the office is important to maintaining professionalism. However, after working with people for years and getting to know them, these lines may have become blurred, especially if you work in cubicles or have an open office concept. Be aware of other people's reactions, and if they seem uncomfortable, add more space between you.
Keep in mind that others who don’t know you well, including supervisors, may misunderstand what they see. That is why you should observe professional distance while at the office and reserve more intimate gestures for after hours.
- Be aware of company policies regarding relationships with coworkers.
- Don’t assume your relationship with a coworker or supervisor is personal.
- Avoid hugging or other familiar gestures.
- Only step into someone’s workspace if you know you are welcome. Be respectful if you sense the person is busy.
- Save personal conversations for the lunch break or after hours.
What to Do if Someone Invades Your Personal Space
When someone gets uncomfortably close to you, there are several things you can do. Keep in mind that being direct may hurt the other person’s feelings, so before speaking your mind, determine whether or not the issue is worth bringing up.
Ways to deal with space intrusion:
- Accept it.
- Lean away from the person or take a step back, hoping he or she will take the hint.
- Come right out and say you are uncomfortable being so close.
- Explain why you need more space. For example, if you are left-handed and the person is too close to your left side, comment on how you need the space to take notes without your elbow being jostled.
Teach Kids How to Protect Their Personal Space
When teaching manners to small children, show them how to protect their boundaries and respect the personal space of others. Explain how important it is to follow the wishes of people who tell them to back off. Make sure you tell them in language they understand.
Some parents use the bubble analogy, explaining that everyone has an invisible bubble around them, and when you get too close, it pops. Also tell your children that they should let you know if anyone tries to touch them inappropriately.