We have all heard the term “Personal Space” used before in one context or another, but what does this really mean? Animals for centuries have been known to have their personal space and territories, snakes will attack you if you walk around their nest of eggs, dogs will bite you if you come too close into the territory they’re protecting, Lions will stay away from the other Lion prides and their marked land (with urine and poo), and so on. In the 1960’s Dr Edward Hall was one of the leading pioneers in the study of human personal space or what he called “proxemics“. Humans also have marked territories: we have marked the borders of our countries, the borders of our states, the borders of our cities, the borders of the suburbs we live in – we have even fenced off our houses to establish the outline of our land just like Lions.
What is interesting however is that apart from the obvious borders we have created, we also have invisible air borders around us, certain distances reserved for certain people. How comfortable would you feel for instance, if a perfect stranger was standing right next to you thrusting his body against yours and feeling his hot breath on your neck (uff…this is turning erotic! :S)? Do you ever wonder why we avoid eye contact in trains? Or why we feel spaciously violated in elevators and public transport?
We all carry an invisible air bubble around us that we feel comfortable in, and as soon as someone comes too far inside our bubble we will immediately feel discomfort and start becoming anxious. This bubble is created in our childhood and varies depending on the location you grew up in. For example, someone who grew up in the country side or on a farm is used to having lots of space to themselves, therefore, their bubble would be significantly bigger than someone who grew up in New York or New Delhi where the population is denser and everywhere is more crowded. A few years ago in Spain they decided to add extra seats in class rooms as the population was growing instead of expanding the schools, the result was catastrophic as the students not only could retain less information but became significantly more violent by the invasion of personal space and started fighting each other.
There’s general zoning distances you can keep in mind if you live in the city area of a Western country, some of these distances are increased by interaction of two men and decreased by the interaction of two women, they break down into the following:
- Intimate Zone: This is about 15 to 45 cm’s (6 to 18 inches). The Intimate Zone is the most important zone of all as it is only reserved for a select few of people, including parents, love partners, children, family and very close friends. The proximity chosen by people is also dependant on who the other person is. Only love partners or our children for instance, would be allowed to engage in close physical proximity (15 cms or less) especially in the hip area as opposed to a distant family member. Anyone who is not meant to be in the Intimate Zone and enters it will cause physiological changes (such as increased heart rate) in our body as we will feel threatened.
- Friend Zone: This is about 45 cms to 1.2 meters (18 to 46 inches). This is the distance that we reserve for social gatherings such as parties, friendly interactions, etc.
- Social Zone: About 1.2 to 3.5 meters (4 to 12 feet) this zoning is reserved for strangers we just met, acquaintances and anyone we interact with that we haven’t established a relationship with.
- Audience Zone: This is anything over 3.5 meters (12 feet) and is used to address an audience or large group of people, such as when playing Charades.
To put the zoning example to the test, go to any place that has large crowds of people who are forced to have their Intimate Zone violated and are in objective locations, such as public transportation places like trains and buses, to elevators, and lines at the supermarket or museum. Try observing the following actions in yourself and others, as though they are the unwritten rules of human contact in crowded places:
- Eye contact must be avoided at all costs.
- Show no emotion whatsoever and maintain an expressionless face.
- If standing in a large compact crowd; remain rigidly stiff as a pole and avoid any physical movement.
- You are a selective mute for this journey even if you see somebody you know, hold your breath if possible.
- Act busy, pretend to read a book, newspaper, take out your phone and text or watch the floor numbers change in the elevator.
Another thing to notice about our behaviour is that if we have the option to choose where to sit or what to claim as a space of our own, we will usually select the seat that is located right in between two other claimed personal spaces rather than sit in the immediate seat facing someone else (look at the main article photo up the top). Have you ever gone driving in your car and noticed that the person in the car next to you is applying makeup, picking their nose, or combing their hair as if nobody could see them? It is thought that our personal space can change depending on the object we choose to entrust our Intimate Zone in, giving that specific space the power to become an extension of our personal space (read about Property below). This is just like the father who has his personal chair in the lounge room and doesn’t like anyone else using it because it has become an extension of his intimate zone – the same can happen with cars, where the borders of our car become our invisible air bubbles defining our Intimate Zone borders. This is why when someone is tail gaiting us or cutting us off, we feel our Intimate Zone is being invaded, many times resulting in cases of Road Rage.
Apart from Personal space amongst us humans there is another strange thing that exists to mark our space: our belongings or possessions. You’ll notice when someone is bragging about their new car or boat they will start leaning against it or putting their foot on it while making statements such as “Yep…this is my new baby!” This doesn’t only apply to material objects though, couples as well will do this just as often by embracing each other or leaning against one another. This is a form of creating some sort of physical contact with what is ours and is a way of giving us the illusion that the object or person is an extension of our body and therefore part of our personal space or property.
Women will start “grooming” their husbands by touching their clothes, fixing their ties not only to show affection but to display to the ‘competition’ that he is spoken for, aka. “He’s mine! Stay back bitches!!” My teachers would always complain that I was being disrespectful by putting my feet on the school desks – I would always answer “this is something between me and the desk, if he doesn’t complain or find it disrespectful why should you?” – but in fact such a simple act was really an unconscious way of claiming that the desk was my property. You can also see people doing the same and claiming that something is their own when they lean on the front door of their house for instance. This can also be seem at school, when bullies lean on benches, and the walls of the hallway or classroom as they believe the school is their property and therefore have the right to do whatever they want with any kid in it. If you happen to get a bully on your front lawn and challenge him to a fight, see how confident they will feel.