27 Mar 2023

Don't stand so close to me...

Personal space became a much talked-about issue during the Covid pandemic as we all struggled to obey instructions to ‘keep your distance’ and attempted to surround ourselves with a much larger than average ‘exclusion zone’. Life has returned to a semblance of post-pandemic normality, but for many of us personal space is still an issue. These concerns may also have become more pressing as we enter a ‘cyberspace’ era; many of our social interactions are online, where the subtleties of body language are irrelevant, and our notions of personal space in the real world may have become impaired through lack of practice.

Scientists argue that our concept of personal space is the foundation on which we build all our social interactions. It emerges from an atavistic urge to protect ourselves from threats or predators, overlain by social expectations and by our own attitudes to other people, which may have been formed by our upbringing, our experiences or social conditioning. Different cultures also have quite clearly defined attitudes towards physical space.

To some extent our sense of our own physical comfort zone and our reactions to threat are hard-wired, although we are clearly attuned to social expectations and need to make countless micro-adjustments as we move through the world. Most of the time, we react to the people around us, accommodating and, to a certain extent mirroring, their use of physical space, without any conscious thought. Our own sense of space is contextual: we are likely to be much more comfortable, and therefore happy being physically close, with friends and family, than in our encounters with strangers or work colleagues, where our spatial boundaries are naturally magnified. It is an important social skill to be able to make these judgments and adjustments; this ensures that we are never accused of inappropriate or intrusive behaviour.

Most of us are broadly average when it comes to our physical comfort zone; we maintain a distance of 3–4 feet (unless we are with people we know intimately), we are happy to shake hands, kiss in greeting, and we don’t react violently to being touched.

But some people require a much larger exclusion zone: they create more physical distance, are reluctant to touch strangers when being introduced, and flinch if their space bubble is invaded, for example if somebody reaches out to touch them or places a hand on their back.

By contrast, we’ve all encountered ‘close talkers’, people who are physically overbearing, who are often tactile and invasive. Frequently, these people are tall or substantial, with dominant personalities ­– they are clearly demonstrating that they are not intimidated by their fellow human beings and have very limited exclusion zones. Or they may simply be oblivious extroverts, who are blissfully unaware that they are treading on toes, barging into other people and overwhelming them, because their exuberant bonhomie propels them towards close encounters with their fellow human beings.

It is common courtesy to respect other people’s space bubbles and to resist being invasive and overbearing. But it should also be acknowledged that if you are a person who requires a large amount of space, you may well be broadcasting subliminal messages that are chilly and stand-offish. If you recognise this about yourself, try and make a conscious effort to stand a little closer to other people and, even if you do not initiate physical greetings, at least try to reciprocate without flinching.

How to deal with a space invader

• Stand back

If you feel someone is looming over you or touching you more than you like, just take a step back. You may find that they react by taking a step forwards and re-closing the gap you have created, in which case further action is required.

• Use furniture defensively

Standing behind a well-placed table is an excellent way of heading off a space invader. Alternatively, if chairs are available, you can always say “shall we sit down?” – chairs are bulky and awkward objects and it’s much harder to enter someone’s space bubble when you’re sitting in a chair.

• Deploy non-verbal signals

There are other ways in which you can demonstrate discomfort and deter someone from violating your space. You can fold your arms or put your hands on your hips, which are closed, defensive gestures. If you are seated, cross your legs and sit at a slightly oblique angle from the target and lean back. Minimise eye contact, or fix your gaze on another object, avoiding eye contact altogether.

• Speak up

If you’ve worked your way through your entire armoury of non-verbal signals unsuccessfully, you might have to say something. While it is tempting to say, “Back off!”, it is undeniably rude, so try saying something more subtle like “Sorry, would you mind stepping back a bit? I’m feeling a bit claustrophobic!” or “Oh dear, it’s very crowded here – shall we go somewhere where there’s more space?” It should be possible to convey the message without being offensive.


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