The term “personal space” refers to as an imaginary space which is theorized to surround each and everyone, such that it sets the distance between a person and somebody else. Just as body movements and facial expressions can communicate a great deal of nonverbal information, so can this physical space between individuals. 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. But how do these invisible bubbles of space surrounding each of us come to exist in the first place, and why does it feel so icky when they overlap?
First, how big are these bubbles? According to the American anthropologist Edward Hall, whose 1960s research on the topic still stands today, you’re actually enveloped by bubbles of four different sizes, each of which applies to a different set of potential interlopers.
- Intimate distance: extends roughly 18 inches (46 cm) from the individual and is reserved for family, pets and very close friends. Displays of affection and comforting are commonly conducted within this space. The only strangers an individual typically accepts within his or her intimate space are health care professionals.
- Personal distance: extends 1.5 to 4 feet (0.46–1.22 m) and is reserved for friends and acquaintances. A handshake will typically place strangers at least 2 to 4 feet (0.61–1.22 m) apart, preserving the personal distance. However, a friendly kiss on the cheek by a woman as a greeting is widely practiced.
- Social distance: extends from about 4 to 12 feet (1.2–3.7 m) and is used for formal, business and other impersonal interactions such as meeting a client.
- Public Space: extends more than 12 feet (3.7 m) and is not guarded.
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.
General Rules of Personal Space:
- Never touch anyone you don’t know.
- Don’t reach for anyone’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.
- 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.
Etiquette is more than just eating with the right fork and knife; it is about making people feel comfortable around you and respecting other’s personal space is part of etiquette.