Personal space was an idea first developed by German born Swedish psychologist David Katz in 1937. It is very often describes as an “emotionally charged bubble of space which surrounds each individual” or alternately “Personal space is the region surrounding a person which they regard as psychologically theirs. Most people value their personal space and feel discomfort, anger, or anxiety when their personal space is encroached.” On the other hand, some research suggests that the personal space bubble is not circular, but elliptical and so we can tolerate people coming closer to us at the side than front or behind.
The 4 stages of a person’s Personal Space
This is a Proxemics Theory, which had been investigated by Edward T Hall in 1959, who describes a person’s personal space to be in 4 layers;
Intimate distance for embracing, touching or whispering
Close phase – less than 6 inches (15 cm)
Far phase – 6 to 18 inches (15 to 46 cm)
The closest distance is generally the domain of those who have an intimate relationship with each other, but also includes situations where the social rules allow contact, for example in a wrestling match (Edward Hall distinguishes between near situations requiring body contact and far distances which require being very close but not in contact (whispering)). This distinction is rather artificial since whether contact occurs will depend on a variety of things such as the social and physical setting.
Personal distance for interactions among good friends or family members Close phase – 1.5 to 2.5 feet (46 to 76 cm)
Far phase – 2.5 to 4 feet (76 to 120 cm)
This zone generally reserved for good friends or intimate partners in a social setting; the near aspect is generally reserved for couples or very close friends, whereas, the far phase is used by acquaintances or simple friends.
Social distance for interactions among acquaintances
Close phase – 4 to 7 feet (1.2 to 2.1 m)
Far phase – 7 to 12 feet (2.1 to 3.7 m)
This is the zone where those who are not acquainted interact or where business transactions occur. The near distance would be used by those being introduced or for informal business transactions whereas the far phase would be reserved for more formal business processes.
Public distance used for public speaking
Close phase – 12 to 25 feet (3.7 to 7.6 m)
Far phase – 25 feet (7.6 m) or more.
It is subdivided into near phase such as the distance between a speaker and an audience, and the far phase being the distance for example between the public and an important public figure.
This is an easy concept to understand; if anybody enters our bubble, then they are invading personal space.
Invading Personal Space
When somebody invades another person’s personal space it can make the person feel anxious, awkward, insecure, vulnerable, annoyed and uncomfortable simply because there is another person standing too close to them and makes them question the intensions of the invader.. The term “invasion” would generally only be used if the person “invading” it has not earned their place in one of the four layers. There are actually many psychological and physical effects that are activated when a person is getting too close to another and they cause people to behave a little different than usual, for example: ● Extreme self awareness – suddenly we forget how to act ‘naturally’ ● Limited movements and gestures
● Reduced eye contact
● Turning aside or away from the intruder
● We’ll usually immediately take a step back.
● Adopting a defensive position – folded arms, less smiles, frowning, tense posture. ● Stopping the conversation entirely.
Factors that influence personal space:
Gender- Males interacting with other males require the largest interpersonal distance, Men are more territorial and aggressive by nature and will keep more distance from other men, but when it comes to women we will usually prefer to get a little closer. This is then followed by females interacting with other females, which requires a little less space and distance as compared to just two men, as investigated by Gifford in 1987. Women are also more sociable than men: they get social cues better, more emotionally expressive and are generally better than us men when it comes to emotional communication. It’s only natural then that women will feel more comfortable being closer to each other than men. However it probably depends on the situation, or the relationship, or the age group and so on as well.
Culture- This is perhaps the most important factor when it comes to investigating the difference in invasion of personal space. Hall (1959) identified the importance of cultural variation. He suggested that while all cultures use personal space to communicate, and tend to conform to the different categories, the size of the space within the categories varies across cultures. Hall also identified the essential issue in inter-cultural difference as the tendency to interpret invasions of personal space as an indication of aggression. Some international examples of this are: ‘Distant’ cultures (northern Europe, US, and many other westerns cultures) tend to keep more personal space and use less touching than other more ‘warm’ cultures. Asian cultures are characterized as more accommodating and accepting attitudes when it comes to personal space, the theory says it’s due to more crowded living conditions. Other cultures including south Europe, Middle East and South American’s are considered to be more ‘warm’ by nature – touch and close proximity are more welcomed and socially accepted. Age- Some evidence suggests that personal space gets bigger as we grow older (Hayduk, 1983). Children tend to be quite happy to be physically close to each other, something which changes as awareness of adult sexuality develops. In addition the gender difference does tend to also appear at this time.
Status- Status has a huge effect on your personal space size and demand. First of all, like the alpha male of the pack, the higher the status the more space is considered to be one’s (no surprise that the first class seats are bigger and have more space per individual!). Status also affects the size of the territory that is required. Just Like the kings of old owned a huge palace – not because they needed 20 bedrooms and an Olympic swimming pool, but because it showed the measure of their power and influence. In modern days we have the equivalent mansions of the rich and famous to demonstrate their wealth and rich lifestyle.
Personality- There is some evidence of personality difference but effects here need to be treated with caution given the situational dependence of traits. Extraverted and gregarious persons tend to require smaller personal space, while cold and quarrelsome people require a larger interpersonal distance (Gifford, 1982).
Urban vs. Rural- The amount of personal space someone needs is relative to the population density of where they live, for example, in sparsely populated areas people get more space than in densely populated areas; country people are used to live in a vast and mildly populated areas while city dwellers are more used to crowding. This means that city dwellers will usually have a smaller personal space than country people due to this habit of density. The distance someone extends his/her arm to shake hands gives us a clue whether he/she is from a rural or urban area. People from the city tend to have an 18-inch bubble which allows the hands to meet in neutral territory. People brought up in a town with a small population have a space bubble of up to a meter. People from rural areas tend to stand with their feet firmly planted on the ground and lean forward for the handshake, whereas a city dweller will step forward to greet you. People raised in remote areas might require an even greater Personal Space, which could be as wide as 6 meters. They prefer to wave rather than shake hands.
Study 1- Felipe & Sommer 1966
Aim- To examine the effects of the invasion of personal space Method- Research was carried out in a public library amongst people of similar cultural backgrounds who were sitting alone. These people were split into two groups: 1) Those where the confederate approached them, sat in the chair next to them and moved the chair closer to them. 2) Those where the confederate approached them and sat in the next-but-one chair. Results- When someone came and sat in the chair next to them and moved the chair closer to them, 70% of the lone people left within half-an-hour. When someone came and sat in the next-but-one chair only 13% of the lone people left within half-an-hour. Conclusion- People found this invasion of their personal space disruptive. Researchers also noted that those whose personal space had been invaded moved their chair, put ‘barriers’ up such as books and changed their body position to move away.
Evaluation of this study:
Strength- Has high ecological validity since it was conducted in a public place. Weakness- This study used people from a similar background and hence may only be applicable to those sorts of people- this study cannot be generalised.
Case Study 2- Sommer 1969
Aim- To examine whether there are cultural differences in the use of personal space Method- Researchers observed groups of Arab people and groups of white English people in conversation. Results- The comfortable distance for conversation for Arab people was under 1 m, whereas for white English people the comfortable distance was between 1 m and 1.5 m. Conclusion- Different cultures are comfortable with different amounts of personal space.
Evaluation of this study:
Strength- Explores how culture affects somebody’s personal space and hence raises awareness of how different cultures have various tolerance levels (when it comes to personal space). This study also raises awareness to people of different cultures when they are visiting other, culture rich countries. Weakness- The study was conducted a long time ago and due to the many revolutions and acceptances between cultures in today’s day, the results and findings may not be as accurate now as they were then. This poses questions about whether and how time has affected personal space within the different cultures, and would possibly need a new experiment to be conducted, to update the results.
Examples of invading personal space:
Inviting a teacher into a student’s personal space when their help is needed at school/in class for example to help solve a problem; this relation is always a professional relationship. When caught fighting and stopped, some kids like to tease the other party with a simple trick- they reach out with their hand and almost touch the other kid (or even worse, stuck the palm in front of their face), then they say something like “I don’t touch you”. It’s actually an invitation for a fight, without taking responsibility for starting it, because it’s impossible not to respond to this kind of irritation. If you’ll meet your favorite movie star, you will welcome his company and even his touch; even though he’s almost a complete stranger to you. But it won’t go the other way around- it will be highly inappropriate to get too close to that star without a clear invitation to do so. You’ll probably keep a distance from your boss (probably the same one from the previous example) during work, but on fishing at trip together some of the social borders will fall down, and you’ll feel more comfortable being in closer distance. However, when you’ll get back to work again, you’ll retain the appropriate workspace between you.a