Territorial Behaviour part 3: the Personal Space

November 27, 2011 by
Filed under: Communication 

We all carry it with us, everywhere we go. A portable territory called a Personal Space. It is the region surrounding a person which they regard as psychologically theirs. For every person this range is different. open, social people let people come physically closer then a, from nature more scary person. Most people value their personal space and feel discomfort, anger, or anxiety when their personal space is encroached. Those of us who have to spend a great deal of time in crowded conditions become gradually better able to adjust, but no one can ever become completely immune to invasions of the Personal Space.

The picture above shows the personal space and its area’s:

  • the intimate space is the most personal and intimate space. This is the zone that is reserved for close relations like children, lovers and close family members.
  • the personal space is used for conversations with friends, collegues and group gatherings
  • the social space is for new acquaintances, newly formed groups and strangers.
  • the public space is used for public distance that range reserved for larger audiences, like presentations and the cinema


The personal space in social situations

Imagine a visit to the dentist. You walk into the waiting room, and there is already a man sitting on one end of a long row of empty chairs. It is possible to predict where you will take your seat. You wont sit next to the first man, nor will you pick the very last seat in the empty row. You will choose a position about halfway between those points. Now a third person enters the room. He will likely pick a spot in the largest gap left, and sit roughly in the middle of that, and so on, until eventually the latest newcomer will be forced to select a seat that places him right next to one of the already seated man.

Similar patterns can be orserved in elevators, aeroplanes, busses and trains. This all has to do with the Personal Space we carry with us. If people move inside this space, we feel threatened. If they keep too far outside it, we feel rejected.

Every culture has its own standards in Personal Space

And different countries and cultures have different ideas about how close is close. People from Western Europe tend to stay further away then people from the Mediterranean region.

The trouble begins when a member of one of these cultures meets and talks to one from another. Say a British diplomat meets an Italian or Arab diplomat at an embassy function.They start talking in a friendly way, but soon the Brit starts to feel uneasy. Without knowing quite why, he starts to back away gently from his companion. The compagnion edges forward again. After all, each person tries in his way to set up a Personal Space relationship that suits his background. But that is impossible to do: every time the Mediterranean diplomat advances to a distance that feels comfortable for him, the British diplomat feels threatened. Every time the Brit moves back, the other feels rejected. Until such differences are fully understood, these minor differences in ‘body territories’ will continue to act as alienation factor which may interfere in a subtle way with diplomatic harmony and other forms of international transaction.

But even when there is interaction between people with the same cultural background, there is alot to observe.

The Personal Space in crowds

When we are in a crowded place like an elevator or packed metro, there is a big change people will enter your intimate space. The body has certain techniques to cope with this. In essence, what we do is turn these bodies into ‘non persons’. We studiously igonore them, adn they ignore us. We try not to make eye contact if we can avoid it. We wipe all our expressions from our faces, and let them go blank. We stair at the floor or ceiling and reduce body movement to a minimum. Packed together like a tincan of sardines, we stand dumbly still, and send out as few social signals as possible.

On the other hand, we enjoy the excitement of being in a crowd. But there are different kinds of crowds. The feeling of standing in a crowd in a pop concert is a different feeling that you get when you are in a rush hour metro trying to find a spot.

At a concert, people are facing the same way, and concentration on a point of interest; the band on the stage. And at the cinema’s, before the movie starts, you might feel a little of rising hostility towards the person sitting in front of you, or the person squeezing in the seat next to you. But as soon as the event start, these invasions of the Personal Space are forgotten and the attention is focussed on the happening.


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