Saturday, November 30, 2019

Etiquette and Body Space

“The amygdala is activated when you invade people's personal space. This probably reflects the strong emotional response when somebody gets too close to us...” – Ralph Adolphs, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the California Institute of Technology

Don’t Stand so Close to Me

Imagine one of these situations:

  • Somebody once comes close to you and you step back unconsciously.
  • Or you get close to someone and see that he/she steps back and tries to get far from you.
  • A strange person stands so close to you that you feel bad/uncomfortable and not secure.
  • You meet someone for the first time and he/she kisses you on the cheek or puts his/her hand around your shoulders and you step back unconsciously, or you feel badly and kiss back him/her unwillingly.

Have you ever experienced above situations? All of us have been in situations like this and these feelings and reactions are because someone is disregarding other people's personal space.

What is personal space?

In 1966, anthropologist Edward T. Hall introduced the concept that, similar to the way animals mark their territory using urine and physical posturing, humans use personal space and concrete objects. The theory is known as Proxemics 1, a form of non-verbal communication through our perception and use of space. It concludes that in our space, we keep four types of distances (intimate, personal, social and public) according to the type of relationship. Personal space is a distance in which we feel safe, secure and comfortable. This space is one of the four invisible and mentally spaces around each person which are like bubbles around us. If we want others feel comfort and safe we should consider the importance of personal space.

What are different types of personal spaces in social interactions?

As Edward T. Hall said in social interactions there are generally 4 spaces for each person:

  1. Public space: It's between 3.70 m and 7.60 m and includes strangers. We like for strangers to stand this distance from us.
  2. Social space: It's between 1.20 m and 3.70 m. The distance is for talking with others. If others get closer to us for talking, we don't feel comfortable and if they get farther away, we feel awkward and rude.
  3. Personal space: It's between 45 cm and 1.20 m and we dedicate it just for ourselves. If others pass through it, for the first meeting, they give us an aggressive feeling which certainly won't show intimacy. Acquaintances and people who meet each other for the first time should consider keeping this distance and not trying to get closer.
  4. Intimate and private space: up to 45 cm which is dedicated to family members, couples and close friends. If someone is to enter this area without our willingness, we feel an intense insecurity and discomfort.

But how do these ‘
personal bubbles’ arise?

In research published in the journal “Nature” in 2009, Ralph Adolphs and his colleagues determined that the bubbles are constructed and monitored by the amygdala, the brain region involved in fear. “The amygdala is activated when you invade people's personal space. This probably reflects the strong emotional response when somebody gets too close to us. We confirmed this in a rare patient with lesions to this brain structure: she felt entirely comfortable no matter how close somebody got to her, and had no apparent personal space.” Furthermore, he said, “Abnormal development of the amygdala may also explain why people with autism have difficulties maintaining a normal social distance to other people.”

Is personal space the same for all persons?

No. The distance between the person and his invisible shield is different from one person to another and its size depends on various factors like:

 Familiarity and type of relationship with a person

(For example, the comfort space between you and a person you know him well is probably smaller than a strange person.)

 The amount of trust you have to that person

 Society type. (People who live in crowded societies have smaller personal space than people who live in less crowded ones. In other words, these people have to use others personal space because of large population so their personal spaces are reduced. 
(We can see this difference between Asian, American and European countries.)

 Age can affect on this space too. The size of personal space will increase between 3-21, for this reason children like to stand close to other people and feel more comfort and safe in this way.

 Personality is also effective on this subject. For example, somebody who is anxious seems to have a larger personal space than a person who is calmer and easygoing. Introverted persons have a larger personal space than extroverted persons.

 Culture and beliefs.
We should consider signs of personal space for different persons, like handshaking type, greeting type, eye contact length, size of their eyes' enlarged, their mood and etc. to know whether he/she feels safe and comfort with our distance or not? And why don’t some people respect this personal space?

Maybe because they are not aware of the space and its signals. Otherwise they can be young persons who are from larger societies, or they are anxious, or an introvert that has a need for a larger personal space size.

Is this so strict it won't change? No, it will change. Some researchers believe that these spaces aren't effective in all interactions.

Sometimes we are in a situation in which strangers stand or sit in our personal or even private space, like a crowded bus or metro and there is no space for sitting, or in movie theaters and conferences -which you should sit beside strangers, or in elevators.

In these situations how we can respect others’ personal space?

Eye contact is the most important factor. If one's arm pushes ours in this situation, it doesn't matter for us. But if his/her face is in front of ours and looks directly in our eyes, we feel stressed. Therefore, this is eye contact which plays the main role in creating a sense of stress or intimacy for us.

Now I want to provide you some general rules for personal space but remember that these rules are different on the basis of culture and situation. And these are more serious in first meetings and when you don’t know each other yet:

  1. Never touch a person you don’t know.
  2. Stand at least 120 cm away from others unless you know them well.
  3. Don’t touch others’ kids. No matter what your intention. (And you should ask your kids to inform you whenever someone attempts to touch them inappropriately.)
  4. Observe other people’s body language. When someone leans away from you it means you are probably standing in his/her personal space and you disturbed his safety and comfort. So take a step back.
  5. If you enter a theater or movie that is not crowded, leave an extra seat between you and the next person. However, sitting next to others is acceptable if the room is crowded.
  6. Never lean over a person’s shoulder to read something unless he/she invites you to read a text in his/her hand (This point is true for others’ PC monitors too, regardless of whether it’s your co-worker or family member)
  7. Never search through the belongings of others which they are holding or carrying. A person’s belongings are part of their personal space. (These include electronic tools like a cellphone and laptop, or book and documents or clothes and etc.)
  8. Respect the personal space of others on road too. It means that when you are driving, don’t get so close to others’ cars. (Safety distance is not just important for driving laws but also for mental safety of persons too and we should respect them)
  9. Don’t put your arm around someone’s shoulder or slap his/her back unless you know him/her very well.
  10. Don’t enter others’ room or office without knocking first.
  11. Don’t mess up the queue and don’t cut in front of people in line. (Respect your turn and that of others’.)

Now if someone invades your personal space or doesn’t respect it, what should we do?

When someone get so close to you which you feel discomfort, maybe he/she doesn’t know its signs or he/she is from a larger society, or you have an anxious personality and you have a larger personal space than him. In this case, you have several options to choose. But remember that saying it bluntly may cause bad feelings and make others embarrassed, so before you react to this situation think with yourself: Does it worth to react like that or no?

What are the ways for dealing with this situation?

  1. Accept it (no bad reaction)
  2. Make a distance between your body and the other person (body sign). Hoping he/she will take your sign and take a step back.
  3. Say it frankly, it doesn’t make you feel good and comfort when somebody stand so close to you.
  4. Explain why you need more personal space. For example, if you are a left-handed person and
  5. He/she is so close to your left side, you can say you need more space for easier writing and your arm doesn’t touch his/hers. 
  6. If he didn’t notice you can carrying something, like a cup of coffee or tea or something like a book or a file. It makes a barrier between you.

1) Communication Studies, Proxemics, Copyright 2015 by Communication Studies
2) Weithers, Dora: Rights and Responsibilities in Our Personal Space, Copyright 2018
3) Mayne, Debby: Etiquette Rules of Defining Personal Space, Copyright 2019

Meet our newest contributor, Sima Sadat Doshmanfana Yazdi. She is an Etiquette Teacher and Coach (Business Etiquette) in Iran. She has her BA of English Translation and MA of Tourism Management and now she is a University Lecturer and English to Persian Translator too. She started Etiquette teaching in Iran since late 2016 with the name of (Persian) Miss Etiquette and launched one year later. She is the author of 2 Books and 2 eBooks in Etiquette area (in Farsi):

2 Books:
- Etiquette dar kasbo kar (Etiquette in business)
- Moshtari Robayie: Etiquette-e-moshtarimadari (Customer attracting:Customer Service Etiquette) 
2 eBooks:
- Etiquette-e-kasb-o-kar-e-beynolmelal dar - Rusiyeh (International Business Etiquette In Russia)
- Obour az Sadd-e-Mosahebeh (Passing Over Job Interviewarrier)

Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J Graber, is the Site Editor for the Etiquipedia© Etiquette Encyclopedia

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