We regard the physical space around our bodies as personal territories. Subconsciously, we consider ourselves the center of a series of invisible bubbles—each bubble representing a comfort zone. American anthropologist Edward Hall defined four personal spaces in his classic book ‘The Hidden Dimension‘ (1966.)
- Intimate space for interacting with significant people and for hand-shaking, whispering, etc. with friends and acquaintances—touch to 1.5 feet away
- Casual space for interacting with close friends—1.5 feet to 4 feet away
- Social space for interacting with acquaintances—4 feet to 12 feet away
- Public space for interacting with relatively anonymous people—further than 12 feet away
Personal Spaces Represent Comfort Zones
The distances associated with the comfort zones above depend on one’s cultural upbringing. During an interaction, the nature of the interpersonal relationships and/or the context of interaction may affect comfort zones too. Consequently,
- Personal spaces are larger for two strangers in a conversation.
- Women tend to have smaller personal spaces when interacting with other women.
- Westerners tend to require larger personal spaces. People from India, China and other Asian cultures are used to crowded cities, packed public busses, and such—hence, they are more comfortable standing close to other people.
- Two individuals in an argument expect each other to be as far as possible. If one of them moves closer, the other person may interpret this move as a sign of aggression.
Significance of Personal Spaces
The significance of this concept of personal space is obvious: we feel uncomfortable if a person enters a space that we do not desire him/her to be in.
- During hand-shaking, do not get too close to the other person. Being within the other person’s arm-length ensures you are within his/her personal zone, and out of the intimate zone.
- Stay within the friendly zone if you want a casual conversation with a celebrity.
- When talking to or walking with somebody else, if the other person backs away a little, it is likely that you are encroaching his/her comfort zone. Be mindful of the other person’s requirements—do not try to close the gap.