People, Places, and Things

The psychology of design: How to create an environment in which you will thrive

Personal Space at the Beach

The dance of personal space is embedded in our psyche.

Summer is a particularly interesting season for environmental psychologists. During each trip we take to the beach, we see personal space research come alive all around us.

Our system of personal spaces defines our preferred interaction zones. Sometimes, we’re happy to be close to other people. Other times, farther away is better. When someone invades our personal space, they’re nearer to us that we want them to be. All that “extra closeness” makes us tense.

It is possible for us to be farther from someone else than we’d like, and that extra distance makes us uneasy, too. This situation is unlikely to occur, but can arise, for example, when the only seating options available are heavy single person chairs that we can’t maneuver into a closer and more comfortable configuration. 

For those of us who grew up in the United States, our preferred personal spaces are: less than a foot and a half for intimate conversations, a foot and a half to 4 feet for personal ones, 4 to 12 feet for social interactions, and over 12 feet for public discussions. That means we’re comfortable talking to an immediate family member or romantic partner if they’re less than a foot and a half from us and that we have conversations with our friends when we’re standing between a foot and a half and 4 feet away from them. Social interaction distances seem best when we’re talking with someone with whom we’re acquainted but don’t yet consider a friend. Public distances are used on formal occasions, when we’re making a presentation, for example.

People from different cultures vary in the preferred distances they prefer to maintain from each other.  For example, in the same situation and when interacting with people with whom they have the same sort of relationship, Japanese people stand father apart than pairs of Americans do and Venezuelans stand closer to each other than sets of Americans. These cultural differences can lead to all sorts of misunderstandings when people meet at cocktail parties or business meetings.

But the best place to observe personal space mismatches is the beach. There’s rarely enough sand for all beach goers to maintain their desired personal distances from each other. People arrive and find themselves laying down to soak up some sun a foot away (in some cases just the width of a human foot on a nearly nonexistent pathway away) from a stranger—probably someone they’d never choose to talk with if they met them in line at the movies or in a doctor’s waiting room.

What do we do when we find ourselves closer than we’d prefer? We try to avoid making eye contact and maneuver our bodies so that’s less likely. At least that’s the peace-able response. 

An interesting 2012 survey conducted by TripAdvisor confirms that personal space is relevant at the beach, just as it is elsewhere, and we all have some idea about what sort of “zoning” works best. After surveying more than 1,400 travellers from the United States, researchers learned that “The closet acceptable distance to sit next to another stranger at a crowded beach is three feet according to 27 percent—while a further 26 percent set a boundary of six feet, and 15 percent say four feet meets their comfort levels. On non-crowded sands, 34 percent consider 20 feet to be the closest acceptable distance to sit next to a fellow beach-goer, while 24 percent say seven to ten feet is appropriate, and 18 percent say 11 to 14 feet.”

So the next time you’re at the beach, watch all the people avoiding eye contact and moving as far as possible from their fellow human beings. These steps and gestures are drawn from a ballet rooted deep in our psyche.

Sally Augustin, Ph.D., is a practicing environmental psychologist who studies person-centered design and sensory science.

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