The news that former Vice President Joseph Biden Jr. has a long history of getting physically close to people, particularly women, raises once again the question of the role of personal space in social interaction. You know from your own experience that when people other than your most intimate partners, friends, or family stand too close, you feel the need to step back within what you feel is a safe zone. It feels creepy to have them right in your face, and even worse when they make physical contact.
Research on personal space has a long history in psychology, having established that there is a zone of physical proximity that allows people to feel comfortable in the presence of others. However, there are times when you have no choice but to be physically close to a stranger. You’re standing on a crowded train or bus, and the person next to you is just inches away.
To keep that closeness from becoming an issue, you do everything you can to establish some sort of invisible barrier. The easiest way to achieve this is by avoiding eye contact. Imagine staring right into the face of the accidental traveler with whom you’re sharing a hanging strap. You know that this is a very bad idea, and so you most likely look down and study your phone or your feet.
People can also get very territorial about their personal space. Perhaps you’re used to sitting in a specific seat in a class or at a meeting. On one occasion, you arrive a minute or two later than usual. Lo and behold, there’s someone in “your” seat! You spend the rest of the time mulling over how uncomfortable you feel in this other spot, as you struggle to suppress the feelings of annoyance you have at the person for occupying your space. Next time, you get there five minutes early to make sure to avoid a repeat performance.
Relevant to the study of personal space is a 2017 study of airline passengers by the University of Nottingham’s (England) Laura Lewis and colleagues. Airlines provide a perfect lab to study how people feel about their personal space due to the fact that seats are close together, there’s no escape for the duration of the flight, and there’s little you can do to protect yourself from people who don’t respect boundaries. Pun intended, Lewis and her colleagues referred to these people as “space invaders.”
As a background for the study, the British authors summarize the 10 key factors that affect personal space. These include gender (including gender role), culture, age, personal preference, interpersonal relationships (feelings and social status), room density, personality (introvert or extravert), the topics being discussed in a given conversation, environment (indoors vs. outdoors, lighting, vertical space), and context.
On an airplane, Lewis et al. explain, the “proxemics” include “concern for autonomy, control, and privacy” that passengers have within the limits of their own seat (p. 6). You can probably relate to this idea if you’ve ever spent the majority of a flight making sure you have access to your own armrest or resisting being jammed in by a passenger in a reclined seat in front of you. Apart from physical comfort, these factors also relate to the psychological aspect of comfort or the degree of stress you experience.
To examine the factors that predict the psychological aspect of comfort, the British researchers surveyed an international sample of 199 adults ranging from 18 to 70 years (most were 18-30). They began by asking participants to respond to items regarding their personal space preferences. This scale took the form of a visual stimulus of two silhouetted people (male and female) shown standing at increasing distances from each other, from close up to just beyond shouting distance. Participants circled the images that they felt represented their preferred distance from a stranger and their preferred distance from a friend.
The next part of the questionnaire asked four open-ended questions in which participants listed forms of personal space invasion on aircraft, how they felt when their personal space was invaded, what they do to make themselves more comfortable when this happens, and then generally how they interpret the term “personal space.” The questions were phrased with respect to a six-hour flight.
Using those personal space preference pictures, the first set of findings revealed no differences by nationality, age, or sex in preferred interaction distances. However, as expected, people preferred to be closer to a friend than a stranger. Moving on to the instances that people listed involving airline travel, there were three clear themes.
First was a bodily invasion of personal space, as indicated by having the other passenger either move around or poke the individual with arms or legs. Seats that are too small or close to each other were another aspect of physical over-closeness. The second theme concerned personal space invasion by passengers who monopolized or controlled the space with their belongings. The third theme included a lengthy list of “sensory” invasions, such as excessive noise, smells, poor hygiene, food or drink, and engaging in undesired conversation.
What’s interesting about these findings is that, apart from the obvious physical contact and seating problems that come with airline travel, there were invasions of personal space from the sensory domain that were almost equally troubling for participants. You can probably relate well to this result if you think back on a time when you were seated next to a stranger who just would not stop talking or asking questions. You might also experience this kind of noise pollution if you’re near someone in a public space who engages in loud cellphone conversations. Although you might be able to overcome the distraction if you try very hard, it’s more likely you’ll have to put on headphones to drown out the loud offender.
Participants in the Lewis et al. study reported that in response to these assaults on their space, they felt a range of negative reactions, with the most common being annoyance, followed by discomfort, irritation, and anger. If the violations involved sensory infractions, participants reported such reactions as nausea and disgust (for smells), claustrophobia, feeling hemmed in, and fidgeting. To overcome these reactions, participants reported that they used a variety of coping methods.
Most surprisingly, a number stated that they confront the offender, an approach that is probably more likely to occur on an airplane than in other settings when you can remove yourself from the situation. Additionally, respondents stated that they tried to reclaim stolen space, such as capturing an armrest when the other passenger went to the restroom. Nonverbal strategies also came into play, such as sighing, hinting, or turning away. All of these negative strategies were more likely to occur between strangers, according to participants, than between close friends.
Finally, when defining personal space, participants provided responses supporting the literature’s definition of this concept as “an invisible boundary surrounding a person which can be broken through spatial invasion or awareness of other people’s actions and characteristics” (p. 16).
To sum up, the British study suggests five tips for coping when personal space issues occur in your life:
1. Be kind to your friends. You have more freedom to invade the personal space of people you know well rather than strangers, but don't take for granted the likelihood that they won't mind you closing in on them.
2. Look around you. Be respectful and attentive to boundaries, especially in close spaces, and especially when there's no easy escape.
3. Confront if you can, but not if you can't. If confrontation isn't an option, find ways to distract yourself or at least send out signals that the invasion isn't OK.
4. Sniff, but don't snoop. Be aware of the sensory intrusions you create by wearing strong scents, talking too loud in public places, and asking overly personal questions of strangers.
5. Learn to read body language. Sensitize yourself to recognize the signals that you have gotten too close by observing the other person's behavior. If you sense you've overstepped, back off.
Personal space is a key component of all relationships, and luckily one that is relatively easy to manage once you understand its importance.
Lewis, L., Patel, H., D’Cruz, M., & Cobb, S. (2017). What makes a space invader? Passenger perceptions of personal space invasion in aircraft travel. Ergonomics, 60(11), 1461–1470. doi: 10.1080/00140139.2017.1313456