If I ask an audience if someone has ever had their space violated, invariably all the hands go up. Some hands go up rather dramatically perhaps signifying how offended they were or perhaps that they are especially sensitive to spatial violations. We have all had this happen to us whether in an elevator, at the grocery checkout, or perhaps while talking to people at work. Usually our reaction is one of discomfort when someone violates our space. We may not remember the conversation but we certainly remember the spatial violation, and apparently for a very long time.
The truth is, we are all sensitive to the space around us and this is based on culture and family, as well as personal preferences. If you grew up in Cuba or Puerto Rico or for that matter in most Latin American countries, you can comfortably stand close to others. How close, well that depends, sometimes it is just a matter of inches. If this is how you grow up, you don't notice it, however, if you grow up in a culture where more space is valued, well there is the rub.
There are many cultures where the spatial needs are greater; many Western European countries (UK, Germany, Switzerland) are like this. But as we become more global this also changes. Because the United States is a nation of immigrants, we run into all sorts of preferences. For example, in the Midwest people require greater space to be comfortable and if you grew up in New York City perhaps you are more comfortable with people standing closer.
Why is this important? Because we seek harmony and psychological comfort in others and in ourselves. And we know from our own experience how uncomfortable we are when people violate our space; so much so that when it is too close, too intimate, we can hardly think. This is because spatial violations set off our "limbic system" in preparation for dealing with a potential threat. Literally "limbic hijacking" takes place to deal with the spatial violation and so high order thinking is impaired. Which is why when someone stands too close to us in the grocery line we can't remember the pin number to our debit card or when we are stressed we forget the car keys, and if we are in an argument it is only much later that we remember all the clever lines we should have said. Spatial violations when they last too long or are intense (too close) they cause "limbic hijacking."
Ever since Edward Hall introduced us to the term proxemics and how we use space, there has been a lot written about our intimate space, our personal space, our social space, and our public space. And there have been attempts to codify some of these findings based on people and regions so that intimate space is from the skin to about 18" and so forth. The problem with this is that sometimes we don't know where the person is from nor do we know their personal preferences. So rather than come up with a formula based on specific distances, many have found the following to be more useful:
When you first meet someone, you step in with one foot to lean forward and you shake their extended hand. Then you take a step back and see what the other person does. If they move toward you perhaps they come from a culture where they would rather stand closer together. If they remain in place then this is probably comfortable enough in a social setting. However, if they move back themselves, then perhaps they really need more space or they want to leave enough space so that other people can join you both in conversation. Over the years, I have found that this is the easiest way to asses for spatial needs as no one can really remember whether so and so needs two feet or thirty inches to be comfortable so why even bother.
So next time you meet a stranger for the first time try it out, or try it with old friends, perhaps you may find that in reality they also needed more space, or maybe, if you have been doing it right all along, it will serve as a testament to what Daniel Goleman called your Social Intelligence.
Joe Navarro, M.A. is 25 year veteran of the FBI and is the author of What Every Body is Saying, as well as Louder Than Words. For additional information and a free bibliography please contact him through www.jnforensics.com or follow on twitter: @navarrotells or on Facebook or here in Psychology Today. Copyright © 2012 Joe Navarro.
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