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The Incredible Hulk and the Shrinking Violet: Women, Men and Personal Space

How does the body buffer zone work?

Nonverbal behaviors begin to have a domino effect. In order to touch people, you must get into their personal space, what's called their body buffer zone. This is an invisible boundary between individuals that is culturally dictated.

How does the body buffer zone work? Imagine a trip to the library. It's nearly deserted-six of eight tables are unoccupied in the periodical room. You chose a quiet place at one of the empty tables. Another patron, a stranger, enters and plops down right next to you, even though there is plenty of space elsewhere. Do you have the urge to get up and move? The same might be true at the movies. How do you feel when a stranger sits beside you in a mostly empty theater? Creepy, right? And I understand from male participants in my gender workshops that when men use a public restroom, they will not take the urinal alongside one that's already occupied. They take pains to use the next stall over.

Although the body buffer zone varies from one person to another, from gender to gender, from situation to situation, and from one society to the next, we all know when our space has been invaded. When someone else stands too close, it makes us feel uncomfortable. In fact, one of the best ways to ascertain someone's personal space is to continue to approach until he or she complains! This invisible boundary is a place where intruders are not allowed.

Personal space also varies in shape. It is not perfectly round, and it doesn't extend equally in all directions. For example, we can handle a stranger coming up to us on the side but not directly in front of us. Young children have no concept of personal space-given the opportunity, they'll crawl all over you-but by the third grade, boys have been found to already be aware of the body buffer zone and to mimic adult behavior.

People often mark where their territory begins or ends. A fence may separate one yard from that of a neighbor, just as painted lines demarcates parking spaces, and the bedroom door clearly delineates that area from the rest of the residence. You may also formally mark your territory with your name or a representative symbol such as a club's emblem or your initials. "This room belongs to . . ." is a popular sign for those who need to make it clear that trespassing will not be tolerated.

Female markers in bars or restaurants-feminine sweaters, purses-tend to be less effective than male markers-a coat, cell phone, pack of cigarettes, or newspaper. Women's boundaries are not respected and are invaded more easily. Consequently, a woman's territory is overtaken more quickly than a man's. In fact, I have observed people touching and moving women's "markers" but keeping their hands off the male stuff! If another man moves a man's marker-watch out. The situation could escalate into a territorial contest. Also, personal markers such as a coat or briefcase are more effective than non-personal items like magazines or coffee cups.

It is possible for women to "grow" their space using these kinds of markers. Communication professor Linda Manning recalls that even though it's not in her nature to take up a lot of space, when she was president of a foundation board, she purposefully chose her seat at the head of the table and spread out her papers, day planner, and other paraphernalia over a larger area. "I suppose it was my nonverbal way of saying, ‘I'm in charge here because look at how much territory I have marked with my possessions,'" she explained to me. Tactics like these can actually work to a woman's advantage for the purposes if influence and persuasion. The message conveyed: "I will allow you into my space to create a bond, but I am still in control and have power."

Virginia Valian, professor of psychology and linguistics, was interested in how gender stereotypes shape perceptions, but her work is also instructive when it comes to understanding the politics of space and positioning. In her book, Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women, she describes an experiment she conducted to discover whether college students are equally likely to perceive women and men as leaders. The students were asked to identify who was the leader in photos of people seated around a conference table. If the photo depicted all male or all female groups, the students overwhelmingly chose the person at the head of the table as the leader. Where you sit apparently makes a big difference in how others perceive you. Interestingly, however, this was not so in mixed gender groups. When a man was seated at the head of table, the students participating in the experiment selected him as the leader, but when a woman was at the head, they believed she was the leader only half the time.

We know that men and women of all ages have differing preferences for interpersonal space. Men set larger distances toward others than do women. Why? No one knows for sure, but it is theorized that women are more affiliative and concerned with bonding than men. As part of their being other-oriented, their job includes social maintenance. Women prefer what communications expert Judith Hall terms "the positive-affect connotations of closer distances." They like standing closer to others. Of course, by maintaining less distance, women encourage others to approach them more closely too. This could explain why women's space is invaded more (and even why they're touched more often). They initiate the closer proxemics, inviting people into their space, creating an interactive effect.

In contrast, men's nonverbal training is often directed specifically toward showing strength, not weakness. Allowing someone too close or into his space would render a man vulnerable. A man can better control his environment by creating more space around him. Boys are told to "stand tall" in order to show confidence and assertiveness, and even occasionally aggressiveness.

Women cannot command as large a personal space as men. Consequently, they are often perceived as having "lower status." We can better understand this when we observe common sidewalk etiquette. Generally we have a built-in radar that tells us how to walk down the street, allowing space so two people can comfortably pass each other. In fact, if the space is too narrow, one person defers to the other and moves aside. (This is also true on a hiking trail. We turn side-by-side or step off the trail so we don't bump into the hiker coming from the opposite direction.) Sometimes both people do a choreographed maneuver where they simultaneously move to the left or right. Invariably they start laughing and one may ask the other, "Do you want to dance?" joking about their faulty radar.

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