Do You Like Someone More If They Stand Closer to You?
Research reveals how personal space impacts perception.
Posted June 13, 2020
Imagine you are the only person in an elevator when the door opens and someone walks in and stands right next to you. Uncomfortable is likely an understatement to describe how you would feel. But are there other circumstances in which a stranger can get that close to you and elicit not alarm bells of warning, but feelings of warmth?
According to research, the answer is yes.
Social Distance, Not Too Close for Comfort
In today’s world, we are mindful of social distance expectations, whether cultural, social, or preventive post-pandemic. We are also aware of personal boundaries, and the reality that different people have different comfort zones, and do not appreciate “space invaders.”
Yet in some situations, it appears that proximity can have a positive effect on first impressions, quality of interaction, and even generosity. Research explains the somewhat counterintuitive effects of getting close and personal in certain settings.
The Positive Power of Proximity
Céline Jacob and Nicolas Guéguen conducted an experiment studying the impact of interpersonal distance between customer and server on tipping behavior.[i] In the process, they acknowledged previous research demonstrating the positive interaction resulting from proximity.
They note, for example, that previous research demonstrates that closer physical distance increases compliance with a request from a stranger on the street. Many of us are familiar with this phenomenon. As we pass solicitors outside grocery stores for example, whether selling Girl Scout cookies or seeking to register people to vote, we might behave differently when approached physically, versus called out verbally from someone sitting behind a table, attempting to draw our attention to their product.
In addition to a social distance sweet spot, depending on whether the speaker is too far or too close to us, our reaction might also depend on group membership. Jacob and Guéguen cite a previous study finding that people seated alone in public were more likely to comply with a request from an in-group member over an out-group member at close and medium distances, but not at a far distance. The rationale suggested that out-group members create more interpersonal anxiety at close range, which decreases compliance; distance decreases this effect.
Proximity and Generosity
In their own study, Jacob and Guéguen examined the impact of interpersonal distance between customers and servers on tipping behavior. They began by noting the range of other behaviors found to generate better tips. These include squatting down next to the table, drawing a smiley face on the back of the check, mimicking patron nonverbal behavior, and introducing themselves by name. They sought to add to this research by investigating the impact of physical distance.
Using five female servers at three seafood restaurants in France, where tipping is not expected because gratuity is built into the bill, they had the women stand at three different distances from patrons dining solo when they took their orders. Participants were 478 restaurant customers: 287 males and 191 females. Results showed that the servers who stood closer received tips more often, and in greater amounts.
Jacob and Guéguen note that their results corroborate previous research showing the positive impact of closeness on helping behavior in other settings. Yet there were other potential explanations. They suggest that consistent with the social impact theory, “normative pressures or influence” emanating from the server may become weaker as distance increases between her and the customer. They also note the possibility that at close range, diners might perceive that their server has a higher need for assistance, which prompts generosity. They also recognize research that shows a person might be perceived as friendlier at a close personal distance.
Personal Space Is Personal
Although this study certainly is interesting and potentially lucrative for restaurants and servers alike, Jacob and Guéguen note this experiment comes with caveats. For one thing, they only used female servers; male servers might create an entirely different dynamic. In addition, by approaching only solo diners, this study avoided potential tension that might be caused by an opposite-sex server standing close to one member of a married couple, for example. And of course, personal space is personal; everyone has their own physical boundaries.
Nonetheless, this research provides some interesting insight into what types of situations in which proximity might actually enhance the perception, and productivity of interpersonal interaction.
[i] Jacob, Céline, and Nicolas Guéguen. 2012. “The Effect of Physical Distance between Patrons and Servers on Tipping.” Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Research 36 (1): 25–31. doi:10.1177/1096348010388660.