Bakari Akil II, Ph.D.

Bakari Akil II Ph.D.

Communication Central

Personal Space - How violating unspoken rules can lead to chaos - at least for you

Personal Space -How violating unspoken rules can lead to chaos-at least for you

Posted Apr 11, 2010

personal_spaceIt is a scene that you would least likely expect to see in a supermarket. But it happened. When grocery shopping or just picking up a couple of things from the store, the mission is usually to just go in and out. People buy what they need and then they are on their way. However, what happens when someone violates an unspoken agreement that we all live by, but never really talk about? How do the violated react?

That unspoken agreement is not violating the boundaries of personal space.

According to Julius Fast, author of the groundbreaking classic, "Body Language," (revised in 2002) a person who violates personal space sends the signal, "You are a non-person, and therefore I can move in on you. You do not matter." Fast also wrote at length about the work of psychologist Robert Sommers who is given credit for coining the term "personal space." Sommers pioneered research in exploring the ways people interact in personal spaces and consequently how they respond to invasions of space.

People respond to these transgressions of personal space in different ways. Some withdraw inwardly, some physically retreat and others respond with aggression. What I witnessed in a suburban Publix was the latter.

It was a Saturday morning, a rather busy time for shoppers and I was third in the checkout line. The lady in the front of our queue had taken her items out of her basket and placed them on the 'conveyor belt.' However, apparently she had not arranged her items in a manner suitable to the man behind her because she left space between her bag of chicken breasts and bread, etc.

So the man behind her grabbed her bag of chicken, picked it up and placed it on top of her bread and eggs. He then proceeded to place his items on the conveyor belt.

Chaos erupted.

"Don't touch my stuff!" The lady shouted.

"Okay. Okay." The man yelled in turn.

Unsatisfied, the woman continued and pointed her finger in the man's face. She said, "I placed it there for a reason! Thank You!" While she said this she moved her bag of chicken breasts back to its original place.

"Your welcome!" The man replied sarcastically.

Everything had stopped for a moment or two in the store as everyone watched the scene unfold. As it appeared to be over, people returned to what they were doing as if nothing ever happened.

But something did happen and it lays at the foundation of how we interact and communicate with each other.

We adhere to unwritten rules of personal distance in order to maintain our perceptions of safety and to protect ourselves. After recognizing our own needs it is also useful to be aware of the needs of others as this man clearly violated hers. Even though her response may be viewed as extreme we also have to be cognizant that we aren't in controls of others responses to intrusions of their space.


Personal Space laws apply in the online world too. Here is a link to a video that demonstrates what happens when a person violates personal space in the simulated world, Second Life:

Bakari Akil II, Ph.D. is the author of Super You! 101 Ways to Maximize your Potential! You can also check out his page on Twitter.

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