Men and Women Marking Their Territory

Sometimes people erect actual boundaries to stake claim to their personal space.

Posted Jul 30, 2014

Personal space acts as protection, a safety device, and a status marker. It was said of President John Kennedy that when he walked into a room, it was like parting the waters.—the higher the status, the larger the space. Dominant animals maintain a larger buffer zone of personal space; they are not approached as closely as submissive animals. Prison inmates have been found to have huge personal space behind them and actually smaller in front of them, because they prefer to see who is coming up to them. It’s also likely that they’re afraid of being stabbed in the back. 

When people stand too close, their faces become visually distorted. Perhaps this is one reason why lovers close their eyes when they kiss. Have you ever noticed how people instinctively flip their heads back (almost leaning backward) when someone comes up directly into their face? You can’t get a fix on a person’s face if he or she is right up against you. You can't see it.

Personal space may vary in size for an individual depending on the situation, his or her emotional state, gender, and the relationship with the other person. We stand closer to people whom we like. That’s why there is no personal space between lovers and intimates. Sting’s song, “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” is an excellent example of how proxemics can reveal intimacy—by standing within the intimate zone, a female student inadvertently makes public the affair she’s had with her teacher. Conversely, a couple experiencing marital difficulties may stay so far away from each other as they walk that they cannot graze each other’s arms, let alone hold hands.

Proxemics also interact with other dimensions of nonverbal behavior such as facial expression, eye contact, and touch. If a person’s facial expression is inviting (he or she is smiling, nodding, or using an eyebrow lift or head tilt to show concern), we feel we can physically move closer.  If the facial expression is masked or appears cold or neutral, we back off. Proximity is a prerequisite to touch: a person can’t reach you if he is not in your body buffer zone. When individuals are in a forced situation (in the subway or me on that crowded airport tram), and there is no way to increase physical space, they avert their gaze, looking up or down to increase space psychologically.  People riding an elevator will lower their eyes to minimize unwanted interaction.


Sometimes people erect actual boundaries to stake claim to their personal space. According to communication professor Mark L. Knapp and social psychologist Judith A. Hall, this is a popular response to encroachments (or predicted encroachments) of our territory.  Leaving an "occupied" sign on an airplane seat, draping a coat over the back of a chair in a restaurant, arranging a towel and sunscreen on a hotel poolside lounge, or spreading books at a library desk indicate this place is mine, and I will be returning to claim it--so keep off!  In fact, most people get pretty peeved if someone deigns to move their markers. “Hey, I was here first!”

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.”