What is the right amount of personal space, between strangers, colleagues or friends, if you want to respect their physical boundaries?
Well, an American anthropologist who’s spent years studying social space, Edward Hall, suggested that our personal boundaries have an actual, quantifiable size, via The New York Times.
According to Hall, our “intimate space” reserved for close friends and family is around 46cm, so just within arms’ reach. Our “personal space”, for acquaintances and work colleagues, starts at 46cm and expands to roughly 1.2m. For total strangers, our “social space” expands from 1.2m to 3.7m.
And these make sense. You wouldn’t approach a total stranger in any situation and hover within their intimate space — that’s awkward and wildly uncomfortable.
“Obviously, having an established relationship of trust alters the meaning of an appreciative hug or a pat on the shoulder in a more positive direction,” Laura Kray, a professor at U.C. Berkeley’s School of Business, told The New York Times. “Arm around lower back or kiss on head are boundary violations, as a general rule.”
But of course, some boundaries comes with certain involuntary exceptions. If you’re on public transportation, you don’t always have the choice of standing 46cm away from strangers.
However, engagement makes a difference. Talking to a stranger (or whispering into their ear) within their intimate space is different from silently facing away from them typing away on your phone, so respect their boundaries if you’re choosing to engage.
When a friend is trying to open up to you about their depression, anxiety, or other mental health issue, it can be hard to know how to respond. We’ve come a long way, but there is still considerable stigma to admitting that you’re coping with mental health issues. If your friend is talking to you at all, they’re taking a huge step.
If you’re ever unsure about entering into someone’s personal space, just ask. Don’t assume it’s comfortable simply because they’re choosing to remain in the space. Consent is necessary.
And what if you’re the one dealing with someone who won’t respect personal boundaries? Redditor u/all_i_say_is_a_lie (lol) has one helpful tip when it comes to communicating your feelings:
This is pretty simple. But it’s hard to do. The next time they start, tell them it makes you uncomfortable. Don’t turn it into a personal thing, just make a blanket statement... "Bill, I’m a big personal space kind of person." I’ve found this works and minimizes embarrassment.
And if it’s still not working, don’t be afraid to be firm and re-iterate your feelings in even more direct language. (“I’m uncomfortable with you in my space.”) Don’t feel guilty about it, either. You’re entitled to any degree of personal space that you need and we all need to feel comfortable when it comes to our interactions with others.