How jealously do you guard your personal space? In psychology, proxemics studies how personal space is defined and practiced in many cultures.
Different cultures around the world apply personal space differently producing a wide variety of perspectives.
The result is that people unconsciously protect their personal space in ways that are quite different depending on their culture.
These cultural perspectives can be dramatically different so that a particular distance can be interpreted as an offense in one culture and welcome in another.
Zones of Personal Space
There are 4 different zones of personal space.
A. Intimate Distance
This is usually reserved for our closest relationships such as family members or romantic mates.
It ranges from 0 to 10 inches.
It’s a whispering distance where one can catch somebody’s body odor or scent.
Draw any closer than this and a person will become uncomfortable unless you belong to the designated group of permitted persons.
In this distance, there is direct contact. It is also where activities like lovemaking, being protective, or comforting another can take place
B. Personal Distance
Also called personal bubble space, this occurs between friends or acquaintances. It averages from 18 to 14 inches. This space falls just short of intimate.
It’s the space for buddies and strangers are still unwelcome.
This zone can be suitable for business relationships. You can often see it when people pat or slap each other on the backs.
C. Social Distance
This lies between 4 to12 feet. It is suitable for routine social interactions like formal business. In this space, total strangers can be allowed to enter.
D. Public Distance
This can range from 12 to more than 25 feet and is open for all.
Direct eye contact is minimized and there is no physical contact.
Public distance is often practiced in public places like city sidewalks, airports, or shopping centers.
Of all the personal spaces, it’s the least intimate. It’s usually used for public speaking, to project power, or have a feeling of security.
Some modern developments have complicated the observation of these personal spaces.
For example, our crowded modern urban areas make it almost impractical to maintain personal space.
Another area where privacy or personal space is frequently violated is among prisoners where they are huddled in a cell.
On the other hand, prisoners held in solitary confinement may be deprived of any human contact which they may crave.
Here are 7 examples of proxemics in everyday life.
1. Health social distancing
Throughout history, social distance has been observed out of fear of disease or infection.
For example, in biblical times, lepers were shunned or kept in isolation.
During the COVID 19 pandemic, the issue of social distance has become a universal experience.
This has brought some awkward situations where other types of personal space have to be sacrificed. For example, persons who enjoyed intimate space can no longer do so.
2. Personal space with children
We tend to be more tolerant about our personal space when it comes to children.
For example, we can carry a child on our laps even if they are total strangers. This kind of closeness would be unusual with adults.
The younger the child, the more relaxed we are about our space. This may be due to the perception that children are innocent
3. North American vs the Middle East
North American and Middle East concepts of personal space appear to be at opposite extremes.
For example, North Americans tend to be particularly protective about personal space.
Whether they are interacting with acquaintances or strangers, they maintain a 2 feet distance around them.
Middle East culture has nobody bubble. Entry into this space is not only tolerated; it is preferred.
To fail to do so would be interpreted as offensive. You may be considered as lacking hospitality or being an antisocial person.
4. A couple’s personal space
For a husband and wife, it is appropriate to enter each other’s personal bubble.
However, when opposite sex members do so it can generate friction.
For example, if a different woman other than the wife steps into the husband’s bubble, the wife will interpret it negatively.
5. Doctor and patient boundary
A doctor’s job usually requires close interaction with the patient that can seem intrusive for either party. For example, when a doctor is examining a patient’s heartbeat, blood pressure, or temperature, he has to touch the patient.
The most invasive type of intrusion is a surgery where a patient’s body is opened up usually when he is under anesthesia.
In this case, the patient totally surrenders his privacy which is essential for the treatment.
However, this can also lead to abuse. For example, body organs have been illegally harvested without the patient’s knowledge or permission.
6. Presidential personal space
The personal space of a leader such as a president can vary due to place or pressures. For example, out of security concerns, protectors of the president require people to maintain some distance away from the president.
However, sometimes the president wants to connect with the people by mixing with them.
The idea is to create rapport but it can also lead to security lapses. For example, President William McKinley was shot while shaking hands with a crowd of supporters.
Interestingly, the shooter had to draw closer for a handshake before he shot at point-blank range.
7. Distancing with animals
Human and their pets express personal space during their physical interactions. For example, we may love cuddling a cat and the cat itself will crave some cuddling.
Animals also express personal space among themselves. For example, both dogs or cats can either invite or repel others from entering their personal space depending on the degree of the bond they have.
Among wild animals, many animals such as lions mark their territory and do not allow intruders into that space.
Large animals like buffalo or elephants like birds riding on their bodies.
On the matter of personal space, we might as well borrow from Einstein’s famous law of relativity.
Personal space is not absolute but relative. Is this what the Moroccan saying implied, that a narrow space looks wide to the narrow-minded?