Everyone has a space around their body that is held sacred as their own territory. This is called “personal space” and it is characterized by a zone or “bubble” that varies with individuals and circumstances.
We each have our own unwritten rules about how big our personal space is, who may enter our personal space, and how close others may approach. Dominant animals and humans demand more space than the less dominant. How we guard and defend our personal space and how we approach or invade another person’s space, is very revealing about our relationships, status, rank, and dominance as we perceive it.
It is evident that this man is not inviting people into his personal space! His arms across his chest is a strong and frequent body language cue saying: “Don’t come close!” “Stay away from me!” “I don’t want to deal with any of you and especially not to get personally close!” “I just want to stay in my own little safe world.”
The widely spaced feet indicate solid and unchanging placement. No one can move him! No one can change his mind, manipulate him, or influence him in any way. He is “planted” right where he is now. He is not going to change anything in his life right now.
Invading Other’s Personal Space Is Dangerous
When two animals or humans each believe they are dominant over the other, and one enters the personal space of the other; that is grounds for an immediate confrontation to determine who really is the dominant one. This is done mostly unconsciously, and the body may even go into an attack position to scare off the invader. Where the rank of each individual is clearly delineated (such as in the military where rank is clearly displayed on the uniform), there is no problem with who gets the most territory: the higher rank. This is also true in the corporate world where the higher the rank in the organization, the larger is the office, workspace, parking place, etc. The rule is generally this: The higher the rank, the bigger space demanded.
The personal space between these two men talking reveals a lot about their relationship. Notice that the man in red has his arms extended out to occupy more space toward the other man. The man in white is allowing the man in red to enter his personal space by folding his arms and thereby is occupying a smaller space. However, the man in white is bracing and holding his ground by placing his feet a bit wider for more stability. The man in red clearly believes that he is the dominant one over the other man and shows it with his larger personal space. The man in white agrees to this arrangement, for now.
Personal Space Size Reveals One’s Status
The larger amount of space claimed by the rich and high-status people in a community is clearly evident in their larger homes, yards, cars, garages, offices, etc. The lower in status and rank a person is, the less space they command and control in every aspect of their life. People struggling for a higher status position in their life often do so unconsciously by trying to increase their physical territory with bigger objects such as larger cars, houses, yards, etc. This need for high status may be so strong that people go into great debt to buy larger possessions in an attempt to demonstrate their higher status.
The next time you meet someone, let them establish how close they stand or sit with you. This distance will clearly indicate how they feel about their relationship with you. This may be very interesting!
About Personal Space and Body Shape
Back in the 1980’s, there was a research project here at EastWest Institute using hypnosis on obese women to find the unconscious source of their weight problem. The results were surprising! In some cases, the real cause of the excess fat was an attempt to be physically large. Some terms used were, “I want to be seen” and “So others will not run over me.”
Personal Space Can Show How Close is a Relationship
When you are flirting or dating, an important clue to how the relationship is progressing is the distance your partner chooses to sit or stand from you. Pay particular attention to both the distance and the body posture mirroring.
You may be invading someone’s personal space if they do one or more of these actions while you are talking to them:
- Rock back in chair creating more space between you both.
- Pull the chin into the chest and hunch their shoulders.
- Close their eyes often while you talk to them.
- Look past you at others behind you.
- Fold their arms across chest.
- Back away and increase distance between you both.
If you see a person you are talking to doing these body language cues then you probably are too close to them, and you are infringing on what they feel is their private space. If you move away from them a little, they may feel safer with you and appreciate your presence more. Extrovert people will accept you in a little closer than introverts.
Someone is comfortable with you when they do this:
- Look into your eyes as you talk with each other.
- Reposition body posture to mirror your body posture.
- Open their eye pupil so it looks larger than normal.
- Hold their hand palms often up and open toward you.
- Often make little head nods when they agree with what you say.
- Make face relaxed, yet often show expressions of joy and smile.
About Personal Space and Zones of Comfort
Research has shown these four zones exist for most North American people:
The intimate zone for lovers and those dear to us is 1.5 feet (45 cm.) or less. [Europeans: 20-30 cm (8-12inches); Australians: 46-122 cm (18-49 inches); Japanese: 25 cm (10-11 inches)] Interestingly, at this close range not only body language is meaningful but also our unconscious sense of smell can reveal much information about the partner’s mood and health. See more on the importance of pheromones in relationships and body language here.
The social zone from 1.5 feet (45 cm…) to 4 feet (120 cm…) is where we comfortably converse with friends. Interestingly, this distance is where body language can be observed very effectively.
The social zone where the conversation is conducted with casual acquaintances is no closer than 4 feet (120 cm..) and out to 7 feet (360 cm..). This zone is at least two arm lengths away and therefore out of striking distance. This unconscious habit of staying a safe striking distance away from those who are not our intimate friends probably is something leftover in our DNA from our ancestors millions of years ago.
The public zone where strangers and authority figures are most comfortably acknowledged is beyond about 7 feet (360 cm..). This longer distance may say something about how we unconsciously fear strangers and authority figures.
Be aware that all the zones vary slightly in different cultures. This may cause conflicts and misunderstood body language when traveling to foreign countries. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, most men tend to have a slightly more distant zone boundary with other men but not with women.