Not everyone understands the concept of personal space or the science behind it, but we all react in some way when we feel our personal space is being invaded. For instance, if someone leans too close to us in conversation, we experience stress and have the urge to step backwards or even leave the area. Our comfort zone has been violated, neural signals fire, and as a result we feel the need to react. The boundaries of personal space differ depending on who you are with and whether you are in a family, social, or work environment. In each circumstance, though, it is important to be aware of your limits and know how to react if your personal space is breached.
What Is Personal Space, and Why Is It Important?
Although personal space is invisible, it is a clearly defined buffer zone that your brain creates as a margin of safety. Neurologists have discovered that the structure in the brain that determines personal space is the amygdala, a region associated with fear and the instinct for survival. Psychologists refer to the space immediately surrounding our bodies as peripersonal space, or PPS, and suggest that this margin of safety that we use to protect ourselves is the same mechanism that allows us to safely navigate our environment and manipulate objects that we use as tools. Humans are not alone in guarding their personal space; animals also have similar defense mechanisms.
There are several reasons why awareness and protection of personal space is important. For instance, maintaining our personal space prevents stress by keeping us from sensory overload. The reduction of sensory stimuli enables us to remain focused. When we maintain safe personal distances, we are protecting ourselves from acts of aggression. Zones of personal space also serve as means of nonverbal communication to demonstrate the nature of individual relationships.
What Constitutes an Invasion?
The size of the buffer zones constituting personal space around individuals varies due to a range of factors. These differences can be caused by personalities, genders, ages, and relationships. People who live in cities typically have smaller personal spaces than those who live in rural areas. Personal spaces at work differ from those at home. Permissible physical ranges may vary from just a few inches apart for intimate couples to three feet for coworkers or acquaintances and more than four feet for strangers.
However, it is not only physical proximity that comprises an invasion of personal space. It can also be violated by scents such as strong perfume or the toxic odor of car exhaust. Sounds that violate personal space include overly loud conversations, music, machinery, or vehicles. Tailgaters violate the personal space of drivers, and telemarketers invade the personal space of private telephone lines.
Companies may have distinctive policies and cultures that define personal space at work, but generally touching and hugging are out of place. In many workplaces, personal relationships with coworkers are frowned upon. Conversations at work should be kept to professional topics, and personal matters can be discussed during breaks or after hours. Colleagues are usually expected to obtain permission before entering someone else’s workspace. It is easy to misunderstand intentions in an office environment, so it is always best to maintain a professional distance from coworkers, even if you have personal relationships outside.
What Is a Professional Way to Handle This?
The protection of personal space, although essential, is not always easy. However, usually you have to do something about it if your space is threatened. The first step is to accept the fact that your personal space is inviolable, and to determine your own limits. The issue is not whether you need more or less space than others. The main consideration is instead defining the amount of space that leaves you feeling stress-free, comfortable, and protected. It is also important not to feel guilty about insisting on your need for personal space. You are not being selfish or unkind; you are merely exercising your right to approach relationships in your own way.
The next step is to communicate your requirements for personal space to others. Often this can be accomplished nonverbally through body language. For example, if someone comes too close to you during a conversation, lean away or step backwards. If someone appears as if they are about to come in for a hug or a kiss, proffer your hand for a handshake instead.
However, if someone is persistent in violating your personal space, you’ll have to say something. Start with a gentle hint that you are beginning to feel uncomfortable. If they continue to intrude, you may have to be more straightforward. Some people simply don’t respond to subtleties. They are already being rude, and so you are perfectly justified in reacting in a blunt manner. They have attacked your privacy and invaded your space, so you may have to be explicit in expressing what you consider intolerable.
Having delineated the necessary responses when invasions of your personal space get out of hand, it is important to mention that there is one more approach. Sometimes during fleeting instances of invasion, you can ignore them. Some people have never been taught good manners or they are in the midst of a bad day. Even if they are being deliberately inconsiderate or malicious, that defines their character, not yours.
In conclusion, remember that personal space is a real thing. It is physiologically proven that our brains create this buffer zone around us, and so we are perfectly justified in defending it. This space protects us from stress and aggression and defines our relationships. There are many factors that determine the extent of personal space, and these vary among individuals and social circumstances. Although physical proximity is the primary determinant of personal space invasion, it can also be violated by scents, sounds, and other stimuli. To protect yourself, first determine your own limits, and then communicate your limits to others. If body language doesn’t work, then speak to people directly, first gently and then bluntly.
Finally, keep in mind that you should never feel guilty about insisting on your need for personal space. You have the right to protect yourself. Always remember, though, that just as you have the right to your own personal space, others do too. Be considerate of their need for security just as you expect others to honor yours.
If you want to learn more about physical appearance, behavior, and communication in professional settings, contact London Image Institute.