“Personal space” means the area around a person which they prefer not be occupied by another person. It is the surrounding area that psychologically, subconsciously, they regard as “their turf,” the area that they will feel uncomfortable or react in some negative way if a person enters it.
Scientists have even identified the part of the brain that is apparently responsible for one’s negative reaction to a violation of personal space.
Inside the temporal lobes of our brain are the amygdalae. When a person is aware that someone is disconcertingly close to them, the amygdalae are especially active, apparently sounding a sort of warning bell. When a person has damaged or non-functioning amygdalae, they don’t report the same discomfort at people getting close to them as normal people do. The concept of personal space seems to have little or no relevance to them.
It’s not hard to understand in evolutionary terms how the amygdalae would have developed this reaction against violations of personal space. Think of the personal space perimeter as being roughly “close enough to easily hurt me” and you’ll see why early humans who instinctively tried to maintain sufficient distance to keep people out of their personal space would have had a survival advantage over those that did not.
How large an area around one constitutes personal space can vary a great deal, depending on several factors:
People socialized in a mega-crowded nation like Japan will predictably have a different sense of what constitutes personal space from that of people who have lived their whole life in a sparsely populated area of the Australian Outback.
When I was in grade school, a new student arrived at our school, having just immigrated from another nation, somewhere in South America as I recall. I remember being uncomfortable at first when he would converse with me. It didn’t have to do with his accent or command of English or race or anything like that, at least not that I was aware of, but there seemed something off-putting about him. I was talking to some of my classmates about it soon thereafter, and they reported having the same reaction to him. We eventually figured out that it was his standing so close when he talked to people that was unnerving.
Being nine years old or whatever we were, we had never even heard of the concept of “personal space,” but we basically inferred its existence from our experience. I don’t know what our normal conversational distance was when talking face-to-face-20 inches, 25 inches, whatever-but where he was from, evidently people naturally spoke from a few inches closer to each other. So he was behaving in a way that was utterly normal where he was raised, but to us felt somehow intrusive or pushy, because we had been raised in a culture with slightly different personal space boundaries.
Even within a culture, people can differ greatly in the size of their personal space. A good example of this was depicted in the Seinfeld episode where Judge Reinhold guest starred as a friend of Elaine’s who was a “close talker,” meaning he made the other characters uncomfortable (Kramer was so freaked out he instinctively jumped back and almost fell over) because when he spoke to them he got within a few inches of their faces. He had a different sense of personal space than even the other people of his own culture.
Think of how shy people, autistic people, or people with a phobia of crowds react to having people in close proximity to them. Some of that may be differences in their personal space needs, or more fundamentally, differences in their amygdalae.
The very same person’s personal space can differ depending on circumstances. If you’re sitting alone in a theater, and there are only five or six other people scattered around among hundreds of empty seats, and the next person enters and proceeds to sit down directly next to you, that’s going to almost certainly feel very creepy, like they’re not respecting your personal space. On the other hand, we’ll sit just that close or even more cramped next to a stranger on a long, crowded airplane flight and accept it.
Now, in that example, it may not be so much a matter of personal space discomfort differing, as just being willing to pay the price. It might be that the personal space violation feels equally unpleasant in both circumstances, but we’re willing to tolerate it on the airplane flight because we put a high enough value on getting where we’re going, whereas in the theater we object to paying this cost because with all the available empty seats it’s unnecessary to impose it on us.
However, there are some situations where people actively prefer crowds, prefer the exhilaration that comes from reducing one’s personal space expectations to close to zero. People who come to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, or who attend a rave, generally want lots and lots of people as close to them as possible. It isn’t something to be tolerated, but something they actively prefer as part of the experience. No one goes to a rave thinking “I hope I’m the only one who shows up, so I can be sure to have plenty of space to myself.”
Also, related to this, personal space differs according to our emotional connection, or desired connection, with a person. Sexual attraction is the most obvious example. Lovers, especially early in a relationship when it’s still hot and heavy, typically don’t crave to keep a certain substantial physical space between them when they’re together.
It’s always been a personal rule of mine that people to whom I’m sexually attracted have carte blanche to violate my personal space to their heart’s content and will never hear an objection from me.
But it’s not just sex. A mother holding her child doesn’t typically feel like she needs to extend her arms and hold it away from her to keep it out of her personal space. If you feel some sort of affection or attraction or connection with another person, sexual or not, they can generally come closer to you before setting off that feeling in you that your personal space is being infringed.
So why is personal space important? It’s important because it’s one of the factors, one of the boundaries, that determines whether our social interactions will be comfortable, smooth, and successful.
In that sense, it’s important not just to be aware of your own personal space needs, but that of others. If you’re on a first date, at a job interview, whatever it might be, one of the things that can help you is to be sensitive to the other person’s personal space expectations. If you’re consistently getting inside their personal space, they’ll develop a negative reaction to you, of which they may or may not even be consciously aware.