How Much Personal Space Do You Need?

Welcome to Scarlet Thread Sunday, the day I toss out a thread of something I’ve learned in the labyrinth of life. Today’s topic is personal space.

Personal space is defined as “The physical space immediately surrounding someone, into which any encroachment feels threatening to or uncomfortable for them.” It’s that invisible barrier you construct around yourself and don’t want just anybody passing through.

The amount of personal space we need varies from person to person, relationship to relationship, culture to culture. Psychologists say that we begin to develop our elbow-room preferences by age 3 or 4, and they’re cemented in adolescence. We actually have four space preferences:

  • intimate – within 1.5 feet (family, pets, close friends)
  • personal – 1.5 feet to 4 feet (friends and acquaintances)
  • social – 4 to 12 feet (strangers and new acquaintances, for routine social interaction)
  • public – beyond 12 feet
4 types of space diagram
By User:Jean-Louis Grall, via Wikimedia Commons

But we have often have strangers or acquaintances violate that invisible barrier in crowded situations — like riding an elevator, doing Christmas shopping, attending a concert. How do we deal? Those same psychs say we depersonalize the people around us to keep from having a stress reaction to their close proximity.

I say that some of us deal better than others.

And I’m among those comfortable with a greater distance between me and strangers than the average. The desire for personal space isn’t related to how much you like people, though. It’s an instinctive reaction.

Blame the amygdala.

The amygdala is that part of the brain that regulates our fear response. And when someone violates our personal space, it goes ding-ding! Or something like that. You get the creepy-crawlies or feel slightly off-kilter. You find yourself stressed and wanting to take a step back. You think to yourself, Don’t stand so close to me! Or singing that song, if you remember the lyrics.

I don’t like getting jostled in a crowd, and I never, ever join the shopping fray on “Black Friday” (the day after Thanksgiving). After being the thick of a horde, I emerge into the open air like a freed prisoner. Sweet freedom, here you are!

I get tense when the person behind me in the grocery store line edges up close while I’m paying. I’ve tried giving said person the back-up-please look, but it’s too subtle or they’re too oblivious with their close-enough-to-grab-me sense of personal space.

I don’t usually get touchy-feely with people until I’ve known them for a while. It’s not that I don’t care for people. I most certainly do! I just have this big personal space issue.

You see, our amygdalas don’t have the same standards. Yours might be very comfortable with me hanging out at 1.5 feet from you, whereas our mutual friend Bob recoils at anyone coming closer than 4 feet.

So what’s my comfort range? I’ve never actually measured. You know, since that would be weird to say to a stranger, “Stand right there for a moment. My amygdala’s freaking out because you just crossed my personal space, and I want to measure it.” But I suspect it’s 2.5 to 3 feet.

Now before I ask what your personal space is, come a little closer and let me share my progress update for A Round of Words in 80 Days.

ROW80 Update

I have only three main goals this round.

1. Finish YA contemporary novel, SHARING HUNTER, by completing three chapters each week

Julie -- facepalm and under rain cloud

Does this answer your question about my progress this week?

2. Take Short Stories 101 course from Young Adult RWA. I edited through the first draft of my short story, Exorcising My Sister, and sent it to the instructor for her critique. The class has closed, so officially I’m finished with this goal. But I also shared my story with a writer friend, who pointed out a few issues. With his notes in mind, I ended up rewriting the climax chapter, and I like it so much better now. I suspect the story needs a little more editing and polishing, and it’s good to go!

3. 10 5 fiction books and 2 1 nonfiction books. I’ve been reading more stories from Orange Karen, the anthology in which my short Color Me Happy was published, and I read about halfway through a nonfiction book, Grace-Filled Marriage by Tim Kimmel. I also bought and started reading Competability: Solving Problems in Your Multi-Cat Household — because I’m having problems in my multi-cat household — by Amy Shojai. Oh. My Goodness. Why didn’t I buy this book earlier?!!

Also read this round: Scarlet by Marissa Meyer, A Voice in the Wind by Francine Rivers, Dangerous and Unseemly by K.B. Owen, Taking Chances by S.J. Maylee, Haunted Spouse by Heather MacAllister (all fiction), and Breasts by Florence Williams (nonfiction).

Now it’s question time! Have you ever considered your own personal space? Do you seem to want more or less than others? Have you ever measured or at least “eyeballed” it? And how was your week?

Sources: What I still remember from psychology classes & Discovery News – Why Do We Have Personal Space?

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28 thoughts on “How Much Personal Space Do You Need?

  1. Great subject and l’m like the Seinfelds when Jerry and his parents both say ‘ya gotta have a buffer zone.’ l don’t like people getting touchy feely unless l know them well. l never thought about the shopper inching up behind me at the grocery store but no, l don’t like being rushed to get through. Another thing that bugs me is someone talking loud on a cell phone so l can hear. l donit want to know the intimate details of your life or that you should get this DVD for Grandma’s Christmas present because she doesn’t have it [that last one happened when l was in Target on Black Friday/ used to love doing that but now l know better].
    My friend doesn’t like people listening to his personal conversations when he’s on his cell. He says that my mom and l did this once but we didn’t. All l said was ‘watch your language, young man’ [l was kidding] when l heard him cuss. Loudly…l think anyone on the street where we were riding could have heard him. So we got into this huge argument and he almost ruined our friendship. BTW, he’s also my cab driver, l was so mad l called the office to get a cab back home instead of calling him directly…they sent…him and yada yada yada…the friendship is still in tact.
    Whew…that was wordy…
    l’m almost finished with my short story but l got news about kayoff from work that starts tomorrow. The good news is more time to write.
    l’ve been wanting to read Taking Chances…great job with your goals.

    1. Seinfeld was also the program that discussed the “close talker,” right?

      The cell phone thing doesn’t bug me as much…unless it’s in the bathroom. It’s rather odd to hear someone chatting it up in the next stall. LOL.

      1. Oh, yeah, the close talker who was certifiably nice…lol. Ewww people talking on their cell in a public restroom…that’s the worst. Normally the cell phone thing doesn’t bother me but l was on the bus on my way home from work one day and heard way more than l wanted to about someone’s life.

  2. I don’t like people close in my personal space, either, unless they’re good friends. And I hate crowds. I also refuse to do Black Friday shopping. Screw that noise sideways. As far as in lines, I have been known to turn around and “cough” on people who refuse to back the frack up. Then I smile and say, oh, sorry, didn’t know you were so CLOSE to me. LOL That usually works. People don’t want to be close to someone coughing. LOL

    1. I just think a lot of people have closer personal space and they don’t realize it feels SO CLOSE to some of us. I wish there was some universal signal for, “Could you please take a couple of baby steps back? And then I’ll be happy to smile or chat.”

      I haven’t tried the coughing thing. Guess that would get the point across. LOL.

  3. My only boundary for personal space is that if you are not my close friend, you need to stay an arm’s length away. And you better know whether or not you are a close friend. The worst is when people seem to think you’re their best bud and they get right in your face, hanging on you and whispering in your ear.

    1. After researching personal space, I think such people just don’t know! They don’t realize that you need space, because they don’t need it. However, I don’t quite know how to negotiate that. Would it be rude to say, “You’re in my personal space. Could you take a step back, please?” Somehow, I sense that would be misunderstood.

      Of course, “right in your face” is a whole other story. LOL.

  4. Personal space. Thankfully, most people in my life abide by the list you have up there. Although I have a couple that I wish would stay back a couple more feet. :/ It’s interesting to observe a crowd and you can totally see this at work.
    Julie! I’m going to find you on social media this week and remind you to spend time with Sharing Hunter. Okay. You’ve been warned, lol. You still had a great week. Progress is progress. Good for you.

    1. That’s a good idea, S.J.! To just watch a crowd and see how people respond. I’m sure some are relaxed and others look very tense.

      Thanks for the warning. I’ll be happy to get some prodding this week! 🙂

  5. You know, I’ve never measured or even eyeballed it. Could make for an interesting study though. As long as I don’t get the creepy-crawly vibes I generally don’t have a proximity alert. Raised voices on the other hand, stay at arm’s length…guess that’s about two feet right? 🙂

    Maybe you just needed to recharge this week. Wishing you a better upcoming week, Julie.

    1. I never thought much about raised voices. I notice that more on the phone. It used to be I had to hold the receiver away from my ear for loud talkers, but now that voice volume button on the cell phone is handy.

      I wish I’d recharged this week, Raelyn. Actually, I was swamped with an entirely different project that mastered my time and left little opportunity for editing. Thanks for the well wishes! I do think I’ll make more progress this week. 🙂

  6. I stay SO far away from the stores on Black Friday. I don’t like crowds, but the biggest reason is that I’m claustrophobic, so I feel like I can barely breathe. I’ve found that with strangers, I’m picky about WHICH ones can invade my personal space. I can’t really tell you the criteria my brain uses, because I don’t know. Some people just turn me off when they get too close and others don’t bother me. Weird, huh!

    Good luck with your goals this week!

    1. As much as possible, I try to do my holiday shopping online. That way, I enjoy shopping for family and friends WITHOUT feeling the stress of store traffic.

      It’s interesting that you have some kind of built-in system for personal space. Maybe you’re just a good judge of character. Thanks, Lauralynn!

  7. I am a hugger. I like being close to my friends and loved ones. But I think the writer half of me has always liked moments of solitude as well. I live for my weekends now when I go to the coffee shop and write in quiet.

    Congrats on completing the short story class! What a great exercise. I joined a new writers group and got some good feedback on my first chapter. It means some big rewrites, but I think their advice was spot on. Appreciated it in the long run, even if it means I’m not as brilliant as I thought I was. 😉 So yah, I get that thunder cloud, but I think there’s a sunny day headed both our ways!

    1. You know what’s interesting: I was fine with being hugged at DFW Con by people I’d never met before in person…because our online experiences had put them in the friend category for me.

      Also, I’m affectionate with my family, but not strangers. When that one stranger lady touched my pregnant tummy and rubbed, I thought my heart had stopped. And then, I kind of wanted to punch her. 😉

      I’m SO excited about your book, Jess! You have real writing talent, and I can just see how your career is going to unfold beautifully. But yeah, you gotta figure out where you’re lacking and then learn to fix that. That’s what good writers do. Glad you got some helpful feedback!

  8. The only time I really notice my personal space is when I am in the checkout line at the store and someone seems really close behind me. I take a couple steps forward and THEY do the same thing. I never thought of the coughing thing, that’s pretty cool, especially making a comment about just getting back from a third world country or maybe make a comment about just getting over some terrible communicable disease (hee hee). About your week. Sometimes we have off times and others are better. I remember when I used to go mountain biking with my friend and one day I mentioned that I didn’t feel 100% that day. His response: “Well, Sometimes you’re the bug and sometimes you’re the windshield”. I remember that sometimes when it’s not as easy to get going on my workout for the week. Hope you have a better week. 🙂

    1. Yeah, that is so weird when I try to step forward, and THEY FOLLOW YOU. Seriously, I just don’t think they get it! LOL.

      And I LOVE that bug/windshield saying. Can I borrow that and make it my new mantra?

  9. Julie, you know this means I plan to sneak right up next to you the next time I see you, right?

    On the personal space front, I tend to like people where I can see them. I HATE people coming up on the back of me, whether I know them or not. I can take them pretty close if I have my back to a wall, but I dislike the whole leg-touching thing on public transportation. I can deal, but I don’t like it. 🙂

    1. Invade my personal space anytime, Jenny! 😀

      There is something different about people coming up from behind you. Didn’t you hate when friends in school used to do that thing where they came up behind you, put their hands over your eyes, and said, “Guess who”? I never wanted to play that game! LOL.

  10. Congrats on getting so much accomplished! I have to check out ROW80. I can’t seem to do Nano but maybe that would work better for me.

    I’m pretty much like most of the responders here, I don’t go out on Black Friday, don’t like people I don’t know well getting within three feet of me. Lines don’t usually bother me, but sometimes they do and I can get claustrophobic at times.

  11. I’d say my “intimate space” takes up at least what they show there, probably “personal space” and maybe even some of “social space”. So, if you’re not my husband or one of my kids, stay back. 🙂 And sometimes, I don’t even want them hanging on me. I have serious social issues. Shopping at the mall on a regular day can make me feel like I’m going to start hyperventilating. There’s no way I could handle Black Friday.

    Good luck on your goals this week!

  12. I hate – and avoid – crowds unless I’m in a crowd where we share mutual interests, like church or writers’ conferences. That said, I can handle closeness pretty well if I know the person. And I’m a hugger. In a group where I’m comfortable, I may hug everyone there.

    One thing no one mentioned that helps in all these situations is breath mints or mouthwash. I do shy away from people – even those I really like – if their breath is offensive.

  13. Try living here in NYC and taking the subways or buses during rush hours! There is no such thing as personal space!

    Deodorant, body spray, and mints are a must!

  14. It’s a matter of phases for me. Most of the time, I like a fair distance (your 2.5 feet, Julie, sounds reasonable, but even more is nice) between me and most other people. Though instead of depersonalizing strangers that are too close, I tend to personalize them, try to talk to them and build a common bond. You know that nervous chatter that you tend to see stereotyped as a classic nerd behavior? *raises hand* That’s me to a T.

    Among friends (even people I’ve never met but have connected with online? I’m very huggy.

    Hmmm, interesting topic, Julie. Thanks for encouraging the discussion.

    (And ROW80-wise, don’t get too down on yourself… Those three chapters will happen. Enjoy the awesome reading time until then.)

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