A matter of personal space

It's not just about the physical touch. There is an array of psychological factors that define the boundaries of our comfort level

couple“Too close for comfort.” How many times have we felt that about someone whose proximity was making us feel uneasy. We can’t put our fingers on it, but even in a crowded room we can make out if someone is staring at us. Travelling by public transport has us guarding this invisible space like a lion – putting whatever is in our hands – bag, umbrella, even a newspaper between us and a stranger, in a bid to put a barrier to any invasion on it. At meetings, we get flustered if a client looks at us longer than necessary, even if he is sitting several chairs away.

The area that encloses our individuality, our sense of self, and our comfort zone is called “personal space”. A modern day moniker for the term “proxemics” coined by Edward T Hall, it denotes the region surrounding each person, or that area which a person considers their domain or territory.

Personal territory

Obviously each of us has two distinct boundaries which we erect physically and emotionally – the place we inhabit – which could be our home, our cubicle in office, or simply the dining chair that we occupy everyday and so we consider rightfully ours. The psychological space is an imaginary line that sets the limits for others.

It is this line that makes us move backwards, almost involuntarily when a stranger crosses it while talking to us. It is this boundary that shrinks when interacting with friends. This margin sets the tone of any relationship and rules for inter-cultural interactions.

This enclosed circle that surrounds us defines intimacy and aggression. For immediate family, or in a romantic relationship, it has the narrowest diameter. We let people whom we feel emotionally close to into our personal space easily. On the other hand, if we are arguing or fighting with someone, and that person crosses this line, we take it as an encroachment – an aggressive act. Many people while arguing and fighting deliberately step too close to the other person, invading their psychological territory, to stake their power and confront their adversary.

Again gender dictates this personal sphere. Between two men, the space is always more than between two women. If a man and woman are in a relationship, the space is less as compared to a man and woman who are strangers – that space is the largest. At public events like concerts and games, and crowded marketplaces, in times of distress [floods, and riots] people give up their personal space willingly, since that’s what the situation demands.

Culture dictates this psychological area as much as age and of course, your personality. Obviously, extroverts need a much lesser space around them than introverts. A child growing up in a joint family will get accustomed to less personal space than a child reared in a nuclear family. Again professional choices steer the area of personal space – creative professions crave more space, while those in marketing or “people-oriented” jobs can do with less.

This explains why there are some of us who “need their space”. Too much noise at malls and even at home with the blaring television is enough to rattle some people. It is again an encroachment on personal space. Anything that invades our sense of comfort and individuality, whether sound, light, a leg extended in our direction in the train, an arm resting on the handle next to us at the movie hall, someone staring, a co-worker talking too loudly on the phone in the next cubicle is testing our boundaries. In fact, next time you feel an unexplained rage or irritation, the first thing to do, is to check if your personal space has been violated in any way.

A social identity

Just by observing people interacting with each other will give you an idea of how close they are to each other. Touching while talking to one another is an intimate action that dissolves personal space.

Also, touching someone else’s belongings is a way of sharing their personal space, which is why when an acquaintance or stranger touches our things, we feel a sense of outrage – even if it the car we have parked on the road.

Most aggressive acts including street brawls and road rages can be traced to a violation of personal space.

A survival instinct, ingrained in our evolutionary genes, compels us to mark our territory even today. Whether it is stepping backwards, almost involuntarily, when someone breaches our personal boundaries, or setting up personal mementoes like snaps at our workplace to assign our rights to the area, we assert our identity as individuals even as we recognise our place as social creatures. It is the modern day equivalent of a survival instinct, the human equivalent of the fight-or-flight response in the animal kingdom. This way we ward off psychological predators, and stake a claim in our terrain.

Personal space, though invisible, is an indispensable part of our psyche – giving us our sense of well being and balance, and sheltered within it, we come to terms with our distinct individuality and social identity.

Sharmila Bhosale
Sharmila Bhosale is a Mumbai-based health writer and her interests include parenting, relationships. lifestyle, spirituality, corporate culture, people and trends


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