Personal Space Issues: 6 Feet Away Is Just Normal For Us

I’ve had personal space issues as long as I can remember. Where most people find solace in a hug, it gives me anxiety unless I am 100% comfortable with that person. Even Santa violated that space when I was just 3-years-old, as the photo clearly shows.

Christmas Time 1977

When the pandemic hit, there was ONE big bonus I saw. I no longer had to push people out of my personal space. It was now an expectation. It was now a reason other than a personal tick.

I’m in good company. Even President John F. Kennedy has personal space requirements. His was 30 feet. Only a blessed few could cross that threshold.

Edward T. Hall wrote about that 30-foot diameter and even coined the phrase “Proxemics”. He called it:

“The interrelated observations and theories of humans use of space as a specialized elaboration of culture.”

Edward T. Hall

Hall pointed out we have several levels of “space” requirements:

  • “Intimate Space” – for a touch, whisper, or embrace. Generally 1 – 18 inches.
  • “Personal Distance” – for loved ones. Generally 1.5 – 4 feet.
  • “Social Distance” – for colleagues and acquaintances. Generally 4 – 12 feet.
  • “Public Distance” – for public speaking. Generally 12 – 25 feet.

My personal space issues could be rooted in a variety of things. My parents were night and day. My day was the every-loving hugger, high-fiver, snuggler, can’t get close enough to the people I love. My mother was the one who flinched when my dad kissed her on the cheek as she handed him a brown bag lunch as he went off to work. Both parents were very loving and supportive but in their own ways. I took after my mom.

I am also extremely claustrophobic. I think God made me freakishly tall so when I was in a large crowd I could lift my head up and breathe clean air as panic filled my body from personal space violations. Flying on planes is a nightmare for me. I chose the window seat, as that window provides a world of air I’m not getting from the middle seat guy who is, only due to lack of seat space, touching my elbow with his elbow. I will physically spoon up to the window for the duration of the flight because Lord knows there isn’t enough room for my 3 1/2 feet long legs.

In addition, I have anxiety. Good anxiety that helps me know when fight-or-flight kicks in, that helps me stay organized in a multi-tasking world, that assists with a strong gut instinct. I also have bad anxiety, so when you are too close to me I have to protect my purse, look for the nearest exit, size you up, and determine how I’m going to kick your ass if you have ill intentions.

Let me walk you through what happens if you invade someone’s personal space when they have “Personal Space Issues”:

  • Their brain fires up, sending a signal that something is too close.
  • Anxiety takes over and tingles throughout the body.
  • They most likely will try to make themselves smaller, shrinking up shoulders and feet to create more space between them and the “threat”.
  • They can’t really think about anything else other than the person in that space and how to escape. (I’ve actually gone to the back of long lines to avoid a PS Offender.)
  • They will move into any space they can find that feels safer. Maybe it’s two steps forward. (DO NOT take two steps forward with them).
  • Once away from the “threat”, they will noticeably relax and wonder “Why was that person so close to me?” as well as “Why am I like this?”

People who violate personal space are known as “Space Invaders”.

Our personal space limits are also defined by several items: personality, environment, context, culture, gender, job, age, and social status, according to Psychology Today.

Let me give you an example of how bad some people (ie. Me) have “Personal Space Issues”.

It was July 17, 2008. The final moments of my mother’s life. We all stood around her. We sang her favorite song “Amazing Grace”. We cried. We told stories. We laughed. We didn’t know the exact right thing to do or say.

In the middle of this, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked back and it was my brother-in-law. He was holding my grief-stricken sister and offered a hand to me, the perpetually single “youngest child” who by most appearances had “nobody to comfort her.” Not a big deal. He was used to my sister, who was like my dad, always wanting to be close to people she loved.

A few days later, my BIL said to me “Hey I’m sorry if I made you feel uncomfortable the other day in the hospital room. I was just trying to comfort you.

“What do you mean?”, I asked, confident my personal space issues were not visually apparent.

“You tensed up and your shoulders went to your ears when I put my hand on your shoulder”, he said matter-of-factly.

“Oh. I’m so sorry. I’m just not like my sister. I am fine standing alone at a good distance from others”, was all I could offer.

NAVIGATING PERSONAL SPACES

I’m not saying my preferred 6 feet away at all times (even pre-COVID) is the way it should be. You might like being close to people and have a 3-foot space preference.

Here are some suggestions to monitor personal space:

  • Read the room and body language. If you are approaching someone and they appear to be backing up and waving, they might not be down for a handshake. COVID helps with this too.
  • When you are in someone’s personal space, your message is being lost in their own anxiety. You should easily be able to tell when you’ve crossed a line. While I’m not “right”, my boundaries of comfort should win if they are farther than yours, just in the name of better communication transfer.
  • It’s okay to say “I need to back up a few feet. I have a pretty wide personal space.” Don’t apologize.
  • Never, ever, in any way touch someone if you aren’t 100% sure you have permission. A touch on the shoulder, a high five, a person approaching with open arms for a hug – all triggers for personal space violations.

I once was giving an employee a tour of the station. She was new. I’m sure nervous and anxious about the job. She stood about a foot away from me at all times. I kept backing up as I introduced her and she kept moving closer. I finally had to say “I have personal space issues. Can you back up a bit?“. Apparently, to her, I was a jerk for doing this.

Another employee loved hugs. She always asked if I would ever hug her. I said no, I am not a hugger, but I’m your biggest cheerleader from several feet away. On my last day, she asked if she could get a goodbye hug. She was so sweet and I knew it meant a lot to her.

I agreed, in writing, with stipulations.

There are technological inventions that make my personal space safer. I can’t listen to headphones while out in public due to my anxiety and having to put my head on a swivel (side effect of working in news), but when I see OTHER people on headphones? I am happy to go down that aisle because we won’t be talking. When I see three lines at Target? I’m going for the one where everyone is looking at their phone, not the one with an older woman who is chatting everyone up.

People who violate personal space are not bad people. They might be culturally inclined to be closer or just have a pushy personality and feel getting closer helps the message. If you travel to different parts of the world, you should know the “space” boundaries in those countries. Your own personal space doesn’t win in different cultures, in fact, it can be insulting.

THE EXCEPTIONS

You will always have people who can get into your personal space without worry. They will need to know this is okay. Even President Kennedy let SOME people into his 30-foot diameter.

I do have one major exception to personal space. Any dog or fluffy animal ever.

Thoughts on personal space? Talk to me.

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One Comment

  1. Msfab

    Some people just out right have no manners what-so-ever. Hence the reason for violating others personal space. I’ve been social distancing way before covid so it was not a hassle for me when it became mandatory.

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