on personal space

I’d learned a long time ago that one of the finest weapons in my arsenal was my ability to invade personal space.

— Maggie Stiefvater

ID-10016171 personal space
Those of us with large personal spaces should not have to wall ourselves up against invasion. (Image courtesy of Graphics Mouse at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)


Psychology classes at college provided us with the opportunity to carry out many interesting ‘experiments’ in the name of putting the words of theorists into action. One such activity that readily springs to mind was related to personal space.

With a partner, we were tasked with ‘invading’ the personal space of random, hapless victims. One person would pretend to be conducting a survey, all the time moving closer and closer towards the victim. The other would stand back and observe — noting details like facial expression and body movement. The idea was to document the varying sizes of personal space.

The outcomes were fascinating.

One person started to get twitchy at a distance of one metre, while another allowed me to get right up into his face (centimetres away and extremely uncomfortable for me) without batting an eyelid. The funniest reaction was from a poor guy we managed to back up against a wall; his only out was to roll along the wall as he answered one of the survey questions.

In hindsight, it was a very unkind experiment, but illuminating. Invading someone’s personal space can produce unexpected results. It is empowering for the invader and incapacitating for the invaded.

Psychologist Robert Sommer defines personal space as ‘an area with invisible boundaries surrounding a person’s body into which intruders may not come‘.

For me, as a person with a very large personal space, the experiment was torture to conduct. I learnt as much about myself that day as I did about personal space.

As I’ve gotten older, I think my personal space has increased — but so has my ability to deal with invasions. I just move away.

Some examples of personal space invasion include:

♦ going to the movies and choosing a seat, only to have some random stranger, who has multiple other seats to choose from, sit right next to me and then put their arm on the shared arm-rest. (I don’t get it. They could have both arm-rests if they sat one seat away.)

♦ attending a conference where the chairs are lined up in tight rows, forcing you to rub shoulders with the likely to be unknown person beside you. (Solution: arrive early, hope the chairs are the detachable kind, choose a chair at the end of the row and move it sideways leaving a gap. Friends laugh at me for doing this, but I don’t care.)

♦ overly touchy-feely people who are not in your immediate close friendship/family group, but still insist on hugging and kissing you — this applies particularly to strangers and professionals. (Our accountant, who we rarely see and certainly never socially, is a kisser. The first time I met him, he went in for the kiss. The second time, I was armed … I put my husband in between us … he still got me. Why?)

Aeroplanes (and Tokyo subways during peak time) are the most difficult because there is nowhere to go.

Hugging is something else that has become weirdly popular in recent years.

Hi – never met you before,  don’t know anything about you, but here’s a hug anyway. What? Why?

Some of us are not huggy people. It is possible to learn though. I work with quite a number of huggers, and I have a reputation for being a non-hugger. But, I know these people and the difference is, they always ask first. That’s ok. Just don’t hug me if I haven’t known you for more than 6 months.

Life can be hell for those of us with big personal spaces. The size of our personal space is out of our control; no amount of plastic surgery, Botox or hair dye will reduce, tighten or reinforce your personal space, unlike their effect on the other things we are born with.

I used to own a book of ‘weird but useful useless Japanese inventions’ (I have no idea what happened to it; if I loaned it to you, please return it.) One of the inventions in this book was a ‘personal space suit’. Said suit could be put on and inflated to the dimensions of your personal space, thereby preventing people from intentionally, or unintentionally, invading your space.

My idea is less cumbersome. A little force-field, set to the size of my personal space, with a loud buzzer (or better still, a mild electric shock) designed to go off once my space is breached, but programmed to let known people in and keep strangers out.

I think I’d sell millions.


2 thoughts on “on personal space

  1. Personal Space….Mmmmm…….. How precious it is for me! How perfect it is to be able to go for a walk without being bombarded by all manner of invasion from the surrounding world.

    To me, personal space is that area where I am allowed the privilege to be in my own cocoon….a cocoon in which I can reflect on the mysteries of life and be immersed in thought of all flavours, purchased from many different shops. How many flavours, bitter and sweet have I tasted in my life to date.

    As with you, Kellie, I have found that my personal space has been broadened with the passage of time. ‘Why is this?’
    I ask myself. Maybe it’s life experiences, good, bad and the ugly, that have extended this space to allow penetration of different thinking, to embrace ‘the big picture’ rather than unimportant or insignificant events.

    Being exposed to different cultures, such as South American, Spanish and Italian, I have particularly extended my personal space. This is most evident, for instance, in the way I have learnt to kiss and hug family members or close friends on every occasion we meet or say goodbye. The practice has become second nature to me. In the bad old days this was the opposite. Nevertheless, demonstrative kissing or hugging must be used legitimately, respectfully and cautiously. Judgement of personal feelings about the use of tactile demonstration is paramount!! It’s something that should never be forced on a recipient. To have the intuition to understand people’s feelings is a gift that comes with age, in my opinion.

    ‘Know when to speak. Know when to listen’.
    ‘Sometimes the heart sees what is invisible to the eye.’



    1. Absolutely – it is a shame more people can’t read facial and body language cues when it comes to meeting and greeting. Clearly it is not only people on the autism spectrum who can’t read social cues (but then again, these same people are not the huggers – most don’t like the sensation.) Even with a handshake (which is gross with sweaty palmed people), I have always wondered why there is that need for touch when you meet someone. Like you, I have had to learn to hug upon seeing friends … but I never initiate it although I will respond. Interestingly – one of my best friends feels the same as me. We have been friends since high school and we never hug … once we did (under pressure from others) and we both agreed it just felt wrong.


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