Space invaders

What determines the size of our personal space, and how do we cope when someone encroaches on our territory? Our psychological claim on the world may be more complicated than we think.

Illustration by  Kayla Oliver

Illustration by Kayla Oliver

Scene I
A crowded tram. A woman stands holding a pole, her bag clutched tight to her chest. All around her, commuters stand squashed together, avoiding eye contact with each other. All of the sudden, the tram lurches to an abrupt stop. The woman topples off balance, and puts her hand out to catch her fall. She bumps into another commuter, a man in a blue suit. Smiling awkwardly as she regains her balance, her heart starts racing and a blush of embarrassment creeps up her cheeks. Though they were standing right next to each other before in perfect isolation, she has broken a barrier by meeting his eyes. The two return to staring at nothing out the windows, but both now feel slightly uncomfortable and at the next stop the man hurries to exit the tram.

Personal space is a universal human experience. No matter where we are from, we all have our comfort zones, and having our space invaded by another individual can lead to strong feelings of anger, unease and irritability. Personal space is usually defined as the region surrounding a person which they regard as psychologically theirs. However, the size of those comfort zones are incredible variable, and change depending on the scenario, the people we are interacting with and our background experiences. Two lovers are happy to sit with their arms around each other, but two strangers on a tram will go to almost any length to ensure their knees don’t touch. What determines this personal space, and when we consider it invaded?

The study of human use of space is called proxemics. The term was first coined by U.S. anthropologist Edward T. Hall in 1963 and is defined as “the study of the spatial requirements of humans and animals and the effects of population density on behaviour, communication and social interaction.” According to Hall, who literally wrote the book on the topic, there are several layers, or zones, to our interpersonal distances. The four zones are, from nearest to furthest from our body: The Intimate zone (15‐45cm), The Personal zone (45cm‐1.2m), The Social zone (1.2‐3.6m) and The Public zone (further than 3.6m). It should be noted that these distances are based on North American standards, as these were the main focal group in all of Hall’s experiments. As we’ll discuss a bit later, there is a big difference the distances at which people from different cultures feel comfortable interacting with each other. The zones themselves do however seem to be constant across cultures, with four similar strata.

The Intimate zone is the most guarded area, and only people we are emotionally close to and consider safe are allowed within these boundaries. Only a select number of trusted individuals are allowed within, such as our partner, close friends and children. The next zone out, the Personal zone, is reserved for familiar individuals such as friends and family. The third zone, the Social zone, is where you will find people who are on a more formal standing with, or people we don’t know very well and therefore don’t trust to admit into our Personal zone. Typically, these individuals would include our more impersonal relationships such as acquaintances and co-workers, and would be the region people fall into during casual conversation when we first meet them.  The final zone, the Public zone, is used at events such as speeches, work presentations or conferences, where we are interacting with people at a distance.

Crowding on public transport is often unavoidable.   Ahmed Mahin Fayaz/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

Crowding on public transport is often unavoidable. Ahmed Mahin Fayaz/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


Now think back to the woman on the tram: the reason she felt so uncomfortable after her interaction was because she was forced to accept a complete stranger into her Personal zone, an area she would normally only admit friends and family to encroach upon. This scenario, of having to allow strangers into our personal space, is increasingly common in this day and age. In a world with increasing urbanization, it is becoming harder and harder for us to maintain our own personal spaces. According to the United Nations, over half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, and that proportion is predicted to rise. In cities where cramped conditions on streets and public transportation are the norm, people are having to adopt coping strategies to overcome the uncomfortable sensations associated with personal space invasion. 

Studies with animals have shown that having their personal space invaded leads to one of two instinctual reactions: fight, or flight. In humans, where fighting or confrontational methods are often not appropriate, most people tend to employ some sort of a modified “flight” response when they feel that their personal space is being invaded. Common behavioural adaptations include things such as stepping back, avoiding eye contact, and changes in posture such as tucking in your arms and legs to try and minimise the amount of space being used. According to psychologist Robert Sommer, another common method of dealing with violated personal space is dehumanization, where a person subconsciously imagines the people around them are in fact only inanimate objects. It is after all not as uncomfortable to stand a hairs length from a chair or a wall as it is to stand the same distance from a stranger.

All of these behavioural adaptations are put in place in order to avoid the feelings of unease we experience when our personal space is invaded. In 2009, a researcher named Daniel Kennedy was able to show that having our personal space invaded actually activates a specific region of our brain called the amygdala: a small almond shaped brain structure found in both hemispheres of the brain that is strongly associated with emotional response. In a 2008 Nature paper, Kennedy used a case study of a 42 year old woman with damage to both her amygdalae to show that they play a vital role in our perception and awareness of personal space. The woman, known as “SM,” underwent a series of experiments where researchers would approach her from across a room and ask her to rate her level of discomfort. Throughout the whole experiment, the woman showed an unusual lack of personal space, coming close enough to touch faces with the experimenter without any apparent issue. Interestingly, SM understood the concept of personal space, she just didn’t seem to have any of her own. At one stage she even stated that she did not want to make the experimenter uncomfortable by standing too close, but didn’t worry about her own discomfort at all.

This study was the first to conclusively link the concept of personal space to a specific brain structure, and has implications for many who suffer from mental issues related to abnormal personal space perceptions. With many common disorders such as autism linked to abnormal amygdala functioning, this research has opened the door to some interesting new research pathways. One thing is for sure: personal space is more than just an imagined concept, and affects us all on a deep neurological level.


Scene II
Two businessmen meet in an office in Tokyo. One is an American; a tall man with dark circles under his eyes, straight off a long flight. The other is a Japanese man in a sober grey suit. The men shake hands and begin to talk of company matters. The American, despite being taller, leans backwards almost imperceptibly. The Japanese man on the other hand leans forwards, putting one foot out in front of himself. The American shuffles on his feet, backing up ever so slightly. Without even noticing that he’s moving, the Japanese man follows him forwards. This dance goes on and on until the American is practically standing in a big potted plant. Eventually the American breaks the conversation off to ask if they can move over to the large desk in the room. His companion agrees, bemused that the American would like to sit after a long flight. They take their seats at opposite ends of the table and an intangible tension immediately leaves the room.

Like it or loathe it, there is no question that our culture has a tremendous impact upon who we are as a person. This is absolutely the case with personal space: numerous studies have observed that the size of people’s personal bubble varies greatly depending on what culture they are from. The overarching trend seems to be that northern Europeans (and by extension, North Americans and other British colonies) require the most amount of space in order to feel comfortable. They are followed by Asian cultures, who only require a moderate amount of space, and lastly Mediterranean and Latino cultures such as those found in southern Europe or South America. There has even been some suggestion that these trends relate to “warm climate cultures,” cultures around the equator with smaller personal spaces, and “cold climate cultures” closer to the poles with a more distance based approach to their interactions.

Although there may or may not be a basis for these observations, what people have found is that cultures that historically live in more crowded communities tend to be the ones with smaller personal space requirements. It may well be that historically, in small farming communities or even older hunter-gatherer societies, we had larger personal spaces than we do in today’s modern, urbanised societies. For example, people in Mumbai or Tokyo have relatively small personal space requirements as compared to people on the Mongolian steppes. These smaller personal zones have likely developed over generations, as a way of coping with the stress of living in cities with limited space. 

Triple handshake with Carter, Sadat, and Begin in the East Room, September 17, 1978. Depending on their culture, some of the men in this picture may have been comfortable with the nearness than others.   CIA/Wikimedia Commons  (public domain)

Triple handshake with Carter, Sadat, and Begin in the East Room, September 17, 1978. Depending on their culture, some of the men in this picture may have been comfortable with the nearness than others. CIA/Wikimedia Commons (public domain)


Differences in the size of each individual’s personal space can lead to communication issues, as it did in the example with the two businessmen. The American man, with a personal space extending around 4 feet, felt uncomfortable when the Japanese man 'invaded' his personal space by standing closer to him than he would be used to. The Japanese man on the other hand, with a personal space extending closer to 2-3 ft, kept shuffling forward subconsciously because the American man was standing further away than what would be the norm in his society. Their personal spaces were unbalanced, and overlapped in the American man’s mind even as it felt perfectly fine to the Japanese.

These small differences in culture can be either obvious or subconsciously felt, but they do affect our interactions with people from a different culture. A Latina girl may confuse an Englishman by seeming overly familiar, when in fact she is just being nice: touching and nearness is a normal part of her culture. Similarly, a Scandinavian may come across as 'standoffish' to a Chinese shopkeeper in Shanghai, when in fact they are just operating within what would be considered normal polite boundaries back in their homeland. Edward Hall himself emphasised mindfulness of cultural differences in proxemics as important for facilitating effective cross-cultural communication.

Culture does have a large impact on our personal space requirements, but there are also other factors that play a major part. One of the main ones is age. It has been shown that a sense of personal space does not actually develop in a person until they are about 3-4 years old. Their sense of personal space is then malleable until the age of about 12, when a person develops a fairly solid feeling of their own space requirements. However, some debate exists as to whether or not your personal space requirements to actually grow slowly as you age, with older individuals requiring more space than younger people. This could link another relevant factor to the size of our bubble: our status. Our perceived status in society has been shown to have an effect on the size of our personal sake, with more successful and affluent people generally having larger bubbles than those less well off. It is apparently no coincidence that first class seats have a lot more leg room! Perhaps this is why our bubble grows as we age: in societies that respect their elders, they are afforded a higher status and as such they end up acquiring larger personal spaces.

Finally, your gender also has an impact upon your personal space requirements. It has been shown that man generally take up a significant amount more room than women, relative to their size. In male dominated societies, this could be as difficult to disentangle from the status effect. However, whether it is status related or not, it seems to be a global trend. Those “manspreading” men on the subway, trams or benches in the park are actually taking up more space because they feel entitled to it; psychologically, they feel they own a larger space around their body than what the average woman feels she requires.

Manspreading may have a basis in our perceived personal space.   FriedC/Wikimedia Commons  (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Manspreading may have a basis in our perceived personal space. FriedC/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)


No matter who you are, we all value our personal space. Having a comfort zone surrounding us is a part of being a human, but we must understand that not everyone is playing by the same rules. Next time you think someone is standing a bit too close to you in the supermarket line, or a person is acting standoffish at a party, consider their background: it may be that their perception of what constitutes a space invasion is different from your own. 

By understanding that there are differences in people’s perceptions of personal space, whether they’re related to their culture, age or gender, we can come to a much better understanding with those people and adjust our communication accordingly. In a world where space is rapidly becoming a commodity in urbanised areas, an awareness of personal space and our strategies to protect it means that we can compromise and improve the personal experiences of those around us. 

Good communication works both ways, and benefits both parties. Sometimes that communication is as simple as avoiding eye contact on a tram, or watching how close you stand to a business partner. Through some simple mindfulness, everyone can feel safe and sound inside their personal bubbles.

Edited by Tim Newport and Diana Crow