Personal Space Definition
Personal space refers to the physical area surrounding an individual that is considered personal or private. Typically, when another person intrudes in this area, the individual experiences discomfort. A related concept, interpersonal distance, refers to the area that people keep between themselves and the interaction partner. As an individual’s personal space increases, interpersonal distances will increase as well. The size of personal space largely depends on individual and situational differences. The shape of personal space does not completely follow the lines of a circle or bubble, as the preferred distances at the front of a person are generally found to be larger compared with the rear.
Physical interpersonal spacing behavior serves important functions. Distancing oneself from others promotes control and maintains autonomy. In this case, the influence of others is reduced. Conversely, proximity fosters interpersonal communication and cooperative behavior, smoothes interactions, and increases interpersonal liking.
Determinants of Interpersonal Distance
Personal space should not be considered a static construct because it varies across individuals and situations. Predominantly, interpersonal distance is influenced by the nature of the relationship between the two interacting individuals. Edward Hall distinguished four typical types of interaction distances observed in Western societies: intimate distance (0-18 inches, e.g., two individuals making love); personal distance (18-48 inches, e.g., distance between close friends), social distance (4-12 feet, e.g., personal business); and public distance meetings (12-25 or more feet, e.g., formal interactions like teaching).
Interpersonal distance may also be influenced by a person’s mind-set or goals. If an individual adopts the goal to affiliate with another person, he or she may be more likely to sit close to that person. Likewise, a strong need to belong to others also results in a tendency to sit closer to other people. On the other hand, when people focus on personal goals, uniqueness, and autonomy, they are likely to need more distance from others.
Furthermore, individual differences have been linked with proximity behavior. Various studies have provided evidence for personal space to be influenced by sex, showing that two interacting men require more personal space than do two interacting females. Also, personal space seems to increase from childhood to adolescence.
Interpersonal distance also varies across cultures. Members of collectivistic countries prefer stronger interpersonal proximity compared with members of individualistic countries. Interestingly, several studies have shown that members of collectivistic cultures are characterized with a relatively high need to harmonize with others and to have a sense of belonging, whereas members of individualistic cultures have a relatively strong need to distinguish themselves from others and strive for personal achievement. Therefore, these cultural differences in interpersonal distance may be partly explained by cultural differences in goals.
Finally, some aspects of the environment have been shown to influence personal distance. For example, people prefer greater distances when they are in stressful situations, in rooms with low ceilings, or in crowded places.
Compensation for Closeness
Several authors have argued that people strive for balance between several approach/avoidance forces during interaction. Therefore, when the situation forces people to intrude each other’s personal space (e.g., standing in a crowded elevator), the decreased interpersonal distance may be compensated for by other psychological mechanisms that are related to intimacy, such as eye contact and topic intimacy. For example, people standing in a crowded elevator avoid making eye contact, look at the elevator doors, and discuss the weather.
Measuring Interpersonal Distance
Interpersonal spacing behavior has been studied using two different kinds of distance measures. Some researchers used projective measures in which individuals are asked to indicate the preferred distance to an imagined other (using miniature figures, dolls, or paper and pencil drawings). These projective measures may be contrasted with real-life measures, including unobtrusive observations of actual spacing and placements or selections of chairs. A popular and efficient measure is to ask a person to take a chair and place it in the vicinity of another person. The distance between the chairs is indicated as the interpersonal distance. As interpersonal spacing behavior is mostly regulated in an automatic fashion, individuals are generally unaware of the distance that they keep from others. As a result, people may find it difficult to explicitly indicate their preferred interpersonal distances. Indeed, projective measures show low correspondence with actual interpersonal behavioral measures and are considered to be less useful in studying personal space.
Benefiting from technical progress, several researchers have recently studied interpersonal spacing behavior using immersive virtual environment technology (virtual reality) in which participants approach virtual other people. People seem to keep distance from these virtual persons quite naturally, as if they approach real individuals. Virtual reality is a potentially useful tool to enlarge researchers’ understanding of personal space.
Implications of Personal Space
The implications of personal space can be far-reaching because it can have a strong impact on the quality of the interactions and therefore on the quality of interpersonal relations. The interaction of two persons with different sizes of personal space may result in misunderstanding and become problematic. For example, if a member of an individualistic country (a U.S. citizen) who has large preferred interpersonal distances interacts with a member of a collectivistic country (an India citizen), the latter may stand too close for the American, whereas the Indian person may become irritated because the American stands too far away for conversation. From an applied perspective, the growing body of knowledge in the area of personal space and proximity behavior provides opportunities to adjust spacing behavior and train people to stand closer to or further away from others in specific situations. This may help smooth interactions and reduce psychological discomfort.
- Bailenson, J. N., Blascovich, J., Beall, A. C., & Loomis, J. M. (2003). Interpersonal distance in immersive virtual environment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 819-833.
- Hayduk, L. (1983). Personal space: Where we now stand. Psychological Bulletin, 94, 293-335.
- Holland, R. W., Roeder, U., van Baaren, R. B., Brandt, A., & Hannover, B. (2004). Don’t stand so close to me: Self-construal and interpersonal closeness. Psychological Science, 15, 237-242.