What is Personal Space?
Have you ever felt uncomfortable because someone came too close to you physically? At a party did you ever want to take steps backwards because an enthusiastic story teller kept inching in closer to you? In a queue did you feel that the person behind you was standing way too close and that you could literally feel their breath on the nape of your neck?
These are all instances where a stranger or relatively distant acquaintance came too close to you for comfort. They encroached on your Personal Space.
What is Personal Space?
Think of Personal Space as a bubble around your body. If someone barges into this bubble it bursts and you feel naked and vulnerable. This is a rather flexible imaginary bubble. In case you know a person well the bubble will shrink and they can stand quite close to you and not burst your bubble of make you uncomfortable. However it can also expand when you meet a stranger whom you know nothing about. If he takes menacing steps towards you the bubble will burst long before he reaches close to you.
Why do we have this Comfort Zone?
You can think of the Personal Space and comfort zone as a trigger to your survival mechanism. Imagine if the cave man got too close to a tiger or a lion without feeling uncomfortable? He would never live to tell the tale. Such instincts get embedded in your nature and help protect you from danger. You can also sub consciously read the body language of a person who intends to do you harm and when he gets too close it will trigger your danger alarm in the body reflexes causing you to move away from such a person.
Different Levels of Comfort for the same individual
The level of comfort you share with a person will determine how close you allow them into your personal space. There are some people whom you can stand with about a couple of feet away and still be in your comfort zone. This is the usual social personal space distance. Think of a small group standing together and chatting. You are sharing your comfort zone with the group and being social. Then you have the intimate zone where only close friends and family come in. They can touch you and come up close to you without triggering that alarm because you trust these people intimately.
Cultural differences in defining Personal Space
In Oriental cultures the need for Personal Space is not as great as in the Occidental ones. Take an American set of friends, they will meet up with a hi5 or a handshake. While the French will come right into your personal space and blow kisses on your cheek. A couple of Indians will hug each other as though they have not met in ages each time they meet or part. Also in Oriental cultures the males have smaller Personal Space bubbles when compared to Occidental males. Plus females in general across cultures have more flexible personal space bubbles.
So the next time you are out with friends try and see just how small or large your own personal space bubble is. You will also be able to study your friend's body language to see just how comfortable they are with you in their personal space.