Personal Space: What Our Distance Communicates

You may not be conscious of the kind of body language signals you send out, yet unconsciously you are able to interpret the body language of others. You rely on your ‘gut’ intuitive feelings for this process of interpreting. All movements, in your face, with your head, your legs, your feet and all body parts, combine to make your gestures, your body language. Gestures are a combination of a series of smaller body movements, which can be learned.

Take for instance the gesture when you want to say ok: your thumb and index finger make a circle and your other fingers stretch upwards, while your facial expression compliments what you are signing with this signal. It is often funny how young children learn these signals and do not always get them right. It can also be funny, as well as cause difficulties, when a gesture means one thing in one culture and another thing in another culture. So pay attention when and where you use them.

The physical distance you keep from others and your reaction to how other people approach you, has a big influence on your discussions and your connections with people. How you guard your personal space boundaries and how you enter into the others’ personal space, is integrally connected with the way you are connected with other people. It is important for people to have their ‘own space’.

The position someone prefers and all the things he does to appropriate the space around him says something about that person. Is a visitor at a birthday party sitting between other people or does he sit somewhere separate? With whom is he sitting together? And is his place situated in the middle of a group or on the periphery? How much space between himself and others does this person create? Is he facing the door, the window or does he sit towards other people in the room?

The mutual distances people choose during interactions have several goals. Distance plays a role in signaling the beginning and the end of a conversation. It also signals something about how intimate and how personal we experience the relationship and the topic of discussion. The appropriate use of distance between talking partners is regulated by quite a lot of (unwritten) social rules and cultural norms.

If somebody comes closer to you than you are used to, invading your personal space, he can give you an uneasy feeling. You feel inclined to take a step backward to establish the original personal space with which you are comfortable again. In general, people need a certain amount of personal space to feel optimally o.k.

This also indicates your wish to trace out your personal territory. When you are not at home, you sometimes make a kind of temporary territory – a temporary space, which you secure with your personal belongings. In this way, you create a kind of personal air bubble around you. Who enters in there, without being invited can trigger a defensive response.

Understanding personal space and distance is crucial if you want to give off the right signals. Stand too close and you’ll be marked as “Pushy” or “In your face”. Stand or sit too far away and you’ll be “Keeping your distance” or “Stand offish”. Neither is good, so observe if in a group situation how close are all the other people to each other. Also notice if you move closer to someone and they back away, you’re probably just a tiny bit too much in their personal space, their comfort zone. “You’ve overstepped the mark” and should pull back a little.

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Shared by: Aaron Karmin, LCPC, Contributing Blogger

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