When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

CLARIN

A Close (But Not Too Close) Look At Personal Space

Boundaries of personal space can depend on geography and wealth. City planners and interior designers should keep it all in mind when drawing up blueprints for the future.

Crowd in Buenos Aires
Crowd in Buenos Aires
Miguel Jurado
-OpEd-
BUENOS AIRES — The problem with Guille is that he's a close talker. It's not like he has nasty breath or smells bad, but he gets in your face, even as you keep inching back. Leandro is the opposite: You try to move closer to talk to him, and he steps away. As you feel the need to approach a bit more, he again retreats, like in some kind of ritual dance.
A while back, I realized the reason for this is that each of us has our own idea of what represents an ideal distance with people, a bubble that feels neither too crowded nor too distant. Guille's bubble is clearly much smaller than mine, and Leandro's much bigger.
In 1966, anthropologist Edward T. Hall was the first to discuss this subjective frontier, or "personal reaction bubble," which influences our behavior. His book The Hidden Dimension describes four types of space: intimate space (about 46 centimeters around us), which is normally reserved for lovers, children, close relatives, friends and pets; personal space (from 46 to 120 centimeters), used in conversations with friends, colleagues or at gatherings of people you know; social space (120 to 240 centimeters), meant for strangers, new acquaintances or members of recently formed groups; and public space (more than 240 centimeters), used for large gatherings, public speaking, seminars or the theater.
Clearly Guille's personal space is less than 46 centimeters, which is why he's always entering mine, and Leandro's is bigger, which is why his body language always suggests that I'm encroaching on his! Hall was very clear on this: Personal space draws out our comfort zone and psychological security, but it's very difficult to measure. It changes according to personal experiences, culture, the time we live in, age groups and social classes. In the West, for example, Hall's studies found that the average person's personal space extends 60 centimeters from each side of the body, 70 centimeters to the front and 40 behind. But in Latin cultures, it's smaller. Anglo-Saxons seem to require the most.
The personal space divide
There are also social differences. Rich people expect to have larger personal space than the poor, who tend to live closer together. In large cities such as Buenos Aires, personal space tends to be smaller than in the countryside.
[rebelmouse-image 27088984 alt="""" original_size="1280x960" expand=1]
El Subte, the subway in Bogota at rush hour Photo: galio
In some situations, people make exceptions about their personal space because life demands it: taking the subway, getting into the elevator, going to a concert or taking part in protests all require sacrificing personal space a bit. In these cases, people respond differently: they accept the discomfort more graciously, for example, if it's for fun or just for a short while. With public transport, it's different.
Psychologist Robert Sommer says people tolerate crowds on subways, buses and elevators by dehumanizing those next to them. That is, they regard them almost as objects instead of people invading their intimate space. Which explains why people tend not to make eye contact and look so lifeless on the subway.
The point is, distance influences our behavior and should, therefore, be considered when it comes to designing and furbishing buildings. Experiments on human communication have shown, for example, that people prefer to face each other when talking, rather than sitting next to each other. Obviously, you might say, so they can see each other's faces. Yet those studies also show that as personal distance increases, they prefer to sit beside one another, even in the best acoustic conditions. That is, we tend to keep ourselves inside our personal space.
Another finding is that the size of a room determines conversational distance. In smaller rooms, people tend to move closer, rather like my friend Guille.
You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Stories from the best international journalists.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
Already a subscriber? Log in

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

The Dead And Disappeared: A Village Emerges From 72 Days Of Russian Occupation

Russian forces have been pushed out of the area around Kharkiv. Villages that were occupied for two months are free once more — but utterly destroyed. And thousands of people have disappeared without a trace.

Kharkiv and the surrounding villages faced weeks of constant Russian shelling.

Alfred Hackensberger

TSYKRUNY — Andriy Kluchikov uses a walking stick, but is otherwise fairly sprightly for a 94-year-old. Under his black wool hat, Kluchikov seems fearless as he surveys his hometown in northeastern Ukraine. “The missiles don't scare me,” he says with a smile. “I have slept in my own bed every night and never went down into the basement.”

As for the two-meter-wide bomb crater that has appeared in his garden, between the vegetable patch and the greenhouse with its shattered plastic roof, Kluchikov almost seems proud. “No one can intimidate me,” he says. “Not even the Russians.”

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

Sign up to our free daily newsletter.

In the early days of the war, in February, Russian artillery almost completely destroyed this village of Tsyrkuny, near Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city. Only a few houses, including his own, were left undamaged. Shortly afterwards, Russian troops marched into the village and occupied it for 72 days. It was not until early this week that the Ukrainian army was able to liberate Tsyrkuny and many other areas to the north of the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv.

It is the Ukrainians’ most successful counter-offensive so far. They are thought to have pushed the invading troops back almost to the Russian border. “The offensive is gaining momentum,” according to the independent American thinktank Institute for the Study of War. “It has forced Russian troops on the defensive and has successfully alleviated artillery pressure on Kharkiv City.”

In the modern city of Kharkiv, home to around 1.5 million residents, the relief has been palpable over the last few days. Restaurants and cafes have reopened. People are walking and riding bikes in the parks, and couples are strolling hand in hand, enjoying the warm spring sunshine. You can still hear the artillery, but it is now many miles away.

Keep reading... Show less

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Stories from the best international journalists.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
Already a subscriber? Log in
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS

Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.

Watch Video Show less
MOST READ