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What is Personal Space?

Children develop the understanding of personal space at 3 to 4 years old.
Personal space boundaries differ by culture and the type of relationship people have.
Expected contact space may differ according to situation.
Article Details
  • Originally Written By: J.Gunsch
  • Revised By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: Sara Z. Potter
  • Last Modified Date: 15 April 2014
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Personal space is the area immediately surrounding an individual, sometimes described as an imaginary “bubble.” Most people are very aware of others in “their space,” and many require the area to remain relatively clear in order to feel at ease. The idea of personal space is rooted in psychology, and there are many theories about how the space develops and how people react to violations. Some of this is based on genetics and brain chemistry, but a lot is also cultural.

Psychological Roots

Most medical professionals believe that the idea of a personal bubble is deeply engrained in the human brain. This is likely a function of our evolutionary past. Being hyper-aware of others in the immediate vicinity of our bodies allows us to take stock of our surroundings and escape danger when it approaches.

Babies are not usually born with an innate understanding of personal space, but psychologists often think that the idea ingrains itself at about the same time as a child gains an independent self-awareness — usually between three and four years of age. Space awareness is controlled by the amygdalae, which is part of the frontal lobe of the brain. Once this part of the brain is fully formed, humans begin to see themselves in relation to other people and objects and conceptions of space naturally follow.

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Gradations

There are usually at least three different gradations of personal space that can be thought of as “rings” within the bubble. The first, which is closest to the individual, is intimate space. Parents, siblings, romantic partners, and other close friends can usually enter this area at will without causing alarm or anxiety. Next is expected contact. This area is for anticipated encounters like shaking hands, standing near others in a packed train car, or hugging casual acquaintances. Most of these interactions are very short-lived.

The widest ring is usually known as social space, and is the rough perimeter that people expect to be kept clear when out in society. The actual circumference of this space varies a lot depending on the person and his or her subjective comfort, past experiences, and expectations. Others who enter this space in an expected or unanticipated way can cause anxiety.

Cultural Differences

Much of how a person defines his or her own personal space is shaped by upbringing. Some cultures are naturally much closer than others, and how comfortable a person is with others nearby is often a factor of the country or region where he or she grew up. Family of origin also plays a part in this. A person who grows up in a family that hugs a lot or prizes physical contact often has less of a problem with strangers being in the intimate or expected contact zones than would a person who grew up with a lot more distance.

Social Awareness and Space Problems

Certain developmental problems, autism in particular, can affect how a person judges both his or her own personal space as well as that of others. It is not uncommon for an autistic person to unintentionally get too close to others, for instance. There are also some anxiety disorders that cause people to place excessive importance on their own space. In extreme cases, those who suffer from this sort of affliction have to stay far away from others, and must usually avoid crowd situations. Sometimes these issues can be treated with behavioral therapy or medication, but not always.

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Discuss this Article

anon278254
Post 15

I'm not opposed to the psychological study of this phenomenon (Edward Hall is said to be one of the originators of the concept), but I prefer the more spiritual understanding. It has to do with the sacredness of the individual and how sensitive each person involved is to it. Those, for example, who are oblivious to it can be annoying.

Some are hypersensitive (I think of how Johnny Carson wouldn't allow any guest on his show to touch him). I can't help but feel in this time that when people lose their moral sense (i.e., humanity) they also lose their sense of this sacredness (and vice versa).

anon275380
Post 14

We should know that personal space could be different culturally and even individually. But there is also a social difference that plays a role. The higher class you are, the more space you would like to have for yourself, to such an extent that the people of this class are considered cold and impersonal. This is a topic that we should see as relevant.

Perdido
Post 12

I always find it creepy when someone stands too close to me when they talk. It's a little uncomfortable when it is a relative, but when it is someone I barely know, it is downright scary.

My Aunt Martha used to stand really close as she talked. I didn't like it, but I came to accept it. I knew that she meant no harm by it.

However, I will step away from strangers who stand and talk too close to me. The creepy thing is that when I take a step back, they tend to step forward to fill the gap. Many of them don't even realize they are doing it, but still, it makes my skin crawl.

cloudel
Post 11

Violation of personal space at concerts can be very dangerous. I attended an outdoor music festival, and everyone was so tightly packed that there wasn't much room to move.

Someone decided to crowd surf, and as he got passed around over our heads, I got kicked in the head accidentally. I couldn't get out of there very fast, because I had to squeeze past so many people.

I decided that being close to the stage was not worth getting injured. Sacrificing a little personal space is one thing, but being mashed between people and hit is unacceptable.

Oceana
Post 10

@kylee07drg - I agree with you. I grew up in a home with several siblings, so I never got much personal space. Because of that, sharing it has never bothered me.

When I moved out into the country, I felt rather lonely, since people were not pressing up against me on the sidewalk or subway anymore. I found myself attending concerts and other events just to feel close to people. Feeling their body heat was very comforting to me, and it reminded me of home.

I could tell that other people around were used to having plenty of personal space, so I respected that. I didn't hug until someone hugged me first, but I did go shopping during the time of day that would be the most crowded at the stores.

kylee07drg
Post 9

I think that the amount of personal space you require stems largely from how your parents acted toward you and each other. My parents were not very touchy feely people, so I grew up expecting everyone else to give me as much personal space as my parents did.

On the other hand, my best friend and her parents hugged every time one of them left the house. They also hugged before bedtime every night. So, she would hug me when I got to her house and when I left.

At first, I cringed and felt uncomfortable. After awhile, I adjusted, though. I knew it was coming, and since I could be mentally and physically prepared for it, it wasn't so bad.

burcinc
Post 8

This is a really interesting subject. From what I understand of the article and the comments, it seems like there is a whole psychology of personal space.

When I think about personal space, the first thing that pops in my head is respect. I feel respected when people give me the space I need. If they keep intruding, I feel overwhelmed, even suffocated. It almost feels dangerous, like that person has other intentions about me.

I don't know, maybe I'm too paranoid. But I definitely need my space, especially with people I don't know too well. Of course there are exceptions. It's a whole other situation if I'm with an old friend or a family member. I basically have no personal space with my mom. I hug and kiss her all the time. But there is no way I could be so close with a stranger.

I didn't grow up in the city but I have a personal space problem in crowded public transportation too. I remember one time I was in the metro in DC in the summer. It was so crowded, I could smell people's sweat. It was the worst 15 minutes of my life.

discographer
Post 7

@anon18070-- I have many Latin American friends and I've been to Latin America several times. Although I wouldn't say that there is no personal space in Latin American countries, it is definitely much less than what personal space refers to in the US.

I find Latin Americans to be very friendly people who love to show their affection. But even if you are talking to someone you barely know in Latin America, it's not uncommon for them to stand very close to you, too close for most Americans. But there are no bad intention there.

I personally enjoy the lack of personal space with my Latin American friends. If you don't find it offensive or intrusive, it can be a very positive influence on you. The same way that we ask for a hug when we're feeling down. Touching makes us feel that we're cared for and lifts our spirits.

SteamLouis
Post 6

@6pack-- I don't think it has to do with space. The concept of personal space doesn't even exist in many cultures, regardless of the kind of place they live in.

I'm from the Middle East and I know that there is basically no personal space there, at least not between people of the same sex. Women kiss and hug all the time, so do men. It's not alarming to them, in fact if someone remains distant they take this to be an insult or will perceive that person as being unfriendly and cold.

After being in America for most of my life, I have the hardest time when I visit family in the Middle East. People I've never seen before will hug and kiss me and sit very close to me. I'm more used to it now but I've realized that it's a very cultural concept.

anon18070
Post 2

Since personal space differs from culture to culture, do you know how much space latin american's like?..

6pack
Post 1

They say the amount of personal space varies between cultures. Like American personal space is said to be larger than say Japanese. But perhaps thats less a cultural difference and more something that arises out of the circumstances of those cultures...that is, Japan tends to be a bit more crammed, and America tends to be a bit more spacious...generalizations of course, but it would seem the concepts have some merit.

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