Personal space is the area around a person that one thinks of as their area or space, and that they don’t want other people to come into or enter as they meet or talk. The amount of space people want or need around them, in order to feel comfortable, depends on a lot of factors, including where the person is, who the person is interacting with, how well one knows the other person, and so on. Preferences and norms about personal space vary among individuals and especially across cultures. American, as a whole, are people who like a bit more personal space compared to people from other cultures. Most Americans value their personal space and feel discomfort, upset, or anxiety when another person gets too close. This is especially true when talking to or meeting a new person and when in groups. How close two American’s stand when they are interacting/talking usually indicates how close the relationship is between these people. The more familiar someone is with another person indicates how close they will let that person come within their personal space in order to interact. There are three main ‘zones’ of personal space, which I have outlined below.
Intimate personal space – up to 1 foot around the person
Being this close to a person indicates a very close relationship and high level of comfort between individuals. It often occurs during contact such as hugging or whispering.
Close personal distance – 1 foot to 4 feet
This amount of closeness in personal space generally occurs between family and friends.
Social distance – 4 or more feet
This level of physical distance is usually seen among acquaintances and strangers. With someone you know fairly well, such as a co-worker that you see several times a week, you/they may feel more comfortable interacting at a closer distance, but in the beginning a little more distance rather than a little less difference is a safe bet.
It is hard to say exactly how much personal space any specific person will want or need, but it is best to err on the side of giving too much space rather then too little space, when interacting with (an American) when you first meet him/her. What does this mean exactly? Well, when introducing yourself or when talking to someone it is probably best to stay about one arm’s length away from the other person. (An arm’s length is the distance from your shoulder to the end of your finger tips-the length of your arm when it is held straight out from your shoulder). How will you know that you are an arms length away? That is easy. Shaking hands is a common greeting for strangers and acquaintances in America. So, when you meet a new person, shake their hand, introduce yourself, and don’t get closer to that person than you need to in order to shake his/her hand. Also, if you see a person backing away from you a little as you get closer to him or her during your conversation, this is a good indication that you are getting too close and the person wants more personal space.
Take a look at this humorous video clip from the American TV show Seinfeld in which the man in the red/orange sweater, named Aaron, is referred to as a “close talker.” As you will see, when he talks, he gets too close to people and they find it uncomfortable. Notice how people tend to back or lean away from him to get more personal space.