Body Language

by Mary-Louise Angoujard

Use of space

Some people seem to take up a lot of space, while others seem to close in on themselves so that they are not even taking possession of their own space.

Personal space

Many people have heard of personal space and social distances. Communication research indicates the approximate zones are as follows for the Western world (varying slightly from person to person).

The public zone – 12 feet and over (4 metres and over)

When we are walking around town, we will try to keep at least 12 feet between us and other people. This allows us a feeling of safety and the time to take action in case we should feel threatened. If this is not possible, we often ignore the crowds on the sidewalk and seek to pretend they are not there, or that they are not people but just part of the environment.

The social zone – 4 to 12 feet ( 1½ to 4 metres)

This is the distance at which we are comfortable with people with whom we have a certain connection. They are close enough to communicate with, but still at a safe distance. This is usually a comfortable distance for people standing or sitting in a group, but perhaps not talking directly with each other.

The personal zone – 1½ to 4 feet (½ to 1½metres)

This is the approximate zone in which we feel comfortable speaking when we know people more and/or feel comfortable with them. Direct conversation is easy at this distance, and our relationship with the individual dictates the specific area within this zone that we are comfortable for them to enter. For example, if a colleague and I know each other quite well and have a great relationship, we may stand a few feet from each other. However, if we know each other but do not particularly like each other, we would be more comfortable standing slightly farther from each other as we converse.

The intimate zone – 0 to 1½ feet (0 to ½ metre)

This is the space that only intimate friends, romantic partners, close family and small children can enter freely.

Some people may invade another’s intimate zone, even touch them without permission, as a deliberate ploy to show power or make the other person feel vulnerable (consider a police interrogation in a movie scene – the detective often goes around behind or to the side of the suspect and moves into his/her personal space to intimidate them).

Notes

We bend the rules, depending on the situation – for example, in a crowded lift, in the subway or at a concert, we adjust to the circumstances. However, let some stranger come and stand close to us when the rest of the lift is empty and we would soon be reminded of the idea of someone ‘invading our personal space’!

The rules are often different in other cultures. Some cultures require more space, especially outside the intimate zone, while others require less.