Personal-space invaders

Research shows that we need room to stay sane.


You’re sitting alone in your local coffeehouse sipping a double-mocha whatever, savoring the flawless prose of your new favorite novelist — enjoying your solitude immensely — when all of a sudden a clueless, brain-dead oaf plods over and plops his unwelcome ass at your table. He snaps open his newspaper, sneezes profusely, kicks you under the table without noticing. Within seconds, a fountain of rage is bubbling up inside you. Your heart races, you feel feverish.

This common form of social altercation — let’s call it Personal Space Invasion Syndrome (PSIS) — has emerged as a malady of epidemic proportions. And if allowed to rage unchecked, PSIS can undermine your health.

“The violation of personal space increases tension levels enormously,” says Robert Sommer, a psychologist at the University of California-Davis and author of the book “Personal Space.” Sommer conducted research by going to parks and libraries and deliberately violating the personal space of innocent bystanders to see how they reacted. When people’s space is trespassed upon, he says, “It provokes cathartic responses. They begin tapping their toes, they pull at their hair, they get completely rigid. It may not trigger a full-blown schizophrenic episode, but it’s clearly not good for your health.”

Then again, a full-blown schizophrenic episode isn’t out of the question, either. In an online schizophrenia handbook, where families can get tips for dealing with their schizophrenic relatives, one of the cardinal rules is — you guessed it — “Allow your relative to have ‘personal space.’”

The mentally ill aren’t the only ones who require plenty of elbow room. Even a generally sane person like Jane Kelly, a 32-year-old news writer in Washington, says, “I’m very protective of my personal space. And I tend to get very angry when someone gets too close.”

All that anger eats away at your health. The National Mental Health Association offers tips on controlling your anger, warning that “anger is accompanied by physiological and biological changes. When you feel angry, your heart rate and blood pressure go up, as does the level of your energy hormones, adrenaline and noradrenaline.” Angry people are likely to “withdraw socially, sulk or get physically ill.”

Neanderthals didn’t have to worry about this sickening lack of personal space; they had plenty of elbow room out there on the prehistoric plains. So when, exactly, did PSIS become an issue? Historians say that our standards of personal space developed in defense against the crush of bodies that flooded cities during the Industrial Age. In urban centers like London and New York, people of all different classes were suddenly crammed together — blue bloods rubbing elbows with rednecks — and as a consequence the established social order went all to hell. So we developed a tacit code of courtesies and spatial no-no’s to guard the restricted air space around our bodies.

In the 1960s, American anthropologist Edward T. Hall pioneered the field that came to be known as proxemics — the study of man’s behavioral use of space. Hall said that personal space can be viewed as an extension of the human body, and he defined four distinct zones: the intimate zone, for whispering and embracing (within 18 inches of your body); the personal zone, for conversing with close friends (18 inches to 4 feet); the social zone, for conversing with acquaintances (4 to 10 feet); and the public zone, for interacting with strangers (10 to 25 feet). You can visualize these zones as the expanding concentric sectors on a dartboard, with your body as the bull’s-eye.

In most social situations Americans require a comfort zone of 6 to 8 square feet per person, and any violation of that buffer can trigger a reaction. “People use avoidance responses,” Sommer says. “You get the New Yorker non-person phenomenon. They just shut down.”

But sometimes the space violation is deliberate: Police investigators are taught to invade a suspect’s personal space during questioning to gain a psychological advantage. “This is the way animal trainers tame lions,” Sommer says. “By moving forward, moving back, constantly pushing the limits.”

For a lesson in proxemics, Sommer points to the case of “subway vigilante” Bernard Goetz, who in 1984 shot three kids on the subway after they threatened him and demanded money. Sommer says the altercation actually started when Goetz violated the rules of personal space etiquette. “Goetz went over and sat down right next to them, in their space. What they did wasn’t excusable, of course, but he violated the rules first.”

Different sexes and cultures define the parameters of personal space differently. Sommer says that because women have smaller zones than men, they usually sit and stand closer. For example, two women sitting down at an empty bar will most likely sit side by side, while two men tend to leave an open stool between them.

What is considered a comfortable distance for conversation also varies from culture to culture. Because Mediterranean and Asian countries are more densely populated, their personal space zones are much closer to the body than those of Americans and Northern Europeans. That’s why you, the big-zoned American, may feel infringed upon when a smaller-zoned person gets too close for comfort. “This is the get-out-of-my-face personal area,” Sommer says. “Every animal guards its territory.”

Dogs have it easy: They can mark their territory by peeing on the boundaries. Humans have to take a more subtle approach. Kelly, who commutes daily on the overcrowded Washington subway, says, “I back into a corner and unfold the newspaper about 12 inches from my face. It’s like building a wall, and nobody gets inside.”

Once you and your personal space have endured the commute, you then have to contend with the army of space invaders that makes up the American work force. As the traditional office suite has given way to the almighty cubicle, a highly structured code of workplace space etiquette has emerged. But there’s always one knucklehead who doesn’t know when to back off.

“If someone’s a close-talker, it makes me instantly not like them,” says Andrew Adams, a 34-year-old Web development executive. At a previous job Adams had to contend with a chronic space invader. “It’s the first thing you think about when you have to interact with this guy — how to take away his ability to get close.”

Tom Lacey, a 32-year-old territory manager for a telecommunications company, has noticed a distinction in intra-office space regulation that runs along gender lines. “At a woman’s cube I’ll knock, but with a guy I’ll just walk right in and slap him on the back. There’s a border between the sexes, as far as what’s acceptable. Women are generally more polite.”

Kelly works in an open newsroom with no walls between work stations, so she uses subliminal methods to hold space invaders at arm’s length. “You learn to send messages with your body language. You create invisible walls,” she says. “If someone ignores the message, you say, ‘I’m on deadline,’ and shoo them away.”

As space in the workplace gets more and more scarce, some folks invent circuitous methods to free up personal space for themselves. “Everyone in my company has cell phones,” says Adams. “If someone wants to make a private call, they just step outside.”

So the evolution, at last, comes full circle: Millennial technology provides a solution to the deficit of personal space created by the dawn of technology in the Industrial Age. And the moneymakers of high-tech industry are forever thinking up new ways to cash in on our desperate need to keep each other at a distance. Some newfangled car alarms with computerized voices are programmed to admonish if you stray too close: “You are too close to the car! Stand back!” What’s next — alarms worn on the body to warn off personal space invaders?

Sommer doesn’t think so. “People are able to convey their discomfort quite well nonverbally,” he says. “And we have language to express ourselves with, if we choose to — I don’t see why we’d need an alarm.”

Still, the strain of defending your personal space day after day can be taxing. Sometimes it feels good to drop your guard — to surrender, for once, to the encroachment of the mob. Adams has seen it happen at Grateful Dead shows. “At a concert like that you feel a certain camaraderie. You all end up leaning on each other for support. The camaraderie lets the walls fall down.”

Sometimes the walls fall down in a wave of warm, fuzzy feelings; other times they get ripped down and torn to shreds. Take, for example, that whirling cyclone vortex of personal space annihilation known as the mosh pit. Adams — a non-mosher — got mired in the pit once at a Beastie Boys concert, but instead of slamming himself into his fellow moshers as dictated by the universally accepted guidelines of moshing, he just sidestepped the bodies and let them fly on by. One mosher didn’t like that.

“He totally socked me in the jaw,” Adams says. But why? “I denied him what he thought was his God-given right in the pit — to be slammed into.”

Adams might have fared better if he had followed the meticulous rules of mosh etiquette as outlined on the “Gangsta Lit” Web site. “The objective of the mosh pit is to create an atmosphere which fosters unrestricted self-expression and interaction,” writes mosh authority James Cook. “In all truth, the art of the pit boils down to the limitations and boundaries that you define at any given moment.”

Edward T. Hall couldn’t have said it better.

Jon Bowen is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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