Personal space and knowing when you are being bullied

Everyone has a personal space, an instinctive protective zone. We’re always jostling to maintain our own space and to navigate around others’, and the honeycomb of abutting spaces forms the scaffold of our social world. Violating it as a means of social communication, a means of bullying, is common behavior. But we usually don’t do it in a calculated way. The rules of personal space run deep under the surface of consciousness. [I adapted this summary from Michael Graziano’s book as quoted in The Atlantic. ]

Humans have an instinct that tells us, unconsciously, that someone is in our personal space. It’s been long studied. First in animals, then later in humans. The book that most people know about is Edward Hall’s The Hidden Dimension.

There are situations, especially in business, where someone will violate other people’s personal space. It is usually the move of someone in power, or someone who wants to be in power.

If you subscribe to The Atlantic, you can read the whole article by Michael Graziano. In the article, Mr. Graziano states that the person who comes too close does not do it consciously; I intuitively disagree with that, but I cannot find studies that support or refute the statement. I believe that people who violate personal space may sometimes be oblivious to the reaction they are getting. However, they may sometimes realize the reaction they are getting: crowding behavior makes the crowded person anxious.

The most consistent finding out of this vast literature, the one fundamental result, is that personal space expands with anxiety. If you score high on stress, or if the experimenter stresses you ahead of time—maybe you take a test and are told that you failed it—your personal space grows . If you’re put at ease, or the experimenter flatters you ahead of time, your personal space shrinks. In at least some studies, women have an especially large personal space when approached by men. People in positions of social status or authority have a reduced personal space, especially toward each other. [source]

What to do about personal space, inside

If someone is crowding you, find a way to reinstate a comfortable personal space. Don’t say anything. Don’t make eye contact. Just move.

  • If someone is crowding you, while both of you are sitting: Move your chair, cross your leg to shift away from the person, or slightly turn toward the person on the other side. If you can’t move your chair, find an excuse to sit in another chair.
  • If someone is crowding you while they are standing and you are sitting: Stand up.
  • If someone is crowding you while you are both standing: back up. Back up into the middle of the room, whenever possible, to avoid being backed into a wall.

If the same person crowds you again, this shows a habit of coming closer than you are comfortable with. This may be habit. This may be cultural (for example, city people tolerate closer spacing than suburban and rural people). However, it could be bullying or aggression.

Your options are these:

Name the behavior, make a request:

If you are a bold person, say something to the person which names the behavior. “You are crowding me.” Then make a request. “Will you back up?” “I think you are too close, please back up.”

Ask for support

If you are a reserved person, then turn to the person next to you and say, “Is it me, or is he too close?” You may not make a request, but now two people are paying attention. This will help you figure out whether the person who is crowding you trying to assert power over you.

Outside, keeping your distance:

Early in the pandemic, people avoided one another and were advised to keep a six foot space from other people. Much awkwardness ensued. At that time (May 2020), I gave this advice:

How to share the spaces

Consider walking in a flow similar to driving traffic. Traveling on the right side of the sidewalk, passing on the left. Sometimes this means you’ll need to stop and yield to another person walking nearby, so that they can remain six feet away. Sometimes, that person will come within your six-foot limit; look for their good intention. Did they speed up, to limit the intrusion? Did they nod an apology?

I am finding that I enjoy the chats that I have with neighbors when I am out. Two-dimensional people on Zoom are just not the same! For a while, talking across a six-foot gulf is well worth it.

I have had safe and pleasant walks with people from other households by walking on side streets with one household on the sidewalk and the other on the street, with parked cars between us. This works well in the Cambridge metro area, where there are many low-traffic residential streets. Walking against traffic on a one-way is particularly easy to navigate safely.

Goal: I would like everyone to get through this safely: job one. Secondly, let’s get through this without hating everyone else as a vector of disease.

Fast-forward to autumn 2022: 

Will the six-foot social distance habits of 2020 remain part of cultural norms? This habit created a lot of awkwardness, as people increased social distance, then some returned to typical cultural norms, which are closer than six feet.

Around my town, people do pass one another on the sidewalk within a foot or so. But not everyone wants to do that. I walk around a lot. I see some people hesitate if they are passing another in the opposite direction. Frequently, they make eye contact. Then one of them steps out in a way to maintain a bigger space. (My guess is it is more like four feet, not six, most times). Not everyone cares; but some people are still aiming for the social distancing outside.

I see a similar difference indoors, in places like supermarkets. Some people will line up close to one another, and others will maintain six feet on the checkout line.

We are not done with contagion. It will be interesting to see what changes in relation to social distance, especially indoors, over the next decade. Children who are growing up with shifting messages about how safe it is to be with other people will develop their own intuitive sense of social distance. Will a bigger social distance become a cultural norm? Will that reduce anxiety for more people in social settings? I have no answers. I encourage you to observe along with me.


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