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Strangers and The Need For Personal Space

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Do you feel stressed if strangers stand too close to you? Are you familiar with the abrupt comment, “Get out of my face?”

Recently, my wife and I were in a self-serve restaurant for lunch and observed something that I thought was quite interesting. One of the customers was sitting at a table for four people. It was actually two tables placed next to each other with five chairs. On the double table was placed his hat, brief case and jacket. He was sitting in a chair he placed in the corner of one table while reading a newspaper he had spread out. The non-verbal message was clear. “Do not sit near me.” What was especially striking about this was the each table through out the restaurant had a clear sign that asked people to stay no longer than thirty minutes between 12:00 and 1:30 PM because they are very busy and others need the space. He was seated at the table when we arrived and remained there after we left. Was his behavior unusual or familiar?

Esther Kim from Yale University conducted an interesting study in Sociology. The article is: Esther C. Kim, “Nonsocial Transient Behavior: Social Disengagement on the Greyhound Bus.” Symbolic Interaction, 2012. Kim spent three years travelling across the United States in coach buses and observing the behaviors of fellow travellers. What she discovered was the fact that people would do whatever they could to prevent others from sitting next to them. It had nothing to do with race, gender, perceived social class, young or old. People wanted to sit alone.
Here is a list of some of the strategies people used to sit alone:

1. Avoid eye contact.
2. Lean against the window and stretch out.
3. Listen to your Ipod and pretend you do not hear someone if they ask you to sit next to you.
4. Place lots of items on the seat next to you so that it takes a long time to clear the seat and the person will move on.
5. Pretend to be asleep.
6. If nothing else works, tell the person the seat is already taken.

Have you noticed that in crowded air planes, some people will actively engage in conversation with the stranger sitting next to them while others will remain silent, sleep, lean in the opposite direction and avoid having to touch against the other person even though there is little space.

We can see this attitude in some of our attitudes. For example, there is the well known expression, “Get out of my face!!” Or the simple strategy of avoiding eye contact with strangers. In elevators, people stand with their heads pointed down.

Kim points out that the main goal of these behaviors is personal comfort. Of course, this is a culturally based attitude because personal space is different in other societies. In now western nations it is customary to see people standing close to one another when they speak. There is no hesitation about sitting arrangements because there is not the emphasis about individual comfort or about strangers and how to react to them.

Kim points out that, here, in the western world, social isolation in public places is preferable when having to share a small space.

Other studies show that women interact with other women at a much closer distance as compared to men. Also, those of Arab or Hispanic descent are comfortable with interacting at a close space.  Some of the reactions to personal space or distance have to do with being protective against feeling invaded. For example, here in the west, men keep their distance from other men so as to avoid being viewed as either homosexual or aggressive. That is why many men in the west react with hostility if other men make eye contact or come too close.

There is at least one study that shows that men who must stand too close to one another in public urinals experience trouble with urinating. This is why there are now walls place between urinals in public bathrooms.

Here in the west, I guess the message is, “Don’t stand so close to me.”

It seems that we need our space to avoid feeling stressed.

What are your experiences with personal space?

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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