Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated cities in Asia. When commuting on public transport, most of us have probably felt like our ‘bubble’ has been invaded, especially on the MTR during peak hours.
Our ‘bubble’, also known as personal space, refers to the distance between two individuals. According to the proxemic theory, interpersonal distance can be classified into four categories:
- Intimate distance – from 0 – 46 cm (loved ones, close family, sexual partners)
- Personal distance – about 46 – 122 cm (friends, family)
- Social distance – about 122 – 370 cm (acquaintances, strangers)
- Public distance – above 370 cm (public speaking)
Allowing individuals into different zones of proximity reflects the relationship we have with that person. For example, loved ones may be welcomed in the intimate zone, while friends are comfortable in the personal zone. However, when someone unfamiliar ventures beyond the appropriate distance, we often feel uneasy. Further, our comfortable proximity with someone may change according to circumstance. For example, after an argument, we may prefer to keep distance from a partner who is usually allowed in our intimate or personal space.
How much Personal Space do we need?
The amount of personal space we are comfortable with is determined by various factors. Key factors include familiarity, age, and gender. For example, previous studies have shown that at similar levels of familiarity, two men interacting on average hold greater distance between them than two women do.
Moreover, culture greatly impacts acceptable distance within the four aforementioned distance categories. Cultures can be classified as contact or non-contact cultures. Contact cultures tend to allow closer interpersonal proximity in which individuals engage in more tactile behaviours. South Europe, Latin America and the Middle East are considered examples of this. Conversely, individuals from non-contact cultures, such as North America, North Europe and Asia, may expect greater distance.
How does our Personal Space get invaded?
When you think of personal space invasions, you may tend to think of the physical realm. Yet other stimuli can also feel invasive, such as noise, odour, emotional expressions, or frequent interruptions can trigger stress and discomfort. This can be a risk in open office work environments and may impact us at a subconscious level.
How can we protect our Personal Space?
To reduce distress and anxiety, it is important to know proximity limits of both ourselves and our interaction partners. Some people may feel easily overwhelmed by minimal intrusions, some may have greater tolerance. We can indicate our space limits to others by physically increasing distance, or by verbalizing our needs. When we cannot move further away, we can also enhance distance by angling our bodies at a degree or even completely sideways, rather than standing square toward someone which can be perceived as confrontational and over-bearing. However, at times neither physical nor verbal signs may be feasible, so we may need to keep some strategies that either allow us to avoid situations in which we are uncomfortable or that help us to manage our distress. These can include changing working hours to miss rush-hour or practicing deep breathing techniques to relax our bodies.
Notably, we must also remain aware of subtle signs that other people are using to draw a line around their personal space. This is particularly relevant in cross-cultural settings where we our comfort zone may differ from that of the people around us. Typically, people will feel less uncomfortable with wider proximity than when we have stepped too close, so it is a good rule-of-thumb to keep our distance until we have increased familiarity with our interaction partners.