Personal space is the area around an individual that is regarded as intimate territory. Each person has an invisible boundary that he or she puts around himself in order to feel comfortable or secure, like a protective bubble. When someone's boundary is entered into by another, depending on the relationship that exists, it can cause discomfort or anxiety. As a general rule of propriety, personal space has to be respected.
The physical proximity you allow someone depends on the relationship you have with each other, and on the situation. Two people with an intimate relationship, for example, will have little or no problem with entering each other's personal “bubbles”, but that will certainly not be the case between two strangers.
Generally, the more intimate and comfortable you are with another person, the more you allow that person to penetrate your space bubble. Likewise, the more unfamiliar you are, the greater you need distance between you.
There is no specific measurement or delineation, but there is a general idea of how much space is acceptable between interacting people.
Degrees of Personal Spaces in Interactions
1. Public Distance, or Audience Zone
Public Distance is a relatively large space that you apply when addressing a group of people or an audience, like at a lecture or speech. This is usually 8 or more feet – an impersonal distance, but an appropriate one for the given circumstance.
2. Casual Distance, or Social Zone
This is a polite distance of around 4 to 8 feet, which you use when interacting with strangers, new acquaintances or anyone you haven't gotten to know well yet. This is a safe distance where you aren't really close enough to touch each other.
It would be wise to note that it's generally considered intrusive to touch someone you aren't well acquainted with. It's totally acceptable to briefly shake hands when you meet for the first time, but it's a violation of their personal space to touch their face or put your arm around them. It would be wise to avoid physical contact as it may cause undesired tension.
3. Friendly Distance, or Friend Zone
When you know someone quite well and are generally comfortable with one another, you allow them near enough to touch, but not quite close enough for an embrace – around 18 inches to 4 feet. This distance is appropriate between and friends or colleagues. It's a cordial, conversational distance, convenient for personal interactions, like friendly chats, high fives, gossiping and partying.
Intimacy is the most personal zone for an individual, and is reserved only for those you trust and feel safe with. You reduce the space bubble around you to about 18 inches or less. At this proximity, you place yourself in a vulnerable position. It usually applies to lovers, spouses, children, parents, close family members and special friends. It's a natural, easy distance to show affection – share a hug, cuddle, or even kiss.
It shows familiarity and a sense of belonging to each other. If you are in an intimate relationship with someone and they come in closer, it's safe to take it as an invitation to get more affectionate.
When you enter the intimate zone of persons you are not in close relationships with, they will feel offended, even threatened. Their instinct would be to create more distance, or to defend themselves.
How Personal Spaces Vary
Each individual's personal space may vary, depending on factors like childhood experiences or socio-cultural backgrounds. There are standards of personal space in Western cultures that may not be applicable in Eastern countries, and vice-versa. For example, Americans are normally uncomfortable when a person comes up in front of their face, and may even take this as an aggressive gesture; most Asians however would find that totally acceptable and polite.
Concepts of personal space may differ even between two individuals from the same country. A person from a crowded city will require a smaller space bubble than someone from the quiet countryside.
The space bubble would also vary according to gender. The distance is usually larger between two males than between two females. Two women talking to each other can get comfortable enough to be affectionate; two men won't normally be comfortable to be so close to each other, unless they were brothers or lovers.
When two people are having a heated disagreement, at least one of them will draw closer, violating the other's space bubble. This is considered as an act of aggression, where one person expresses with his body that he wants to impose himself on the other.
Personal space is subjective, but as a general rule, be aware of other people's boundaries. Observe how they react as you come nearer. Take note of how much distance they require to put between them and you; if they back away, that's a certain sign they're uneasy, so don't try to move in.
An awareness of personal space and body language will definitely benefit you as you relate with others. It can refine your social interactions – even affect people's perceptions of you – and ultimately improve your relationships.