Body Language Matters: Personal Space

peopleontrain1jWe live on a crowded planet, which never seems more crowded as when we feel our personal space is being invaded by – well, you name it.

  • The person sitting next to you on the train whose legs-and arms-splayed sitting position threatens to push you into the corner.
  • The group who take up the whole of the pavement so you have to get out of the way.
  • The individual who speaks so loudly as to drown out all other voices.

The way we handle our environment and the space around us sends a message about our attitudes to other people, and those who claim too much space may be perceived as arrogant and self-absorbed. It could be they just don’t realise the effect their behaviour has.

Space and distance

As a general guide, there are three main types of distance we use when we communicate with others.

There is intimate distance, which we observe in our closest relationships. There’s personal and social distance, which we observe in friendly encounters. Then, there’s public distance, which maintained in more formal situations.

On the whole, we apply these guidelines unconsciously. We only become consciously aware of the conventions when people violate them or get them wrong. You don’t get up close and personal with a casual acquaintance or the barista serving your latte, unless you want to send the kind of message with which we won’t concern ourselves here.

When you’re queuing at the airport with your friends or family, you don’t stand miles apart from each other. You don’t initiate an intimate conversation with someone when you are at opposite ends of a big room.

There are guidelines about the amount of personal space which different cultures find comfortable. You can look up specific details but there is no need to get hung up on precise measurements. Just be sensitive to the situation and base your behaviour on what you see around you.

Different ways of claiming space

We are all animals under our nicely toned and moisturised skin and we instinctively stake out our territory in a number of ways. Have you ever noticed how quickly a chair becomes ‘your’ chair and how unsettled you feel when someone else sits in it? We use possessions to mark our space.

Strategically placed cardigans and jackets, files and papers, personal possessions indicate we claiming an area. Of course, we may or may not have a right to that area.

In public places, on public transport, there is an unspoken understanding about the amount of space we occupy and people who spread their possessions as widely as possible may be seen as claiming more than their fair share.

Personal space and power

Invasion of space can seem intimidating. You might have little behaviours which could be interpreted as hostile, even if you don’t intend them to be so. Touching someone’s belongings, picking things up and putting them down, leaning over someone’s shoulder may all give a message you don’t intend.

When to big up

There are some rather pathetic ways of bigging up one’s body space. That spreading posture on public transport is one. Another is the way that some young guys walk down the street taking up as much of it as they can – arms swinging, head up, chest out, threatening glare, as if they are walking to the soundtrack of Mean Streets instead of going to buy milk for their mum.

But when you want to make an impact in your professional or personal life, try a bit of positive bigging up.

Stand up straight, not ramrod-stiff, but tall. Imagine an invisible piece of elastic connecting your head to the ceiling. Imagine your body growing and expanding until it fills the room. This will increase your sense of presence, and help you to feel nicely confident. You will make a great first impression at the interview or the meeting. You will positively rock your entrance at the party or reception.