Why do we have personal space?

Thou shall not transgress thy neighbour’s personal space. In the cinema it's an armrest where we do a silent battle with strangers who try to claim the territory.


A territory can be defined as the space around a person that he claims as his own, it can almost be seen as an extension of his body (an invisible bubble). But how do these invisible bubbles of space surrounding each of us come to exist, and why does it feel so wrong or uncomfortable when they overlap?

Personal Space

Each individual’s portable air bubble differs in size dependent on the density of the population in the place where the individual grew up. Personal space is therefore culturally determined. While the Japanese are used to crowding, others prefer wide open spaces and keep their distance.

Know your zone distances


  1. The Intimate Zone between 15-45 centimetres. This zone stretches from your body outward in every direction. In this space people will allow those who are emotionally close to them, it includes lovers, parents, spouse, children, close friends, relatives and pets. Most people guard this space as if it was their own property and a mere acquaintance intruding in the intimate zone can make you anxious or give you the chills.
  2. The Personal Zone between 46cm-1.22m. This bubble size is perfect for informal gatherings at cocktail parties, office parties, social functions and friendly get-togethers. For informal conversations this space will be accepted, however, strangers are NOT welcome.
  3. The Social Zone between 1.22~3.6m are a comfortable space for routine social interactions with new people or strangers. Individuals will most likely stand this distance from strangers like the plumber, the repair man, the new employee at work and general people they don’t know well.
  4. The Public Zone is over 6m and open to all. Whenever we speak to a large group of people, this is the comfortable distance at which we choose to stand.

All these distances tend to reduce between two women and increase between two men.

Try the Luncheon Test

Try this simple test next time you eat with someone. Unspoken territorial rules state that a restaurant table is divided equally down the middle and the staff carefully places the salt, pepper, sugar, flowers and other accessories equally on the centre line. As the meal progresses, subtly move the salt cellar across to the other person's side, then the pepper, flowers and so on. Before long this subtle territorial invasion will cause a reaction in your lunch-mate. They either sit back to regain their space or start pushing everything back to the centre.

General Rules of Personal Space:

  1. Never touch anyone you don’t know.
  2. When someone leans away from you, you are probably in that person’s space that makes him or her uncomfortable.
  3. If you walk into an auditorium or theatre that isn’t crowded, leave an extra seat between you and the next person. However, it is acceptable to sit next to someone if the room is crowded.
  4. Never lean over someone else’s shoulder to read something unless invited.
  5. Acknowledge personal space on the road. Don’t tailgate when driving.


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