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Rights and Responsibilities in Our Personal Space

Personal space provides more than comfort and privacy; it also provides a silent stage on which to display the essence of who we are.

Think of it as the bedroom which everyone in the house recognizes as ours. It is our right to keep our doors locked or unlocked, according to our need for privacy. It is also our responsibility to create in that space our best display of what we consider a wholesome environment, whether the doors are closed or open.

In 1966, anthropologist Edward T. Hall introduced the concept that similar to the way animals mark their territory using urine and physical posturing, humans use personal space and concrete objects. The theory is known as proxemics1, a form of non-verbal communication through our perception and use of space. It concludes that in our space, we keep four types of distances (intimate, personal, social, and public) according to the type of relationship.

Personal Space Expectations Diagram

Natbrock Alicia Tom, photo author, illustrates Hall's theory that physical distance indicates four types of relationship (intimate, personal, social, public) between communicators.

Natbrock Alicia Tom, photo author, illustrates Hall's theory that physical distance indicates four types of relationship (intimate, personal, social, public) between communicators.

So how do we establish sanctions in our space? How do we use distance to make our relationships safe and comfortable? What are our responsibilities toward the individuals we allow in? Here are five essential characteristics which hold the answers to such questions and produce positive outcomes in our interaction with individuals from all four distances.

1) Creativity

We have the right to create boundaries for the protection of our personal territory. Boundaries also “protect our sense of personal identity and help guard against being overwhelmed by the demands of others."2

We can implement our own ideas, or we can learn from others. For example, when we need physical space for a time out, we create a “Do Not Disturb” plaque. We create secret compartments in our houses for special items we do not want family and friends to touch. At our office cubicle, we create rules defining what is and is not acceptable. In public places, we create a diversion from the smiling bystander by directing our gaze toward the billboard.

It is our responsibility to create our blueprint for interaction with others. It helps us decide who fits where inside our space.

Types of Territory in Proxemics*

Body TerritoryPrimary TerritorySecondary TerritoryPublic Territory

Invisible bubble we maintain around us

Living space: example, home or car

Structure with reserved entry like school or workplace

Open space like park or shopping mall

2) Control

Bear in mind that we control the space; we do not control the people within the space. It is not our responsibility to force adults to change inappropriate behavior; it is our right to enforce physical or emotional distance if we choose. We do not demand that people enter our space at specific distances against their will; control undermines trust.

We control our space not by manipulating people, but by maintaining the principles which we choose to govern our space.

3) Civility

The Personal Space Expectations Diagram above establishes that the physical space between us and our core family is less than with other individuals. It increases as we move away from intimacy and is greatest with strangers. There are additional common sense rules3 like the following which boost both civility and comfort in our everyday interactions.

  • Knock before entering a room or office.
  • Avoid touching people we don’t know.
  • Refuse to search through the personal belongings of other individuals.
  • Observe other people’s body language (for example, leaning away from us) which may suggest that we are too close and making them uncomfortable.
  • Unless the meeting place is crowded, leave a seating space beside the next person.
  • Acknowledge personal space on the road; avoid tailgating.

4) Cooperation

Although we cannot compel the people in our space to cooperate, we can encourage them by using the following methods, among others:

  • Communication will help us understand what causes them to perform contrary to our expectations. We might discover cultural differences as mentioned in the table below.
  • Concern for the well-being of individuals who do not cooperate will reinforce their sense of worth and may awaken their sense of responsibility. They may interpret concern as support and be motivated to offer their support in turn.
  • Incentives intangible forms are most appropriate for those at social and public distances like coworkers or community teams, and we can find family-friendly ways to reward those closer to us (for example, hugs and assurances).

It is our responsibility to help bring out the best in others. We can cooperate with those who do not shine in our space by allowing them to find the appropriate distance at which they will.

Culture in Proxemics*

People from the contact culture stand closer together and talk more softly. Those from the non-contact culture utilize more distance, talk more loudly and with wilder gestures.

Types of CultureRule on TouchSample Territories

Contact Culture

Physical touching permitted and even considered necessary

Latin American, Arab, Italian, French, Turkish

Non-contact Culture

Touching reserved for intimate acquaintances

North American, Norwegian, Japanese, most Southeast Asian

5) Cleanliness

In a physical space, it is our responsibility to keep out dirt, debris, and other environmental hazards.

In a space without walls, it is our responsibility to disconnect from unscrupulous behavior including but not limited to: lying tongues, filthy language, illicit sex, drug abuse, domestic abuse, fraud, and the like.

We have the right to set the standards of cleanliness in our space and to practice zero tolerance toward offenders. We also have the right and responsibility to model the cleanliness we want in our space.

Remember the Following

In our space, we practice our rights and responsibilities primarily for our comfort and safety. Other individuals want the same things we want. They deserve the kind of respect we expect from them.


1Communication Studies, Proxemics, Copyright 2015 by Communication Studies

2Kolb, Karen: Basic Life Skills Made Easy, Personal Boundaries, Copyright 2008-2015

3Mayne, Debbie: About, Etiquette Rules of Defining Personal Space, Copyright 2015 by About

*The source for Proxemics Territory and Culture is Proxemics already referenced above.

© 2015 Dora Weithers