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 door 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
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 5 essential characteristics which hold the answers to such questions and produce positive outcomes in our interaction with individuals from all four distances.
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 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*
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
Bear in mind that we control the space, not the people inside 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.
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 (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.
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 in tangible 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*
Types of Culture
Rule on Touch
Physical touching permitted and even considered necessary
Latin American, Arab, Italian, French, Turkish
Touching reserved for intimate acquaintances
North American, Norwegian, Japanese, most Southeast Asian
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.
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.
Questions & Answers
© 2015 Dora Weithers