It’s an Issue of Space – When “Close” Is Close Enough

By Cindy O’Connell and Susan Fell

This week we offer some reflections about respecting others’ personal space. As we enter the New Year, full of hope and promise, the topic is prompted, in part, by experiencing large crowds in retail stores and waiting in long lines, both before Christmas and afterwards, and observing how people interact with each other’s “personal spaces.”

It annoys me when people “stand too close” and intrude into my personal space. It is as though some folks don’t have a clue that they are violating one of the unwritten rules of civility. Apparently, I am not alone, or at least, a quick internet search reveals this.

Turns out, there is a significant body of research and scientific theories to describe this phenomenon. As an educator, I am very familiar with non-verbal communication and behavior – both that which is deliberate as well as that which is unconscious. Several theories have been promulgated to explain the science of proxemics (from proximity), most notably, by the anthropologist Edward Hall. He described several zones that make up concentric circles with the intimate zone consisting of 6 to 18 inches of personal space around us, which we protect and guard as though this space is land which we are defending. Only those with whom we are most intimate are welcomed into this personal zone—family, spouses, close friends, and pets. If a stranger violates this personal space, research shows it can actually cause physiological changes within us, such as angst, increased heartbeat, and muscle tenseness.  Further, there is a correlation between one’s level of emotional intelligence and the ability to be cognizant and respectful of others’ personal space.

Some department stores have mastered the art of queuing, so that the close proximity of others within the personal space zone is limited to the time until we make it to the cash register, where our place is announced over the speaker (Next Guest, Register 4) and we now have a one-on-one experience with the checkout clerk and “Voila”, we go happily on our way. Other stores (think grocery stores) have implemented a different queuing model, resulting in the person behind you getting way too close, observing your purchases and even peering over your financial transaction as you enter your chip card into the reader. One recourse for this infraction is to stand one’s ground to try to maintain a personal boundary, a “line in the sand” so to speak, or to utter “excuse me” to the clueless offender..

Hence, we offer New Year’s Guiding Principle #1 – Respect the physical personal space of others, especially the “intimate zone.”

There is also the matter of proxemics and manners surrounding using cell phones within earshot of strangers. Trust me, fellow shoppers or diners do not want to hear the one-sided conversation about your real-estate deal going down or the impending divorce of your best friend. Particularly bothersome is when this happens at the salon while hoping to receive a relaxing pedicure, and upon closing one’s eyes, being forced to hear someone’s incessant cell phone conversation emanating from the next chair over. There is a reason there are signs in the salons that say “no cell phones!”

So, New Year’s Guiding Principle #2 is this: Keep your private conversations on the cell phone private, there is no need for the rest of us to hear.

And finally, having dealt with issues of physical and auditory space, there are also olfactory infractions, especially in close quarters like offices. Some folks wear way too much perfume or aftershave that permeates through the hallways, or have lunch at their desks with the pungent fragrances of onions, curry or other spiced foods wafting through the ventilation system.

Which leads me to offer Guiding Principle #3 for the New Year: Be respectful and mindful of fragrances, odors, and caused by perfumes or foods in close quarters.

Well, you might think these are somewhat cynical observations, but actually here’s a toast to being hopeful that the New Year will bring opportunity for all of us, whatever the social context, to be mindful about respecting the personal space of others in all of these ways — and others.

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