A few years ago I was at a conference with trainers from all over the world. During a break as I was standing around, sipping my coffee and feeling slightly lost – I knew hardly anyone – I was joined by a woman. We introduced ourselves and started chatting about the sessions we’d been to so far. She was very friendly and easy to talk to, but somehow I felt uncomfortable. Gradually I began to realize why. She was standing too close.

So while carrying on the conversation, I carefully took half a step backwards. She came half a step closer. I took a full step back – she took at least a full step towards me. And so our little dance continued. It continued until I was backed up against the wall with nowhere to go. I was so relieved when the bell rang for the end of the break.

Has anybody ever invaded your personal space like this? Have you perhaps been able to feel your colleague’s breath on your face as he talked? Have you been afraid that the woman you’ve just met at a reception would knock your wineglass out of your hand as she gesticulated in a particularly lively way? And perhaps you’ve also thought what’s wrong with her? Why doesn’t she give me some space?

How close is too close?

Before you read on, take a moment to consider what you feel is a comfortable distance between yourself and someone you’ve just met. How many centimetres feel about right? Now think about a colleague, perhaps the person you share an office with. How close would feel comfortable for that relationship?

Research carried out by cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall more than 50 years ago still seems to hold true today. According to Hall, people have invisible zones of space around them and expect others to remain within a certain zone depending on the relationship.

You would normally expect a person you’ve just met to stay in your social zone. In northern Europe that means no closer than around 1.2 metres. A colleague, on the other hand, is an example of someone who can enter your personal zone and come as close as 0.45 metres to you. But any closer and he or she is in your intimate zone and that’s reserved for family members, lovers, very close friends, children and pets.

The problem is that while these zones or bubbles exist throughout the world, they are not standardized. There are great cultural and individual differences in the size of the bubbles, in the distances with which we feel comfortable. A northern European’s bubbles are typically larger than a southern European’s, for example.

So, coming back to my experience at the conference, what counted as social space for the woman I was talking to, who was from Italy, was actually my personal space – or perhaps even my intimate space – certainly much too close for me for someone I’d only just met.

What can you do?

So that explains why some people stand too close, but what can you do about it?

If it’s someone you work with regularly, consider talking about it. For example, you could start off with a few general comments about cultural differences in the amount of personal space needed. And then move on to speak about your own preferences. Or show them this amusing video as a starting point.

But what about in the situation I described? My tactic obviously didn’t work. So I consulted Debrett’s, the British authority on etiquette (like the German Knigge) and the advice given there is to create space. They suggest that you do this by turning to wave to someone or get something out of your bag. That’s all very well if you know someone to wave to (as I said, I knew hardly anyone at the conference). Or if – while carrying on your conversation – you can still think of something appropriate to get out of your bag. If neither is the case you’re likely to end up seeming a little mad. 😉

But creating space really does sound like a good idea and perhaps I could just have adjusted my stance a little to take up more space – putting one foot forward, angling my shoulder a little towards the other person or jutting out an elbow slightly. I’m certainly going to give it a try next time.

Have you got any other ideas? I’d love to hear them.

Porträt Nicola Bartlett
Nicola Bartlett
I’ve been an English trainer for over 25 years, helping adults to get their message across in English – clearly and appropriately. Successful communication in English requires more than just a good knowledge of the language. An understanding of different mentalities and a feeling for the best approach are vital, too.