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Personal Space: A Brief Study on the Personal Bubble

Updated on September 18, 2017

What is Personal Space?

We have all been at that party around that one person who just wants to get too close. They are either in our face or around our neck and for me that produces a slow-rising panic. It is like being in the dentist chair and there is no way out… or is there?

Personal space is often the term we give to the space around us where we quickly become uncomfortable when encroached upon. Natalie Wolchover for Discovery News uses the work of anthropologist Edward Hall to discuss personal “bubbles” which come in four different sizes. These include the “intimate space,” 18 inches out from the body in every direction. "Personal space," is defined as extending from 1.5 feet to 4 feet away. “Social space” is next extending 4 to 12 feet away and says Wolchover, “beyond that is public space…” The level of our closeness with a person will determine what space we feel most comfortable with them occupying.


So Why am I Uncomfortable?

Perhaps that explains why at a recent gathering an over-enthusiastic, too long hug from an old, old friend that I had not seen in years took me way out of my comfort zone. But why is that?

“Blame the brain,” says John Cloud in article. According to Cloud, “Evolution seems to have programmed this discomfort via a brain structure called the amygdalae… regions deep within each temporal lobe that control fear and the processing of emotion.” Why the Amygdalae?

“The amygdala,” says a Nature Neuroscience article, “plays key roles in emotion and social cognition, but how this translates to face-to-face interactions involving real people remains unknown... healthy individuals showed amygdala activation upon close personal proximity. The amygdala may be required to trigger the strong emotional reactions normally following personal space violations, thus regulating interpersonal distance in humans.”

Cultural Differences

And so, it could be very scientific this issue of personal space, but interestingly enough, the gap differs from culture to culture.

Culture Crossing, a website guide to cross-cultural etiquette and understanding, is a great place to understand personal space difference between cultures. The site allows you to choose a country and examine the common personal space practices in that country.

For instance, according to the site, the Japanese, prefer to stand at arms lengths from one another and there is no touching while talking. Two and half to three feet is the norm with further distances for strangers. Because of limited space in in Japan, public places are quite crowded and pushing up against one another is common.

Although Spaniards stand about the same distance apart as the Japanese, the difference is that they tend to touch each other quite a bit during conversations.

Algerians on the other hand are quite close to each other when speaking. A bit less, says Culture Crossing, than an arm’s length is normal.

What to do about Space Invaders

Debbie Mayne, on Etiquette Rules offers the following ways to deal with space intrusion:

· Accept it.

· Lean away from the person or take a step back, hoping he or she will take the hint.

· Come right out and say you are uncomfortable being so close.

· Explain why you need more space. For example, if you are left-handed, and the person is too close to your left side, comment about how you need the space to take notes.

But I think the most intriguing idea I have heard to reclaim personal space came from a co-worker. This person told me that when someone is in his personal space, he simply pushes one leg out in front of him and plants it on the floor so they can’t get any closer. If they get any closer, he says, they’ll be straddling my leg. I’m not sure if there’s any basis to back this technique, but it fascinated me . And so I think the next time I feel someone get too close and intrude on my personal space, I may thrust my leg forward, lean back and ...just accept it.


Cloud, John. "Personal Space: Why People Don't Like to Be Crowded - TIME." Breaking News, Analysis, Politics, Blogs, News Photos, Video, Tech Reviews - N.p., 3 Sept. 2009. Web. 19 Dec. 2012. <,8599

"Country Guides to Culture, Etiquette, Customs & more!." Country Guides to Culture, Etiquette, Customs & more!. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Dec. 2012. <>.

Kennedy, Daniel P., Jan Glascher, J. Michael Tyszka, and Ralph Adolphs. "Personal space regulation by the amygdala." Nature Neuroscience. N.p., 30 Aug. 2009. Web. 20 Dec. 2012. <

Mayne, Debby. "Etiquette Rules – What is Personal Space?." Etiquette. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Dec. 2012. <>.

Wolchover, Natalie. "Why Do We Have Personal Space? : Discovery News." Discovery News: Earth, Space, Tech, Animals, History, Adventure, Human, Autos. N.p., 6 June 2012. Web. 19 Dec. 2012.


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    • carlajbehr profile imageAUTHOR

      Carla J Swick 

      8 years ago from NW PA

      Yes, Froggy, I have yet to put the leg tactic to work for me, but it was a curious solution. Thank you so much for sharing.

    • frogyfish profile image


      8 years ago from Central United States of America

      How delightful to come across this hub. You did a great job with this explanation...very valid information. I participated in a workplace exercise many years ago about our personal 'bubble' and it was a vastly eye-opening occurrence. Haven't thought specifically about that in quite a while, but I am constantly aware of 'my space'...and I think that leg idea is fantastic!


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