Everyone has a space around their body that is held sacred as their own territory. This is called "personal space" and it is characterized by a zone or "bubble" that varies with individuals and circumstances. We each have our own unwritten rules about how big our personal space is, who may enter our personal space, and how close others may approach. Dominant animals and humans demand more space than the less dominant. How we guard and defend our personal space and how we approach or invade another person's space, is very revealing about our relationships, status, rank and dominance as we perceive it.
It is evident that this man is not inviting people into his personal space! The arms across his chest is a strong and frequent body language cue saying: "Don't come close!" "Stay away from me!" "I don't want to deal with any of you and especially not to get personally close!" "I just want to stay in my own little safe world."
The widely spaced feet indicate solid placement so no one can push him or move him. No one can change his mind, manipulate him, or influence him in any way. He is "planted" right where he is, mentally and physically, and is not going to change anything in his life right now.
When two animals or humans each believes they are dominant over the other, and one enters the personal space of the other; that is grounds for an immediate confrontation to determine who really is "top dog". This is done mostly unconsciously, and the body may even go into an attack position to scare off the invader. Where the rank of each individual is clearly delineated (such as in the military where rank is clearly displayed on the uniform), there is no problem with who gets the most territory: the higher rank. This is also true in the corporate world where the higher the rank in the organization, the larger is the office, work space, parking place, etc. How much space is actually required has little to do with how much is allotted to the person.
The personal space between two people talking reveals a lot about their relationship and the type of discussion. The dominant person is immediately evident by how much personal space is controlled and used. The dominant person even has the privilege of entering the less dominant person's space without their permission, but not so the other way around. At the right, notice that the man in red has his arms extended out to occupy more space toward the other man. The man in white is allowing the man in red to enter his personal space by folding his arms and thereby is occupying a smaller space. However, the man in white is bracing and holding his ground by placing his feet a bit wider for more stability. The man in red is clearly the dominant one.
The larger amount of space claimed by the rich and high-status people in a community is clearly evident in their larger homes, yards, cars, garages, offices, etc. The lower in status and rank a person is, the less space they command and control in every aspect of their life. People struggling for a higher status position in their life often do so unconsciously by trying to increase their physical territory with bigger objects such as larger cars, houses, yards, etc. This need for high status may be so strong that people go into great debt to buy larger possessions in an attempt to demonstrate their higher status.
About Personal Space and Body Shape
Back in the 1980's there was a research project here at EastWest Institute using hypnosis on obese women to find the unconscious source of their weight problem. The results were surprising! In some cases, the real cause of the excess fat was an attempt to be physically large. Some terms used were, "I want to be seen" and "So others will not run over me."
In another case, the client was a professional woman who had a body shape like an over-weight man with large barrel-shaped chest and stomach. She did not have the usual feminine fat placement on her hips and breasts. She stated under hypnosis that in her work she had to compete with men and wanted to appear as successful as them. She was of German descent and described how, to her; a successful man had a huge stomach and barrel chest. She even had a complimentary German phrase about successful barrel shaped men of high status.
Unconsciously she had built her own body to appear high status with a barrel shaped chest and stomach -- her image of what high status looked like. She actually grew to fit her mental image of what a successful person should look like, in spite of diets and exercise programs for years.
Next time you meet someone let them establish how close they stand or sit with you. This distance will clearly indicate how they feel about their relationship with you. When you are flirting or dating an important clue to how the relationship is progressing is the distance your partner chooses to sit or stand from you. Pay particular attention to both the distance and the body posture mirroring.
If you see a person you are talking to doing these body language cues then you are too close to them and you are infringing on what they feel is their private space. If you move away from them a little, they will feel safer with you and appreciate your presence more. Extrovert people will accept you in a little closer than introverts.
About Personal Space and Zones of Comfort
Research has shown these four zones exist for most North American people:
The intimate zone for lovers and those dear to us is 1.5 feet (45 cm.) or less. [Europeans: 20-30 cm (8-12inches); Australians: 46-122 cm (18-49 inches); Japanese: 25 cm (10-11 inches)] Interestingly, at this close range not only body language is meaningful but also our unconscious sense of smell can reveal much information about the partner's mood and health. See more on the importance of pheromones in relationships and body language here.
The social zone from 1.5 feet (45 cm...) to 4 feet (120 cm...) is where we comfortably converse with friends. Interestingly, this distance is where body language can be observed very effectively.
The social zone where conversation is conducted with casual acquaintances is no closer than 4 feet (120 cm..) and out to 7 feet (360 cm..). This zone is at least two arm lengths away and therefore out of striking distance. This unconscious habit of staying a safe striking distance away from those who are not our intimate friends probably is something left over in our DNA from our ancestors millions of years ago.
The public zone where strangers and authority figures are most comfortably acknowledged is beyond about 7 feet (360 cm..). This longer distance may say something about how we unconsciously fear strangers and authority figures.
Be aware that all the zones vary slightly in different cultures. This may cause conflicts and misunderstood body language when traveling to foreign countries. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, most men tend to have a slightly more distant zone boundary with other men but not with women.
Intimate relationships are clearly evident by observing body language and the personal space. Just watch two young people talking and flirting, and you will see their bodies often jousting, teasing and dancing with each other at the same time they are discussing some arcane subject. Personal space will be very close. Most of this delightful active body language is unconscious but nonetheless is more revealing about their actual relationship than are the words they speak.
If you want to really understand the relationship between two people, just study their ongoing body language.
© Copyright 2005, revised 2009 by Lawrence Rodrigues, M.S., Director: EastWest Institute for Self-Understanding.
All rights reserved worldwide.