Don’t Stand So Close to Me

Apologies in advance if reading this gets a certain song stuck in your head

I was in the grocery store the other day, my time at the checkout was at hand, and I stepped forward to the register with my wallet out, at the ready.

Embed from Getty Images

Problem is, the guy behind me in line stepped forward as well. You know, like we were in line for a ride at Disneyland or something.

The Proper Protocol for Grocery Checkout

There’s a certain protocol to the grocery-line-waiting experience, and this guy missed the memo. Once a transaction is afoot, you are to remain approximately four feet away from the person making payment, or the length of a grocery cart if you have one.

You may use this time to look at magazines, see which celebrity is getting married/divorced and/or buried this week, try not to think about why the guy behind you is only buying a quart of potato salad and a package of condoms.

But under no circumstances do you stand RIGHT NEXT to the person making payment! Geez!

I have to think there was some cultural difference at play here, but I honestly have no idea what this guy’s heritage was. Nor do I wish to hazard a guess. But I flashed the guy plenty of icy “back-off” glares, believe you me.

bubbleAnyway, the experience got me to thinking about personal space. You know. That little — or in some cases not so little — invisible bubble we keep around us. According to the science of personal space (yes, there is a science for it) we carry with us bubbles of four different sizes.

Proxemics – The Study of Personal Space

When I first heard of this science, I figured it must be the work of sociologists. I remember one time at college, a gaggle of sociology majors hatched an evil plot (sorry, “conducted a study“) where one by one, they asked an unsuspecting student if he was feeling all right because he looked horrible. By the end of the day, the poor guy was sick in bed.

Evil, right?

Anyway, standing really close to  people just to gauge their reactions seems right up a sociologist’s alley. But turns out the pioneer of Proxemics was an anthropologist by the name of Edward Hall.

In his work, he states all humans have four bubbles of personal space. Their ranges vary due to culture and personality, but the types remain the same:

  • Intimate Space – this is reserved for lovers, small children, and pets. Hall judged this area to be 0 to 18″
  • Personal Space – inhabited by relatives, friends and acquaintances, it varies from 18″ to 4′; mere acquaintances reside in the outer portion of this ring
  • Social Space – for people we’re not acquainted with or for business transactions, the more formal the meeting, the wider the space; this might be 4′ to 12′
  • Public Space – described as anything 12′ or wider, this is the distance between a speaker and audience; the more important the figure, the wider the distance.

Hall did his studies in the U.S. in the 1960s, so these measurements reflect that time and place. They’re also considered similar to England and most western European countries, though there are always exceptions.

When Our Personal Space is Threatened

The interesting thing is what happens when our concept of appropriate personal space is not recognized. For instance, Americans from the midwest who visit countries in the Middle East, might be put off by ‘close talkers’ or their more expressive manners of greeting. While someone from the Middle East visiting, say, Omaha, will wonder why Americans are so cold and stand-offish.

It’s also interesting what happens when we are in crowded elevators or public transportation. Suddenly you’re forced in close proximity with people you don’t know. So what do we do?

Avoid eye contact, by all means! Look at the ceiling, stare at your cell phone, check your shoes, close your eyes if you have to. According to Hall, in order to get through these uncomfortable periods, we ‘dehumanize’ anyone encroaching on our space. In other words, don’t look at them. Pretend they don’t exist. (Sounds callous, but yeah, totally been there, done that.)

It does make you wonder how many of our negative stereotypes of other cultures, thinking them aggressive and rude, or cold and unfeeling, might just be a difference in personal space?

I mean, say you’re used to standing two feet from strangers and I’d rather you be four feet from me. It that any reason for you to think me cold? Or I to flash you several icy glares?

(Well, damn. I should probably find that guy and apologize.)

What do you do when someone encroaches on your space?



14 thoughts on “Don’t Stand So Close to Me

  1. I’m still trying to process the guy with a quart of potato salad and a package of condoms…
    Whilst standing in a queue at the checkout, I did once ask a guy if he was trying to impregnate me because he was standing so close. And I have a friend that for every one step back you take, will take two steps forward. I think she’s under the impression that we were once conjoined twins and is now suffering from separation anxiety.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha! Oh geez, I know people like that! Most of the time people respect my bigger-than-normal personal bubble, but there are always a few who seem intent on popping it. I figure they’re either hopelessly clueless, or sociologists.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I completely agree that people should be respectful of other folks who are conducting financial transactions. Culture or not, it’s a privacy issue and you don’t need to know how much I spent or what my PIN might be. But aside from that (and this might be the result of my Italian upbringing; there were no boundaries, EVERYBODY was up in the “intimate space”), physical closeness does not usually bother me. Having said that, there are two instances when it does: the people who spit when they talk (I’ve already taken a shower today, thank you) and the people with bad hygiene (apparently you DIDN’T take a shower). Crowded subway where we’re just a thin strip of material away from procreation? No problem. Crowded subway where I’m spooning someone who smells like sulfur and rotten cauliflower? Ugh.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Funny you should bring up your upbringing. I have a post scheduled for tomorrow that shows an old family photo of mine. There it is in black and white – actually sepia – photographic evidence of my family’s inability to perform PDA. Given the lovely premise of your blog, you might find it of interest. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Ack! I see how it sounded that way, but beings how I grew up with my dad’s stories of these people, they’re a little too near and dear to my heart.
          I’m not sure how much fodder they’d give you anyway, given the photo is taken from a distance. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

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