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.
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.
Anyway, 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.
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?