How close do you stand to your conversation partner when you talk? How far away from other people do you stand when you use the elevator? You've probably developed uncomfortable feelings when you are too close to strangers on the street. This discomfort happens when your 'personal space' has been invaded. Personal space refers to the area inside the boundaries you have set which determines how close people can be to you. If people invade your personal space they have crossed your personal boundaries and make you uncomfortable.
According to Edward T. Hall who is an American cultural anthropologist, personal space is the physical space and distance that allows others access to you. He said people think that a specific space around them is theirs and they unconsciously have a personal space border line. Also, he divided the space that a person feels into four categories and defined the distance that makes people uncomfortable when they approach each other. The first category is 'intimate space.' This is the boundary area set for close people such as parents or lovers and the distance is 0.6 meters. A second category is 'personal space,' a boundary area set for friends or acquaintances, with distances ranging from 0.6m to 1.5m. The next category is 'social space,' a boundary that we have for people we network with. This category has a boundary distance that ranges between 1.2 and 3m. The fourth category is 'public space,' a boundary that we set for strangers who we meet in public the distance that we need from them is 3.6m. People that you dislike must stay more than 3.6 meters away from you. A difference of these categories is the physical distance changes depending on the relationship. If you think about this carefully, you will recognize these categories and distances you have for people. We allow people that we have close relationships with to be physically close to us compared to others. Thus, the physical distance between you and your intimate people is closer. On the other hand, you feel uncomfortable near strangers because you and the stranger are on guard around each other. That is why the space between you and stranger is wider and is categorized as public space.
Personal space is applied by countries and individuals differently. Personal space of the Scandinavians is the length of an outstretched arm because they tend to shun strangers. Consequently you can see many Scandinavians scattered with space in between each other in public places such as bus stops. Personal space of Americans is also similar to the Scandinavians. As such, people in North America or North Europe prefer to talk at a distance because their personal space is wide. In contrast, Middle Easterners and Latin American prefer to converse at a close range. The personal space of Chinese and Korean isn't wide either. According to a survey, Japanese preferred a wider personal space than Americans. Something to notice here is that you can make mistakes when you visit other countries because the concept of personal space is different than it is in Korea. People who have a narrow personal space easily invade others’ space. If you invade someone else's space, you can make them feel uncomfortable. Therefore, you should understand that people of each country have different personal space distances and you should try to learn what it is when you meet someone from another country.
Here are a few things that you should know about personal space. It is not good to touch people you don't know. Most people know that they should avoid contact with strangers in the street. However, many people don't know that children, animals, personal belongings, etc are included in this range. When you go abroad, be careful not to touch those things because we often touch children and animals that we see for the first time. In public places that are not crowded, it is good to leave an extra seat between you and the next person. Also, you should leave extra space between you and the person in front of you when you're waiting in line. In the US, it is common courtesy to say “excuse me” when you sit next to a person or walk down a crowded aisle. Actions that you habitually do in your country can make people in other countries think that you are rude. Thus, it is important to understand and respect the culture of the country.
Edward T. Hall said that we need a proper distance with others in order to feel comfortable. You feel uncomfortable when you are too close to stranger. However, you also feel uncomfortable when you are far away from an intimate person. Personal Space varies with the circumstance or intimacy of the relationship. If you are aware of this and try to respect others’ space, you will be a better person. Let's ask before we hastily approach people, "What is your distance?"