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Personal Space
Science supports your need for it

By Nora Brunner

Originally published in Skin Deep, May/June 2009. Copyright 2009. Associated Skin Care Professionals. All right reserved.

You've met the type. They take a step toward you in conversation and you take a step back. They advance in your direction and you inch away. The dance continues until you remember a sudden appointment and run for the door, wondering if you are developing claustrophobia. The answer lies in something social scientists call proxemics. It boils down to someone invading our personal space. When this happens, we are often uneasy without even knowing why.


Breaking the Rules
Proxemics experiments, often conducted on college campuses, resemble practical jokes. They involve an unsuspecting person minding his own business on a park bench or at a picnic table and having someone take a seat right next to him, even when there's plenty of room to spread out.

Other people may join the situation one by one, continuing to break those unwritten rules about where to sit, until the invaded person is compelled to use distancing strategies. These may include averting eye contact, angling his body away from the intruders, piling books on the table to create a pseudo-wall, hiding behind a newspaper, or creating an imaginary bubble around himself with an iPod. When all else fails, the space-deprived moves farther away or leaves altogether.

Researchers can tell you in inches and feet how much space people need to feel at ease, based on how well they know each other, their cultural backgrounds, and the situations in which they find themselves. People will tolerate a crowded dance floor in part because of lower lights, where the same tight quarters on a subway create stress. Have you ever noticed how far people spread themselves out in a movie theater while it's mostly empty? The people who fly first class may get slightly better service or food, but the primary reason they are willing to pay so much more for a ticket, experts say, is to buy more personal space. You can tell someone's organizational rank in a heartbeat by how much office space they have. In some companies, the square footage associated with rank follows very strict guidelines.


American Traits
What's fascinating is the rules of personal space aren't taught at home or in school, yet nearly everyone absorbs what's acceptable over time. Sometimes, failure to follow the rules is cultural. Americans need more personal space than people of other cultures. Because of our need for more space, we are often perceived as cold and inhospitable by people from other cultures. Conversely, we interpret their close-in behavior as aggressive, suggestive, intrusive, or at least, odd. It's good to recognize that people from other cultures are simply doing what's natural to them.

But what do we do about the other people comedian Jerry Seinfeld calls "close talkers?" Chances are excellent we'll never ask the person to step away because research has shown the invaded virtually never speak up. Odds are, we'll simply take evasive action. There's some progress in recognizing why we squirm, yet shy away from saying anything.

When giving or receiving spa services, it's important to have rapport between practitioner and client, so that space invasion doesn't get in the way of services. Keep the lines of communication open to ensure client comfort and satisfaction.

Nora Brunner is editor of Skin Deep.




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