Space Invasion; or, How Close Is Too Close?
by Carol Kinsey Goman
One of the easiest mistakes to make during a business encounter with someone is to misjudge how much space the other person needs.
One night not long ago, when I was traveling on business, I had dinner in an oceanside resort, and I noticed a man and a woman seated across the room. The couple sat framed by a large picture window, while the setting sun turned the background shades of yellow, orange, magenta, and deep purple. It was a beautiful image. But then I began to observe the couple’s body language.
During the course of the meal, I watched the man lean toward the woman—and saw her respond by pulling away from him. He leaned toward her again—and again she pulled away. The more the man leaned forward, the more his dinner companion tilted back. By dessert, he was almost sprawled across the table, and she was practically falling backward off her chair. I couldn’t hear a word they were saying, but it was perfectly obvious that whatever he was proposing, she wasn’t signing on.
The funny part was, the man seemed totally oblivious to the nonverbal signals the woman was so clearly sending. He would have been much more successful if he had (literally) backed off.
Last month I was reminded of this episode as I sat at another restaurant watching two men at the bar. This time I was close enough to overhear their conversation, so I knew that one man was in sales and the other was a potential buyer. By the time they’d finished their drinks, I also knew the deal was dead. And it wasn’t anything that was said. In the midst of a normal getting-to-know-you conversation, I watched the salesman move so close to his prospect that the potential buyer began, very slowly, to inch away. This went on for some time, but finally the buyer could stand it no longer. He excused himself to make a phone call—and left the restaurant shortly afterward.
To describe phenomena like territoriality among office workers, the anthropologist Edward Hall coined the word proxemics. And it was he who first noted the five zones in which people feel most comfortable dealing with one another. It’s as if we’re standing inside an invisible bubble that expands or contracts depending on our relationships.
The intimate zone (0–18 inches) is reserved for family and loved ones. Within this zone we embrace, touch, or whisper. This close contact is appropriate only for very personal relationships.
The close personal zone (1.5–2 feet) is the “bubble” most of us in the United States like to keep around us. This zone is used for interactions among friends or familiar and trusted business partners.
The far personal zone (2–4 feet) is for interactions we prefer to conduct not just figuratively at arm’s length, and in this zone we can communicate interest without the commitment of touching.
The social zone (4–12 feet) is most appropriate for most daily business interactions. It is where we interact with new business acquaintances or at more formal social affairs.
The public zone (over 12 feet) is mostly used for public speaking.
The amount of space required to feel comfortable varies from individual to individual. People who don’t like being touched will tend to keep their distance from others. People who touch others while talking will want to get close enough to do so.
Space needs can also vary with the amount of trust in a relationship. A general rule is: the greater the distance, the lower the level of trust.
Gender plays an important role too. Men who don’t know each other well tend to keep a greater distance between them than women who have just met. This difference in interpersonal distance as determined by gender is even true in Web 2.0’s virtual worlds (like Second Life).
And, of course, the comfortable distance between participants varies with culture. In the United States, most business relationships begin in the social zone. As relationships develop and trust is formed, both parties may subconsciously decrease the distance to more personal zones. But if one of the parties moves too close too soon, communication can break down.
People who feel powerful and confident usually control relatively large areas of physical space, extending their arms and legs and generally taking up more room. In doing so, they may unknowingly infringe on another person’s territory. Or they may purposely stand too close to someone to make the other person feel self-conscious or insecure. Police interrogators often use the tactic of crowding a suspect, assuming that invasion of the suspect’s personal space (with no chance for defense) will give the officer a psychological advantage.
I’ve also seen managers standing uncomfortably close to employees to emphasize their status in the organization. Not a good idea.
The Elbow Defense (and Others)
Scientists agree that people’s territorial responses are primitive and powerful. And a mistake here can trigger a truly deep-seated response. When someone comes too close to you in an undesirable way, heart rate and galvanic skin responses increase. Probably, you will then try to restore the “proper” distance by looking away, stepping behind a barrier (desk, chair, table), crossing your arms to create a barrier, pulling back to create space, or tucking in your chin as an instinctive move of protection. You may even find yourself rubbing your neck so that an elbow protrudes sharply toward the invader.
Getting too close is an especially improper business move in circumstances where workers, colleagues, or clients are in danger of feeling emotionally or physically threatened by invasion of their personal space. Anyone who oversteps space boundaries is perceived as rude, aggressive, or socially clueless.
So keep your distance. Respecting another person’s space can help you build rapport with your colleagues and close sales with your customers.
Carol Kinsey Goman is an executive coach, consultant, and keynote speaker who addresses association, government, and business audiences around the world. Her latest book is The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work. To learn more, call her at 510/526-1727; email CGoman@CKG.com; or visit NonverbalAdvantage.com and CKG.com.