Understanding personal space boundaries is an important social skill that is typically understood non-verbally. Whenever we are with other people, we are using personal space boundaries, whether we are conscious of the rules or not. Following the social rules that go along with personal space boundaries allow us to get along in harmonious ways with each other in public.
People like their personal bubbles. Our bubbles allow us a sense of safety when we are out in public. We all may have different levels of comfort when it comes to personal space boundaries that are influenced by a variety of different factors including: environment, communication partner, culture, and individual preferences.
Understanding personal space boundaries is especially important in public group settings. When we are in public interacting with others, it is expected that we understand and follow the unwritten rules of personal space. For example, have you ever been standing in line at Starbucks and the person behind you is standing too close to you? How do you know? Maybe you can feel their breath on the back of your neck. Perhaps you can feel them brush up against you accidentally or their purse or backpack touches you. We can also practice the social skill of personal space boundaries when interacting one on one with another person. For example, have you ever been chatting with someone and felt that they were standing too close to you or invading your personal bubble? When your personal space boundaries are violated, what response or feedback do you give the other person? Do you move away in an obvious way, roll your eyes, or just ignore it?
And most importantly, how can learn to read, understand, and demonstrate non-verbal social cues to respect others personal space boundaries of ourselves and others?
Eye contact: Looking at people's eyes gives us a lot of information about what they are thinking. When we are interacting with others in a public place, we can look to peoples eyes for feedback about their comfort level regarding personal space boundaries. If we look at where other people are looking, we can make a guess about what they are thinking. If they have a confused or uncomfortable facial expression, or are looking away from us, we might make a guess that our behavior violates their personal space boundaries.
Body Language: We can look at a persons’ body language to give us clues about how someone might feel about personal space boundaries. If someone takes a step back or leans away from you during a conversation, it might be a clue that you are standing too close to them. If we are in a crowded public space, we might observe similar behavior in ourselves or others.
Arm length rule: When we are interacting with other people in conversation, the general rule is to stay about one arm's length way. When we are learning the social skills of personal space boundaries, we might feel that we need to stick out our arm to measure exactly. However, we never want to actually stick our arm out to measure the distance. We need to judge this distance in our head and do our best to stick to it. You might even try a mini-experiment - If you are chatting with someone and the distance feels comfortable, try taking a step forward or leaning your body forward. You may be surprised that the other person will move in response to you.
Practicing the social skill of good personal boundaries can make a significantly positive impact on how other people perceive us. Using and understanding good personal boundaries allows us to be good social communicators. By paying attention to eye contact, body language, and the ‘one arm rule’ we can demonstrate our success as social communicators with good personal space boundaries.