Manners Matter Three


Personal Space Invaders

By Ron Ross

When your 4th grader steps off the school bus after a day at school and she runs and jumps into your arms, do you like that? When eating out with friends how much space do you want between you and them? When you speak to a stranger how close to them do you stand?

These are all a matter of what social scientists call proxemics: a study of the amount of space around us that establishes our comfort level when we interact with other people.

Spatial comfort levels vary depending on the situation, upbringing, and culture you live in. Most Americans prefer an arms-length perimeter around them. Some cultures you can be closer, but as a rule of manners, an arms-length is a safe measure. Invade that space and you will likely be considered rude.

Recently a man came up to me looked me hard in the eyes and, using a loud voice, introduced himself. He didn’t offer to shake hands – he was too close for that. I found it very uncomfortable and stepped back a bit. No problem for him – he stepped forward and continued to engage me in conversation only inches from my face. I didn’t like it. It was rude.

There is another way to invade someone’s personal space and that is to violate their private space by barging in on them without notice. Hotels give their guests “do not disturb” cards to hang on their doors. People close the doors to their office or prefer to drive 20 miles to work alone rather than car-pool to protect their personal space. I could always tell when my wife did not want me to peek into her bathroom: she shut the door.

Other ways space invaders wreak havoc on their fellow human beings is to sneeze, emit offensive noises or odors, talk loudly, crowd you in a line at the cash register, or talk out loud in church or at the theater, etc. They are rude and sometimes you would like to ask their mothers why they didn’t teach them good manners.

You can also be a space invader on the highway. I pulled out in front of a guy on a busy road and he didn’t like it. My phone number was on the tailgate of my pickup so the guy called me. He said, “I would like to report one of your drivers is very rude and he just pulled out in front of me and almost caused an accident.”

I knew immediately the guy had a problem because while I did pull out in front of him there was no likelihood of an accident. He was exaggerating, but I was invading his space so he invaded my space with a phone call to let me to know.

The social laws that define the spatial differences required between people are unwritten and sometimes hard to define or follow. Some are clear like greeting your 4th grade daughter at the bus stop, having lunch with your lifetime pal, meeting with a client, or visiting with a stranger. A well-mannered person will know intuitively which law to obey because when it comes to protecting your personal space – manners matter.

©2016 Dr. Ron Ross

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