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Chapter 9


Staking Out Territory
'Hey buddy ... did you realize you're sitting in my seat!'

Why do we need buffer zones? We all have an invisible, protective bubble around us, a primal need hardwired into our brains that is constantly switched on like a force field. It has layers, some layers close to the skin like a bodysuit, others farther away like a quarantine tent.

Elaborate networks in the brain monitor those protective bubbles and keep them clear of danger by subtly, or sometimes drastically, adjusting our actions. You walk through a cluttered room weaving effortlessly around furniture. A pigeon swoops past your head in the street and you duck. You stand a little further from your boss than your friend, and much closer to your lover. Usually hidden under the surface of consciousness, occasionally rising into awareness, personal space affects every part of human experience.

In the 1950s, the director of the Zurich Zoo, Heini Hediger, saw the evolutionary roots of this behavior in his careful studies of animals. Many animals have a territory based on external landmarks. Hediger noticed that most animals construct a second kind of territory that is egocentric, a bubble of space that moves as they move, and it serves a specific function. He called it an escape distance, or a flight zone.

When a wildebeest sees a potentially dangerous animal - a lion let's say - it doesn't simply run. This isn't a simple stimulus-response proposition. The animal seems to make a geometric assessment. It remains calm until the threat enters a protected zone, and then the wildebeest moves away and reinstates the flight zone. That escape distance is apparently consistent enough to measure it to the meter.

The flight zone is not the same as fear. It's also not the same thing as running or flying away. It's neither an emotion nor a behavior. It can certainly come with these properties, but the flight zone is a specific spatial computation that can proceed in the animal's head in absence of any obvious fear or escape.

Animals can have a buffer even with respect to other animals of the same species. One of Hediger's most famous photographs was of a line of seagulls sitting on a log, spaced in such perfectly even increments that they looked almost like carved decorations.

How far the space extends depends mainly on how crowded the conditions were in which the animal was raised and the local population density. So personal territory can expand or contract depending on the local circumstances. A lion raised in the remote regions of Africa may have a territorial space with a radius of 30 miles (50 kilometers) or more, depending on the density of the lion population in that area, and it marks its territory by urinating or defecating around the boundaries. On the other hand, a lion raised in captivity with other lions may have a personal space of only several meters, the direct result of crowded conditions.

Every country is a territory staked out by clearly defined boundaries and sometimes protected by armed guards. Within each country there are usually smaller territories in the form of states and counties. Within these are even smaller territories called cities and towns, within which are suburbs, containing many streets that, in themselves, represent a closed territory to those who live there. In the cinema it's an armrest where we do silent battle with strangers who try to claim it. The inhabitants of each territory share an intangible allegiance to it and have been known to turn to savagery and killing in order to protect it.

A territory is also an area or space around a person that he claims as his own, as if it were an extension of his body. Each person has his own personal territory, which includes the area that exists around his possessions, such as his home, which is bounded by fences, the inside of his motor vehicle, his own bedroom or personal chair and, a defined air space around his body.

Over recent decades, scientists have delved into the underlying evolution, psychology and neuroscience of personal space in a large number of studies. American anthropologist Edward Hall was one of the pioneers in the study of man's spatial needs and in the early 1960s he coined the word 'proxemics', from 'proximity' or nearness. His research into this field led to new understanding about our relationships with each other.

A consistent finding in studies is that personal space extends with anxiety. If you score high on stress, or if the experimenter stresses you ahead of time - maybe you take a test and are told that you failed it - your personal space grows with respect to other people. If you're put at ease, or the experimenter flatters your self-esteem ahead of time, your personal space shrinks. In at least some studies, women have an especially large personal space when approached by men - presumably fueled by our culturally learned expectations.

When tested at finer precision, personal space tends to stick out farther in front than at the sides or behind. When people are crowded together in the subway and the balloon of personal space is compressed, you can see its intrinsic shape particularly well. If you could sneak around with a tape measure and record the average distance between the body parts of adjacent travelers, you would see an overall trend toward buffering the front of the face and especially the eyes. As always, the eyes are the epicenter of self-protection.

The most recent wave of research on personal space focuses on the brain mechanisms. Specific areas of the brain contain neurons that monitor the space around the body and track objects. These neurons are almost like radar, firing off signals when something looms close, their activity rising to a frenzied peak if the object touches. When those neurons become highly active, they feed directly into our movement control, subtly adjusting our movement or, in extreme cases, causing flinching or cringing.

All this machinery impacts the rest of our lives: our sense of self, our ability to use tools, our culture and our social and emotional behavior - in other words, what it means to be human. When you understand the implications of this, you can gain enormous insights into your own behavior, and the face-to-face reactions of others can be predicted.

This chapter will deal mainly with the implications of this air space, how people react when it is invaded and the importance of sometimes keeping an 'arms-length' relationship.

Like most animals, each person has his own personal portable 'air bubble', which he carries around with him; its size is dependent on the density of the population in the place where he grew up. Personal space is therefore partially culturally determined. Where some cultures, such as the Japanese, are accustomed to crowding, others prefer the 'wide open spaces' and like you to keep your distance.

Personal Space
One way to be very clear about your Personal Space needs -- by creating your own portable bubble

Research shows that people in prisons appear to have larger personal space needs than most of the community, which results in the prisoners being constantly aggressive when approached by others. Solitary confinement, where no others are in the prisoner's space, always has a calming effect. Violence from passengers on aircraft increased during the 1990s when the airlines started packing people close together in the seats to compensate for revenue lost as a result of price discounting.

Zone Distances

We'll now discuss the radius of the 'air bubble' around suburban middle-class people living in places such as Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, North America, Northern Europe, Scandinavia, Canada or anywhere a culture is 'Westernized' such as Singapore, Guam and Iceland. The country in which you personally live may have larger or smaller territories than those we discuss here, but they will be proportionately the same as the ones we discuss here. Children have learned this spacing by age 12 and it can be broken down into four distinct zone distances:

1. The Intimate Zone between 6 and 18 inches (15-45 centimetres). This space is where those we are emotionally close with; a lover or spouse, children, friends, parents, relatives, or pets are welcome. The distance is comfortable and secure. You feel uncomfortable, and your body reacts protectively, if a stranger, someone you don't know well, or someone you don't like, enters this space.

2. The Personal / Friends Zone between 18 inches and 48 inches (46cm-1.22m). For most Western cultures, this distance is the most comfortable for personal conversations. If you step too far into the space, the other person may feel threatened. If you stand outside of the space, the other person can feel rebuffed. It is a distance that we stand from others at cocktail parties, office parties, social functions and friendly gatherings.

3. The Social Zone between 4 and 12 feet (1.22~3.6m). We stand at this distance from strangers, the plumber or carpenter doing repairs around our home, the mailman, the barista at Starbucks, the new employee at work and people whom we do not know very well.

4. The Public / Audience Zone is over 12 feet (3.6m). If you’re speaking to an audience in a formal setting, the distance between yourself and the first row is in the public space. Any closer and you feel intruded upon; your communication feels cramped. Any farther away and you feel distanced from your listener, making it harder to connect with them.

Personal Zone Distances
Personal Zone distances

All these distances tend to reduce between two women and increase between two men.

The Practical Use of Zone Distances

Our Intimate Zone (between 6 and 18 inches, 15-45cm) is normally entered by another person for one of two reasons: first the intruder is a close relative or friend, or he or she may be making sexual advances; second, the intruder is hostile and may be about to attack. While we will tolerate strangers moving within our Personal and Social Zones, the intrusion of a stranger into our Intimate Zone causes physiological changes to take place within our bodies. The heart pumps faster, adrenalin pours into the bloodstream, and blood is pumped to the brain and the muscles as physical preparations for a possible fight or flight situation are made.

This means that putting your arm, in a friendly way, around someone you've just met may result in that person feeling negative towards you, even though they may smile and appear to enjoy it in order not to offend you. .

If you want people to feel comfortable around you, the golden rule is 'keep your distance'. The more intimate our relationship is with other people, the closer they will permit us to move within their zones. A recently hired employee may initially feel that the other staff members are cold towards him, but they are only keeping him in the Social Zone until they know him better. As he becomes better known to them, the distance between them decreases until eventually he is permitted to move within their Friend Zones and, in some cases, their Intimate Zones.

Who Is Moving In on Whom?

The distance that two people keep their hips apart when they embrace reveals clues about the relationship between them.

Lovers press their torsos against each other and move within each other's close Intimate Zones. This differs from the kiss received from a stranger on New Year's Eve, from your best friend's spouse or your dear aunt, all of whom strive to keep their pelvic area at least 6 inches (15cm) away from yours.

One of the exceptions to the distance / intimacy rule occurs where the spatial distance is based on the person's social standing. For example, the CEO of a company may be the weekend fishing buddy of one of his subordinates and when they go fishing each may move within the other's personal or Intimate Zone. At the office, however, the CEO keeps his fishing buddy at the social distance to maintain the unwritten code of social strata rules.

Why We Tend To Loath Riding in Buses and Trains

Crowding at concerts, movie theatres, elevators, or in trains or buses results in unavoidable intrusion into other people's Intimate Zones . There is a list of unwritten rules that most cultures follow when faced with a crowded situation such as a packed bus, in a line at the sandwich shop or on public transportation.

Here are common public transportation riding guidelines that are collectively understood:

1. Talking with others is discouraged, even including people you know.

2. Avoid eye contact with those you do not personally know.

3. Maintain a 'poker face' - showing emotion is generally a no-no.

4. If you have a mobile phone or book, pretend to be deeply engrossed in it.

5. In bigger crowds, no body movement is allowed.

This behavior is called 'masking' and is universally common.

It's simply each person's attempt to hide their emotions from others by wearing a neutral mask.

We often hear words such as 'miserable', 'unhappy' and 'despondent' used to describe people who travel to work in the rush hour on public transport. These labels are used to describe the blank, expressionless look on the faces of the travellers, but are misjudgements on the part of the observer. What the observer sees, in fact, is a group of people masking - adhering to the rules that apply to the unavoidable invasion of their Intimate Zones in a crowded public place.

Notice how you behave next time you go alone to a crowded movie theatre. As you choose a seat that is surrounded by a sea of unknown faces, notice how, like a pre-programmed robot, you will begin to obey the unwritten rules of masking in a crowded public place. As you compete for territorial rights to the armrest with the stranger beside you, you will begin to realize why those who often go to a crowded cinema alone do not take their seats until the lights are out and the film begins. Whether we are in a crowded elevator, cinema or bus, people around us become non-persons - that is, they don't exist as far as we are concerned and so we don't respond as if we were being attacked if someone inadvertently encroaches on our territory.

Why Mobs Become Angry

An angry mob or group of protesters fighting for a mutual purpose does not react in the same way as an individual does when his territory is invaded; in fact, something very different occurs. As the density of the crowd increases, each individual has less personal space and starts to feel hostile, which is why, as the size of the mob increases, it becomes angrier and uglier and fights may break out. The police try to break up the crowd so that each person can regain his own personal space and become calmer.

Only in recent years have governments and town planners begun to understand the effect that high-density housing projects have in depriving individuals of their personal territory. The consequences of high-density living and overcrowding were seen in a study of the deer population on James Island, an island about a mile (2 kilometers) off the coast of Maryland in Chesapeake Bay in the United States. Many of the deer were dying in large numbers, despite the fact that at the time there was plenty of food, predators were not evident and infection was not present. Similar studies in earlier years with rats and rabbits revealed the same trend and further investigation showed that the deer had died as a result of overactive adrenal glands, resulting from the stress caused by the degradation of each deer's personal territory as the population increased. The adrenal glands play an important part in the regulation of growth, reproduction and the level of the body's defenses. A physiological reaction to the stress of overpopulation had caused the deaths, not starvation, infection or aggression from others. This is why areas that have the highest human population density also have the highest crime and violence rates.

One of our deepest urges is the desire to own land. This compulsion comes from the fact that it gives us the space freedom we need.

Interrogators use territorial invasion techniques to break down the resistance of criminals being questioned. They seat the criminal on an armless, fixed chair in an open area of the room and encroach into his intimate and close Intimate Zones when asking questions, remaining there until he answers. It often takes only a short while for this territorial harassment to break down the criminal's resistance.

Spacing Rituals

When a person claims a space or an area among strangers such as a seat at the cinema, a place at the conference table or a towel hook at the health club, he does it in a predictable way. He usually looks for the widest space available between two others and claims the area in the center. At the cinema he will choose a seat that is halfway between the end of a row and where the nearest person is sitting. At the health club, he chooses the towel hook that is in the largest available space, midway between two other towels or midway between the nearest towel and the end of the towel rack. The purpose of this ritual is to avoid offending the other people by being either too close or too far away from them.

Doctors and hairdressers are given permission to enter our Intimate Zones. We allow pets in at any time because they are not threatening.

At the cinema, if you choose a seat more than halfway between the end of the row and the nearest other person, that other person may feel offended if you are too far away from him or he may feel intimidated if you sit too close. The main purpose of this spacing ritual is to maintain harmony and it appears to be a learned behavior.

An exception to this rule is the spacing that occurs in public toilet blocks. People choose the end toilets about 90% of the time and, if they are occupied, the midway principle is used. Men always try to avoid standing beside strangers at a public urinal and always obey the unwritten law of 'Death before eye contact'.

Try the Luncheon Test

Try this simple test next time you eat with someone. Unspoken territorial rules state that a restaurant table is divided equally down the middle and the staff carefully place the salt, pepper, sugar, flowers and other accessories equally on the center line. As the meal progresses, subtly move the salt cellar across to the other person's side, then the pepper, flowers and so on. Before long this subtle territorial invasion will cause a reaction in your lunch-mate. They either sit back to regain their space or start pushing everything back to the center.

Cultural Factors Affecting Zone Distances

A young Italian couple migrated from Italy to live in Sydney, Australia and were invited to join a local social club. Several weeks after joining, three female members complained that the Italian man was making sexual advances towards them and that they felt uncomfortable around him. The male members of the club felt that the Italian woman had also been behaving as if she could be sexually available.

This situation illustrates the complications that can happen when cultures with different space needs come together. Many Southern Europeans have an intimate distance of only 8 to 11 inches (20-30cm) and in some places it's even less. The Italian couple felt at ease and relaxed when standing at a distance of 10 inches (25cm) from the Australians but were totally unaware of their intrusion into the Australians' 46-centimetre Intimate Zone. Italian people also use more eye contact and touch than Australians, which gave rise to further misjudgements about their motives. The Italians were shocked when this was pointed out to them but they resolved to practice standing back at a more culturally accepted distance.

Moving into the Intimate Zone of the opposite sex is a way of showing interest in that person and is commonly called an advance'. If the advance into the Intimate Zone is rejected, the other person will step backwards to reclaim their space. If the advance is accepted, the other person holds his ground and allows the intruder to remain. To measure a man's level of interest in her, a woman will step into his Intimate Zone and then step back out again. If he's interested, this cues him to step into her space whenever he makes a point.

The closer people feel emotionally to each other the closer they will stand to each other.

What seemed to the Italian couple to be a perfectly normal social encounter was being interpreted by the Australians as a sexual advance. The Italians thought the Australians were being cold and unfriendly because they kept moving away from the Italians to keep a comfortable distance.

Acceptable Conversational Distance
The acceptable conversational distance for most Western, Northern European and Scandinavian city dwellers

Too Small Personal Space
A man with a smaller spatial need forcing a woman to lean back to defend her space

The above illustration shows the negative reaction of a woman on whose territory a man is encroaching. She leans backward, attempting to keep a comfortable distance. However, the man may be from a culture with a smaller Personal Zone and he is moving forward to a distance that is comfortable for him. The woman may interpret this as a sexual move.

Why Japanese Always Lead When They Waltz

Americans born and raised in a city usually stand 18 to 48 inches (46-122cm) from each other and stand in the same place while talking. If you watch a Japanese and an American talking, the two will slowly begin to move around the room, the American moving backwards away from the Japanese and the Japanese moving forward. This is an attempt by both the American and Japanese to adjust to a culturally comfortable distance from the other. The Japanese, with his smaller 10-inch (25cm) Intimate Zone, continually steps forward to adjust to his spatial need, but this invades the American's Intimate Zone, forcing him to step backwards to make his own spatial adjustment. If you look at a video of this phenomenon replayed at high speed it gives the illusion that the two men are waltzing around the room with the Japanese leading. This is one of the reasons why, when negotiating business, Asians, Europeans or Americans often look at each other with suspicion. The Europeans or Americans refer to the Asians as 'pushy' and 'familiar' and the Asians refer to the Europeans or Americans as 'cold', 'stand-offish' and 'cool'. This lack of awareness of Intimate Zone variations between cultures can easily lead to misconceptions and inaccurate assumptions about one culture by another.

Rural vs. City Spatial Zones

The amount of Personal Space someone needs is relative to the population density where they live. People raised in sparsely populated rural areas for example, need more Personal Space than those raised in densely populated cities. Watching how far a person extends his arm to shake hands gives a clue to whether he is from a large city or a country area. City dwellers typically have their private 18-inch (46cm) 'bubble'; this is also the measured distance between wrist and torso when they reach to shake hands.

City Handshake
Two men from the city greet each other; their hands reaching to 18 inches (46cm)

This allows the hands to meet on neutral territory. People raised in a country town with a small population may have a space 'bubble' of up to 36 inches (1m) or more and this is the average measured distance from the wrist to the body when the country person shakes hands.

Country Handshake
Two businessmen in an urban environment whose rural upbringing may become more apparent by virtue of the large reach in their handshake.

Rural people tend to stand with their feet firmly planted on the ground and lean forward to meet your handshake, whereas a city dweller will step forward to greet you. People raised in remote areas can have an even larger Personal Space need, which could be as wide as 18 feet (6 meters). They often prefer not to shake hands but would rather stand at a distance and wave.

Wave From a Distance
People raised in a more sparsely populated area tend to keep their distance

Farming equipment salespeople who live in cities find this information useful for calling on farmers in sparse rural areas. Considering, for example, that a farmer could have a 'bubble' of 3 to 6 feet (1-2m) or more, a handshake could be seen as a territorial intrusion, causing the farmer to react negatively or defensively. Successful country salespeople state almost unanimously that the best negotiating conditions exist when they greet the rural customer with an extended handshake and the farmer from a remote area with a distant wave.

Territory and Ownership

Property a person owns or a space he regularly uses constitutes a private territory and, just as with his personal bubble, he'll fight to defend it. A person's home, office and car represent a territory, each having clearly marked boundaries in the form of walls, gates, fences and doors. Each territory may have several sub-territories. In a home a person's private territory may be their kitchen and they will object to anyone invading it when they are using it. A businessman may have his favorite place at the conference table, diners may have their favorite seat in the cafe, and Mom or Dad have their favorite chair at home. These areas may be marked either by leaving personal possessions on or around the area, or by frequent use of it. The cafe diner may even go so far as to carve his initials into 'his' place at the table and the businessman marks his territory at the conference table with things such as a personal folder, laptop, books and clothing spread around his 18-inch (46cm) Intimate Zone border.

Studies carried out by Desmond Morris into seating positions in libraries showed that leaving a book or personal object on a library desk reserved that place for an average of 77 minutes; leaving a jacket over a chair reserved it for two hours. At home a family member might mark his or her favorite chair by leaving a personal object, such as a handbag or cell phone, on or near it to show their claim and ownership of the space.

If the boss of the house asks a visitor to be seated and the person innocently sits in the wrong chair, the boss can become agitated about this invasion of his territory and be put on the defensive. A simple question such as, 'Which chair is yours?' can avoid the negative results of making such a territorial error.

The Territorial Rights of the Car

People driving a car can react in a way that's often completely unlike their normal social, territorial behavior.

A motor vehicle seems to have a magnifying effect on the size of a person's Personal Space. In some cases, this territory is magnified up to 10 times the normal size, so the driver feels that he has a claim to an area of 25 to 30 feet (8-10 meters) in front of and behind his car. When another driver cuts in front of him, even if it wasn't dangerous, the driver may go through a physiological change, becoming angry and even attacking the other driver in what is commonly known as 'Road Rage'. Compare this to the situation that occurs when the same person is stepping into a lift and another person steps in front of him, invading his personal territory. His reaction in those circumstances is normally apologetic and he allows the other person to go first: dramatically different from what happens when the same person cuts in front of him on the open road.

The perceived territorial rights of our cars extend beyond the car to ownership of the space we are parked in. Rigorous observation proved that people entering their car to leave a parking space take 50%+ longer in exiting on average when the person is fully aware of someone else waiting for the parking space as compared to the scenario when no one else is obviously waiting. In the former scenario this manifests itself through our readjustments of the rearview mirror, makeup, or clothes, or making cell phone calls; any number of ways to unconsciously or semi-consciously demonstrate our ownership of the space.

In a car, many people think they're invisible. That's why they make intimate adjustments in full view of everyone.

For some people, the car becomes a protective cocoon in which they can hide from the outside world. As they drive slowly beside the curb, almost in the gutter, they can be as big a hazard on the road as the driver with the expanded Personal Space. Italians, with their smaller spatial needs, are often accused of being tail-gaters and pushy on the roads because they are closer than is culturally accepted elsewhere.

Making The Assessment

Look at the next photo and decide what the possible scenarios could be between the two people, based entirely on their spatial distances. A few simple questions and further observation of these people can reveal the correct answer and can help you avoid making incorrect assumptions.

Close Conversational Distance Between Man and Woman
Who is who and from where?

We might make any one of the following assumptions about these two people:

  1. Both people are from urban environments and the man is making an intimate approach to the woman.
  2. The man has a smaller Intimate Zone than the woman and is innocently invading hers.
  3. The woman is from a culture with smaller Intimate Zone needs.
  4. The couple feel emotionally close to each other.


Others will invite or reject you, depending on the respect that you have for their Personal Space. This is why the happy-go-lucky person, who slaps everyone he meets on the back or continually touches people during a conversation, is secretly disliked by many. A number of factors can affect the spatial distance a person takes in relation to others, so it's wise to consider every criterion before making a judgement about why a person is keeping a certain distance.

Westside Toastmasters on Meetup

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