Body Language and Personal Space
We all have boundaries for our personal space but there is a great deal of variation in the distance of these boundaries from person to person and from culture to culture. How is it, then, that we communicate the size of our own personal space so that others are aware and can take steps to avoid infringing upon it?
Communicating the Boundaries of Personal SpaceYou know where the boundaries of your personal space are located, even if you have never put any conscious thought into defining them. It is an innate sense inside of you, developed throughout your lifetime in response to your personality, environment, and life experiences. You also have ways of communicating the location of those boundaries so that others can clearly know where they begin.
Nearly all of the communication methods you use to send messages about personal space are non-verbal. They are a combination of body language and other actions you take, consciously or unconsciously, to preserve your personal space.
Create a visual boundary – This is an action that most people take quite unconsciously, using their personal belongings or whatever objects might be handy. For instance, when you take a seat on a transit bus you might put your jacket, briefcase, purse, or other item on the seat next to you. This creates a visual boundary between you and other people, showing very clearly that you don’t want anyone else sitting next to you.
Avoid eye contact – You’ve probably done this thousands of times; someone is looking for space to occupy, there is one open next to you, so you avoid making eye contact with that other person. Why? Because eye contact acts like an invitation of sorts, indicating you might be friendly and open to sharing the space around you. Avoiding eye contact, on the other hand, allows you to ignore the other person, appear unfriendly, and avoid any misunderstandings about your willingness to share space.
Location and body position – Your choice of location and body position also communicate a great deal about your personal space boundaries. For instance, if you’re dining alone in a café you will probably seek out a table next to the wall or some other physical boundary. A table in the corner of the eating area is especially good for defining your boundaries because you have at least two walls to help send the message. Body position is another useful tool; sit with your back to the door or to the service counter and others perceive that as your personal boundary. Even sitting slumped over, head down, or in a generally closed body position lets the world know more about your personal space.
Deliberate Use of Body LanguageThere are some situations and professions where very deliberate body language is used to communicate information about the boundaries of personal space. For instance, law enforcement officers will sometimes deliberately encroach upon a suspect’s personal space to make the suspect uncomfortable. This clearly communicates who is in the more powerful position and increases the likelihood of the suspect answering questions promptly and truthfully.
Sales professionals also use body language and personal space quite deliberately. With a potential or new client, the salesperson is likely to be quite respectful of personal space, avoiding even the appearance of encroachment. As trust develops between client and salesperson, however, those boundaries tend to shrink. The salesperson will move in closer to the client, assuming a more familiar body position as a way to influence the client’s buying decision.
Romantic situations also commonly involve personal space and body language. When a couple is first getting to know each other, they will test the boundaries a bit by moving closer and then backing away, little by little ending up closer each time. The closer two people become the more trust and intimacy are created, thereby advancing the relationship along the romantic path. If one person is not comfortable pursuing the relationship or decides to bring things to a halt, though, he or she might turn away or even physically put out an arm to maintain a comfortable distance.
Whether you use unconscious or deliberate tactics, your body language is perhaps the most powerful tool you have to communicate personal space. When you use this tool respectfully and responsibly, it becomes a very useful way of improving and influencing communication.