Should the personal space be respected

Distance zones and territoriality - dealing with space


Müller, B. (2011). Empirical identity research. Wiesbaden: Publishing house for social sciences. Rohr, E. (2004). Body and identity. Society written for you. Königstein / Taunus: Ulrike Helmer.

Preliminary remark: The human body carries biological characteristics and therefore also carries identity characteristics that can only be partially changed, for example through plastic surgery, optical modifications such as hair coloring, tattoos or accessories such as clothing or jewelry. Through a specific appearance and lifestyle, a certain identity is expressed through the body and also symbolizes social affiliation to a high degree. First and foremost, however, the body first secures the biological existence, because it enables sensory perception and orientation in the world. At the same time, the body determines the spatial demarcation from other people and thereby defines an individual as an indivisible unit; it is therefore the instrument with which people face the social world before they can even speak or symbol-conveyed communication is possible. In the psychological sense, the human body also forms a relevant ordering function in the Identity formation a crystallization point, because from toddler and infant research we know that the structure of body and movement awareness, body image and Self-concept is related to the tangible, emotional and verbal addressing of the body in social contexts. The process of social appropriation, in which people are in constant physical exchange with their environment, leads to the development of an awareness of the objects in the lifeworld and, above all, of oneself. Only more or less conscious reflection in social contexts leads to the development of an unmistakable one Self, whereby the other person more or less forces everyone to perceive himself as a trigger for reactions.

Respecting someone else's personal space is a fundamental aspect of social interaction among people and something people usually do automatically and effortlessly. Non-verbal communication is therefore expressed particularly strongly in the distance zones, some of which are learned during socialization:

  • Intimate distance: it ranges from direct physical contact to a distance of approx. 60 cm. Only people with special permission are allowed to enter this zone. It is improper to enter this intimate zone among strangers. Often one encounters people who repeatedly cross this invisible border in conversation. This zone depends on the status of the (conversation) partner and your own mood. Normally, only very close friends are allowed into this intimate zone, i.e. intimate partners or close relatives. Others are kept at a distance of about half an arm's length (e.g. by evading them yourself). If the intimate zone is injured, this triggers feelings of discomfort, and fighting hormones may be released: the body adjusts itself to fight or flight.
  • Personal distance: it covers the zone from approx. 60 to 150 cm, that is the normal conversation distance. Approach within these limits says something about the degree of familiarity or sympathy between the participants. This zone is reserved for good friends, relatives and possibly close colleagues. However, if it cannot be avoided (e.g. in a crowded bus) that strangers also penetrate the (inner) personal zone or the (outer) intimate zone, this triggers a strange phenomenon: we treat the other as "non-person" . The simple reason: we have to take defensive measures to get our malaise under control. You are motionless, you tense your muscles, fix some distant point to avoid eye contact. However, this behavior is presumably partly cultivated and culturally different. The personal distance zone is slightly lower to the side. We are leading in this area personal conversationswithout feeling pressured.
  • Social or social distance: it excludes that one touches. Impersonal matters are dealt with at this distance (1.50 - 4 m); Conversation with business people, tradespeople, boss behind the desk, audience (wide counter in office rooms creates distance). This distance has a protective function. Other people can approach this distance without being noticed. In this area we perceive other people and if we reject them and do not want to get in contact with them, we ask them to leave this area again. Otherwise, we will then grant you access to the personal distance zone.
  • Public distance: it starts at a distance of about 4 m. Every personal relationship has ceased, you act as an individual. This distance is roughly that between teachers and class, between speakers and the audience, or between television actors and viewers.

It is important to respect other people's need for distance, because whoever gets too close to someone shouldn't be surprised if they make themselves unpopular. The unauthorized entry into the intimate distance zone is practically always considered undesirable Border crossing felt.

Ralph Adolphs (California Institute of Technology) conducted a simple experiment in which people were asked to get close enough to the experimenter until they reached the distance that was most comfortable for them, measuring the chin-to-chin distance. The average preferred distance of the healthy subjects was 64 centimeters, while a patient who had severe damage to the Centers of emotion in the brain (almond kernel), but approached it to within 34 centimeters without feeling uncomfortable. Even when she was face to face with the experimenter, she did not report any negative feelings. Obviously, the amygdala plays a central role in this process as it creates the strong feelings of malaise that normally help maintain proper distance in social situations. These results were confirmed using functional magnetic resonance imaging. Obviously, the almond kernel is involved in regulating social distance, regardless of special sensory stimuli that typically signal when someone comes too close, such as smell, external appearance or noise.

Break-ins as a violation of the distance zone

Burglaries can also be attributed to the violation of the distance zones, from which burglar victims often suffer from anxiety and insomnia for a very long time. In a study in Austria, 71 percent of those affected stated that the worst thing for them was the notion that a stranger had intruded into the supposedly protected space and into their privacy. 86 percent no longer felt safe in their home immediately after the break-in and were afraid of falling victim to burglars again. The psychological consequences of a break-in often lead to sudden changes in the lives of those affected, for example due to oversensitivity to noises, fear of being alone or sleep disorders. In extreme cases, the fear that the perpetrator might come back leads to those affected looking for a new home. Often is psychological care necessary to come to terms with the traumatic experience. Burglary victims usually suffer one trauma or experience a short-term extreme stressful situation, whereby the image of the confused personal things alone can trigger enormous internal stress in those affected. It's in the therapy It is important to restore the feeling of security, i.e. those affected should not be alone after a burglary, but rather consult people they trust such as friends or family members. It is also not recommended for traumatized victims to talk about what they have experienced immediately after the break-in, as this could stir up too much and trigger another trauma or reinforce the existing one. If mental disorders such as palpitations, sleep problems, anxiety or anxiety persist for several months, therapy should be considered in which, in addition to social support, it is also important to calm the autonomic nervous system, for example through breathing exercises and relaxation techniques such as autogenes Workout or yoga.

Distances also depend on mood

In studies by Jochen Gebauer (Institute for Psychology at the Humboldt University Berlin) it was also shown that places with positive emotions are felt to be closer, while places with negative ones are located further away. People in a negative mood, on the other hand, think positive places are further away and negative places a little closer. For happy natures, that's right paradise felt “around the corner”, while for sad people it is “infinitely far away”. Probably the same applies to the distance to people who can convey positive and negative experiences.

Cultural differences

In Central Europe the intimate zone begins about 50 cm in front of and ends 50 cm behind a person - the intimate zone is slightly smaller on the side.

In South America the distance zones are less pronounced than in Central Europe. In a Brazilian riding club, such misunderstandings between Central Europeans and North Americans had painful consequences: a carpenter had to raise the railing of a veranda because North Americans and Northern Europeans had repeatedly fallen backwards. Her South American horse friends had not kept the usual "Nordic" conversation distance of an arm's length, and the guests had unconsciously felt threatened. As they backed away step by step and the southerners advanced, this had fatal consequences.

Encounters between the cool can be similarly problematic Englishmenwho practically never allow contact, and men from Puerto Rico. A Puerto Rican man will touch his interlocutor, as has been counted during observations, possibly 180 times an hour. For the British, exactly 180 times too often. The Englishman will certainly accuse the Puerto Rican of homosexual intentions.

Psychological distance

Under "psychological distance"One understands a general sense of distance, whereby these distances can be of a temporal, spatial or social nature. As Nira Liberman (University of Tel Aviv) and Yaacov Trope (New York University) report, spatial and temporal distances are the same for the human brain. The subjects always chose abstract terms when they thought of distant objects and events, regardless of whether the experiment investigated spatial, temporal, social or hypothetical distance. The sensation of psychological distance probably arises because in all cases the "here and now" must be exceeded in the same way. When the direct experience ends at a certain point, people use familiar mental models to be able to think about the future or the improbable. This increasing abstraction makes perfect sense, since far fewer details are known about distant events nt, so that it allows a higher degree of abstraction of ideas that can apply to a large number of events. The greater the distance to a place or a temporally distant event, the more abstract is the mental image with which the brain works.
source: Science, Vol. 322, p. 1202.

Distance zones towards the physically handicapped

Kaiser et al. (2010) used a quantitative and qualitative content analysis of a video observation that Help and evasive behavior by passers-by examined against a wheelchair user who was in a supposedly problematic situation. Only 28 of 541 passers-by approached the wheelchair user, 13 of whom in turn offered assistance. The researchers were able to do significantly larger Body spacing and Evasive behavior to the wheelchair user, but also people who passed him several times revealed possible insecurity and fear of contact by not addressing him until the second encounter and always keeping a large distance from him. Not only the passing passers-by were unusually large distances from the wheelchair user, but also the person they were talking to, what one Avoid contact reaction equals. In other, less common situations, psychologists have observed that wheelchair users feel annoyed by numerous forced verbal contacts. In any case, unexpected contact with disabled people in everyday situations is a challenge for many people. In such situations, most people get into one mental conflict ... People do not dare to look openly at disabled people even though they feel the need to. They are unsure whether an interaction is desired and how to deal with disabled people. At the same time, disabled people cannot develop permanent behavioral strategies either and their psychological adaptation may be impaired as a result of constantly new and ambivalent situations. Another major result of the study is the discovery of one Contagion effectwhich consists in the fact that passers-by apparently only dare to speak to the wheelchair user if someone has already done so in front of them.


Kaiser, Mirjam, Scholz, Anouk, von Groote, Per M. & Reinhardt, Jan D. (2010). Paschal aplegic? Help and evasive behavior towards wheelchair users in public places: an empirical observational study in the city of Lucerne. Psychology & Social Criticism, 34.

Overview: what is non-verbal communication?