Personal Space: How Close Is Too Close?

Even before coronavirus, we all needed a little bit of space. Here’s why.

overhead view of a man within a circle of cordon postsMartin Barraud/Getty Images

Once upon a time (about two months ago), people greeted each other with handshakes and hugs. Now we keep our distance from friends and strangers alike, and the term “social distancing” has become as ubiquitous as “Alexa, turn on the TV.” This new normal has turned the concept of personal space on its head, and we can now even ignore a few traditional etiquette rules because of coronavirus. That said, even before all this, we were always a bit wary when some people got a little too close. Here’s why personal space has always been a big deal—and how this crisis may change how we look at it forever.

Your invisible second skin

Peripersonal space is defined as the region of space that surrounds our bodies, specifically our hands, heads, and trunk. In a way, it’s a personal radar that helps to keep us safe. When someone invades our personal space, we instinctively react by backing up a couple of steps or by averting our heads slightly to the side. You may have done this without even realizing it with close talkers—those people who love to talk nose-to-nose at parties or in conference rooms. Even pre-COVID-19, close talkers were enough to give us the heebie-jeebies. That’s because an invasion of personal space pushes our alarm bells, signaling to us that we may be in dangerous territory.

According to therapist and author Venus Nicolino, PhD, peripersonal space is not just an intriguing idea but a real phenomenon that affects the way we interact with the world. “Personal space is built into the fabric of our DNA, and the brain computes this space as a kind of buffer zone,” she explains. “It’s an invisible second skin where the zoning is flexible, according to individual and social circumstances. It’s how we operate saws, jackhammers, blenders, and other potentially dangerous, everyday objects. It’s why we stay clear of someone we perceive as creepy and how we know not to walk into things. So it’s not just important but vital [in order] for humans to be able to coexist with our environment—and each other.”

Personal space and cultural norms

The buffer zone you establish between yourself and the rest of the world determines who you let in and who you keep out. It can be used to solidify relationships or repel them. And this isn’t just determined by individual preference—it also varies by culture and circumstances. In Iran, the three-kiss greeting commonly given among men is used to show respect and create camaraderie. It is also one of the reasons cited for the early, unchecked COVID-19 outbreak among senior officials there.

In many countries—like Italy, France, and Spain—kissing, hugging, high-fiving, and shaking hands have traditionally been used to bring people closer, define relationships, and generate warmth among friends and new acquaintances alike. In one part of the world, it’s actually common to be greeted with eight kisses! Of course, those norms no longer exist and may not again, at least for a long time.

In other countries, more reserved, reticent behaviors are more common. Unfortunately, even those social-distancing boundaries did little to reduce COVID-19’s spread. In the United Kingdom, people are now struggling to balance their natural sense of reserve with the need to politely define personal-space boundaries by telling people to distance themselves.

Close…but not too close

According to therapist and attorney Bill Eddy, personal space, even within one geographic area or culture, has multiple variables. Eddy specializes in conflict resolution, so he knows a lot about the psychological and physical invasion of safe spaces. “Before the virus hit, acceptable amounts of personal space in the U.S. varied widely from person to person, based on personality, upbringing, cultural background, and age,” he explains. “There are also different types of personal space. These include physical space, time space (I just need to be alone for a while to deal with my email), emotional space (I need to calm down after what just happened), and activity space (I’ll sit close with you on the couch while watching a show, but when I’m reading, you need to sit farther away).”

In general, Americans are comfortable with close…but not too close. Before coronavirus, our boundaries were flexible and would change according to need. For example, if your boss got too close and you could feel his breath on your neck, that was too close (and also icky). Your personal-space alarm bells would go off, warning you that someone you were not intimately connected to was making you uncomfortable. If your spouse needed a hug, even if they were running a fever or coughing, that used to be OK. Now, unfortunately, that scenario is bound to ring some personal-space alarm bells, too.

How coronavirus has changed everything

Right now, the personal-space boundaries that used to be determined by our own comfort levels are being determined by public-health organizations and government officials. According to the University of Chicago and other official bodies, social distancing is a public-health intervention used to protect us and safeguard us against illness. It is an imperative required for the well-being of ourselves, our families, our neighborhoods, our nation, and our planet. It is also a temporary fail-safe, which someday may no longer be needed.

Currently, the CDC recommends that people not living under the same roof stay six feet apart from one another at all times. This restraint should also be used in the home if someone is ill, has been exposed to anyone with COVID-19, or has been traveling.

For some, six feet seems like an impossible divide, as their second skin isn’t thick and they crave closeness, explains Nicolino. For others, that amount of regular distance is OK. “Currently, there is a redefining of personal space, and it’s something humans are not used to, especially in large cities where it’s difficult to maintain just two feet of personal space,” she says. “Will we ever just all pile into an empty elevator again with no thought? Only time will tell.” Here are more everyday habits that could (and should) change after coronavirus.

What does the future hold?

Nicolino notes that before COVID-19, everyone had their own level of comfort. “The late President Kennedy is said to have had a 30-foot rule, whereas President Trump is comfortable shaking hands and putting his arm around people. Everyone’s invisible second skin is different,” she says. “Before the virus, what was acceptable was everyone’s own level of comfort, and if you have a high EQ (emotional intelligence), you were instinctually aware of others’ level of comfort. With COVID-19, that all changes.”

It’s hard to say what the future holds. Currently, people are torn between their desire to connect with others and the need to keep them away and stay safe. They will now cross the street if others are approaching, and sadly, they may avoid eye contact and smiling as well.

However, the desire for normalcy is strong. It may take a very long time for us to feel normal again. That may not occur until the virus is a distant memory, one that is shrouded in the remembrance of how many we lost, how sick we felt, and our quest for a vaccine. Once we feel in control of our own destinies and bodies again, we may be able to greet each other with a handshake, hug, or greeting of warmth. Until that time, listen to those alarm bells. Go for walks but stay six feet away from others. Maintain your humanity and sense of community by waving or smiling. That is what will help provide the hope we all crave right now. Next, check out these uplifting stories of neighbors helping during coronavirus that will inspire you to do the same.

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Corey Whelan
Corey Whelan is a freelance writer and reproductive health professional who has worked with infertility patients and adopting parents for over 25 years. Her work has been featured in multiple media outlets, including Reader’s Digest, The Healthy, Healthline, CBS Local, and Berxi. Follow her on Twitter @coreygale.