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Don't Stand So Close to Me: Personal Space in Business

Mary Louise Vannatta -- Respecting and maintaining personal space and appropriate distance are vital in the workplace. To avoid misinterpretations and uncomfortable situations when interacting with colleagues, here are guidelines to help you determine how close is too close.

In his comedy series "Seinfeld," Jerry Seinfeld satirized "close talkers." Those are the people who, when interacting with others, stand inside American society's standard comfort bubble. [In 2015] both Vice President Joe Biden (with his hands on the shoulders and his nose in the hair of Stephanie Carter, wife of the U.S. Secretary of Defense) and John Travolta (the infamous Idina Menzel "face grab" at the Oscars) were both called out for uncomfortable-appearing social touching. So what's the guideline here?

Now, there are many environmental, cultural and social factors that determine how close two people should be and what level of touching is publicly acceptable without everyone feeling uncomfortable. Of course, gender, age, relationship (family, romantic, professional) all make a difference. For our purposes in business, in Oregon, let's explore what personal space looks like to us.

Your background makes a difference. If you came from a large family, a crowded environment like a big city or culture where bumping into people was a part of getting from here to there, you may be more tolerant of being nudged in a crowd. Hugging, sitting close, whispering, etc. might be part of your style. If you are more accustomed to rural life or a structured social environment and enjoy more personal space, you may find confining social situations uncomfortable. Sometimes people who have been a victim of crime or abuse may be especially wary of someone entering his or her safety zone. If a person has a vision or hearing impairment, standing closer might also make communication easier.

If you're confused about what this really means, science has part of the answer. According to personal space research, there is a "level of personal space" that is generally acceptable in the U.S. That is:

-- Zero to 20" for intimate couples
-- 1-1/2' to 3' for friends and family
-- 3' to 10' for casual acquaintances/coworkers
-- More than 4' for strangers
-- More than 12' for speaking to a large group.

Without standing around with a ruler like a principal at the high school dance, take some time to watch interactions with people at work and observe what seems comfortable as far as distance and touching.

--A thought on acceptable touching in business: Oh, if HR professionals told all their stories. This is an area to remain cautious. Without seeming cold and unfriendly, it is best to stick with a handshake, to avoid any misinterpretations from colleagues.

If you are like me and (not a real natural hugger and someone who likes plenty of personal space in meetings to spread out my iPad, cellphone and files) you need to communicate this to others so they understand and feel accepted. You can do this by being the first to set the tone of the interaction by offering a strong handshake in lieu of a hug or choosing a more "out of the way" seat at a meeting. Sometimes you can simply tell people you like a little more space.

If you are unsure if you might be invading someone's personal space, watch for these clues: the person is backing up or leaning away (or you might have bad breath), they dodge a hug or place his or her hand, notebook in the space between you.

So before your friends start calling you a close talker or an unwelcome hugger behind your back, keep an eye on your social behavior.

Source: Ezinearticles.

Mary Louise VanNatta is a Certified Association Executive (CAE) with the American Society of Association Executives and has spent over 25 years in the field of Association Management and Public Relations. She specializes in copywriting and event planning and has been recognized statewide for her writing and promotional skills. Mary Louise graduated from Willamette University with honors and a triple major in Political Science, International Relations (Latin American Studies) and Spanish. She has been honored as Rotarian of the Year, one of the OSU Austin Family Businesses of the Year, nominee for the Athena Awards and currently writes the weekly society column in the Statesman Journal Newspaper in Salem, OR. She can be reached at

© 2016 Mary Louise VanNatta

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