Have you ever been in a conversation with a “close talker”? Interacting with someone who invades your personal space can be, at minimum, irritating, and for some, can be a significant source of discomfort and anxiety. Having a person stand too far away during a conversation can also be problematic; too much distance can be distracting and may make it feel harder to make a connection. Personal space limits can vary significantly across people, so how do you make sure you’re interacting with others in a way that is engaging, but not invasive?
We all have a specific distance at which we’re naturally comfortable, whether we realize it or not. While this can vary from person to person, people who come from the same cultural background often have similar “rules” for distance. For example, in casual conversation, the typical American will maintain a distance of roughly 1.5 to 3 feet from their conversation partner. This distance will typically change based on the situation and the relationship of the people involved. For instance, professional conversation takes place at a slightly further distance, and conversations between close friends or family members will be slightly closer when speaking.
While these rules are fairly standard for Americans, those from other cultural backgrounds may have an entirely different idea of what is appropriate or comfortable. For example, those from Mediterranean, Hispanic or Middle Eastern cultures typically have a smaller personal space “bubble” than Americans. In many cultures, standing closer to someone and even making physical contact while speaking may signify a closer bond or be used to convey a sense of personal connection. For those in East Asian cultures, the personal space “bubble” is typically wider, with physical contact being somewhat rare, particularly in professional situations. While you should never make assumptions based on an individual’s cultural background, having a general awareness of the norms for their culture may help avoid offense or misunderstanding.
The golden rule for personal space in professional situations is follow your conversation partner’s lead. People are happiest to do business with those that they are the most comfortable with, so unless you are intensely anxious or uncomfortable, it is best to maintain your conversation partner’s preferred distance. Start an interaction at what you consider a comfortable distance for a professional conversation, and then pay close attention to your partner’s reaction. If they seem to lean away or take a step back, you’ve probably invaded their personal space; maintain your distance and perhaps even take a small step back. On the other hand, if your conversation partner steps forward or leans in, they probably prefer a closer interaction; resist the urge to step backwards (unless the interaction is making you intensely uncomfortable or anxious).
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