Richmond Proper: On personal space

“A comfortable conversation involves more than just words; even a compliment can be offensive if delivered an inch from your face.”

“A comfortable conversation involves more than just words; even a compliment can be offensive if delivered an inch from your face.”
– Peggy Post

It’s time to talk personal space, people. Now I believe in normal, healthy, physical contact with people you know and love. A hand on a shoulder, a gentle elbow nudge in the ribs, a hearty hug. These are ways to promote familiarity and comfort with the people we hold dear. But a simple point that might come as a surprise to some is that the rules are completely different for strangers. Be aware that when chatting with another person, there is about a two-foot buffer of space around them that you should not infringe upon. Here are some general guidelines for how to show strangers and acquaintances that you respect their space.

Touchy-feelies

For those of you who are touchy-feely talkers, remember that it is not okay to touch random people you see on the street. Ever. You can absolutely ask them the time or tell them you love their outfit without touching them. People who often become victims of the touchy-feely type are folks with tattoos and piercings, as well as pregnant women. Contrary to popular belief, tattoos are not an invitation for you to reach out with your grubby hands to pull up sleeves and pull down collars on a quest to see the full artwork. Piercings are not an invitation for you to tweak the shiny things while chortling “You’ve got something riiiight there!” or to expose your own hidden piercings and talk about their previous infections. And a pregnant belly is not an invitation for you to pat or rub said belly. However bulbous, it is still a stranger’s belly, and you don’t need to touch it. You also may not touch the pets or babies of strangers unless invited to do so.

Close-talkers

You may not realize that when talking with people, you tend to inch slowly closer to them all the while. Please reflect on how uncomfortable this makes the them. If they have space to move into, they are probably finding ways to stealthily inch away from you, so that you are locked in this sick dance for the duration of the conversation. If they’re backed into a corner, you end up three inches away from them so that it’s all they can do to avoid screaming and running. Ask yourself: “Why is it that I need to be three inches from this person’s face?” In truth, the conversation can be just as enjoyable with both of you standing in one place, a couple of feet away from each other.

Line creepers

Of course you are super eager to purchase your groceries, or to be the next to ride a rollercoaster. But this does not mean that you get things done any quicker by standing closer to the people in front of you. You are still the next in line whether you stand a respectable distance behind them, or whether you stand close enough to them that they can feel your hot breath on their necks. So back off.

Something interesting to note is that the concept of personal space differs across cultural boundaries. Here we’ve discussed general standards for our culture, but be aware that you should “do as the Romans do” when on vacation in some other part of the world.

If readers have more personal space-related tidbits to share in the comments, we would appreciate it. Let us know your worst space violation story, or a pet peeve we may have missed!

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Tess Shebaylo

Tess Shebaylo is a freelance writer, crafter, history geek, and compulsive organizer. She works at Tumblr and lives in Church Hill with her husband, Dan, and their two cats.

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