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.


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.


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 daughter, Morella.

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. Carol on said:

    I had a cashier stop what she was doing to grab my arm, pull up my sleeve, and look at my tattoos. I pulled my arm back and said “Excuse me” with a questioning tone. She acted like I was the a-hole and replied, “Sorry, I was just lookin’.” Really? You hit the nail on the head with the tats. They have resulted in the most space invasion and uninvited touching by strangers ever.

  2. Ha! If she had been “just lookin'” then she wouldn’t be touching. I think the most disturbing part is that people just grab before they even realize what they’re doing.

  3. Julie on said:

    Close talkers drive me nuts. I have a coworker who does that. And she stage whispers the whole time, even if what she’s talking about is in no way private. I feel like yelling at her, “STOP IT! You’re not telling me a secret!”

    About tattoos: I have some and I love them. I don’t ever initiate physical contact to look at other people’s, but I do like to look at exposed art and comment favorably and with interest, in what I consider to be a polite, respectful manner. What bothers me, is that I generally get a very snobbish sort of dismissal attitude even when my comments are, as I said, positive and well considered. I also don’t ask dumb questions like “did that hurt” or about the meaning. I don’t pry. But people…if you don’t want anyone to nicely notice your beautiful, costly skin art, why did you get it and why do you expose it publicly? Jeez. A simple “thanks” and a smile wouldn’t cause you to drop over dead.

  4. Yeah, I don’t get the whispery thing that seems to be a partner to the close-talking. I mean if it’s really a secret, then maybe you wouldn’t be inclined to share about it in the middle of the workplace? Crazy.

    Your outlook on how to react to tattoo enthusiasts is correct. A simple smile and a “thanks” will suffice…even if someone does ask the dreaded “did it herrrrrt?” question (or even better, the “does it hurt?” question). It’s the TOUCHING that crosses the line from interest to invasiveness. In the moment of gawking, they forget how creeped out and offended they would be if a stranger grabbed their arms in the frozen veggies aisle, and perpetrate that very crime. If you love tattoos, be respectful and admire from an appropriate distance. If you hate tattoos, don’t pay them homage by commenting on them.

  5. JMG on said:

    My husband has a full head of bright read hair. When we are out, older women feel the need to just walk up and touch it. I didn’t believe him at first, but over the years have witnesses several occasions where women will just walk up behind him and run their fingers through his hair. They usually compliment him on the beautiful color, but AFTER they have already touched him. It is weird.

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