As a college student living in community housing, I share one dorm room with two girls. When I sent a picture of my room to a friend, his response was, “Wow! When your roommates chew gum, can you taste it?!” demonstrating how small he thought the area was for three girls to live in. Life as a college student means learning to live in limited space.
One aspect of communication and people watching that has especially interested me has been that of “proxemics”–which is a fancy word for use of space. One easily-visible aspect of proxemics is personal space bubbles. Everyone has a space bubble, although the size of this space bubble changes based on a variety of factors.
The word “bubble” indicates an invisible, round bubble evenly surrounding the person. However, this is overly simplistic. If you look around or think back on your personal experience, I’m sure you’ll find that you allow people to get closer to you when they are behind you or on your sides, as opposed to in front of you. You probably don’t mind sitting down two feet apart from someone to your side. However, it would be pretty awkward to stand face-to-face at the same distance.
If you must come closer-than-comfortable to others face-to-face, one way we distance ourselves is through controlling eye contact. When you are making eye contact with another person, the person feels incredibly closer. Therefore, if you want to distance yourself in an uncomfortably-close situation, you are likely to avoid eye contact. Take crowded elevators, for example. In such a case, people are probably closer than they’d normally be to strangers, and nobody is likely to make eye contact.
Another aspect of space bubbles that fascinated me in my studies was the effect that status has on space bubbles. Those who have a socially-determined higher status seem to have the right to control the size of space bubbles. Imagine, for example, that you are speaking after class with a professor. If that professor invades your space bubble, even though you are uncomfortable and may shift slightly, you are not likely to back off, for fear of seeming rude. However, if you get into a conversation with an average child who is younger than you and the child gets too close, you are likely to take a step back, feeling that you have the right to demand your space from someone who isn’t of a perceived higher status.
The shape of space bubbles, the eye-contact aspect, and how space bubbles are affected by perceived social status are all visible when people-watching. It’s great fun to watch people with proxemics in mind, getting a glimpse of how real these invisible bubbles really are.
If you are interested in learning more (and/or hearing a more scientific approach), feel free to check out my research in greater detail in my paper The Distance Between You and Me: A Study of Proxemics in Communication.
As always, please let me know your thoughts! I love to get responses from readers and feedback lets me know I’m not just talking to myself 🙂