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Too Close For Comfort

After living all my life in small “vowel states”, I’ve landed in the really big consonant state of Texas. But in Texas, just like in Oregon and Iowa and Indiana, people are fragmented in all the same ways: politics, fashion, socioeconomic status, dietary habits, prejudices, religion. Sometimes we span the space; sometimes connecting is more like being in a log-rolling competition.

In order to cross those great divides, we often try to make some kind of physical connection: a smile, a reassuring pat, eye contact… Before we can connect, we have to find a personal comfort zone that includes not just inner peace but also a way to be physically at ease in our environment. Sociologists call the physical aspect social distance. Social distance is typically divided into 4 comfort zones.

When you live in an RV, the topic of emotional and physical space comes up a lot more often than fashion or socioeconomics so I thought I’d take a look at our comfort zones. I’ve being thinking about the people I know and how different we are when it comes to social distance.

The guidelines for social distance were established over 40 years ago (Hall, 1966) but are still the standard today. Although social distances are approximate and vary individually, here’s a quick recap of the 4 most commonly recognized zones (for Americans, since body language in general is very culturally specific):

1. The public zone is 12 feet or more. Here’s the thinking: when out in public, we instinctively try to keep at least 12 feet between us those we don’t know. That’s why some people go grocery shopping at midnight!
Once someone gets closer than 12 feet, we start to notice them. As the unknown person gets nearer, our minds subconsciously prepare for fight or flight. Although the need is rarely there, the body intuitively prepares to protect itself or flee.

2. The social zone is approximately 4-12 feet. Within this distance we start to feel a connection with other people. We can talk without shouting. This is an average group distance. We may be gathered in the same area but not necessarily talking directly with one another. Typical examples would be parties or social gatherings.

3. The personal zone is usually 1.5-4 feet. It’s considered normal conversational distance. This would encompass everyday, non-threatening conversations with friends, family, co-workers etc…

4. The intimate zone is 1.5 feet or closer. When a someone is within arms reach, not only can we touch them, we can also see the details of their body language and look them in they eye. Another interesting aspect is that when they’re closer, they also blot out other people so all we can see is them (and vice versa). If you really like the person, this is a great space; if not, it can feel pretty threatening.

Rules about social distance also vary with different groups of people,for example, city folks and country folks. People who live in towns spend more time close to one another and so their social distances may compact. In a large, crowded city, the social distance comfort zones are even closer.

People who normally live a long way from others will expand their social distances. the classic example is a farmer who leans over towards another person to shake hands and then back off to a safe distance.

It gets convoluted because, like much of science, the social distance theory is just that, theory, not fact. While the average intimate zone is 1.5 feet, for some it’s nearer 5.1!

Enter another person’s personal zone or intimate zone uninvited and you will likely be perceived as an emotional, if not physical, threat; activating their fight or flight response. You’re messing with their amygdalae (a pair of almond-shaped brain regions deep within each temporal lobe that control fear and the processing of emotion).

Think of the times you’ve been engaged in a really meaningful conversation. Your companion seems to be on the verge of sharing something real: hurt, guilt, failure, joy. Then you never find out because suddenly the subject is changed and the moment for revelation has passed. Many friendships stall out when one person’s personal zone is so vast that it can never be entered, keeping others forever at an emotional arm’s length.

While the average personal/conversational zone is 1.5 to 4 feet, some people break out in a sweat if you get closer than 6 feet. If you notice them leaning or stepping back, stop moving in! The same principal holds true on the emotional level.

I grew up in a physically and emotionally demonstrative family. My spatial comfort zone is pretty much up-close and personal. I can easily be a space invader. I have no problem ‘weeping with those who weep’, or even with those who don’t.

I went with a friend to the vet to offer support when she had to put her dog down. Although this was the first time I’d seen the dog, watching her hold him while he ‘went to sleep’ was something I found to be heart wrenching. I was so empathetic that I was the only one crying. The vet asked me to leave and wait at the fast food place next door.

How many times have you heard (or said) “I’m not a hugger”?
I was born a hugger. I gave happy hugs and sad hugs, empathetic hugs and ‘I’m just glad to see you’ hugs. If there was a lack of reciprocity: limp arms, or a stiffening of the body, I would hug harder, thinking this person must really be in need. It took me a long time to learn to honor other people’s boundaries.

As a gate guard, I’m paid to enforce boundaries. I don’t just keep track of strangers, I have to know the whereabouts of all of our guys all the time. The men who live here on site have about as much personal space as a they’d have in a military barracks.

Although the 2 “Company Men” have a fairly nice trailer to themselves, 9 of the guys share one 60′ trailer, 4 live in a toy-hauler, 4 live in the 14 footer, 2 live in a windowless 12 footer. Many of these guys are in their 20’s, quite a few are in their 30’s and 40’s. There are even a few old codgers like me.

I’ve made some observations as the temperature rises in southern Texas. The guys put in a lot of truck time. Initially,whenever a guy walked out and sat in his truck, I’d pick up my log and pen, ready to record his times and destination. Now I know to wait.

Some guys eat in their trucks, some make phone calls, some listen to the radio, some just sit. For the derrick-men, the roughnecks, the tool-pushers and the drillers, their trucks are the only personal space they have.

In the past, social scientists have attributed variances in comfort zones to peer reinforcement and occupation (environment) or parenting (heredity). Now we know it’s also a brain thing. According to a recent article in Time: Health and Science we can trace many of our comfort zone differences to our amygdalae.

A team of scientists from Cal Tech have been studying a 42-year-old woman (pseudonym SM) who has severe damage to her amygdalae due to a rare genetic condition.The study reports the results of experiments judging her conception of personal space.

They put SM through a series of tests in which they asked her to indicate the position at which she became uncomfortable as another woman, a researcher, approached her. SM’s preferred personal distance was 1.1 ft., about 4 times closer than the established standards.

In another trial, SM was asked to walk toward an experimenter and stop at the point at which she felt the distance was comfortable. SM walked until her nose was virtually touching the experimenter’s, all the while saying she felt perfectly at ease.

Researchers think people who suffer from extreme shyness may also have a problem in their temporal lobes. Even the tiniest lesion can affect a person’s ability to rightly read a friendly gesture or perceive a menacing one.

There’s no known way of repairing amygdalae. There isn’t a pill to increase one’s awareness of socially appropriate distance or a formula to create a state of un-shyness. But it is possible to understand that when you need to breathe, you may need to give your lobes some air. Find your comfort zone, honor your own boundaries, and consider bringing some light into the dark places by selective sharing with someone who’s truly earned your trust.

Everyone’s physical and emotional comfort radius is different. Some folks need a football field. Some would sit on your lap. For others, a Ford F250 cab is just about right.

“Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune or misfortune at their own private pace, like a clock during a thunderstorm.” ~Robert Louis Stevenson

6 thoughts on “Too Close For Comfort

  1. I confess, I am a hugger too. It is said a person needs 12 a day, Rarely do I get 12. Does that make me needy? Why don’t you roll on over and give me a hug. I do believe, however, that I am a good gauge on others personal space and know when to hold off. I cant stand some sort of meaningless obligatory hugs. Hug me like you mean it not because you think you should.

  2. I have found this personal space issue confusing. We are huggers!! It still suprises me when people don’t hug. Being in this park among so many different people, it’s hard to judge. During this stressful time, I’m grateful for all who give me big hugs! I do realize some are not huggers and I try to honor their space and understand the differences.
    Wish you were here for hugs!!

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