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There are four kinds of personal space, and not all of them are safe for work

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Anna Brech
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Colleagues working together in an office.

These are the specific rules of personal space in the workplace, according to an expert on the topic

A recent study found that over 70% of Brits want physical contact to be banned in the workplace. In addition, over two-thirds of us would welcome clearer guidance on what is or isn’t an appropriate greeting.

It should be obvious that, unless you have a mutually close relationship, hugs, kisses or other similar gestures are an office no-no.

But with sexual harassment affecting over half of all women in the workplace, there’s evidently still a lot of headway to be made on understanding limits.

The research from a few weeks ago was conducted by Total Jobs. The careers service has now sought advice from behavioural psychologist Jo Hemmings to provide more awareness on an issue that is closely tied to physical contact – personal space.

Hemmings is an expert in proxemics (the study of human space and our reactions within it). According to her, there are four different kinds of space we deal with in daily life:

Public distance – this is the distance used for public speaking, in lecture theatres or large meeting rooms. It keeps other people at a safe and comfortable distance, usually between 12 and 25 feet.

Social distance – this is the space between people who may be acquainted with each other, or maybe strangers, but we have no significant personal connection with them. It’s good for chatting to our colleagues and our friends and in group discussions. This is the usual amount of space associated with working colleagues. It varies between 4 and 12 ft, depending on the environment and the situation.

Personal distance – this is the space between good friends and family. It is generally expected for people we regard as psychologically ‘ours’ being within a warm and close circle of trusted people. This is usually between 1.5 feet and 4 feet.

Intimate distance – this is reserved only for the most intimate people in our lives. Our closest friends, our lovers, our partners or our children. It is associated with embracing, touching or whispering and while it can be as distant as 18 inches apart it can also be closer than 1 inch between people.

Colleagues in a workplace

Of course, it would be hard to set some of these limits in stone in a work context. Many colleagues share desks in a space that falls well within the personal distance zone, for example. 

But the breakdown of categories provides an obvious model of where the boundaries lie when it comes to personal space in the workplace.

Hemmings points out that when a work colleague violates our innate sense of appropriate space, our amygdala, in the frontal cortex of the brain, is activated.

This triggers an emotional response releasing feelings of discomfort, anger or anxiety. 

It would be nice to think that these boundaries would be common sense, but depressingly, that isn’t always the case. As we continue a much-needed conversation around sexual harassment with movements like Time’s Up, it’s important to think about the broader implications of the issue.

Often, it’s not just the obvious physical violations that make us feel uncomfortable, but also a more subtle realm of behaviours that need to be called out for what they are.

Are you suffering from workplace harassment? Find out more about what action you can take at gov.uk

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for stylist.co.uk. Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.