Join Carol Kinsey Goman for an in-depth discussion in this video Understanding the use of space, part of Body Language for Leaders.
- One night when I was traveling on business, I had dinner at a restaurant where I could watch two men at a nearby table. I was close enough to overhear their conversation, so I knew that one man was in sales, and the other was a potential buyer. By the time they'd finished their drinks I also knew the deal was dead, and it wasn't anything that was said. In the middle of a normal getting to know you conversation, I watched the salesman move so close to his prospect that the potential buyer began very slowly to inch away.
This went on for some time, but finally the buyer couldn't stand it any longer, he excused himself and left the restaurant. One of the easiest mistakes to make during a business encounter is to misjudge how much space the other person needs. Edward Hall, is the anthropologist who noted that there are four distances we use when interacting with one another. To me, it's as if we're standing inside an invisible bubble that expands or contracts depending on the circumstances.
Intimate distance, from zero to 18 inches, is reserved for those with whom we have an emotional bond or close relationship. Personal distance, 18 inches to four feet, is used for informal interactions among friends and business partners. It's the distance we use at social events, or during coffee breaks when chatting with one another. With social distance, four to 12 feet, we're less likely to talk about personal matters, and more likely to discuss business, especially when dealing with coworkers or clients we don't know well.
Any distance over 12 feet is referred to as the public zone, and it's primarily used to address large groups. The amount of space required to feel comfortable varies. People who don't like being touched will tend to keep their distance. People who frequently touch others while talking, will want to get close enough to do so. Gender plays an important role too. Men who just met tend to keep a greater distance between them, than women who've just met, and trust is another factor.
As relationships develop and trust is formed, both parties almost always move closer to one another. Of course, the proper distance between people varies with culture. Hall's research was done in the United States, and one of the easiest cultural differences to observe is the degree of physical space allowed or expected in business dealings around the world. People who feel powerful and confident usually control larger areas of physical space, by extending their arms and legs away from their body.
In doing so, they may accidentally infringe on other people's territory, but I've also seen managers standing uncomfortably close to a team member in order to intimidate or to emphasize their authority, which is not a good idea. People's territorial responses are primitive and powerful, when you come too close for comfort, as that salesman at the restaurant did, people can become stressed and agitated. They may respond by looking away, stepping behind a barrier like a desk or a chair, crossing their arms, pulling back to create space, or even tucking in their chin as an instinctive move of protection.
Respect your coworker's space boundaries, look for the signs of discomfort that will tell you you're getting too close too soon, and notice the positive message that's sent when someone makes the first move to shorten the distance between you.