What to Do When Someone Invades Your Personal Space
Have you ever felt uncomfortable because someone stood too close to you? Violation of personal space has always been an issue, but it has ramped up in recent months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Individual vary wildly in their response to other human beings. Some feel a heightened need for distance and others are desperate, after months of isolation, to close the gap.
Whether you are returning to the office or the grocery store or a conference or a family reunion, and whether you’re reading this now during the pandemic or years from now when it is (hopefully!!) a distant memory, you are in charge of your own boundaries and your own behavior. That means it’s up to you to determine what you’re comfortable with and enforce it. And it’s also up to you to notice others’ comfort levels and respect them. (I know. Being a responsible adult sucks. You have to do ALL the work.)
People who invade others’ space are often simply oblivious. Perhaps they’re the extroverted type who has never met a stranger. Or maybe they’re exceedingly kinesthetic and they learn and communicate primarily through touch and proxemics. Or maybe they’re three years old and haven’t gotten that far in their development yet. Whatever the cause, it’s not personal—they treat everyone the same way.
Other times, people invade space as an aggressive, territorial move. They may lean into or over others, stand too close, or take and touch things that belong to others. I remember one guy I knew years ago who would often put his arm around me—but it felt like a headlock rather than affection. Dominant, condescending, and uncomfortable.
Space and touch nonverbally communicate boundaries and territory. When you touch someone, you are saying, “We belong together” or even “You belong to me.” This creates super warm and fuzzy feelings when the person wants to feel a sense of belonging or when the feeling is mutual: “I belong to you and you belong to me.” This is why, for example, teens become less interested in affection from their parents as they gain a sense of independence, but can get exceedingly touchy-feely with their friends—they want to belong. Close proximity and touch, in a safe environment, can be an incredible bonding agent. Without safety, however, it creates bad feelings that can take ages to overcome.
Below, I have some tips for both sides of the issue: What to do when your own space is violated and how to make sure you’re not the creepy person encroaching on others.
When Your Personal Space is Invaded
If you have a large personal space bubble, you are familiar with the feeling of being invaded. (If you haven’t ever felt this way, skip this section and read the next one. Then read it again.) The feeling can range from being unpleasant to downright threatening.
If and when others get uncomfortably close, there are a few things you can do to communicate and maintain boundaries:
Don’t take it personally.
Even if the person is a bully or a creep, that’s their issue. Yes, their behavior affects you and you should do something about it, but you’ll be able to handle it much better if you don’t get emotionally hooked. And most of the time, especially during the current pandemic, we simply are all different. Boundaries—both official and personal—are constantly changing. You don’t need to be offended. And you don’t have to feel guilty for establishing and maintaining your own boundaries. Ever.
Often, if someone gets too close, simply reorienting to provide yourself more space does the trick. If they advance and re-invade, or if it’s a systemic problem with a particular person, then read on!
Let the person know verbally that they are too close. To do this effectively:
- Keep your voice pleasant, yet firm.
- Own it. State what you want and need without blame or defensiveness.
- Hold up a hand (like a stop sign) so that your verbal and nonverbal communication align.
- If helpful, give a reason, such as, “I’m trying to be careful about COVID” or “I can’t look you in the eye when you’re that close” or “I need space to think.”
- Give the benefit of a doubt and expect a positive reaction.
Be proactive nonverbally.
If you’re clear on your comfort level, you can take the lead in interactions accordingly. For example, if you’re more comfortable with a handshake than a hug, greet people with an outstretched hand. If you’d rather not touch at all, you can greet others with a welcoming smile, hold your hands up, and say, “I’m taking a break from handshakes and hugs until we get through the pandemic.”
You can also create space and barriers through nonverbal communication and physical items. In general, when you’re in a safe environment and trying to build relationships or establish rapport, I don’t recommend this. In fact, I usually advise doing the exact opposite. But if you are uncomfortable, feeling unsafe, or dealing with a habitual space invader, the following behaviors send “Back off!” signals. Use sparingly and only when necessary; avoid these behaviors to communicate a warm and open presence.
- Stand behind a table, desk, or chair.
- Cross your arms or put hands on hips.
- If seated, cross the leg that’s closest to the other person.
- Use minimal eye contact and find a visual aid to look at.
Keep your voice and your facial expressions friendly to send the message that the other person is welcome… at a distance. However, it is always okay to protect yourself and enforce your personal boundaries.
Consider expanding your comfort zone.
You have the right to your own personal space and you have the right to defend it. That said, if you ever feel like perhaps your personal space bubble is a little too small, you’re allowed to change it! Boundaries change all the time. Create your own safety and claim your own space. The more comfortable you feel in your own skin the easier it is to say “no” when you need to AND allow others to get close.
Avoid Being a Space Invader
So much has changed in the last year and a half due to COVID that navigating relationships sometimes feels like walking through a minefield. Friends and colleagues who used to be huggers may now wish to stay six feet apart. Even without the complexity of the pandemic, you never know what others are comfortable with. For example, I am very affectionate with my close friends and family, but there are times when I just need some space. (You too?)
If you are someone who generally is fine with close proximity and touching, it can be hard to grasp that others feel differently. Or, if you’ve been isolated for a long time and are yearning for some human contact, you may feel more eager for closeness than others. You will build rapport and improve relationships with new acquaintances and your favorite longtime coworkers alike by demonstrating sensitivity to their space needs. Here are some suggestions:
Err on the side of giving space.
Until you know what people are comfortable with, give more rather than less space. Normally, four feet of distance is considered “safe” for professional relationships, but during COVID, more is better. Let others make the first move, if you’re fine with getting closer.
Don’t assume you know what people are comfortable with, especially if you’re meeting them for the first time—the first time ever, the first time after a long break, or perhaps just the first time that day. Gauge their needs and remember not everyone is like you.
Sometimes you can tell without discussion, but don’t be afraid to ask, “Are you comfortable with a handshake?” or “Is it okay if I sit next to you?” This extends to their personal items as well. Even if someone holds their phone out to me, for instance, I always ask, “Is it okay for me to touch your phone?” before I do so.
Asking only works, of course, if you make it clear that “No” is a perfectly acceptable answer.
Watch for cues.
All those “Back off!” body language signals that I listed above? If you see them… back off! Other signs people want to get away from you include leaning back, turning the torso away, pointing feet away (especially toward the door), nervous movements, tension, putting hands behind the back, or touching the neck. If you get the sense that your presence is disturbing someone, give them some space.
Practice common courtesy.
Unless you have permission to do so, don’t touch people or their stuff, don’t read over their shoulders, don’t cut them off or tailgate (this doesn’t just apply to the highway—I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had the back of my heel stepped on by a small child and it makes me crazy), and don’t gesture in people’s faces. Demonstrate respect for people by respecting their personal space.
In these times of flux and ambiguity, it is more important than ever to be crystal clear with your own communication—both when establishing your own limits and when assessing others’. When a relationship is ready for it, closeness and touch are beautiful, wonderful things. Overstepping boundaries, however, causes friction, hurts feelings, and erodes trust. Be clear, direct, and respectful, and you’ll create stronger, healthier relationships.