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Why We All Need Our Personal Space (And How We Define It)

May 29, 2018


President Trump has a signature handshake. It hit the world stage at the United Nations meeting last year when he grabbed Emmanuel Macron’s hand and appeared to aggressively pull the French president closer. Ever since, he’s shown a consistent tendency to loom into other people’s personal space, or pull them toward him.


Everyone has a personal space, an instinctive protective zone. We’re always jostling to maintain our own space and to navigate around others’, and the honeycomb of abutting spaces forms the scaffold of our social world. Violating it as a means of social communication, a means of bullying, is common behavior. But we usually don’t do it in a calculated way. The rules of personal space run deep under the surface of consciousness. We act and react in an elaborate, animal dance, and only extreme examples—like the Trump handshake—catch our conscious attention.


The instinctive dance of personal space was first studied scientifically by a zoo curator, Heini Hediger, who directed the Zürich Zoo in the 1950s. Zoo animals tend to be comfortable only if their cages are properly shaped and sized to form a protective territory. But when studying animals in the wild, Hediger noticed a second kind of territory, a smaller, portable bubble of space attached to the body. He called it an escape distance, or a flight zone.

When a wildebeest sees a potentially dangerous animal—a lion, or perhaps Hediger with a tape measure walking around the veldt—it doesn’t simply run. The animal seems to make a geometric assessment. It remains calm until the threat enters an invisible protected zone, and then the wildebeest moves away and reinstates the flight zone. That escape distance is apparently consistent enough to measure it to the meter. I can imagine Hediger walking up to the same poor zebra over and over, interrupting its afternoon grazing, trying to get a reliable mark.

In general, the larger the animal, the larger the flight zone. According to Hediger, a wall lizard can be approached to within a few meters before it suddenly bolts. A crocodile has more like a 50-meter flight zone. Domesticated animals have small flight zones, often no more than a meter.

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