People Watching

Different countries have different rules for personal space, that is, when people touch, how close they stand when they are speaking to one another, how close they sit, how they behave on elevators, etc. The rules for personal space sometimes differ according to how well people know each other. They arc usually not consciously aware of these rules, but they may become very uncomfortable if the rules arc broken and their space is entered without permission. You can discover the rules by observing people interacting and also by testing or breaking the rules to see how other people respond.

Conduct two experiments about personal space. Follow these steps.

1. Read the rules for personal space below.

2. Make your own observations of people. Write your observations in a journal. It may be helpful to work in pairs: One person tests the rules while the other observes and records what happens.

3. Experiment with the rules. Write the responses you receive.

4. If you are not in the United States and if you do not have an opportunity to observe Americans, you may still learn from these experiments by watching people in your own country or by observing Americans in movies or TV shows.

image013First Rule: When they are in a crowd, Americans have a bubble of space around their bodies which is about an inch thick. This bubble of space must not be broken by a stranger. If American strangers touch each other accidentally, they mutter an apology such as “Pardon me,” “Excuse me,” “Oh, I’m sorry,” or just “Sorry.”

Observation: Watch people in a crowd, standing in line, waiting in a group, or passing on a street or in a hallway. Who is touching whom? What does their relationship appear to be? What happens when people touch accidentally? How does the person touched respond? What docs the one who has broken the other’s bubble do? Record gestures, facial expressions, emotional responses, and words exchanged. Experiment: See how close you can stand to someone in a crowd without touching him or her. Try breaking someone’s bubble of space with a very light touch of your elbow or arm. What is the person’s response? (Warning. This may provoke an angry response!)

Second Rule: When standing in elevators, Americans usually face the door, speak quietly, and try to avoid touching one another. If a stranger enters an elevator where there is only one other person, he or she will stand on the opposite side of the elevator. As more people get on the elevator, they occupy the corners first and then try to disperse themselves evenly throughout the available space.

Observation: Observe people in elevators. Which direction are they facing? If you are alone in an elevator and someone comes in, where does that person stand? As more people enter the elevator, where do they stand? Do the people talk to one another? How loudly do they speak? Do strangers touch? What happens in a crowded elevator when someone in the back has to get off?

Experiment: Get on an elevator where there is only one person and stand next to that individual. What is the person’s reaction? In an elevator where there are a number of people, turn and face the group with your back to the door. How do the people react? Have a conversation with someone in a crowded elevator and don’t lower your voice. How do you think people feel about this? Note their facial expressions.


People in an elevator avoid eye contact.

Use the Internet

Harris Polls are usually scientific polls, but they also conduct informal weekly polls online. These informal weekly polls only reflect the views of the people who happen to visit their website and answer the poll questions. You can participate in their weekly poll.

Visit the Harris Polls website at www. harrisinteractive. com and click on the Weekly Poll link. Then answer the question and see how others voted.

Updated: 18th July 2015 — 3:16 pm