The Four Zones of Interpersonal Space

photo of a green lizard
photo courtesy Animals Wallpaper

Tony Alessandra, PH.D, is the author of Charisma: Seven Keys to Developing the Magnetism that Leads to Success. His book discusses ways to increase your personal magnetism, or charisma. His theory is that there are several components of charisma, all of which we possess to one degree or another. We can also improve our command of all the components.

One of his chapters is dedicated to the use of space and time. He describes the four zones of interpersonal space and how to use them effectively.

  • The intimate zone is within touching distance, from actually touching to about two feet. This is the space reserved for people who genuinely care about each other. Lovers hold hands and parents carry their children or put their arms around them protectively. It’s rare to see this space penetrated in business settings. But when it managed effectively, it can send a powerful message. Women use this space more than men; they tend to reach out and touch people more often.
  • The personal zone is from two to four feet. It’s used for discussions that are private and not meant to be overheard. In a busy networking meeting or at a party, people will avoid breaking this barrier if you are engaged with someone else at this distance. If you’ve ever been trapped by a bore and waited in vain to be rescued, try moving another foot away. It will open up your space for someone to enter.
  • The social zone is four to twelve feet apart. This is the space used for public and casual social conversations. It allows others to enter into the group. It can be fascinating to watch people conversing in a group; they resemble fish in a school as they move in and out to make a comfortable space for new entries.
  • The public zone is more than twelve feet. Public speakers and important figures use space to distance themselves from their audience (and establish authority, since demanding more space is a power signal.)

It’s well documented that Americans need more personal space than other nationalities; we feel crowded easily. The part of the brain that controls how we react is the Amygdala, sometimes referred to as the “reptile brain” or the “lizard brain.” My experience with the Amygdala tells me that you can’t reason with it. There’s no way to explain how close is too close to stand to someone. You just know when the line is crossed. And the line may be different for different people you encounter. The lizard brain reacts way before your mind processes whether you like someone or not. How many times have you heard someone say, “I can’t tell you why, but (that person) just makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.” That’s the lizard brain in action.

Part of your reaction to personal space is cultural as well. Countries that are more crowded (China and India, for example) tend to expect and require less personal space. Space is also a way to indicate your importance. More affluent people tend to require more space, and celebrities, VIPs and royalty hire people to make sure that people can’t invade their space. That’s why the concept of working the crowd is such a powerful tool for building fans in politics and sports. When a superstar lets you get close enough to shake hands or get an autograph, your lizard brain reacts in a very powerful way.

What does that mean for you in business? Charismatic people understand how to use space to send powerful messages. They know that coming to someone’s cubicle for a chat sends a very different message than summoning you to their office. When you meet with someone for an interview or a discussion, you can take away very different messages about their willingness to help you by how they position themselves to you. Even if you’re separated by a desk, watch how much they lean in or lean back when speaking to you. Watch closely if they suddenly change their distance from you one way or another. Leaning in is a sign that they are more interested; leaning away means that you’re losing them. Your lizard brain should take that as a sign it’s time to end the meeting or change the subject. People who are better at interpreting those signals have more success.

7 thoughts on “The Four Zones of Interpersonal Space

  1. Based on the definition below, don’t pheromones have an even greater (charismatic) effect on those we meet, which we have no control over?

    (Pheromones are chemicals capable of acting outside the body of the secreting individual to impact the behavior of the receiving individual.)

    The statement “makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up” appears an obvious example of pheremones at work. Implying some pheremones are positive socially; others socially negative.

    Also, living in a more cross-cultural society today, how is one to keep up with the best ways to interact, with all the different cultures? Especially when engaged with two or more cultures, at the same time, different from your own? Age within cultures have their effects too!

    This is a truly fascinating topic. Does the book go deeper into these kinds of situations? I understand publishing requirements limit the scope of all books. Maybe there is a website link connected with the book or related sources cited?

    Thank you.


    1. otja

      what is an example of a violated public zone


      1. People violate the public zone when they attempt to close the space between them and the speaker / performer. It’s harder to violate the public zone because powerful people hire security to keep others at a safe distance.


  2. […] one, he gives advice on how to move into a group to start conversations with new people. I’ve written before about zones of interpersonal space, one of which is The Social Zone. I described it this […]


  3. Thanks for the information your blog brings. I see the novelty of your writing, I will share it for everyone to read together. I look forward to reading many blogs from you.


  4. I have read a phobia called “Haptephobia” means to have the urge to greatly protect their personal space as well. Sometimes, this phobia is restricted to specifically being touched by the opposite sex.


  5. […] speaking moves you from the social and public zones into the personal zone. Being so close to your audience is worth reflecting on and how you play it to your […]


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