The Four Zones of Interpersonal Space

Social Distance is the new business buzz phrase, so I thought it was a good time to reprint this post from 2012. Right now, leaning in is not recommended, and there are experts who predict this virus will end the ancient practice of handshakes forever. What do you think?

Double Exposure Image Of Many Business People Conference Group M

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 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.


1 thought on “The Four Zones of Interpersonal Space

  1. […] written about social distancing in the past, way before it was a life or death matter. Humans have always had to rely on subtle […]


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