Respecting personal space is a good etiquette rule to utilize in all interactions, particularly first-time encounters.
Personal space is the area around an individual that they psychologically feel is their space, if this space is invaded by another they can feel uncomfortable, encroached upon, nervous and even violated. This space differs from person to person as well as depending on one’s culture. An individual’s personal space can also change depending on the circumstances of the interaction, they may feel less of a need for larger personal space amongst people they know versus being in a room full of strangers.
It is a good idea to imagine a bubble of personal space surrounding a person and respectfully stay outside of it. Typically personal space is no less than 18 inches (46cm). An arm’s length is an easy way to assess personal space.
Personal space is important for people who rely on guide, assistance, and emotional therapy dogs. In these cases the personal space expands to include the dog, which means that the arm’s length rule is applied to both the human and the dog. All guide, assistance, and emotional therapy dogs are working dogs and as such should not be distracted by people trying to get their attention, talking to them, approaching them or petting them. These dogs have a job to do and should not be disturbed. Most dogs are well trained but like every other worker they can have off days and your distraction can severely impact their ability to assist their person. If you can’t resist then ask permission first, respect the personal space and stay outside of the arm’s length while asking and if you receive permission then approach the animal. If you do not receive permission accept the answer and understand the dog needs to be focused on its job.
Personal space is also expanded for people who use mobility aids (walkers, wheelchairs, scooters, canes, forearm crutches, etc.). The mobility aids are an extension of the person and therefore the personal space includes their aid. One should never touch a mobility aid without first asking for and receiving permission. Surprisingly people see mobility aids as conveniences that they can use, some examples include: people draping coats or purses on the back of a wheelchair, people using a tray on a wheelchair or the seat of a walker to hold their drinks or food, and people leaning on wheelchairs and scooters in lines; none of these are acceptable unless the person with the mobility aid has invited you or given you permission to do so. It is surprising how often these examples occur, particularly when done by strangers. It is also important to note that as the mobility aid is included within the personal space you should never move a person’s mobility aid without first asking for permission. Even when someone has transferred from their mobility aid to another seat, or when someone has put down their cane or crutches, you must first ask for permission before touching or moving the mobility aid.
Some people with Asperger’s Syndrome or Autism can be hypersensitive to environments. Allowing for personal space helps to be more comfortable during the interaction. Encroaching on one’s personal space can make one feel trapped, nervous and anxious. Also, people who are hypersensitive to their environments can find scents and smells intense and overpowering so personal space is important to keep the scents of your body at an appropriate distance from them as to not overwhelm them.
It is estimated that 20% of the population are Highly Sensitive Persons, a term coined by Dr. Elaine N. Aron, PhD for people with the innate trait of high sensitivity. People with this are affected in many ways which influences their social interaction. One such impact is that they are highly attuned to smells and as such can be overpowered, agitated and distracted by scents and smells on people, thus personal space is vital to productive interactions.
People with environmental sensitivities and allergies also appreciate being given their personal space, as while you may enjoy the scents and smells on you from your various products it may be overwhelming and physically uncomfortable to them.
For people with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder and/or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder personal space can be vital to their ability to interact. If someone is within their personal space their defensive motor responses can be triggered which can place them into a fight or flight response severely impacting their ability to communicate, connect, and socialize.
Personal space can enhance one’s ability to interact, socialize, communicate, and feel comfortable within their surroundings. Offering personal space can be a sign of respect to demonstrate that you understand working dogs and mobility aids are an extension of the person and as such should never be touched without first obtaining permission. Allowing for an arm’s length of personal space is an easy way to make people feel more comfortable and to allow them to focus on the interaction at hand. Respecting a person’s personal space is an easy way to start your interaction off on the right foot. If you continue to interact with the person you may find that over time there is less of a need for personal space but in the beginning, particularly during first-time interactions, always allow for personal space of at least an arm’s length.