Personal space is very important to us. We have boundaries, imaginary fields of the acceptable and unacceptable. Some are socially adaptive changing their frontiers depending on where we are at the time, some are emotionally adaptive based on trust and acceptance.
Standing on the concourse of Euston Station you can see excellent examples of both situations.
In the UK we are very clear on our personal space. In most cases, with people we don’t know, our personal space usually extends about two feet from our body. However, in Japan this can be three feet or more. In the UK a handshake is an acceptable greeting, it allows that two feet distance to be maintained but is an acceptable invasion of space. In Japan the formal bow remains distant, it is considered inappropriate to touch.
Most of us maintain comfortable safe distance but we easily adapt to the current situation. In a crowded railway station the two feet barrier almost disappears. Even some elements of physical contact almost become acceptable. Cram all those people onto a train and personal space becomes restricted to literally just around the head and face. Something that the professional pick-pocket relies upon to ply their trade. Moving out of the train and back into an open space and our personal borders re-assert themselves.
Emotional barriers work slightly differently, adapting over time and situation.
Two people meeting for the first date usually have their borders firmly in place, but as time goes on these barriers are either reduced, or reinforced depending on the response of the individuals. Subtle shifts in position and posture, leaning forward, moving the hands into the no-man’s land across the table top are all signs that the barriers are being removed and an invitation to personal space. Social grooming is the sign of trust and acceptance. Reaching out to brush lint from a shoulder.
Do not assume that once a boundary has been relaxed that it will stay as such. These psychological barriers can be very quickly re-established if trust is lost. Stepping away, refusing to meet the eyes, flinching away from the grooming hand; all very clear social signals that trust is not given.
Remember, different cultures have very different social rules for personal space, and there are always individual differences. Don’t assume that someone accepts the same approaches that you will. Look for the responses to your actions and behaviours. Don’t assume.