How close is too close?

April 10, 2009

“Stay out of my bubble.” A common phrase used by me when referring to my personal space. Sure, there are no spoken rules about personal space, but there is an unspoken understanding between Americans to not get too close. For instance, when you are in a doctor’s office, you do not sit in the chair directly next to someone unless there is absolutely no other seat left in the waiting room. When in standing in line, you make sure to stand at least a foot away from the person in front of you, but when one person gets to close you immediately feel uncomfortable. Personal space is defined by Buchanan (1977) as “a physical zone surrounding an individual, which, when intruded on, generates an observable reaction of discomfort or flight.” For my social experiment, I decided to see how others would react to me violating their expectations of personal space in an elevator. In an elevator, the same unspoken rules of personal space apply and my prediction was that I would probably get a lot of stares and disgruntled looks.
I decided to make the students who have classes in the Humanities building as my victims because there is always a bunch of people waiting for an elevator. For my first experiment I decided to face in a different direction than everyone else. In an elevator with a lot of people, the expectations are that everyone will face in the same directions towards the door and avoiding eye contact with everyone else. So I hopped in the elevator with a large group of people and stood next to the door facing everyone in the elevator and everyone facing me. Immediately I felt awkward, but for research purposes, I gave everyone direct eye contact and did not look away. Almost everyone’s eyes were looking in a different direction and no one gave me eye contact. Only one guy in the back of the elevator who was at least 2 feet taller than everyone else actually looked at me, and upon eye contact he laughed quietly, then smiled. At the first stop on the fourth floor several people got out, and I continued to face everyone. After the ride up to the sixth floor, I had received no eye contact or any questions about why I am standing in the other direction even when there is lots of room. When we walked out, I laughed and asked the two boys that were left in the elevator how they felt about me facing in the other direction. They just said they didn’t think anything of it, and just thought it was kind of strange. The taller of the two guys said it made him a little uncomfortable, but he did not say anything because he didn’t want to be rude. After this experiment I decided I needed to do something that would cause a better reaction.
For my second experiment, I decided to wait until classes were in session so the elevators would be less crowded. My goal was to violate the expectation that when in an elevator with one other person, you are expected to stand on the opposite sides of each other, as far away as possible. I waited outside the elevator for about 5 minutes before the first victim came to ride the elevator up, so we waited together, and I politely gestured for this medium built white woman to enter first. After she took her spot in the back right corner of the elevator, I took my spot directly next to her. Just she and I, both standing in the same corner, so close our arms were about touching. I could tell she was immediately uncomfortable because of her immediate shift change from one foot to the other. I just looked straight ahead at the door, and watched her reaction out of my peripherals as to not give anything away. She was glancing at me every few seconds to see if I would move over, and to make sure I was not touching her, which I thought was funny. Her shoulders were raised, but I could tell she was trying not to be rude. As the elevator approached the 4th floor, her apparent destination, she left my side to stand by the door for the last few moments because the doors opened. As the doors opened, I followed her and told her about what I was doing. She said she felt so uncomfortable that she was tempted to press a lower floor as to wait for an elevator by herself. I asked her why she did not do so, and she said she did not want to be rude. After trying this experiment with a few other people, 2 men, and 3 other women, all reactions were the same as the first woman, with the same response of trying not to be rude. Though, the other victims were not as anxious to get out of the elevator as the first woman, they all felt very uncomfortable with me (a stranger) so close to them in their personal space.
I realized that through this experiment, that this issue of personal space could very well be a cultural thing. United States is a non-contact culture in contrast to China’s contact culture. But this phenomenon did just start one day considering that the United States was once a country of immigrants from all those other contact cultures. As an entertainment studies major, I have to assume that the mass media has had an impact on this phenomenon. We watch TV commercials where 2 strangers get in the elevator together and they stand at least a foot from each other and both looking towards the door. This is of course so the camera can film both of their faces, but I think after lots of exposure to this, people just adopt the behavior as their own. The attribution theory states that people are quick to associate the negative things that happen to them to other people and not to themselves. In the case of the elevator, people automatically think “they are making me uncomfortable,” putting the blame on the other person. However, if I was from another country, I would probably assume that the other person is being rude if they stood really far away from me. Though I would like to say that personal space violations do not bother me, I as well put the blame of my feelings of discomfort on the other person. “It is their fault that I feel uncomfortable, stay out of my bubble.”
Buchanan, D. (1977) Eye Contact, Sex, and the Violation of Personal Space. Journal of Social Psychology. Vol.33. pp19.

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