The Sanctity of Personal Bubbles

Last week, The Howling Fantogs detailed his uncomfortable account of a man invading his bubble in the locker room. We all have bubbles which indicate the physical distance we require between ourselves and strangers in order to remain comfortable. The inside of this bubble is usually reserved for friends, family and partners.

What happens when someone invades this bubble often involves how we perceive their intentions. I’ve known men and women who are a bit handsy. After a short period of time, they are happy to offer an unsolicited hug or shoulder massage. On rarer occasions, I have met people who thought it was appropriate to put their hand on my hip or leg. That is way too far into my bubble.

I don’t like to draw too much attention to myself, so when I meet people who invade my bubble, my gut reaction is to avoid them. The Howling Fantogs certainly had that reaction.

Whether or not something should be said is a double-edged sword. On one side, avoiding a confrontation may send the message that the person is welcome inside your bubble. On the other, sternly telling the person to back off can drawn unwanted attention toward you. That all assumes the person has innocent intentions. What happens when someone invades a person’s bubble with malicious intentions, betting they will want to avoid drawing attention? That’s a tragedy waiting to happen.

One fear I’ve always had is that my bubble may be too big. The roots are unknown, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the reasons for my unusually large bubble come from my experiences with bullying and handsy high school boyfriends. At a young age, the world taught me to be paranoid of anyone who got to close to me.

That’s all a decade or more in the past and I now I worry about the size of my bubble. I won’t be making any friends if I don’t let people get close to me. There’s a certain level of intimacy among friends that doesn’t always stop at hugging. Friends are there when you need someone’s opinion on whether or not a rash or mole is worth seeing the doctor over.

A person’s bubble is a sacred kind of intuition. Like the physical body, one’s bubble shouldn’t be used, abused or taken advantage of. Such events can leave a person feeling violated. Intuition is the controller, expanding and shrinking according to the perceived threat (or lack there of).

This photo, “Big Bubble” is copyright (c) 2014 Hartwig HKD and made available under an Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license

I didn’t develop a healthy respect for my bubble until recent years. Looking back, my bubble has always had my back. That one time a girl in middle school said she was my friend, my bubble expanded. Ignoring it in desperation for friendship lead me to getting ‘de-pantsed.’ The few times I hung out with my first boyfriend, my bubble expanded to one square mile (the size of my hometown). I could have saved myself an uncomfortable date and awkward conversation if only I listened.

The intuition of the bubble has also shown me truly great people. When my parents disapproved of my friendship with a neighbor girl, my bubble told me she’d be a great friend. When I met the man I’ve dated for more than five years, my bubble told me he would be respectful of my boundaries and insecurities.

Am I the only one whose bubble expands and contracts like this? Perhaps even more important, is it possible to read how big another person’s bubble is? I’ve never been fantastic at reading people and usually just assume everything I say and do is awkward until otherwise informed. Certainly we should have a way of knowing whether we are making another person uncomfortable.

The space of our personal bubble reminds me of last week’s post on cultural appropriation in that offense is more based on intent than action. If someone knows they are invading a person bubble and pushes through anyway, they are being rude. However, if a person is unaware they have violated the invisible personal space of another, how can any real offense be taken?

This bubble isn’t easy to spot, though. I, at least, have a hard time seeing it in anyone other than myself. Maybe I’m just not as observant enough. One thing I know for certain is that people deserve to have their personal space respected (within reason).

How big is your personal bubble? Does its size change depending on who you’re with? If someone invaded your bubble, would you say something? Would your reaction differ in a public place vs. a private setting? Is there any situation where it would not be appropriate to tell someone you are uncomfortable with how close they are? How would you go about telling someone you are uncomfortable with the lack of space between you and them?


62 thoughts on “The Sanctity of Personal Bubbles”

  1. Another interesting and thought-provoking post. I absolutely have a bubble and it’s quite small. I can’t stand unsolicited physical contact from anyone other than very close family. It makes me very uncomfortable in a way the touchy-feely person can detect which makes it even more awkward. I have become used to saying, “Sorry but I just don’t like physical contact” by way of explanation. I’m not especially concerned whether people find that weird or rude. There’s no deep-seated psychological cause either – it’s just my preference to maintain a small bubble. It’s why I cut my own hair – the constant physical contact with hairdressers led me to become phobic of going to hair salons. There are times when I recognize that physical contact is going to be necessary and so I gird myself and expand my bubble. Emigrating meant a lengthy series of goodbyes and leaving a small community meant that some of those hugs of farewell came from people I only superficially knew. It was an ordeal on one level but on another I recognized the warmth of the gesture and appreciated it. I am incidentally capable of offering physical contact to people who need it, a squeeze on the arm, a hug, regardless of how well I know them. Sometimes the compassion overrides my neuroses. However, I still teach my kids to command respect for their personal space and to respect the personal space and boundaries if others. I think it’s a good lesson. One just has to be prepared to explain why the occasional bristling or flinching happens.

    1. I guess I tend to let the discomfort slide unless I feel threatened. For example, I’ve had coworkers compliment me on a new dress and step in to touch and/or admire parts of it. This makes me feel a little uncomfortable, but I know they mean nothing by the action so I let it slide. Now, if someone were to give me those same compliments and try to touch me in a bar or club setting, I’d probably shy away.

      1. I think my reaction is too strong for me to be able to conceal it and let the discomfort slide. Pregnancy can be a real ordeal in that regard as suddenly people regard your bump as private property and everyone pats it and caresses it. It’s horrible! I actually swatted people’s hands away. I think my bubble is probably much smaller and more ferociously protected than yours as actually I only ever permitted my husband, kids and midwives to touch my bump.

  2. We are all bubble brains. And the poem I done is about a different kind of bubble. The one to keep yourself locked up.

    I think it might be something lost of several years. the Aristocrats still use a very simple rule. Hips one feet apart. Approximately an under arms length. held at the hip for greetings.

    But one should never be afraid to speak their mind and protect there bubble. Friends above all should understand and strangers well they should know better. It is funny to see how clingy we get when we are more deprived from it, i guess.

    But that is just a thought and simplified observation from my perspective. one who does not have much of a bubble.

      1. Not so much know how big a bubble is. But at least keep some distance. Common courtesy.
        A hand shake to say hello (2 feet bubble)
        Sitting at a table with a stranger again 2 feet with barrier.

        We speak of bubbles while common courtesy is thrown out the door.
        Instead of doing what seem right we created bubbles to keep people at bay

          1. It is simple keeping distance. nothing relative. if you decide to walk away or keep a distance if you feel a risk is up to you. Common courtesy to not push limits on someone.

            But it is a trade as you mentioned yourself we have lost.
            We assume to much, and we retreated in our own bubble.
            Nobody is like me, soon as I accept that it easier to recognize someone’s bubble for they will show what they find acceptable. It is not what I want It should be what you want.
            But is that not a little introvert extrovert story as well.

  3. My bubble definitely expands and contracts. Though I’m an extrovert and know a lot of people, I tend to have strict specifications for those I let in. I’m very cautious of being taken advantage of by my own kindness, due to past experiences.
    In terms of physical space, if I’m not feeling someone, I definitely want them to keep their distance. There’s a person in my neighborhood who’s a close-talker and I do everything to avoid them when I’m taking my evening walk/run.
    My bubble is fairly excusive and that’s alright.

    1. “I’m very cautious of being taken advantage of by my own kindness, due to past experiences.”

      I’m that way too. I don’t want to cause a scene, but I’ve experienced too much to assume people are entering my bubble with pure intentions.

  4. Many good points TK….I think there is also the aspect of ‘different kinds of bubbles’. For instance, I let anyone and everyone sit at my table…. but I’m EXTREMELY selective in who I let in on my personal bubble as far as my personal life. I’ll talk to people about all sorts of things, but I think there is less than ten people in the world who know the most intimate characteristics of my personal life…..

    1. I think that’s what I mean by expanding and contracting. In certain situations or around certain people, the bubble is smaller. In others, it’s bigger to offer more protection. I’m always game for conversation, but my defenses are up if I’m in a large crowd where conversation isn’t happening… like at a gym or in a mall. I wouldn’t be as quick to let those strangers into my bubble as much as I would at a cafe or park.

  5. I too have a bubble. It’s certainly my protection zone and very few people are allowed in, and no one completely. I’ve always kept a safe distance from people, mostly on an emotional level, in order to prevent myself from being hurt. In regard to physical contact with others, my bubble seems to get smaller as I get older. I definitely respect and protect my own space more now, than I used to. Life experiences have a way of changing the size of our bubble.

    1. I agree. I think the size of my bubble in public places is still based off of experiences in middle school hallways. Strangers make me uncomfortable. I have to talk to someone before my intuition can flex the bubble according to the perceived threat level. I’m not sure where I’m at on an emotional level. There’s not a lot I won’t talk about, but I don’t usually break down in front of people.

  6. Oh, I have one of those. The way I see it, if you can touch me with an outstretched arm, you’re in my personal bubble. It doesn’t really change size, but there’s certain types of people who get within the bubble without really knowing that it’s there: people who seem to need to be really close to your face when they talk to you, people who have no problem like hugging or putting your hand on your shoulder your back or something, slapping you on the back — I’m a guy, so I get that sometimes. I learned to just keep my mind still when that happens, because I have to assume that most people don’t mean me any harm. I don’t tell people that they’re in my personal bubble most of the time, because I don’t want to offend anyone – which sounds weird, I know. But if I get comfortable enough with the person and it’s still something that’s kind iffy to me, I’ve been known to say “look I’ve got this bubble you know and this is cool and then this is awkward for me.”

    1. I think it’s about the same for me. I think the closest discomfort I have experienced in my adult life has been people admiring what I’m wearing. Sometimes, they end up touching my hip or arm to get a better look at the clothing and I’m never 100% comfortable. But, I can tell the difference between that and between someone who is touching me for more malicious reasons. If I know they mean nothing by it, I just let it slide.

  7. You’re preaching to the choir! I totally understand, and do have a bubble that expands and contracts as you explained. You just get a certain reading on people and they say that your gut reaction is usually right. So I always believe my bubble! It may be smaller than most but I believe that the people meant to be in my life will respect that about me.

  8. My bubble expands and contracts like that, too.

    Interestingly, there are also cultural differences. In some places people are much more comfortable when people are much closer than they are here.

    1. Very true, like that kiss on the cheek thing. Some family members have suddenly started do that to me. I don’t say anything, but it always makes me a little uncomfortable. I don’t have a reason for it…. I just don’t kiss people on cheeks if I’m not dating them, I guess.

  9. YES! I completely agree except for I never called it a bubble… I always refer to the offender as “close talkers” like on the Seinfield episode. If it’s someone I know well, I have no problem extending my arm and if they are closer than my arm reaches, i will say, “Back away; you’re in my space.” If it’s a stranger (like behind me in line at a store), I act like I don’t see them and then back up with alight elbow jab in their ribs and then act as if I’m clumsy when I apologize. They usually take the hint then. With anyone else, if they don’t take subtle hints, coughing without covering your mouth usually gets the message across. It might make me look rude to them, but hey, they look rude to me standing so close. LOL! 😉 Great post!

    1. So many methods! I just think it’s interesting that bubbles are so different. One person may think they are just fine while another may think they’re being invaded.

  10. Interesting topic. My bubble’s pretty static and rather permissive, so long as i have a minimum of comfort with the person, but people always judge it as bigger than it really is. Granted, i rarely try to correct them.

    1. When you say bigger than it is, you mean they usually stay farther away from you than is really necessary? If so, I guess that’s a bit preferable. Then you can invite people in without them simply invading.

  11. My bubble is limited to family and close friends. If someone violates my space, I will tell them in no uncertain terms. And it doesn’t matter where we are … lol. I don’t like feeling like I can’t get away (there’s a reason for that dating back 20 years) and I don’t hold back if I feel cornered. But most people are respectful, just as I am with them, so it’s usually not an issue.

    1. I’d definitely raise my voice if I felt cornered. Usually, though, if I feel like someone is too close to me, it’s in a public space where I could easily run or say I need to use the restroom. You better bet I’d do whatever I felt necessary if I felt cornered in a threatening way.

      1. I do know a few people who have to stand right on top of you when they talk to you. One of them is REALLY bad and I had to tell her to back off one day because she doesn’t get the concept of personal space. She also interrogates people like they’re all guilty of some crime. She lets me be since I spoke up about it, but she still does it to other people.

  12. Very interesting topic!
    I think my bubble has a radius of 1m, because whenever a person I’m not overly familiar with comes closer than that, I start to retract in the literal sense. To me that’s both an instinct and a way of communicating my distress. Sadly, many people don’t understand this. If it’s a total stranger – like the guys doing surveys on campus – I tell them straightaway to stay out of my bubble or they won’t get any data, sometimes I even walk away without a coherent explanation when I’m stressed out. If I know the person and want to be on good terms, I’m a little more polite or try to relax. How big or important my bubble is, depends on context and mood. When I’m on the train and it’s crowded like nothing good, I don’t feel happy but it’s managable, because I know almost everyone is feeling bad in that moment. Sometimes I need a lot of space and feel like I have to leave the city to be all alone, but in other moments I enjoy being close to a bunch of people, even if I don’t know them very good, as long as I feel safe with them.

    1. Mine moves like that, too. It’s all very instinctual. I think it’s interesting how our comforting with the closeness of people changes based on how we perceive their intentions.

      1. True! And today I noticed another funny thing – it’s easier for me deal with a person “invading” my bubble when they are in front of me, but showing me their back (like when walking up the stairs at the train station in a group of people), I’m less likely to panic or retreat in this case.

  13. I enjoyed this post! My personal bubble is small when I’m writing (which is all the time), so I make sure to make connections and meet with friends on the weekend. I text and call my kids and family members in the evenings, but during the day-I need a lot of space for writing and keeping up with social media in the marketing of my book due out Summer 2014. I wish I had a clone 🙂

    1. I’m the same way when writing, I just don’t get to do it as often. What I wouldn’t give to be able to work on my books 24/7.

  14. Good post it does hit home, because we all have our bubbles or personal space issues. It is not the same it is totally dependent upon each person we have or have not a relationship with. These also change dramatically when fear or strong emotions are running through our hearts and minds. I totally understand that when you talk of someone even a family member invading that space. I think it is how much that person is a control freak or not. I have had my experiences with several of that kind. We don’t always think about them until ours is violated. Possibly one of the greatest too is the violation of our personal bubble. For it is one that is so easily done with so little thoughts to how much it does change our behavior, change the way we act towards others in the future and even towards our own inflections. If people only knew… probably it should be expressed better by saying ‘If people would only think…’ before they step across those boundaries. This was not as much a problem in ages past, makes me wonder how we lost such comprehension of such boundaries? Something to ponder for our day past and future – thanks TK.

    1. If people would only think, that is true. Was this really not a problem in the past, though? That seems a little odd to me. I mean, I can’t imagine a woman 100 years ago dealing with some of the closeness to men women experience in our day and age. I think the bubble has always existed, it’s just that cultures change. Different cultures have different ideas of how big that bubble should be and we are a mix of cultures. Inevitably then, we run into people with a different idea of personal space than our own.

  15. Great post.

    My bubble is so small (or big, I’m not sure which way it goes). Waiting in line is torture for me and not because I’m inpatient (I’m anything but), but because everyone has a different sized bubble. I always leave a couple of steps distance between me and the person in front, but the person behind me will move right up. I hate it and have no control over it. Accidental touching in this situation always annoys me. Why would you move so close to someone that when they move, they touch you? And when you do accidentally hit your backpack into these close people, they tut at you. A stranger breathing in my ears and nose is possibly worse than the accidental touch. This might sound over the top, but I think my senses are just more sensitive than others.

    My bubble seems to expand and contract based on temperature and noise level too. I need extra space in a noisy or hot environments. I used to try and ignore the need for my personal space, so I could go to certain places (eg. clubs) but as I’ve become older, I’ve realised it’s just not worth the stress of constantly being uncomfortable, and I now avoid those places.

    On the other hand, with close friends I really want to cuddle them. This is an urge I suppress as I’d hate to make people feel the way I feel in queues.

    1. The way I see it, a small bubble means you let people closer and a big bubble means you prefer to keep them farther away. It’s like a big force field.

      And, I admit, in line I have no patience, especially when it’s long. I’ll keep my distance, but I keep a look out for anyone who tries to push ahead. I’m not beyond knocking backpacks if that means keeping my place in a long line. Luckily, this rarely happens now. It was more of a problem in grade school and college.

  16. Thanks for the shout out. It’s funny that you should, because I thought of you and your gym post. I definately have a big bubble. I put up cerain defences between myself and the world like I said in my post, so it’s a conscious thing. For those reasons I felt more uncomfortable. I think there are sone people in this world you don’t even have a bubble.

    1. The guy in your story was just insane. If that were to happen to me (obviously it would be a girl in the girls locker room), I’d run so fast. I might lock myself in a bathroom stall and wait for her to leave. That would just creep me out to no ends.

  17. I have had to ask certain members of my family not to touch my hair anymore, well, without asking, anyways. They have done so in a way that makes me feel very uncomfortable. It is very fine and soft to the touch, but… it feels like a violation, the way that they do it.

          1. You’re welcome! I couldn’t help myself– I notice little things like regional accents, i.e., you do sound like you’re from Chicago 😉 and Kenneth sounds vaguely Midwestern as some others have said.

            1. Hahaha. What’s funny is that a lot of people from Chicago think I sound like I’m from Iowa. My boyfriend pokes fun at how I pronounce things sometimes. They’re small differences, though.

              1. It’s certainly understandable. Are you from the part of Iowa that the so-called “General American” accent comes from? I’m from southeastern Washington, and the Pacific Northwest accent is said to be somewhat similar (it *is* different from California, though).

                1. I have no idea. What is the “General American” accent? All I know is that people from Chicago don’t sound much different from Iowans, but I’ve been to Washington D.C. and they had a hugely different accent from me. It was bad enough that I actually had problems understanding people sometimes. My mom’s family is from the northern part of Iowa, and they all sound like they live in Minnesota. I guess, I just always figured I’d sound like I was from Iowa more than anywhere else, but, by that logic, America would have 50 different accents…. and that’s just insanity ^^

                  1. I guess it depends on the linguist you talk to– “General American” is supposed to be devoid of any regional inflections, and it’s still currently the standard accent on U.S. television, at least for news. People I’ve chatted with in the UK says it sounds “plain”, and yes, it is, by definition.

                    See and especially note the Regional home of General American section– see how the Teslur Project maps a good swath of the lower half of Iowa. “The fact that a Midwestern dialect became the basis of what is General American English is often attributed to the mass migration of Midwestern farmers to California and the Pacific Northwest from where it spread.” Do note that Pacific Northwest (where I live) and California dialects vary a bit from General American (and I don’t mean the well-known Valley Girl California dialect, but more the California dialects on television).

                    Also… I used to have a strange accent in two languages; I still have a fair bit of Southern in my English due to Okies and Texans coming to southeastern WA, but my Spanish has settled more into the norteamericano Latin American accent.

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