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As a consultant and professional speaker, I often travel by myself and frequently dine alone. This affords me the opportunity to combine two of my favorite pastimes: eating great food and watching people.

One night at dinner in an ocean-side resort, I noticed a man and a woman seated across the room. It was a beautiful image and it caught my attention. The couple sat in silhouette, framed by a large picture window, while the setting sun turned the background shades of yellow, orange, magenta and deep purple. 

Then I began to observe the couple’s body language. During the course of the meal, I watched the man lean toward the woman—and saw her respond by pulling away from him. He leaned toward her again—and again she pulled away. The more the man leaned forward, the more his dinner companion would tilt back. By dessert, he was almost sprawled across the table and she was practically falling off her chair. I couldn’t hear a word they were saying, but it was perfectly obvious that whatever he was proposing—she wasn’t signing on!

The funny part was, the man seemed totally oblivious to the nonverbal signals the woman was so clearly sending. He would have been much more successful if he had (literally) backed off.

Last month I was reminded of this episode as I sat at another restaurant watching two men at the bar. This time I was close enough to overhear their conversation, so I knew that one man was in sales and the other was a potential client. By the time they’d finished their drinks, I also knew the deal was dead. And it wasn’t anything that was said. In the midst of a normal “getting-to-know-you” conversation, I watched the salesman move so close to his prospect that the client began, very slowly, to inch away. This went on for some time, but finally the client could stand it no longer. He excused himself to make a phone call – and left the restaurant shortly afterward.

One of the easiest mistakes to make during a business encounter with someone is to misjudge how much space the other person needs.

The anthropologist, Edward Hall, coined the word “proxemics" to describe phenomena like territoriality among office workers. And it was he who first noted the five zones in which people feel most comfortable dealing with one another. (One way to picture this is an invisible bubble that we all carry into the workplace – which expands or contracts depending on our relationships. 

    • The intimate zone (0-18 inches) is reserved for family and loved ones. Within this zone we embrace, touch or whisper. This close contact is appropriate only for very personal relationships.

    • The close personal zone (1.5-2 feet) is the “bubble” most people in the United States like to keep around us. This zone is used for interactions among friends or familiar and trusted business partners. 

▪ The far personal zone (2-4 feet) is for interactions we prefer to conduct “at arms length” and in this zone we can communicate interest without the commitment of touching.

• The social zone (4-12 feet) is most appropriate for the majority of most daily business interactions. It is where we interact with new business acquaintances or at more formal social affairs.

▪ The public zone (over 12 feet) is mostly used for public speaking.

The amount of space required to feel comfortable varies from individual to individual. People who don’t like being touched will tend to “keep their distance” from others. People who touch others while talking will want to get close enough to do so.

Space can also vary depending on the amount of trust in a relationship. A general rule is: The greater the distance, the lower the level of trust. We also make assumptions about relationships based on zones. If we see two people talking at a distance of around two feet from each other, we assume they are engaged in the kind of conversation only possible between those who know and trust each other. So, their spatial relationship becomes part of what is being communicated

Gender plays an important role too. Men who don’t know each other well tend to keep a greater distance between them than women who have just met. This difference in interpersonal distance as determined by gender is even true in Web 2.0’s virtual online worlds (like Second Life) where many of the rules that govern personal space in the physical world can be found in the virtual world.

And, of course, the comfortable distance between participants varies with culture. In the U.S. most business relationships begin in the social zone. As the relationships develop and trust is formed, both parties may subconsciously decrease the distance to more personal zones. But if one of the parties moves too close too soon, it can result in a communication breakdown.

Those who feel powerful and confident will usually control more physical space, extending their arms and legs and generally taking up more room. In doing so, they may unknowingly infringe on another person’s territory. Someone may also purposefully stand too close in order to make the other person feel self-conscious or insecure. Police interrogators often use the strategy of sitting close and crowding a suspect. This theory of interrogation assumes that invasion of the suspect's personal space (with no chance for defense) will give the officer a psychological advantage.

I’ve also seen managers standing uncomfortably close to employees in order to emphasize their status in the organization.

Not a good idea

Anthropologists agree that people’s territorial responses are primitive and powerful. And a mistake here can trigger a truly deep-seated response. When someone comes too close, in an undesirable way, it triggers a physiological reaction in the other person - as heart rate and galvanic skin responses increase. The other person then tries to restore the “proper” distance by looking away, stepping behind a barrier (desk, chair, table), crossing their arms to create a barrier, pulling back to create space, or tucking in their chins as an instinctive move of protection. They may even rub their neck so that an elbow protrudes sharply toward the invader.

Getting too close is an especially improper business move in circumstances where workers, colleagues or clients are in danger of feeling emotionally or physically threatened by the invasion on their personal space. Anyone who oversteps space boundaries is perceived as rude, aggressive or socially clueless.

So keep your distance. Respecting another person’s space can help you build rapport with your colleagues and close sales with your clients.

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