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‘Tis the Season for Space Invaders

December 18, 2011

Space InvadersThis time of the year (the ‘Christmas’ / ‘Holiday’ season) seems to bring out the urge in people to hug, kiss, squeeze, and/or otherwise invade the personal space of others around them – oftentimes people they barely know and/or people they work with.  Personally, I find it mildly offensive (and sometimes downright creepy) when people I interact with infrequently think it’s okay to grab me in a big bear hug and wish me a “Merry Christmas”, or – worse yet – to kiss me on the cheek and say something along the same lines, just because it’s ‘the season’.  I usually react by doing the ‘freeze’ (body stiffens, arms go rigid by my sides) or the ‘spaz’ (where I make a vague attempt to hug them back, flail my arms around, and end up almost giving them a black eye).  What I really want to do is say, “Hey, hey, you, you … get out of my space.”

Personal Space OKIn the 1960s, anthropologist Edward T. Hall introduced a concept called ‘proxemics’ – the study of measurable distances between people as they interact.  He described ‘personal space’ as ‘an emotionally charged bubble of space which surrounds each individual’, and suggested (at the time) that anything closer than four feet was ‘too close for anyone other than intimate relations’. In 1966 he published a chart that overviewed the generally acceptable ranges for ‘intimate’, ‘personal’, ‘social’, and ‘public’ spaces; these ranges have been steadily decreasing over the past fifty years.  Proxemics influences everything from non-verbal communication (‘body language’) to acceptable behaviour (particularly in business dealings) between people of different cultures (for example, in Latin cultures people tend to be more comfortable standing close to one other; in Nordic cultures the opposite is true). 

Ultimately, your personal ‘comfort zone’ is based on a variety of factors:  your culture/upbringing, the social situation you’re in, your gender, and your own individual preferences.

The Family 1963I come from a family that wasn’t big on hugs and kisses.  My mother would drop a kiss on our foreheads each night when she’d tuck us in to bed, and we’d get a hug if we did something particularly ‘special’, but we weren’t a very ‘touchy-feely’ group.  Even now, I don’t hug or kiss my sisters or brothers, even when I haven’t seen them for some time. Mom gets a hug and an ‘airy’ cheek kiss at the end of every visit, but even that is sometimes awkward.

This isn’t to say that I’m not a demonstrative person.  My sister-in-law once told me that I drove her crazy when I was five or six (she’s 10 years older that I am) because I was always climbing up onto her lap (it’s probably a good thing she had three boys and not a troupe of clingy little girls!)  And I’m very ‘touchy feely’ with my husband and my own boys (when my eldest son was about sixteen, he complained that I couldn’t walk past him without touching his head or his arm or his back); I cuddled my kids A LOT when they were young and we exchange hugs every time they visit!  But I’ve never been big on that kind of personal contact with people I barely know.

Personal Space Not OKSocial situations were never particularly problematic (that I remember, anyway) until the last ten or so years.  Growing up, I recall getting together regularly with family, friends, work associates, etc. and having a good time – and I don’t recall anyone I wasn’t ‘intimate’ with (i.e., best friend, boyfriend, husband, etc.) ever hugging or kissing me (except, perhaps, on New Year’s Eve, and then I’d usually manage to avoid the guys who wanted to plant one on every female in the room by feigning illness or hiding in a dark corner as midnight approached).  Most people knew where the boundaries were, and stayed within them.

In the past decade, however, it’s become almost common place for people to expect some sort of physical contact to take place in social settings (without stopping to ask if it’s okay).  For example, I used to work in an office where there were forty or fifty people interacting with one another on a daily basis.  I considered some of these people to be ‘friends’; some were merely ‘work colleagues’ (people I regularly chatted with but who I wouldn’t have, say, gone out for lunch with); the rest were co-workers whose presence I tolerated because I had no other choice (I was still polite, of course, but I didn’t go out of my way to seek these people out, or to talk to them unless it was necessary). 

Hugging PermittedThe ones I considered ‘friends’ would often exchange hugs (many of them were Italian and I quickly learned that this was part of their cultural identity), and most were women, so I wasn’t particularly bothered by these outward expressions of affection and appreciation.  However, when it was a man who wanted a hug, I was always uncomfortable whenever I wasn’t fast enough to take a step out of their ‘embrace zone’.  The annual ‘Christmas Lunch’ was particularly treacherous because it seemed the majority of people (particularly after a drink or two) were ‘huggers’ (although there were maybe ten or twelve of us who weren’t; we hung together and tried to avoid the others).  The worst was the year the ‘big boss’ decided to kiss pretty much every female on staff (on the cheek, but it was still totally inappropriate and off-putting); that was the last year I went to the lunch (better safe than sorry).  You read stories all the time about people getting ‘out of control’ at Christmas parties and other corporate get-togethers – perhaps our declining respect for other peoples’ personal space has something to do with it! 

No Hugging AllowedI have less of a problem with women I consider ‘good friends’ giving me a hug ‘hello’ or ‘good-bye’ (or ‘congratulations’, or whatever) than I do with men, no matter how long I’ve known them, or in what context.  There have been studies done (of course) that prove women are generally more ‘tactile’ than men, and that hugging, kissing, holding hands, and touching people (of both genders) generally makes them feel good.  Men, on the other hand, generally keep the really ‘touch feely’ stuff for women they are intimate with (or hope to be intimate with) and keep greetings with others to a handshake or a back slap (although there’s that ‘man hug’ you see guys doing nowadays where they shake hands and hug one another while doing a back slap all at the same time; this might suggest that the ‘new age man’ is more comfortable with the idea that embracing another man isn’t emasculating).  Personally, man or woman, I’d prefer not to be squeezed by people I barely know (and who on earth decided that it’s okay for strangers or almost-strangers to pat or rub the belly of a pregnant woman just because she’s expecting?!?!?  YUCK! Keep your hands to yourself!)

When it comes to my own ‘personal preference’ with regards to my individual space, I’ve always regarded it as distance between me and the end of my fingertips if I stretch my arms out (e.g. staying ‘at arm’s length’).  If someone invades my space, I generally take a step back; if they do it again, I take two steps back.  On occasion, I’ve even put an object (desk, chair, rack of clothes) between me and the space invader.  Unfortunately, though, I’ve frequently been caught unawares and found myself pulled into an unwanted embrace (generally it only happens once, though – catch me once, shame on you; catch me twice, shame on me!)

Personal Space ShirtI don’t know that there’s any ‘cure’ for people who seem to feel the need to hug or kiss other people, and there probably isn’t any ‘answer’ for those want to spur the unwanted attention (unless you wear a T-shirt that says ‘Keep your distance, I’m contagious’) because it’s clearly one of those social adaptations that we can’t quite pinpoint the cause of, and no one wants to address openly for fear of being considered ‘unsociable’ or ‘cold’.

As for me, I’m going to work on honing my radar (generally I find space invaders to be people with very bright eyes, big smiles, and twitchy arms).  Then I’ll keep my defences up and my elbows out and protect the space I’ve got on … the other side of 55.

Personal Space Invader Comic (

  1. December 20, 2011 8:48 am

    I can relate so much to this post! I was starting to think maybe it was me. I am generally a hugger, but only with people I know well. I still can’t get used to the whole double cheek kissing frenzy that they do here in Italy either. But a few months back I was getting quite upset at some men I knew casually. It seemed that every time there was a group photo being taken with my fellow hikers it was an opportunity to grope me! I find these situations very uncomfortable and started to think maybe I was getting paranoid, but honestly I saw it as a lack of respect. If you want to stand beside me in a photo it’s okay to put your hand on my shoulder but on my waist should be off-limits if you are a man and NOT MY HUSBAND. Shouldn’t that be common sense? Apparently it isn’t.

    • December 20, 2011 9:09 am

      I have never been ‘obviously’ groped but some ‘hugs’ I’ve received over the years have been very close to that feeling. Cultural ‘norm’ or not, if you don’t know someone really well and havaen’t asked for/received permission to touch them, you shouldn’t!


  2. December 19, 2011 12:50 am

    I found your comments about coming from a non hugging family resonated with me. I too am a product of a family where there was very little touching. This seemed completely normal to me at the time. However, as a teenager I discovered that my friends wanted to hug, and I gradually got used to this. As an adult I initially felt uncomfortable with men (or women i hardly knew) kissing me on the cheek, but I quickly realised that there are rules to this that normalise it … The man leans forward from the waist, expecting you to do the same, so that there is an “acceptable” space between bodies as the cheeks touch. I found myself in the unusual situation thirty years ago of being a rare female in management. I always extended my arm to shake hands in the same way that my male colleagues did, and this kept the situation unambiguous.
    Like you, I hugged my children all the time, and still do hug them as adults. I love this closeness with my children. But like you, I’m not comfortable hugging every Tom, Dick or Harry. I use the handshake in any social situation that I do not wish to hug a guy. I like to make eye contact though.

    Your post has made me think about intimacy and boundaries, and how they vary from family to family, culture to culture.. I liked your seemingly lighthearted approach. But yes, there is something deeper lurking there. To me, hugging is for good friends and family, and personal space should be respected.

    • December 19, 2011 9:28 am

      I’m glad my post gave you something to think about (and I honestly do try to take a ‘if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry’ approach when writing about serious or controversial topics). One of the big challenges I faced was when my college students would want to hug me at the end of term – it was a nice gesture, but problematic in our ‘hands off’ society. I occasionally bump into grads who give me a hug, and that’s okay, because they’re showing their gratitude and we’re not in the classroom anymore. Thanks for commenting.


  3. December 18, 2011 9:11 pm

    Well said!!

  4. December 18, 2011 8:21 pm

    When I was pregnant I was first affronted and then amazed at the girls, not boys, who patted my tummy at the high school I taught for 33 years. Then I learned it was me, not them. I wasn’t connecting with them. I learned it was well intentioned and a part of their culture. Once I got past that, I connected with them in ways that still follow me in the way of annual Christmas cards and updates. They gave me a surprise shower for my firstborn, a memory I will always cherish. They taught me so much about “becoming” approachable, meeting them where they’re at. I think you have given me the idea for a post next spring around Daughter #1’s birthday.

    • December 19, 2011 9:23 am

      It’s surprising how various cultures differ in their approaches to ‘personal space’. I’m glad your experience taught you something (isn’t that the ‘big one’ – if you learned something, then it was worth whatever discomfort you might have felt). I used to be wierded out by just about any ‘stranger’ touching me, but I’ve come to realize that some people just see at as natural.


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