This social distance is also known as personal bubble or comfort zone and the use of this space is called proxemics also a form of non-verbal communication.
Why the separation?
Regulating the distances between your self and other people provides us with several benefits, including but not limited to:
• Safety: When people are further away, they can’t surprise attack us.
• Communication: When people are closer, it is easier to interact with them.
• Threat: The reverse can be used – you may deliberately threaten a person by invading their body space.
The social distances here are approximate, of course and will vary with people. But they are still a good general rule. Hall (1966) identified four zones that are common for Americans:
Public Zone : > 12 feet (3m)
The public zone of non-verbal communication is generally over 12 feet. That is, when we are walking around town, we will try to keep at least 12 feet between us and other people. For example, we will leave that space between us and the people walking in front.
Of course there are many times when we cannot do this. What the theory of social distance tells us is that we will start to notice other people who are within this radius. The closer they get, the more we become aware and ready ourselves for appropriate action.
When we are distant from another person, we feel a degree of safety from them. A person at a distance cannot attack us suddenly. If they do seem to threaten, we will have time to dodge, run or prepare for battle.
Social Zone : 4 – 12 feet (1.5m – 3m)
Within the non-verbal communication social zone, we start to feel a connection with other people. When they are closer, then we can talk with them without having to shout, but still keep them at a safe distance.
This is a comfortable distance for people who are standing in a group but maybe not talking directly with one another. People sitting in chairs or gathered in a room will tend to like this distance.
Personal Zone : 1.5-4 feet (0.5m – 1.5m)
In the non-verbal communication personal zone, the conversation gets more direct, and this is a good distance for two people who are talking in earnest about something.
Intimate Zone < 1.5 feet (< 0.5m)
When a person is within arms reach or closer, then we can touch them in intimate ways. We can also see more detail of their non-verbal communication and look them in they eyes. When they are closer, they also blot out other people so all we can see is them (and vice versa). Romance of all kinds happens in this space.
Entering the intimate zone of somebody else can be very threatening. This is sometimes done as a deliberate ploy to give a non-verbal signal that they are powerful enough to invade your territory at will.
The rules about social distance vary with different groups of people. You can detect this by watching people’s reactions. If you feel safe and they seem not to feel safe, back off. If they invade your space, decide whether to invade back or act otherwise. Turning sideways is an easy alternative for this, as a person to the side is less threatening than a person at the same distance in front of you.
Town and country
People who live in towns spend more time close to one another and so their social distances may compact somewhat. In a large and crowded city, the distances will be less than in a small town.
People who normally live a long way from others will expand their social distances and may even have to lean over towards another person to shake hands and then back off to a safe distance.