Your Personal Space is Yours to Defend

I have to admit that I’m a private person. Though I welcome the opportunity to interact personally with so many people, I also like quiet and a bit of solitude when the day is finished.

I got to thinking about this when I received an email from a former classmate. I would place our relationship more toward acquaintance than friend. She wrote that she was coming to Delaware, and that she wanted to “catch up” over dinner. Up to this point, everything was fine. But as I read further, I got the distinct impression that she assumed that she would be staying at my house — purely platonic and innocent, mind you, but “staying” nonetheless. She went on to imply, in a rather transparent, open-ended manner, how she hated hotels, and how she was a bit short on funds. My regular readers don’t have to guess my reaction to her little guilt trip — I’m not only immune to that stuff, but I find it annoying. Interestingly, when I first moved here, friends who already lived at the beach warned me about this very thing.

Why do some people automatically assume that your home, just because it’s near an ocean, doubles as a beach house/bed & breakfast? Of course there will always be special friends whom I will gladly welcome into my home. But I’ll be the one to make that determination, thank you.

So just what is personal space? Walk up to a stranger in the grocery store and stand about 12 inches away—nose to nose. Their reaction (which will depend on many things, including their sex and occupation) is an unmistakable expression of their personal space. Anthropologist Edward T. Hall, author of The Hidden Dimension, pioneered the theory of “proxemics,” the study of “set measurable distances between people as they interact.” He went on to define personal space as “the region surrounding each person, or that area which a person considers his domain or territory.”

Dr. Hall determined that four feet to twelve feet is your “social space.” Eighteen inches to four feet from you is your closely guarded “personal space.” Any closer than eighteen inches is strictly reserved for those with whom you are intimate. He proposes that one’s personal space can extend to “the space an individual considers theirs to live in,” like, for example, their house or apartment. Bingo! No wonder I deleted her email! (Well, not really, but I felt like it.)

Welcoming the occasional friend into your home is one of the definitive expressions of friendship. But it all boils down to one key point: Did you invite them, or did they invite themselves? I do not feel the least bit obligated to clean up after my acquaintance just because she chooses to travel with no money. If I cave to the unearned guilt, I will be angry with myself and resent her even more. If our friendship had actually been where she could feel comfortable imposing on me, then I would have happily invited her.

A couple of months ago I wrote about being “true to yourself” when deciding what changes you want (or need) in your life. It is equally vital to your psychological health to extend that notion to your personal space. To that end, I keep a list of local hotels, motels and guesthouses. I add to it and subtract from it as people give me feedback about their experiences. When a person (for whom I am not inclined to play innkeeper) informs me of their intention to visit, I execute a polite yet preemptive strike by immediately emailing them the file. I assure them that many of the places are near my home, and that we will have such fun getting together. My message is clear, no feelings are hurt and we both have a great time. They don’t end up being the object of my annoyance, and I don’t have to scrub their bathroom and clean their sheets. It’s a win-win.