body language: crowded spaces

August 12, 2010

In crowded spaces, such as an elevator or the subway during rush hour, we are forced to let strangers invade our personal space that is normally reserved for people we know well.

To avoid confrontations and awkwardness, we follow some unwritten rules in those situations:

  • Move as little as possible to avoid accidentally touching someone.
  • Don’t talk to anyone. Even if we enter the elevator talking to a person we know, we often stop talking and resume the conversation once we step out of the elevator.
  • Avoid eye contact. Usually, people in the elevator all turn to face the door and stare up to watch the floor numbers change as if it were the most fascinating thing in the world.
  • Keep a “poker face” and avoid showing emotions. If you see people traveling to work on public transportation, many of them will have a blank, almost miserable look on their faces. It’s not because they all hate their jobs. They’re simply following the unwritten rules to mask their emotions.

Next, I’ll blog about how humans mark our personal space and territories.



  1. …and always ask yourself – before stepping into an elevator: “are these the people I wanna be stuck with inside the elevator if an accident occurs”.
    Maybe I’m a bit twisted but this always runs through my mind at work 🙂

    • Hehehe. Yes, sometimes, taking the stairs seems like a really good alternative 🙂

  2. I travel allot and have noticed that personal space kind of varies in different countries. Being from the US and country mouse, I am used to space. The bigger, or more crowed the city or country is, the less personal space you have. It seemed no problem to people in Thailand or SIngapore, to name only a couple of places. For someone even whole families to be right up on top of you. The young even more so. It took awhile to get used to. More than once I had to step back or aside to just breath. Not so in most of Europe, France and England a little bit. Is it also a generation thing?

    • Personal space is pretty complex and depends on a lot of different factors.
      There’s evidence showing that personal space increases with age. Children beneath the age of 3-4 don’t seem to have much need for personal space. Then their personal space increases.
      There are also studies that show college students prefer smaller interpersonal distances than older people.

      I’m not sure if it’s just a matter of age or a matter of generation. Probably both. Touch zones seem different in different generations too. My grandmother, for example, is very uncomfortable if anyone, even close family, touches her face.

      • Well I would think as a person matures and becomes more aware of themselves, their surroundings. That yes we want more control over our personal space and it does increase. It just seemed to me that no matter if the place was crowed or not, in que or not. People old or young most young.
        Were right on top of you. More so in other countries. If done here it is considered rude and somewhat aggressive.
        My step mom grew up as an only child, her mother was an only child who grew up in a orphanage. And we are talking the 20’s 30’s here So touching hugging wasn’t a common thing growing up, not done in public either. It took my sisters and I years to get them to be comfortable with touching and hugging. Because of the way we grew up my sisters and I made sure their children were touched, hugged etc.. often. We still do.
        Perhaps with your grandmother it is a sense of being to familiar? And in my opinion maybe she felt it is not proper

  3. I agree. Our personal space and the interpersonal distance with which we’re comfortable and the touch zones which we feel are proper depend on what we’re used to and what we learn when we grow up. So it depends not just on our culture, but also on the context of our family.

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