In society, personal space is an important social norm. It is seen as an unspoken right that everyone has. The physical distance allowed between individuals is determined by the degree of their relationship.
In a public setting such as restaurants, people sitting together in a table often are familiar and comfortable enough with each other to allow themselves to be close in proximity with each other. Those people sitting together may be family members, friends, or acquaintances willing to get to know one another. Because of this norm people carry worldwide, rarely do we see an individual voluntarily sitting with a total stranger by chance, without the other individual finding the gesture to be strange or irregular.
Personal space is the area around a person, which they would rather not have occupied by another individual. It is the surrounding area that people subconsciously regard as theirs. To certain people, when their bubbles are invaded, they feel a slight discomfort and they do not act physically about it. To others, just a slight breach of their personal space might result in a physical throw down. This norm has always intrigued me, so I chose to conduct a social experiment on the significance of personal space in public for the people in Irvine, Caliornia. For my research, I decided to break this social norm of personal space in a popular pubic location, the Irvine Spectrum. I chose this place because I knew there would be a wide variety of people who would possess varying ideas of personal space and have varying reactions to the violation of the norm.
After walking around the mall a few times and locating the areas I wanted to test the experiment on, my first location was the Starbucks in the mall. My first subject was a woman in her forties sitting alone at a two-seated table. She was reading a book with her headphones in. I had my friend observe the response of the woman, if any. I entered the seating area with a magazine I had picked up near the register, and sat in the seat across the subject. As I did so, the woman looked up and had a surprised look on her face. Judging from the look on her face, I could tell she was shocked that a total stranger sat next to her. She was clearly alarmed and uncomfortable by my actions, as she started fidgeting, and holding on to her handbag, as though she was trying to figure out my true motives. As I was about to start a conversation with her, she abruptly got up and left. My friend and I had to run up to her to explain the experiment as she was walking so fast in order to get away. When I explained the experiment we were conducting, her response was no more than merely saying, “it was definitely weird.”
Next, I went to the open area in the mall, where a fountain is. Many people hang out there and just sit around that area. There was a man, in his early twenties sitting by the fountain. I walked up to him and sat right next to him, while my friend observed from a distance. At first, he turned and looked at me, but did not say anything. I sat next to him for a few minutes, then my friend walked up to us, and we explained the experiment to him. When we debriefed him, he was very enthusiastic about it. He introduced himself and shook our hands. He said, “That's so awesome!” and continued to tell us that it was cool for us to conduct an experiment with the public as subjects. He stated that he was “totally fine with a beautiful girl sitting next to me” and that he had no idea why I approached him, but he assumed it was because he seemed like a cool guy.
My final experiment was on a young couple, dining outside of Panda Express. I casually approached the couple and sat down in front of them, without acknowledging them. After a minute, the man got up and proceeded to find a waiter. I am assuming to get a change of tables. When he returned to the table, my friend walked up to us, and we debriefed them of the experiment. The couple then said they were much more comfortable after they were told about the experiment. I bet. He told us that although they found my behavior weird, they assumed it were for a project and tried to spot any hidden cameras.
It appeared as though the overall reaction I received from our subjects was a feeling of uncomfortableness to the breaking of the norm. One clear observation I had was the body language of the woman. The subjects showed much more discomfort than what they described. I am assuming it is because they might have felt uncomfortable talking about their reactions, or that they did not fully comprehend how uncomfortable they actually were.