The Sanctity of Personal Bubbles

4 years ago

Originally posted on

Last week, The Howling Fantogs detailed his uncomfortable account of a man invading his bubble in the locker room. We all have bubbles which indicate the physical distance we require between ourselves and strangers in order to remain comfortable. The inside of this bubble is usually reserved for friends, family and partners.

What happens when someone invades this bubble often involves how we perceive their intentions. I’ve known men and women who are a bit handsy. After a short period of time, they are happy to offer an unsolicited hug or shoulder massage. On rarer occasions, I have met people who thought it was appropriate to put their hand on my hip or leg. That is way too far into my bubble.

I don’t like to draw too much attention to myself, so when I meet people who invade my bubble, my gut reaction is to avoid them. The Howling Fantogs certainly had that reaction.

Whether or not something should be said is a double-edged sword. On one side, avoiding a confrontation may send the message that the person is welcome inside your bubble. On the other, sternly telling the person to back off can drawn unwanted attention toward you. That all assumes the person has innocent intentions. What happens when someone invades a person’s bubble with malicious intentions, betting they will want to avoid drawing attention? That’s a tragedy waiting to happen.

One fear I’ve always had is that my bubble may be too big. The roots are unknown, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the reasons for my unusually large bubble come from my experiences with bullying and handsy high school boyfriends. At a young age, the world taught me to be paranoid of anyone who got to close to me.

That’s all a decade or more in the past and I now I worry about the size of my bubble. I won’t be making any friends if I don’t let people get close to me. There’s a certain level of intimacy among friends that doesn’t always stop at hugging. Friends are there when you need someone’s opinion on whether or not a rash or mole is worth seeing the doctor over.

A person’s bubble is a sacred kind of intuition. Like the physical body, one’s bubble shouldn’t be used, abused or taken advantage of. Such events can leave a person feeling violated. Intuition is the controller, expanding and shrinking according to the perceived threat (or lack there of).

This photo, “Big Bubble” is copyright (c) 2014 Hartwig HKD and made available under anAttribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license

I didn’t develop a healthy respect for my bubble until recent years. Looking back, my bubble has always had my back. That one time a girl in middle school said she was my friend, my bubble expanded. Ignoring it in desperation for friendship lead me to getting ‘de-pantsed.’ The few times I hung out with my first boyfriend, my bubble expanded to one square mile (the size of my hometown). I could have saved myself an uncomfortable date and awkward conversation if only I listened.

The intuition of the bubble has also shown me truly great people. When my parents disapproved of my friendship with a neighbor girl, my bubble told me she’d be a great friend. When I met the man I’ve dated for more than five years, my bubble told me he would be respectful of my boundaries and insecurities.

Am I the only one whose bubble expands and contracts like this? Perhaps even more important, is it possible to read how big another person’s bubble is? I’ve never been fantastic at reading people and usually just assume everything I say and do is awkward until otherwise informed. Certainly we should have a way of knowing whether we are making another person uncomfortable.

The space of our personal bubble reminds me of last week’s post oncultural appropriation in that offense is more based on intent than action. If someone knows they are invading a person bubble and pushes through anyway, they are being rude. However, if a person is unaware they have violated the invisible personal space of another, how can any real offense be taken?

This bubble isn’t easy to spot, though. I, at least, have a hard time seeing it in anyone other than myself. Maybe I’m just not as observant enough. One thing I know for certain is that people deserve to have their personal space respected (within reason).

How big is your personal bubble? Does its size change depending on who you’re with? If someone invaded your bubble, would you say something? Would your reaction differ in a public place vs. a private setting? Is there any situation where it would not be appropriate to tell someone you are uncomfortable with how close they are? How would you go about telling someone you are uncomfortable with the lack of space between you and them?

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