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I'm frequently in a situation where the person I'm talking to stands so close to me that I feel their breath on my face when they are talking. For me, this is uncomfortable and I consider too close. This is a co-worker situation, but in public areas like getting coffee, in the hallways, or cafeteria.

I have tried many ways of getting around this by trying various techniques to increase my distance, by moving around or adjusting to have a physical barrier between us, but frankly, there are many times when it just doesn't work and my only escape is to politely end the conversation.

I have not come up with any words that I am comfortable saying to alleviate the situation. I don't want to offend them, but it's a very awkward situation. I would really appreciate any ideas anyone else subject.

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Words are difficult in this situation because it's a non-verbal communication. Words would only call attention to your discomfort, which - in some cases - you don't want to do.

Invading personal space occurs for a lot of reasons; sometimes it's indicative of too little space (a crowded room), someone trying to assert dominance over you, someone trying to gain intimacy, an indication of a person's need (imagine yourself asking someone for a loan you desperately need), or just a real lack of interpersonal skills. Whatever the case, it's hard to deal with. A lot depends on your tolerance for discomfort in asserting yourself.

If it's not a crowded space, the first step is obviously to step back away from the person. If that doesn't work (the person closes the space), you can suggest you carry on the conversation in a less crowded part of the room, and walk away to such a place. If that doesn't work, I'd say politeness can be discarded.

One maneuver you can try is gently putting your hand on the person's arm (especially useful if the arms are crossed) or if they are very close, their shoulder, and backing away again, keeping your hand on the offender. This will cause your arm to extend a bit. If they try to close the space, keep your arm extended. That is a loud and clear "keep your distance" in body language. (President Trump likes to invade people's personal space by pulling them close to him. It obviously makes some people very uncomfortable. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used this maneuver to avoid his being pulled by Trump.)

The only way a person can close the space while you're doing this is to shake you off. If that happened to me, I'd just say, "Excuse me, there's someone over there I need to talk to," and get the heck out of Dodge. I really wouldn't worry about offending them, because I would feel unsafe with that person and I'd want to keep clear of them anyway.

If that feels too assertive to you, I think politely excusing yourself as soon as possible is your best option. If they are trying to assert dominance over you, and you admit you're uncomfortable, they've scored a touchdown.

If you like the person and you're worried about them (are they mentally ill?), please know that mental illness makes a person increase personal space, as does anxiety. But if this person does it to everybody, no matter what they're talking about, then I think they may just be socially awkward and you can gently tell them that you'd appreciate a little more space when the two of you talk. If it doesn't happen, you've done what you could.

  • Just to add another reason: personal space differs between cultures (with Finland on the extreme end). – user510 Aug 17 '17 at 21:02
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    @henning - Yes, and Japan (I think it is?) has very little sense of personal space; and in every country measured, women need more personal space than men. – anongoodnurse Aug 17 '17 at 21:11
  • that's interesting. I wasn't aware this is a gender thing, too. – user510 Aug 17 '17 at 21:14
  • It's even differs for people that live in cities and people that live in rural areas. It probably has to do with how much personal space you're used to. – josephine Feb 12 '18 at 15:24
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My usual technique is to turn my whole body towards them. Feet, shoulders, face, eyes. Try to be square on because personal space changes depending on the angle and what you're looking at. At the very least this should increase the distance a little.

Many close talkers sidle around the side and stand at an angle to get closer. My neighbor does this exact thing and I have to keep turning to keep her at bay. They may also use mutual points of focus (getting you to look away at the same distant point as them by staring off into the distance, or fixing attention on anything other than their face) to get your attention non-direct allowing them closer also.

Pick pockets and martial artists both use this angle change and not looking directly at the person to get close enough without triggering all the bodies closeness alarms. Being square on and attentive makes it less comfortable for them.

If it doesn't work then you should say something. You can either be direct:

sorry, I'm feeling a bit crowded

Or indirect:

sorry, you might not want to get too close I had garlic last night/ feel I need a shower

Or something jokingly like that

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    You could always give a nice, big cough/sneeze. – Chris Schneider Aug 30 '17 at 20:45
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I just take the blame. I say something like, "I am sorry to ask you this, but can you take a step back? I have personal space issues & when people stand close I start becoming anxious and a bit claustrophobic". So far, this has always been well received. I also don't think it's a total lie. I don't know how quite to explain the discomfort I feel when someone is standing right up on top of me & this seems decently accurate. I don't think it's unique to me though, I think it's a natural reaction to an invasion of your bubble.

As a funny story about this exact issue, when I was in school they taught us personal space. I wish they still did. We were made to wear hoops around us with suspenders for a whole week of school. The hoops were never supposed to cross over the hoop of another child, but they could touch. I think we may have been about 10 years old, or close to that. After that week, they would also have time they would yell out "arm check" and you were to put your arms out toward the person closest to you. Unless you were in the midst of sharing a giggle or secret, the idea was that your finger tips outstretched should barely touch their body & if you were any closer, you were a "close stander". LOL I wonder now if that was a standard lesson or if my class had a particular issue. I was blessed to be part of "the worst class they had ever seen". I laugh about it now, but it was a Catholic school and they took all things seriously, including how close you stand. ;)

  • "the worst class they had ever seen" Really? I also was told this, not feeling special anymore? :( – Mario Garcia Aug 18 '17 at 7:16
  • It's okay Mario, if you are younger than I am, perhaps you were worse than us. If you are older, then perhaps we were worse than you. LOL I can't imagine now why they actually said such a thing. The troubled kids sort of seemed to take pride in that label. – threetimes Aug 18 '17 at 17:58
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Throwing another perspecive into the mix -

I once had an issue with a person who complained I got too close to her (being a girl myself, so not sexual) - the problem was that she always spoke very quietly, almost whispering in noisy areas (such as the cafeteria!). She'd push me away to have more personal space, keep talking and I wouldn't understand a word, so I'd lean in again by reflex, causing her to get mad. When I told her that I'm sorry but can't understand her cause she speaks so quietly she was nothing but offended.

Could volume (either yours our theirs) be a problem? And therefore a solution?

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    Increasing the upvote count to 1, because the only thing wrong with this answer is "(I would post this as a comment but I don't have enough reputation)". This shouldn't be a comment. Talking louder is one way the potentially gain "acceptable" personal space talking with a "close talker". Therefore, this does answer the question. I also didn't see this resolution (or cause of the problem) mentioned in the other answers. Therefore, this answer is useful, which is the criteria for up-voting. I see no reason for this to be a comment. Good job. Welcome to IPS.SE – TOOGAM Sep 2 '17 at 22:53
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I would try to put the person at "arm's length."

Kev's suggestion of interposing your body is a good one. Absent that, I would put my hands/arms in front of me, perhaps. Such a gesture is one of "non-receptivity," and typically causes people to back off. Reinforce their behavior by uncrossing your arms if and when they do back off.

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There are a lot of different 'possible causes', and correspondingly a lot of different remedies:

  1. crowded area: In subway cars people are often packed in so close that people cannot help invading your space. Bear with it until you can get off, then wait on the platform for a less crowded train going the same way.
  2. Marketing: Salespeople are often taught that by imitating intimacy they soften your sales resistance. Be loudly offensive: "Brush your teeth and call a bomb squad to remove that crap you are flogging!"
  3. Real Intimacy: Instruction in this area is often considered offensive, so ill be quiet.
  4. Social gatherings: Tolerate more, and rebuke gently when 'your' limits are crossed, there is huge amounts of cultural variety. In rural areas you may be considered 'intruding' even at a distance of several meters.

Read also wiki: Proxemics

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