Because each of us has our own perception of how big our bubble should be, having someone "invade" our personal space is uncomfortable. This intimate zone, up to about 18 inches, is typically reserved for loved ones, close friends, and your doctor. And in a networking situation, where you're trying to meet new people, it can add an additional level of anxiety to a situation that's already stressful for many.
In addition to the personal space bubble, we each have different levels of comfort with touching. Even a light touch on the arm or shoulder can feel too intimate when it comes from a stranger.
For example, a colleague of mine at the networking meeting walked up and put his arm around me as a greeting -- then stood there with his arm around my shoulders as the group's conversation continued. I was a little uncomfortable with this, but would have felt more awkward pulling myself away. My husband, standing in the same group, was amused.
There are also other factors that play into personal space comfort level, such as gender, degree of acquaintance (stranger vs. friend) and culture. Studies have found that Americans prefer more personal space than people in Mediterranean and Latin American cultures, for example.
So what is one to do when feeling cornered by a close-talking touchy-feely stranger at a networking event? Or what if you find the person you're talking to backing away?
If you're the one feeling cornered...
First of all, realize that the close talker is not trying to intimidate or come onto you. His personal space bubble is smaller than yours, and he is unconsciously moving into the space that's comfortable.
Is there more space around you to move into? Feel free to move. That doesn't mean the close talker will stay where they are, however, but if you move, the other person may sense your discomfort and become aware of the space issue. If you are crammed up against a table (as I was last week) or wall, tell the person you need more space, and move into a different area of the room where you won't feel as cornered.
Most importantly, be willing to accept that everyone has a different bubble, and in our increasingly multicultural and crowded environment, we may sometimes have to suck it up and deal with someone else's small bubble.
If you're the one people are backing away from...
Realize that it's not personal; it's not about you, it's about your bubble! If you see people backing away as you're talking, make a conscious effort not to follow them. Personal space is a strong instinct, and we are very likely to keep moving until we feel comfortable, but we can also be aware of this movement and others' discomfort.
Even in the virtual community Second Life, studies of personal interactions have shown that users position their avatars as in real life, moving away or averting their eyes when too close to another.
Just as with other public speaking skills, understanding and managing personal space takes practice. It's about awareness of your own and sensitivity to others' comfort levels. Do your best to read the other person's body language and act accordingly.
And go easy on the garlic.
What have been your experiences with personal space in networking environments?