MAUGHAN: I have at least seven black puffy Patagonia vests that I’ve never worn.
* * *
DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
MAUGHAN: I’m Mike Maughan.
DUCKWORTH + MAUGHAN: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: how big is your personal bubble?
DUCKWORTH: “Rule of thumb. If you can touch me, you’re too close.”
* * *
DUCKWORTH: So Mike, I have this question for you that I was recently discussing with one of my good friends. We were talking the other day about personal space and how much personal space she wants, how much personal space I like. So, my question is, Mike Maughan, how much personal space do you need?
MAUGHAN: I love this question. I think this became a topic most popularized by Seinfeld. Did you ever watch Seinfeld?
DUCKWORTH: Oh my gosh. I have watched, I want to say, like, 70 percent of Seinfeld episodes.
MAUGHAN: I’ve watched, like, one percent of Seinfeld. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a full show.
DUCKWORTH: What?! How’s that possible?
MAUGHAN: We did not watch television growing up, but I definitely — like it, it so invaded the cultural lexicon that I, of course, know most of the references.
DUCKWORTH: You know, like, Seinfeld memes, even though you don’t have Seinfeld experience. Okay.
MAUGHAN: Exactly. But there’s this one episode where Elaine is dating the “close talker.” He always is, like, in people’s face in the most awkward way. And so, that’s when I feel like everybody started talking about “close talkers.” I remember talking to a friend of mine, Will, and I just said, “how much space do people need?” And he looked at me very seriously, and he said, “three feet.” And I started laughing out loud because I was like, that is such a definitive answer. And I think it’s so interesting. Obviously, I think the answer to this is that it’s very context dependent.
DUCKWORTH: Context dependent, meaning, like, it depends on whether I’m at a cocktail party or a funeral?
MAUGHAN: Well, if you’re in an elevator, you naturally are fine being — I mean, you may not love it, but you’re fine being super close.
DUCKWORTH: Or like, a queue at the airport. “Queue” as in line.
MAUGHAN: Right. But you also know those are temporary situations and probably people you’re not going to regularly be interacting with. Whereas, on Seinfeld, this guy is in your face and you’re like, “If he’s in my life this is not gonna work long term, right? Because he’s right there. So, I, I think elevator — if you also think about it, with a spouse, or partner, or your children, you’re fine cuddling with them, having much closer interaction than any, I would say, other normal human relationships.
DUCKWORTH: Yes. By the way, that’s not personal space. That’s called intimate space. So, of course, immediately after having this completely casual conversation with my friend, I do what I am so wont to do, which is I desperately wanted to know what research had been done, so I started looking it up. It is so interesting. And it’s actually related to something I’ve been generally interested in, which is the effect of the environment, or the situation, on our psyche. And so, when you talk about, like, really close up — like, I guess, the “close talker” in Seinfeld — the issue there is that he went from personal space to intimate space.”
MAUGHAN: And so, you’re saying once I get — in my friend Will’s parlance — three feet is maybe still “personal space,” but once you’re within one foot or something that’s called “intimate space,” it’s that literal?
DUCKWORTH That’s right. By the way, these are not nature’s distinctions. These are just, like, labels that psychologists give these concentric circles, these spheres that we live in, right? So, the most intimate space, I think it’s often defined as, “you’re so close that my eyes can hardly focus on you. It’s like you’re practically blurry.” You’re —.
MAUGHAN: Right, I’m reaching a state of panic, because you’re too up in my grill.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, that’s “close talker” space. Like, I don’t mind being that close to Jason, but I don’t want to be, like, 12 inches of pretty much anyone outside of my family. At least not for a long time — maybe a hug, right? It’s very interesting that when we hug people, we allow them into our intimate space.
MAUGHAN: It’s, again, maybe context because you know it’s going to be short. Well, it better be short, right?
DUCKWORTH: And it’s part of a ritual, but, you know, if somebody hugged you and then just, like, kept hugging you for, like, five minutes, it would be weird. And I do want to credit the first psychologist who I think actually made this distinction between intimate space and then personal space. And then, by the way, social space and then the last sphere, the biggest bubble, is public space. This was a psychologist named Edward Hall who published this book called The Hidden Dimension on human personal space, and that was in 1966. I think his earliest observations actually weren’t about people. They were about animals — or as we psychologists like to call them, “non-human animals,” because humans of course are animals. Anyway, animals also have personal space bubbles, apparently. Some neuroscientists like to call it like our second skin. So, this invisible bubble, for human beings, it is about three feet, just so you know. It’s, um —.
MAUGHAN: Oh wait, really?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, about three feet — of course, it depends on the person, but, like, roughly that — that defines your personal space bubble. In that space — or just around the edge of that space, like, that’s around where we’re comfortable with friends, acquaintances, coworkers. Intimate space is more for girlfriends, boyfriends, spouses, children. And then social space is, like, beyond personal space. That’s within eyesight and earshot. So, you can see people and you can hear them, but they’re beyond three feet. So, they’re in the same room, for example.
MAUGHAN: Right. But we’re not having conversation at that distance.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I mean, you could, in your social space, have a conversation. You know, that’s just having a conversation with somebody who’s more than three feet away from you, which you can do. And then, public space is, like, beyond ear shot and eyesight. So, it’s like you’re in a plaza and you can’t quite make out what someone looks like and you can’t quite hear them, but you know they’re there. That’s public space.
MAUGHAN: So, can I tell you a story? Because I want you to use this to teach me, because I’m so curious. Many years ago, I’d been living in Washington, D.C. —
DUCKWORTH: How old are you, in this true story of Mike Maughan?
MAUGHAN: I am in college, back in these days. And I have this internship in Atlanta. I don’t have anywhere to live. I don’t know anyone in Atlanta. I’ve never been there. So, I just find some really random roommates, uh, to live with for the summer. I’ve never met these people. I’ve never seen them since, but I lived with them for several months. One of the roommates was the epitome of a close talker. I’m not kidding. I literally would stand with arms — my hands on my hips, because my elbows would then protrude —.
DUCKWORTH: Your arms akimbo. Just as a defense mechanism.
MAUGHAN: It was literally so my elbows would keep him further away from me. Because if I didn’t do that, he was such a close talker. And this wasn’t cultural. They also grew up in the United States — because I know in certain places that I’ve lived — like, in Guatemala, we would get on these “chicken buses,” they call them. They’re old U.S. school buses, and they would sit three adults to a seat, pack the middle aisle. It didn’t feel weird to me at all. It felt very normal, because that’s just how everyone got around. And my personal space — while I was cramped and touched in every place by humans, right, just because you’re so tightly packed — it didn’t feel bad to me. But this roommate in Atlanta was such a close talker. So, I’m just curious, as you go into this research, why is it that it seems most of humanity, quote-unquote, has agreed on this three-feet thing, whereas some people just don’t understand that they are up in your face.
DUCKWORTH: This is mostly a universal phenomenon. There is some cross-cultural variation. One recent study suggested that people in warmer climates, including South America, tend to be okay with a smaller protective zone.
MAUGHAN: Wait, warmer climates? I would think it’s worse — because, body heat.
DUCKWORTH: I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t think it’s well understood, because there are a lot of things that go with warmer climates. There are confounds, so to speak. Like, it could be because it’s warm, but it could be because the sorts of places that are warm also have other things about them. But apparently colder and northern climates, I mean, think Scandinavian countries, they tend to have citizenry who are not liking to stand super close to each other. And so there’s some variation, but it’s not like 20 feet versus two inches. We all like people at arm’s length. I mean, there’s some age differences. Our bubble, like the space of our “please don’t get too close to me,” like, it does get a little bit larger as we get older, but it doesn’t vary that much. And that’s what’s interesting to me. And so, when you say that this close talker friend of yours, or former friend of yours —.
MAUGHAN: He was an acquaintance the whole time, at best.
DUCKWORTH: This passerby — I mean, it was memorable, right? Like, it was annoying. And the more recent research — it’s so interesting. There is a Princeton neuroscientist named Michael Graziano. And he wrote this book called The Spaces Between Us: A Story of Neuroscience, Evolution and Human Nature. And he talks about these neurons in the brain called peripersonal neurons. And they kind of go off when somebody steps into our personal space. So they’re, like, “monitoring the force field.” And one of the conclusions that you can draw from the neuroscience of personal space is that it’s really a protective mechanism that probably evolved for not only human beings, but for other animals. Like, when somebody is in your personal space — whether you’re a hyena or a human — you are potentially going to get attacked, right? Like, if somebody is closer than arm’s length, they could hit you with their arm. So, the idea is that this set of neurons, the peripersonal neurons, are basically protecting us from invasions. And I think that’s why close talkers — like this acquaintance of yours — like it’s so bothersome. I think it’s very primitive. I think it’s probably even non-verbal. We have, like, a visceral response to people being too close to us.
MAUGHAN: You say evolutionarily it developed maybe as this protective mechanism because I could be attacked. I’m curious, do you think, or does the research show that it’s also, you know, an emotional response? Because you’re invading my space emotionally, too. So, it’s not just a physical attack, right?
DUCKWORTH: Wait, what do you mean invading your space “emotionally”?
MAUGHAN: I don’t know. It just feels that you’re so close to me that there is this level of intimacy — when you talk about intimate space. So, I can’t say that I felt like with this roommate, or other people, that I was going be physically attacked, but more so I felt like they were in an emotional space that I was like, this is not a place where you get to enter, and I feel like you’re trying to connect with me in a way that I don’t want to connect with you.
DUCKWORTH: Right. Like, “Yo, get out of my personal space. You’re practically in my intimate space!
MAUGHAN: And I didn’t have the language for it then, but yeah!
DUCKWORTH: Well, I think that when we have emotions and when our bodies do things like release adrenaline and cortisol, which are stress hormones — and by the way, there is a connection between personal space and stress and anxiety. So, the more anxious and stressed you are at the moment, your bubble grows, right? Like, you want people to stay farther away from you. It’s also true, by the way, that more anxious people tend to have bigger personal space bubbles. So, I don’t know that when you have those reactions — the stress response, adrenaline, cortisol — I don’t know that it has to be for some rational reason in the moment. You know, so many of the things that evolution has given us as defense mechanisms were just, like, programmed from years, and years, and years of trying to survive. I don’t think it’s a modern day phenomenon where people who are closer than three feet, like, hit you over the head and take everything you have. So, with this annoying roommate who’s sidling up to you and getting in your personal space, getting close to your intimate space, I think maybe it’s creating an emotional response that originally was because of physical threat, but now is something that’s just a kind of legacy of that. All that said, I also think when we talk about these four concentric bubbles that we all live in — you know, I’ve got my intimate space bubble, I’ve got my personal space bubble, and there’s social space, and then this last bubble, public space — like, these, I think, are in some ways like physical metaphors for how quote unquote “close” we feel to other people. Like, your then acquaintance was standing next to you the way a best friend would or, like, your brother or your mother. And I think knowing what circle you’re supposed to be in is part of social intelligence. Like, Michael Graziano writes poignantly about his son not actually having the ability to detect other people’s personal space bubbles the way we all intuitively do, or most of us do, which led to a lot of misunderstanding. I think his school wanted to get him kicked out. I mean, like, other students were complaining and Michael and his wife actually had to make a legal case that this was a kind of learning disability in a sense, or a special accommodation needed to be made so that his son could learn to respect other people’s boundaries, which he eventually did. So, you know, you could learn. Like, you could learn in a way that’s, um, maybe other people don’t need to, because it’s intuitive to them. So, maybe the person that you’re talking about or the “close talker”-type characters that Seinfeld was ridiculing, maybe if they’re just told like, “Hey, rule of thumb. If you can touch me, you’re too close.”
MAUGHAN: And in, in fairness, I was too immature or whatever at the time, but clarity is kindness, right? And I never gave any sort of feedback.
DUCKWORTH: Ooh I like that. “Clarity is kindness.” I’m stealing that immediately.
MAUGHAN: Do not credit me. I’m sure someone else came up with it. But it’s this idea — I never gave feedback. And to your point of knowing who to invite in which space, one of the most stressful experiences I’ve ever had — and I’m not going name the individual, but as you know, at Qualtrics, we put on these huge conferences, and we’ve brought everyone from Oprah Winfrey, to Barack Obama, to Richard Branson —.
DUCKWORTH: To Angela Duckworth.
MAUGHAN: To Angela Duckworth.
DUCKWORTH: Just saying, from Oprah Winfrey, to Barack Obama, to Angela Duckworth.
MAUGHAN: We summited the mountain with Angela Duckworth.
DUCKWORTH: Yes, exactly.
MAUGHAN: But we had an individual who was the closing keynote on the final day of the conference. We’ve got, I don’t know, 10,000 people in the audience, and the person is nowhere to be found.
DUCKWORTH: What do you mean nowhere to be found?
MAUGHAN: Not answering their phone. Not on site. Like they haven’t even come — they’re not, like, off in the bathroom. All I know is that their plane landed. And it’s like 10 minutes before they’re supposed show up — seven minutes, five minutes. And I’ve got nothing left. We don’t even know what to put on stage.
DUCKWORTH: There’s no alternate.
MAUGHAN: No, and there’s this man on stage and we keep — every time he looks away from the clock, we, like, add two minutes, so he thinks he has more time. But what was interesting about this experience is you’re saying when you’re stressed, when you’re whatever — I did want most people away from me, but there was one person, and I just went and grabbed them, and I said, “Hey, I need you here.” And they said, “Awesome. How can I help? What do you want me to do?” I said, “There’s nothing for you to do. I just need you by my side.
DUCKWORTH: You wanted them to just physically be in your personal space, right? If they’re right by your side.
MAUGHAN: Maybe even you would call it intimate space.
DUCKWORTH: Maybe intimate space, somewhere between intimate space and personal space.
MAUGHAN: Yeah. I just needed something steady in the midst of all this chaos. I just needed somebody there, even though there was nothing for them to do.
DUCKWORTH: Did they put their arm around you? Did they touch you gently on the forearm? Did they pat your head? I mean, did they do anything that involved that kind of assurance, like physical touch?
MAUGHAN: I have no memory of any physical touch. There was just the comfort of, like, a steady presence in the midst of, like, total chaos.
DUCKWORTH: Also, you need to tell me the ending of that story. So, what happened?
MAUGHAN: Fair. Fair point. The person showed up with, like, two minutes to spare. There was no prep, there was no “hello.” Incredibly charismatic person, crushed it on the stage, everybody loved this individual in the photo line, and I hoped to never work with them again so long as I live.
DUCKWORTH: Oh my goodness.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Mike and Anglea discuss how the way you manage your personal space can affect your health and success.
MAUGHAN: It’s not rational. And I actually know it’s worse for me, but I keep doing it.
* * *
Now, back to Mike and Angela’s conversation about personal space.
DUCKWORTH: There is a dimension of personal space that I find to be urgently important. And I guess it’s because I study behavior change. So, if we think about what’s within arm’s reach, we should think about the temptations, uh, that are within arm’s reach, like, you know, pick-your-favorite social media poison — like TikTok and Instagram, let’s say. Those are the two vices of devices that my own two daughters —.
MAUGHAN “Vices of devices.”
DUCKWORTH: I just made that up. Good, right? I’m going to patent that immediately.
MAUGHAN: Yes. I think we’re going to coin that term.
DUCKWORTH: But my daughters, Lucy and Amanda, say all the time how they wish they didn’t spend so much of their time on TikTok or on Instagram. That’s within arm’s reach, because guess what? Their cell phones are within arm’s reach, and they have elected not to permanently delete those. I mean, they occasionally delete those apps and then —.
MAUGHAN: It is so easy to just put them back on.
DUCKWORTH: It comes back. I’m like, “Wait, what is this on your phone?” They’re like, “Yeah, well, I reinstalled it.” So, we’ve got, you know, our cell phones within our personal spaces. We also have, for a lot of us, junk food and we don’t have things that maybe we want to have. I had this recent obsession with hydration. I know you could argue that Americans are over hydrated, because we’re walking around with water bottles all the time, but I personally think we’re not hydrating enough.
MAUGHAN: Have you been to a conference in the last two years where they haven’t given out water bottles?
DUCKWORTH: No, I know. They’re supposed to save the environment, because they’re permanent. But then I’m like, yeah, but I have 42 of them.
MAUGHAN: I literally can’t give them away. And they’re nice water bottles.
DUCKWORTH: Do you know that, um, Patagonia no longer lets companies make Patagonia jacket or vest swag because the very ethical owners of Patagonia don’t want Patagonia vests to go into the landfill.
MAUGHAN: And where I’m likely to wear a Patagonia jacket, I’m not going to wear a Patagonia jacket that says “blank company” on it.
DUCKWORTH: And you already have 95 of them from the last 95 conferences with your water bottles that you also got there!
MAUGHAN: If you walked into my closet — I am not joking, I’ve never worn one. And why do I keep them? I don’t know. I have at least seven black puffy Patagonia vests that I’ve never worn.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. My point was about hydration. Even though we have all these, like, branded water bottles that we’ve gotten at conferences, and I don’t think I’m drinking enough water. I feel like my mother-in-law’s not drinking enough water. I occasionally text her and my own mother and say like, “You could be getting dehydrated right now. Go drink some water.” So, if hydration, for example, is something you would like to do more of, then in your personal space, within arm’s reach, there should be a water bottle. And, like, if you want to read more, then within your personal space, within arm’s reach, should be a book. If you don’t want to be on Instagram or TikTok, then within your personal space, there should not be your cell phone with an app. So, we have this evolutionary machinery, we have these peripersonal neurons that serve a social function, but I think there’s also a self-control dimension of personal space. And I think we should be very intentional. We should design our personal space. We should exclude devices and vices — or at least the devices that are vices — and we should decorate our personal space with the things that we want to do more of. That’s to me, actually, the aspect of personal space that’s most interesting.
MAUGHAN: And I think even on the fridge level, when I open the fridge, whatever’s at eye level I’m going to eat more of than whatever’s down in the bottom drawer. In essence, you’re talking about nudges, right?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, if you mean, and I think you do, right, nudges as Richard Thaler, the Nobel Laureate economist, would define them — you know, these small changes to the physical choice environment that we have usually made for us by policymakers, but can also be administered to ourselves. Now there are, I think, dozens, maybe even hundreds, of governments around the world that have nudge units trying to figure out all kinds of opportunities to nudge the public into making healthier choices. But also, I like your example, Mike, because we do open up our refrigerator. Like, what’s at eye level, and what’s accessible, and what’s on a really high shelf and a pain to get to? Or what did you not even buy in the first place so it’s not in your house? So, I surveyed thousands of teenagers across the country, and I asked them to imagine that they had to study for a big test, and that they had a choice of where they would put their phone and in what position? So, it was multiple choice. The first option was, “next to me with the screen up and the sound on.” Next option was, “next to me, screen down, sound off.” Third, “my phone is near me out of sight.” Fourth, “in my room, out of sight and reach.” And the last choice was, “in another room.” So, it’s just a single question. And, by the way, Mike, if you could channel your inner teenager, what would you say your option would be if you were studying for a big test? Like, where would your phone be and in what position?
MAUGHAN: I think I would lie to myself and you and say in another room, because I know that’s the right answer if I’m studying for a test. Given how I most often do it, it’s probably on the table, face-side down. Here’s what I’ve learned though. Nobody has to have their cell phone all the time. Like, you have taught me about catastrophizing. I think sometimes we do that with our phones. Like, even if you just have a group of people hanging out at your house and you’re all having dinner and the kids are with babysitters, every single parent is like, “Well, but what if something, like —.” You can’t just put your phone away.
DUCKWORTH: So true!
MAUGHAN: Whereas, like, in the past, they’ll call if something’s, like, terrible. Otherwise let the babysitter do — you have a trusted person there. We have this idea that, like, I have to have my phone all the time. What if?
DUCKWORTH: “What if?”
MAUGHAN: No offense, none of us are that important, and most things are not that urgent.
DUCKWORTH: I want to tell you what the teenager data said, and then I want to address the “what if” problem, which I am definitely guilty of. So, in the data from these teenagers, we actually had the report card grades from their schools, so we could match what position they chose to put their phone in in a studying scenario, which of course all students have been in.
MAUGHAN: Sorry. Let me clarify though. Are you asking them what they think they should do or what they actually did when studying for the test?
DUCKWORTH: We asked them what they typically did when actually studying for tests. And the graph is beautiful, because the kids with the highest grades have their phones in another room. Then, the next highest is, like, in my room, but out of sight and reach. And the lowest, and by a lot, is next to me with the screen up and the sound on. And I think a lot of students will say things like, “What if I miss a text message? What if there’s a notification and I don’t get on it right away?”
MAUGHAN: Then you’re probably going to be just fine. Not just fine. You’re going to be better off.
DUCKWORTH: Yes, I love that we are, you know, sermonizing together. I don’t know how effective this chart is when I show it to teenagers, but, um, my graduate student and I are working with Khan Academy to teach kids this technique from the self-control research, which is called “situation modification.” And the idea is that in your personal space, you know what’s within arm’s reach is completely under your control in many cases. You can turn your phone off. You can give your phone to your mom, so it’s not even in your personal space. Like, you can modify your situation and by removing temptations, you destroy their power over you.
MAUGHAN: I mean, I know all the things to do, right? I know the nudges to put in place. I know if I want to drink more water — in fact, I have these great Stanley water bottles that I love. I have one on my desk at work.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, what’s a Stanley water bottle?
MAUGHAN: It’s just this amazing — I’ll buy you one since you need another water bottle.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, what’s amazing about it?
MAUGHAN: I don’t know. It has a handle, a big straw. I keep one in each car, I keep one on my desk at work, I keep one at home. So, my point is I know what to do — and like your daughters maybe with TikTok or whatever’s on your phone, I know I should not keep my phone charging by my bed. I know that.
DUCKWORTH: Ugh, I hate that you do that Mike.
MAUGHAN: That’s what I’m saying. Every five, seven, 10 weeks, I’m like, okay, we’re gonna try this again. And I move the charger to another room and I keep it in the office. And for two or three days I get the best sleep of my life. I’m not distracted.
DUCKWORTH: And then it comes back?
MAUGHAN: Of course!
DUCKWORTH: Why? Tell me why.
MAUGHAN: I think because it’s become a space for mental escape. What — what I’m doing at night, if I’m on the phone, I do the Wordle every day. I have some other New York Times puzzle and I have a little group of family that we text it to each other every day. It’s just a simple way to keep in touch, and we see how everybody did. I play those games, look at Instagram, read a bunch of news articles. But instead of going to bed at an appropriate hour, I’m like, “Oh, I’ve just read C.N.N. But what does The Washington Post say? What does the local news say? Maybe I should check Instagram again, because what if somebody else posted something?” It’s dumb. It’s not rational. And I actually know it’s worse for me, but I keep doing it. That’s why I love this idea that you’re talking about not only personal space — how far away do we stand from people culturally, evolutionarily — but also how do we quote-unquote “hack our personal space” in order to very intentionally create the experience that we know will be best for us.
DUCKWORTH: Mike, I think we both want to hear from NSQ listeners about personal space. If you have a story about your relationship with personal space — maybe how big your ideal bubble is, how you handle close talkers, or as Mike and I have been discussing, how you hack your personal space in ways that make your life better — record a voice memo. Tell us your name, where you’re from, make sure you record in a quiet place, put your mouth close to the phone, and email us at NSQ@freakonomics.com. And if we love your story, we will play it on a future episode of the show. So Mike, let’s end this conversation by thinking about what the implications are of all this research and personal observation. I want to say that when I think of this bubble that we live in — you know, when I learned that I have neurons in my brain that kind of, like, go off when somebody enters this bubble, I guess I’m glad that evolution gave me this, like, alert system. But I think the greatest danger in the 21st century is not getting, like, clubbed over the head by somebody who’s entering your personal space. I think the greatest enemies are the ones that we introduce into our personal spaces ourselves. I think the greatest enemies are TikTok, and Instagram, and all the other things we blow away hours and hours of time then end up feeling worse about ourselves afterwards. I think it’s cheap and easy to eat food that we tend to have at arm’s length when we’re watching TV or working. And I am resolving to take control, Mike — to take control of that personal space.
MAUGHAN: And I’m going to commit to you that I will spend at least three hours on TikTok tonight, searching how to better hack my personal space.
* * *
This episode was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation:
Angela says that Edward Hall was the psychologist who first made the distinction between intimate space, personal space, social space, and public space. But Hall, who passed away in 2009, was an anthropologist, not a psychologist. In his 1966 book The Hidden Dimension, he introduced the idea of “proxemics” to describe the study of interpersonal spatial behavior, and he actually refers to these concentric bubbles as “distances” — not “spaces.” So, “intimate distance,” “personal distance,” “social distance,” and “public distance.” Angela defines the latter as “beyond earshot and eyesight.” Hall, by contrast, defines “public distance” as greater than 12 feet. For the majority of people, 12 feet is within both earshot and eyesight. Also, when introducing Hall’s research, Angela says that his first observations were regarding “non-human animals.” This is incorrect; as an anthropologist, Hall only studied human animals. Angela was likely thinking of Hall’s contemporary Heini Hediger, also known as the “father of zoo biology,” who was influential on Hall’s thinking and whose work Hall discusses in The Hidden Dimension.
Later, Mike says that Angela shouldn’t credit him for the idea that “clarity is kindness” because he thinks that someone else may have come up with it. Mike probably got this phrase from Brené Brown, whose renowned TED Talk on vulnerability he referenced in Episode 157. In her 2018 book, Dare to Lead, Brown writes that she first heard the phrase “clear is kind — unclear is unkind” at a 12-step meeting. She writes that it resonated with her because, quote, “most of us avoid clarity because we tell ourselves that we’re being kind, when what we’re actually doing is being unkind and unfair.” Finally, Angela says she wants to patent the phrase “vices of devices.” That would be impossible; under U.S. intellectual property law, patents are reserved for technical inventions. She probably meant to say she wants to trademark the phrase. And if so, according to the United States Patent and Trademark Office database, a trademark on “vices of devices,” has yet to be registered. That’s it for the fact-check.
Before we end today’s show, let’s hear some of your thoughts about last week’s episode on whether it’s better to be a big fish in a little pond or a little fish in a big pond.
Kirsten RISSOVER: Hi, Angela and Mike. My name is Kirsten. I’m from Miami, and I had an experience as a small fish in a very big pond. I had been a swimmer my entire life, and on my high school team, club team, I was one of the best swimmers on the team. But I knew I wasn’t good enough to swim at a Division 1 school. I was getting recruited by Division 2 and Division 3 schools. But I decided to go to a Division 1 school anyway to pursue the major I was interested in. So I decided to walk onto the swim team, and I was hands down the worst swimmer on that team. I didn’t have the Kobe Bryant mentality of, “I’ll work harder and I’ll become faster than these people,” because I just didn’t have the talent or physical ability to do so. But I really believe that training with such an elite team made me better than I could have been otherwise. My personal times improved so much, and it really freed me from a fear of failure, because even though I came in last in every race, I was able to see that it was still a success for me personally.
That was Kristen Rissover. Thanks so much to her and to everyone who sent in their stories. And remember, we’d love to hear about your relationship with personal space. Have you ever had to face a close talker like Mike’s roommate? Or do you have strategies for hacking your bubble like Angela? Send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com, and you might hear your voice on the show!
Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Why would a successful person feel the need to stick it to the little guy?
MAUGHAN: Alarm clock starts ringing. Who could that be singing? It’s me, baby, with your wake up call. How do you like me now?
That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.
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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Lyric Bowditch is our production associate. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. We had research assistance from Daniel Moritz-Rabson. Our theme song was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
MAUGHAN: To be clear, Angela, I just have no discipline.
- “Guatemala’s Tricked-Out ‘Chicken Buses’ Have Lots of Stories to Tell,” by Megan Janetsky (Atlas Obscura, 2022).
- “The Finance Bro Uniform Is Officially Dead as Patagonia Stops Adding Corporate Logos to Its Ubiquitous Fleece Vests,” by Ben Gilbert (Insider, 2021).
- “Hack Your Space: Putting Distance Between You and Your Vices,” by Angela Duckworth (Character Lab, 2021).
- Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts, by Brené Brown (2018).
- “The Unconscious Rules of Personal Space,” by Michael Graziano (The Atlantic, 2018).
- The Spaces Between Us: A Story of Neuroscience, Evolution, and Human Nature, by Michael Graziano (2017).
- “Preferred Interpersonal Distances: A Global Comparison,” by Agnieszka Sorokowska, Piotr Sorokowski, John D. Pierce, Jr., et al. (Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 2017).
- “Situation Selection and Modification for Emotion Regulation in Younger and Older Adults,” by Kimberly M. Livingstone and Derek M. Isaacowitz (Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2015).
- Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (2008).
- The Hidden Dimension, by Edward Hall (1966).