Have you ever felt the urge to cross the road or move seats on a train after a conversation taking place nearby becomes aggressive?
New research shows, for the first time, how the size of your interpersonal space changes depending on the tone and content of other people’s conversations.
The study, carried out by researchers from Anglia Ruskin University, University College London, Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, and the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia in Genoa, Italy, was published by the journal PLOS ONE.
For the study, researchers had participants listen to two recorded conversations between two people, one aggressive and one neutral.
After listening to each conversation, the psychologists measured the comfort level of that person’s interpersonal space using a “stop-distance” technique. For this, participants listened to a recording of footsteps walking towards them immediately after the conversations ended, the researchers explained.
They were asked to stop the recording as soon as the footsteps were too close to them and they started to feel uncomfortable.
Using the sound of footsteps rather than someone physically walking towards them removed any visual bias based on physical appearance, according to the researchers.
After listening to the aggressive conversation, participants stopped the sound of the approaching footsteps further away from their body — on average 7 seconds away — compared to 4.5 seconds after listening to a neutral conversation.
This implies that people want to distance themselves more from others immediately after hearing an ill-tempered conversation, the researchers said.
“Interpersonal space is the space we maintain between ourselves and others to feel comfortable,” said Dr. Flavia Cardini, senior lecturer in psychology at Anglia Ruskin University. “In this study, we showed for the first time that the tone of social interactions influences the size of this space, even when we are not directly involved in the interaction.
“We found that the average size of someone’s interpersonal space becomes larger after listening to an aggressive conversation taking place nearby,” she continued. “This is likely to be an attempt to maintain a safety zone around ourselves, and avoid any interaction or confrontation with those involved in the aggressive conversation.”
Source: Anglia Ruskin University