Physical boundaries and social distance

Boundaries kind of gets used as a buzzword. So I’m writing some posts about how I understand boundaries. This post is mostly about physical boundaries.

What I mean by boundaries is that people have things that are completely theirs, physically and emotionally. It’s important to respect what belongs to someone else, and not treat it like it’s yours. This is especially true of someone else’s body, their personal space, their thoughts, and their feelings. Respecting physical and emotional boundaries is part of respecting other people’s humanity.

People have the right to control what happens to their body. If someone doesn’t want you to touch them, it’s important not to, even if you really want to. And it’s important not to put pressure on them to change their mind. And that’s true whether or not your intentions are sexual. Platonic boundary violations are still boundary violations.

(This is slightly more complicated than it sounds. For instance, it’s usually considered insulting to refuse to shake hands with someone unless you have a really compelling reason not to (eg: if it’s physically dangerous). I will write more about nuances in the future. But on a basic level, this is how bodies and boundaries work. And, even if someone is being unreasonable, it’s still important to not touch them against their will.)

Some things that are not technically someone’s body follow similar principles. Clothing and jewelry that someone is wearing are like their body in this way. So are purses and wallets. Mobility and adaptive equipment (eg: a wheelchair or communication device) is *especially* like someone’s body. This is true even if someone isn’t touching their equipment (eg: if someone’s not sitting in their wheelchair right now, it’s still like part of their body and you still shouldn’t touch it unless they want you to).

Personal space is also like someone’s body. Getting too close to someone is like touching them without permission. Personal space is a bit hard to define, because it depends a lot on context and culture. For instance, it’s ok to stand closer to people in an elevator than in an empty hallway. It’s a kind of thing where you have to develop your judgement. (To an extent by trial and error; watching what other people are doing can also be helpful.)

When people are uncomfortable with how close you are to them, they are usually more likely to communicate this with body language than with words. If you’re interacting with someone and they look uncomfortable, it’s worth considering whether you might be standing or sitting too close. If you think you might be, it’s worth trying giving them a bit more space and seeing what happens.

Sometimes when people are uncomfortable with how close you’re standing or sitting, they try to fix this by moving away to a distance they feel comfortable with. If someone does this, it’s good to err on the side of assuming it’s intentional. (Particularly if they move further away more than once.) If you repeatedly get closer to someone when they’re trying to create more distance, they’re likely to regard it as a threat. From their perspective, they’re saying no and you’re doing it anyway.

It can be hard to learn to understand social distance, especially if you have trouble understanding body language. It’s also both possible and important.

Short version: It’s important to respect boundaries. One important boundary is a person’s right to control what happens to their body. An important part of this is to not touch people who don’t want to be touched. Some things a person might have are similar to their body. Standing too close to people is similar to touching them. Scroll up for more about how to tell where the lines are.