my coworker keeps getting in my personal space

A reader writes:

I have a new coworker who I mostly like. She is a little complainy and stubborn but she’s the newest person on my team and I think she is just still adjusting to our company. We are both young women and in our first jobs out of college.

We sit next to each other in the office, no more than two to three feet apart. Normally when I need to talk to her, I just stay where I am and get her attention. When she needs to talk to me or ask me a question, she scoots her chair over so that she is only about 10 inches away from me, sometimes less. And then she leans in to be about six inches from my face to ask her question.

This drives me absolutely crazy. I have a stronger need for personal space than most, but this just activates my alarm bells every time. And since she has a lot of (completely reasonable) questions, this happens dozens of times per day. I also think the optics of leaning in are weird because it makes it look like we’re whispering when we really aren’t. I just can’t take it anymore, and she only started two weeks ago!

I really don’t want to offend her, but I can’t think of a way to get her to stop practically kissing my cheek without making things weird between us. Can you give me a script for how to kindly get her to back off (that doesn’t involve always pretending I have a cold or something)?

Personal space is such an interesting thing — wherever your personal space bubble is calibrated, that distance will feel so obviously and inherently right to you that it always feels strange if someone is closer or further away than that. And that’s before we even get into how ideas about personal space change from culture to culture.

It sounds like your coworker’s idea of personal space is calibrated much differently than most Americans’ is (six inches from your face! oh my!), whereas yours sounds pretty typical. But even if you had unusually high needs for personal space, you could still speak up.

The next time your coworker scooches over to you, just say this: “I have a pretty big personal space bubble! Can I move you back a foot?” Say this cheerfully. You want to sound a little like you’re laughing at yourself over your idiosyncrasy, while still asserting your right to have it.

That might be all it takes for her to remember. But if it happens again, say, “We’re in my bubble again! Can I move you back a bit?” Again, cheerfully and a little like you’re poking fun at yourself.

It’s okay if she decides you have a weird hang-up about this (as opposed to realizing that she might be getting too close for a lot of people). It’s fine for her to think that! We all have weird hang-ups about something or other. You just want to clearly explain what your own needs are, and if she’s a courteous person, she’ll respect that.

{ 261 comments… read them below }

  1. Vicky Austin*

    Stop wearing deodorant. That will guarantee that she’ll keep her distance from you!

    Just kidding. Don’t really do this. I like Alison’s suggestion.

    1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      Just have coffee breath all the time, OP.

      Honestly, if a coworker was routinely hovering six inches from my face, I’d need a lot of coffee to get through the day anyway. So I wouldn’t even be doing it on purpose.

      1. Joielle*

        I was drinking coffee as I was reading this and I thought exactly the same thing, haha. Nobody would want to be 6 inches from my face right now. OP, can you just drink lots of coffee and start drawing out your H sounds? “Hhhhhello colleague, I’d be hhhhappy to hhhhhelp you”

        Kidding… kind of.

    2. SarahKay*

      Eat really garlicky garlic bread.

      Actually, in an open office, really strong garlic bread might overdo it, but a little garlic in your food will have her keeping back – unless, of course, she eats it herself at which point she probably won’t be able to smell it on you….

      1. The Bimmer Guy*

        Or, if you’re a cigarette smoker, go and have a long cigarette break. That’ll work, unless your coworker also smokes.

        Aaaaannnnd terrible advice like this is why the LW didn’t write in to any of us.

          1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

            Can we do it here 1/1/2020? Please? Open thread maybe? I’ll be reading it on my breaks for the rest of the year!

      2. Jaydee*

        Is it possible that the whole thing about warding off vampires with garlic was really an ancient way of dealing with close-talkers?

    3. Free Meerkats*

      Added to the “don’t do this” list, since she’s so close, just kiss her cheek.

      Or tell here she smells better when she’s awake.

  2. pleaset*

    I find it hard to think of any culture where speaking six inches from someone’s face is normal in an office (apart from needing to whisper or talk with the person in a special way – and taking in combination with a hug upon greeting).

    A foot is the closest I can think of as normal anywhere.

    1. Augusta Sugarbean*

      I’m with you pleaset – six inches isn’t likely to be normal in any office context anywhere.

      Hard, hard disagree with the advice to act like you are poking fun at yourself. Your colleague is being inappropriate and needs to respect other your boundaries. OP, you say you are somewhat new to the workforce so learn to stand up for yourself now. Don’t get into a habit of being self-deprecating. It is 100% possible and appropriate to be firm and direct and polite all at the same time. You are not being the bad guy by saying “You are sitting too close. Please move back.” If she gets offended, she gets offended. That is not your fault. Don’t fall into the trap of managing other people’s feelings. If you are polite and professional, you have done your part.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        The idea is to keep things warm and let her save face. This script feels a lot chillier than many people want to be to a coworker they’re friendly with. It’s going to come across as unnecessarily cold to a lot of people.

        1. INeedANap*

          Yeah I think it will come across as too cold, but I also agree that it’s a little too self-deprecating. It’s totally normal to want more personal space, it’s not a weird quirk of OP’s or an idiosyncrasy.

          Maybe something simple like, “Would you mind moving back so I have more space? Thanks! So anyways, those TPS reports…” – said with a smile and friendly but not joking tone of voice.

          1. valentine*

            it’s not a weird quirk of OP’s or an idiosyncrasy.
            This matters less than the offender stopping, and is something they might remember, while thinking of anything else as a one-off, possibly indicative of OP having a bad day.

            More plainspoken approaches (and certainly my faves: “No is a complete sentence/Don’t JADE”) could easily land OP in trouble, with a bonus “I need you girls to play nice,” or even having to apologize, and leave her feeling can’t say anything, ever. A script that feels too nice to some of us, though, gives OPs lots of room to escalate.

          2. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

            Agree. I kind of am not very partial to the idea of reinforcing OP’s coworker’s belief that being six inches from another person’s face is totally socially acceptable, and that, if anyone has an issue with that, it’s a weird quirk of that particular person. Not only will she do the same to others, she’ll keep forgetting and getting intimately close to OP because in her mind, it’ll continue to be not that big of a deal.

            1. tamarack and fireweed*

              The way I see this is that there are three things one might want to achieve here:

              a) Get her to move out of the OP’s personal space
              b) Acknowledge that the OP is right and she is the one who’s breaking generally acknowledged norms
              c) Preserve an easygoing working relationship and mutual enjoyment of each other’s qualities.

              We all agree that that a) is the main goal. I don’t think you can have BOTH b) and c). And if I have to choose, I’d take c) over b) any time.

              This doesn’t mean that the OP has to become a simpering fool and do it all with a self-deprecating laugh. It does mean that preserving face and letting the co-worker come to her own conclusions about the social acceptance of her personal space base setting is preferable to making her feel rejected and disrespected.

              (From her perspective, after all, nothing is wrong. She doesn’t consciously agree with b) — if she did, she would keep her distance. She probably hasn’t thought about the topic in a long while. Maybe her habits developed for a good reason, a deaf grandma for example who asked everyone to talk close to her face. Dunno. So suddenly she gets disdain and harsh vibes. She’s highly unlikely to be in a headspace to think about it, so a harsh reaction would cause some sort of mental whiplash to her. So if I were her — if this happened to me at my base distance setting — I’d be thinking “geez, sure, I’ll move back, but did she have to be such a jerk about it? AM I too close? what’s too close anyway? I need to ask my friends …” … and would feel a lot less congenial about the person I after all have to spend extended times at less than 1 m distance, myself.)

              It sounds like a situation where the “there’s something I need to tell you, and it’s something that can go badly, which I REALLY don’t want, so I’m saying this to make it more likely that you’re not taking it badly, because I don’t want you to feel badly about it” talk may also apply.

              1. Parenthetically*


                I was just about to say, “Is the main goal to get her to acknowledge that your way is right and her way is wrong? Or is the main goal to get her to move back and stay back?”

              2. Avasarala*

                This! So many people here are overly concerned with being “right” and making sure the other person knows it.
                “I shouldn’t have to worry about the feelings of people who are wrong!” Uh, welcome to society. Nobody likes being corrected and if you go around correcting people who didn’t ask for it, you’re not going to be very well-liked.

          3. Feline*

            There’s always a happy medium. I use “Hey, c’mon, personal space!” It has a little informality, but it is still assertive.

        2. The Bimmer Guy*

          That’s the case for your advice in general. There’s always a super-assertive, kill-it-with-fire solution to stopping intrusive behavior from a coworker, but it’s often someone you’ll continue to see and to with. If the behavior isn’t overly egregious (like sexual harassment or a racist screed) and there’s a solution that comes across as friendly, but still gets the point across, that’s the way to go, IMO.

          1. Shad*

            You can always get more assertive if the friendly approach fails, but you can’t undo an assertive response that breaks the working relationship you had before. It’s always fine to have those more assertive responses in your back pocket if the friendly one fails, they just aren’t the first step.

            1. Parenthetically*

              “you can’t undo an assertive response that breaks the working relationship you had before.”

              Agreed! Though I’d argue that “Hey, I’ve got a bigger bubble than you do, so could you move back a foot or two while we chat?” with a pleasant tone IS assertive, while an unsmiling, firm, “Stop. You are too close. Move back,” is dancing right up to aggressive.

      2. hbc*

        The problem is that if OP tries to make it about Coworker being a weirdo and objectively getting too close, that’s something she can argue against. If OP makes it about herself, it’s going to make Coworker a lot less defensive, and there’s nothing really to argue about. What’s she going to say–“You’re lying, you don’t want that much space”?

        Worst case, Coworker goes off to tell people about what a weirdo OP is needing, like, double digit inches of personal space. And those people will almost all be thinking “Whew, someone finally told her” and some might even say, “Well, uh, I might be weird too then” once the seal has been broken.

        1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

          Worst case, Coworker goes off to tell people about what a weirdo OP is needing, like, double digit inches of personal space. And those people will almost all be thinking “Whew, someone finally told her” and some might even say, “Well, uh, I might be weird too then” once the seal has been broken.

          This is a really good point that I hadn’t thought of!

      3. LittleRedRidingHuh...?*

        15 years ag I would have agreed with you, but then I moved from Germany to Ireland and everything changed. As a German I MUST have a huge personal bubble at all the time, bitte! (imagine me with my arms stretched out, rotating and mumbling something along the lines: this is my dancing space, this is your dancing space)
        But I found Irish people, especially in inner city Dublin, are different. They come up close, they want to see you, talk to you and because all the Pubs are so noisy, most of them will inch closer and closer. My tiny inner German was in agony for the first few months, every conversation with my Manager was so uncomfortable until one day he just said: Listen up, just take the stick outta yer backside and have some craic. (probably not the most professional way of telling me to maybe adjust a bit better) and to be fair, it worked. Intercultural understanding is important and sometimes the people, who you think are in your face, might just not realize it because they don’t know differently. Talking does help! :)

        1. min*

          Yes, one of the things that shocked me the most when I moved from the US to the UK was how much smaller the personal bubble is here! I don’t know why, but I’d assumed if anything it would be larger. I was so wrong.

          1. Elfie*

            Late to the party, but it’s something to do with physical space. Like, the UK is a tiny country with a huge population, and especially in the cities, all squeezed in together. Go to Japan, and I wager the lack of personal space thing will be even more pronounced. I grew up in the country in Canada (so a massive country with a very small population – I needed SO.MUCH.SPACE). Then I moved to the UK, and I have had to become used to smelling strangers’ armpits on the Tube – basically, your idea of personal space is tied up with the amount of physical space you have to go about your daily business, so if you move to areas with a pronounced difference, then it’s quite obvious. It’s not the only factor, of course – social conditioning also comes into play, but across societies that should be reasonably similar, I’ve found the physical space aspect does seem to explain a lot of it.

      4. Parenthetically*

        If she gets offended, she gets offended. That is not your fault. Don’t fall into the trap of managing other people’s feelings.

        No matter how OP chooses to handle this, she has to continue to work with Jane day after day. Your suggested phrasing is going to have the desired effect, but at the expense of a warm and collegial working relationship. I wouldn’t personally want to start a professional relationship off on the chilliest possible note just because I was technically “right.”

    2. pony tailed wonder*

      Is your co-worker from a different culture? I had a roommate from Hong Kong who walked very close to me when we were going places on campus. I finally asked her to space out a bit more when walking with Americans when I found myself walking in a dirty gutter to get my space. She wasn’t upset that I asked.

        1. Gaia*

          So I read this and saw that it says Americans like to have 4 feet distance from their conversation partner. I laughed thinking that sounded like a ridiculous amount of space until I measured it out and…yea. Seems about right. Anything closer and it feels edging on intimate which, at work, nope.

      1. The Reluctant Otter*

        I second this! Or regardless of different culture just comes from a densely populated place, which Hong Kong also is.

        Slight tangent – feel free to delete if off topic Alison.

        Proxemics, the study of the way humans use space and how it affects our communication, behavior and social interactions, is absolutely fascinating.

        One of the broad rules seems to be that people in, or who come from more densely populated areas like, cities are less sensitive and have lower expectations for having their personal space invaded than those in rural areas. Apparently you can tell if someone was raised in a city or rural area by how far out they extend their hand when shaking yours.

        1. Public Health Researcher*

          I have never heard of this term (Proxemics) — absolutely fascinating! I’ve sometimes wondered about our differing personal space needs. Personally, I think I require more of it than most people, but never understood where it came from or why. There’s another woman in my office who I’m constantly needing to back away from. Trying to do this politely has been challenging, but other than this one thing, I really like and respect her, so I would never want to alienate her. I’m going to use Alison’s script, plus do a little digging into Proxemics. Thank you, Alison and Reluctant Otter!

    3. Pomona Sprout*

      All of this making me wonder if I’ve been offending a lot of people without knowing it. I am a bit hard of hearing, and I often have to get a lot closer than 4 feet to catch every word someone is saying. (I wear hearing aids, but my hearing is still not normal, even with the most advanced devices–this actually true of most people who use hearing aids, btw.) Just how close I have to get is affected by a variety of thinggs, including vocal volume and pitch (my hearing loss is mostly in the upper registers, so I can understand deeper voices better than high-pitched ones), and how clearly someone enunciates. If I can’t get close enough to hear (and with some people, especially those who mumble or have thick accents, “close enough” doesn’t really exist), my choices are to repeatedly ask for repetition (which annoys people) or rely on semi-educated guesses and contextual clues to try to fill in the blanks. I don’t like to annoy people, so I try to avoid asking people to repeat themselves, unless I have a sense that I might be missing important infornation.

      And yeah, I can’t help wondering if that co-worker’s hearing is a factor here, but I know hoofbeats usually mean horses, not zebras or unicorns, so.

      1. Parenthetically*

        I had the same thought. But surely the solution is to say, “I’m a bit hard of hearing, so I hope you don’t mind if I lean in a bit to make sure I catch your response!”

  3. Venus*

    With that many questions, I would be tempted to ask her to email me the questions in addition to Alison’s advice, so that I wouldn’t lose my concentration. Or suggest meeting up once or twice a day to go over the list in the lunch room.

  4. That Girl from Quinn's House*

    I think you can just ask her and it’ll be fine.

    My gut read of this situation, because it’s something I’d do in an open office, is that she is trying very hard to speak as quietly as possible and not bother anyone around and/or have them judge what she’s saying.

    1. Jungkook*

      ” I also think the optics of leaning in are weird because it makes it look like we’re whispering when we really aren’t.”

      Sounds like that’s not the case which is odd. Still, I feel like looking weirded out and moving backwards a little might give her the hint, and if not just gently asking her not to get so close would be fine. Some issues don’t require extensive advice IMO…

    2. zora*

      I think the key for me is actually practicing what I am going to say ahead of time. Like, in a mirrror, and practicing getting the right tone. You can just ask her, but there’s something about that as an abstract concept in my head that totally freaks me out.

      But when I’m looking in a mirror and actually saying “Hey, can you give me a little more space? Thanks!” then I finally realize it’s not a big deal.

      So, I’d think about what you want to say and practice actually saying it out loud. And it will be easier to say it in the moment!

      1. Camellia*

        This! Practicing saying stuff out loud makes us more comfortable and at the same time makes us feel stronger, too.

  5. Buttons*

    OP, can you put a small rug down as a visual barrier, it will also make it harder for her chair to move over it?

    1. EnfysNest*

      Yeah, I was thinking maybe keeping a large-ish personal bag between their spaces or maybe a little filing cabinet or something else that would physically block the coworker from moving her chair too close.

        1. Elizabeth Rochelle Dickson*

          lol I would so do this. Because I don’t want ANYBODY six inches from my space, except maybe a cat.

    2. MsChaos*

      This… and if it were me I’d plunk down my trash can right between us because you know it’s so much more accessible when I’m sorting out papers. Or a big tote. Or a couple of cinder blocks (painted and decorated with flowers, of course.)

      I have a big need for personal space, so I feel ya. At the beginning of the school year, a staff member came up to me, admired my new cut-and-color, and then proceeded to RUN HER FINGERS THROUGH MY HAIR! I literally YELLED “don’t touch my hair” and RAN into the bathroom. With students, not so much, for some reason.

        1. valentine*

          I literally YELLED “don’t touch my hair” and RAN into the bathroom.
          Excellent. How have things been since?

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        I have no real personal space of my own but respect others greatly. Just the idea of someone walking up to you and running their fingers through your hair made me shiver. That’s absolutely over the top behavior, I would have reacted the same way.

      2. Dahlia*

        I think it’s easier with kids because you know they’re still learning about boundaries so it doesn’t feel as person.

        (Shout out to the small person who told me she liked my eyeshadow by nearly sticking a finger in my eyeball.)

  6. QCI*

    Whenever my wife says I’m in her bubble (jokingly) I respond with “I am your bubble” and then I hug her tighter.

    OP probably wouldn’t like me.

    1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      OP is… not married to her coworker?

      I am all for cuddling with an SO or a beloved pet, but work is a different beast.

          1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

            Adding to the above: also, I’m pretty sure that, in the unlikely case that OP’s coworker responds by saying “I am your bubble” and then hugging OP tighter, OP’s problem of sharing a workspace with that coworker will be resolved within an hour.

        1. Stay out of my bubble, bud*

          I think perhaps you are not the right person to be giving advice to the letter writer.


          1. QCI*

            I avoid touching people as much as possible and have goat like reflexes for dodging out of the way. In basic training while waiting in line for almost anything they had a saying, “nuts to butts”, so I think I’ve developed a much thicker skin for personal space boundaries than most of you.

            1. I WORKED on a Hellmouth*

              I mean… I don’t think it’s the thicker skin for personal space boundaries that most of us are responding to.

            2. Seeking Second Childhood*

              Leaving at least 1 foot (1/3 m) between you and the person in line in front of you keeps you safe from someone backing up when they spill their coffee. Which would then make you spill yours.
              It would also keep me from going claustrophobic in the line in front of you.
              Just sayin’.

              1. SheLooksFamiliar*

                I hate when the person behind me in line just HAS to stand immediately behind me. It’s a childhood abuse thing, and I can’t stop the sick response to feeling crowded.

                When I’m in line, I stand at least 3 feet away from people. That way I can maneuver forward while saying, ‘Please don’t crowd me, thanks.’ Most people get it, but some move forward too. They suck. Give people their space.

            3. Lance*

              The issue isn’t ‘thick skin for boundaries’, the issue is people are allowed the personal space boundaries they desire, and willfully breaching those boundaries is extremely disrespectful.

              That said, given what you’ve written so far… do you have any sort of advice for OP if the co-worker pushes harder when asked to stop, as you seem to be suggesting you would?

            4. biobotb*

              I don’t really see how your lack of boundaries is relevant to the OP’s reasonable need for more than six inches of space from a coworker.

            5. Future Homesteader*

              I didn’t realize my husband was on here! How many times do I have to tell you, our house is not Fort Bragg? And quit teaching our one-year-old your highly inappropriate cadences!

        2. Crivens!*

          In that in either case you’re an adult who can control your urges, despite temptation, especially when they involve other people’s boundaries?

        3. Isabel Kunkle*

          Okay, but reasonable adults go their entire lives without pushing buttons they’re not supposed to push, which is why elevators don’t constantly stop between floors and Minnesota’s not a radioactive wasteland.

          Lack of self-control where other people are involved is not quirky or cute.

          (And TBH, I hope you’re correct in your perception of how joking your wife is, because if I were her–God forbid–you’d get a well-deserved elbow to the solar plexus and a quick trip to the divorce lawyer if you did that. Yeeeeesh.)

        4. Mary*

          Do you realise you’ve just announced your intention to sexually harass people? This comment is gross, you are gross, men like you don’t deserve to be in any workplace or any public space at all.

          1. Middle School Teacher*

            Oh please. Let’s calm down now. Not a single person in this thread seems like they can see a joke.

        5. AvonLady Barksdale*

          I know a guy like this. We used to be pretty good friends. After the third time he gave me a rib-crushing hug after I specifically told him not to and pushed him away as hard as I could, our friendship went pretty far south and I avoided him as much as I could.

          Your wife might think all that bubble stuff is cute, and she’s welcome to think so. But she’s not the OP.

          1. facepalm*

            She . . . probably doesn’t. Sounds like she mentions her bubble “jokingly” because she suspects her husband wouldn’t react well to a reasonable request to back the eff off, and unfortunately instead of respecting her boundaries, he violates them even more.

        6. Joielle*

          I know this is meant to be a joke, but you’re basically saying that when someone sets a boundary around personal space, you purposely violate that boundary. It’s really, really not a funny joke and I hope you can understand why people are taking it more seriously than I assume you intended.

          1. Doug Judy*

            Spouse or stranger, when someone tells you “You’re in my bubble” back out! Just because you’re married to someone doesn’t give you carte blanche to touch them whenever, especially when they have verbally told you to back away. It’s not cute or funny.

        7. Tammy*

          I hear this as “communicating a boundary to me is like telling me to violate your boundary”. Which, yeah, that’s not okay behavior. Not cute, not idiosyncratic, not quirky. You’re communicating that you don’t have enough respect for other people’s boundaries to honor them, and that’s a problem. It’s also a problem with a high probability of blowing up on you at some point with negative consequences. I’ll leave enumerating the possibilities as an exercise to the reader.

      1. Lance*

        It’s a sensitive subject for a lot of people (understandably so), and it’s hard to know whether someone’s serious or not over a text-based medium like this.

      2. Buttons*

        Seriously! OP is letting us know about a in-joke between him and his wife. This wasn’t meant as advice on how to handle the OP’s situation.

        1. INeedANap*

          But then, what was the point? In fact, off-topic responses and thread derails are things Alison is actively trying to curb. If it wasn’t intended to add anything to the discussion and it wasn’t advice and it isn’t supposed to be taken seriously then why even post it at all?

      3. I WORKED on a Hellmouth*

        I mean, I can tell that duder is trying to be funny/maybe lightly trolling, but… some jokes just need to be no sold or pushed back on. “HA HA HA, I LAUGH AT YOUR BOUNDARIES” jokes are, at heart, very uncool.

      4. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        First of all, I didn’t take it seriously, I know what QCI means.

        But given the format, jokes that aren’t embedded in actual advice in some way is usually taken seriously like this. It’s really a huge know-your-audience kind of reactionary thing.

      5. MCMonkeyBean*

        I think the first comment on its own was unhelpful but not serious, but then when it was pointed out to him that dealing with coworkers is different than dealing with spouses they doubled down on their disregard for other people’s boundaries which I think it worth taking a serious look at.

    2. LLovesWork*

      I laughed out loud at your comment. Not sure why we all are jumping on your case but allowed the deodorant comment go unflagged. I wish people would lighten up.

      1. JimmyJab*

        Probably because he continued to defend his position, making, at least myself, believe he isn’t really joking.

      2. Lance*

        Simply put, because the deodorant comment doesn’t relate to personal space in any way, just personal habits.

      3. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Because it’s pretty sensitive subject area when you’re talking about purposely invading space, when you’re asked how to get people to stop doing that.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      This has become derailing and I’m closing the thread.

      QCI, I get that you were joking but it got weird when you doubled down and insisted you like to violate people’s boundaries.

  7. J3*

    god, my personal space hackles were raised as soon as you said you and she sit “two to three feet apart” (!!!!). That seems horrible to me. In that context I can actually see how, from her perspective, the only way to differentiate regular distance from conversational distance might be to get way too close.

    1. valentine*

      the only way to differentiate regular distance from conversational distance might be to get way too close.
      They don’t move when OP has questions, so it is conversational distance.

  8. I WORKED on a Hellmouth*

    Yeah, Alison’s advice is spot on, I’ve had to do this more than once (with more than one person) at various jobs. It may feel awkward as heck right before you say something the very first time, but you stop feeling awkward pretty quickly–and feeling that split second of awkwardness before you say something is WAY better than than the “Will you PLEASE get OUT of my FACE” feelings dozens of times a day, I promise!

    1. Elizabeth Rochelle Dickson*

      OMG this would be my /first/, instinctive reaction, because I really don’t like people in my space like that — fortunately, I’ve learned to corral these kinds of things as I’ve gotten older. I usually just say, “Step back, you’re closer than is comfortable.” Or something along those lines. Admittedly, I also don’t really mind being the ‘cold, cranky one’ in the office, though.

  9. Just Visiting*

    6 inches face to face is… wildly intimate. Good lord that would drive me up the wall. I hope you’re able to get her to adjust her behavior with Alison’s suggestions because… Yikes™️

  10. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

    My first thought was a barrier of some kind — a plant, chair or file cabinet. But really just telling her to stay in her cube should be enough. A warm tone is important but scripts that aren’t “I’m weird, ha ha ha” which I really don’t like, should work.

    “I can hear you fine Jane, please stay at your desk when you need to ask me a question.”

    1. Close Bracket*

      As Alison says,

      “wherever your personal space bubble is calibrated, that distance will feel so obviously and inherently right to you that it always feels strange if someone is closer or further away than that.”

      Your response to what the coworker probably thinks is an obviously, inherently right distance will do the job of identifying you as weird without any need to build that into the script. No warm tone will remove the chill from a script like “please stay at your desk when you need to ask me a question.”

      1. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

        The obviously inherent right distance is the distance already been determined by the furniture in the room and therefore keeps any awkward “gee, I’m a weirdo…” or the implied, “gee, you’re a weirdo” personal bubbles out of the discussion at all, the OPs or the coworkers.

      2. Not a Real Giraffe*

        This might be chilly in the voice you have in your head, but maybe not in Pay No Attention’s.

        My script would be something like, “Jane, you know I can hear you perfectly fine from your desk, right? You can stay where you are when you need to ask me a question.” and it would come across as friendly and warm, because I’d pair it with my “nice” tone and friendly facial/body movements. But just reading it on the internet as I’ve typed it out, without knowing the voice in my head, that probably comes across as chilly!

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Eh, she’s not actually saying “I’m weird, ha ha.” The tone she’s using is “this is a thing about me.” The words she’s saying are ” “I have a pretty big personal space bubble! Can you move back?” The idea with starting with that tone is that it’s far less chilly than “please stay at your desk when you need to ask me a question.”

  11. MistOrMister*

    My personal space bubble seems to be larger than most, as well. When coworkers continuouslu get too close, I’ll make a remark like Alison suggested, telling them my space bubble is pretty big and usually making a dramatically large gesture about it’s size while moving back. I agree that tone goes a long way with this one, especially with people from other cultures who tend to share space more closely. When you make it all about your own quirk most people are respectful of that.

    I also try to not shy away every single time someone gets too close. But this is more if they’re beside me. Or say leaning over to look at something we’re discussing on the computer. Sometimes I cringe inwardly but let it go so I’m not CONSTANTLY telling people to back away and seeming too aloof/unapproachable. However, if someone was coming at me from the front and stopping 6 inches away like in OP’s case, I would likely be so non-plussed I would slide out my chair to the floor and then use said chair as a physical barrier!!! That is just too dang close!

    1. Joielle*

      I’m envisioning you doing a snake-like maneuver and ending up under your desk, looking up through your chair… which 1. is hilarious, and 2. honestly, sounds like a decent alternative to what OP is putting up with.

      1. MistOrMister*

        I’ve done it once, although just lidding around, not in response to a space bubble incursion. My coworker and I got a great laugh at it. It was more hilarious than I expected. Haha.

  12. SomebodyElse*

    I joke that I have an overdeveloped sense of personal space. But it’s really not a joke. My husband knows not to stand or walk too close to me.

    So I’ve had lots of experience getting people to back up. I usually start with something light but matter of fact.

    “Hey Charlie, you’re sitting awfully close… how about we give each other a little breathing room here” Actually said in a social setting last week. I’ve said the same in a work setting.

    If the person either doesn’t get the msg or laughs it off it’s followed with a “No really, I’ve been accused of having an over developed sense of personal space. Like in my ideal world I can stretch my arms out and the person I’m talking to can stretch their arms out and we still couldn’t touch. Need a little bit more room here. Hey thanks”

    If the person then continues to get too close… then it’s the reminder “Betty Sue… you’re creeping into my space again” -Again this is said matter of factly and light. I would also consider a physical barrier of some sort if the person still isn’t getting it. Move your garbage can or something to make it hard for her to just slide over.

    1. valentine*

      Like in my ideal world I can stretch my arms out and the person I’m talking to can stretch their arms out and we still couldn’t touch.
      I should be able to stretch my arms out and spin without hitting anything.

      I always picture the man wheel, which would be a great way to escape these situations.

  13. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

    I had to pull my measuring tape out of my desk (who doesn’t have a measuring tape in their desk?) and measure six inches from my face. I almost had a panic attack just trying to imagine.

    OP, tell her and don’t stop telling her. While I haven’t had your experience, I did have male colleagues from other cultures, with different ideas of personal space, who would come into my cube and stand by my desk while asking a question, and kind of lean into my whole body with their whole body. My response was always to move away (if that was possible), look them in the eye, and say “Can you please stand back?” and they always did. If they forgot the next time, I had no problem reminding them again!

    1. CommanderBanana*

      Aaaaaaaaagh no.

      At one of my previous jobs we had an ops guy who, whenever you had to talk to him, would stand next to you and grab your elbow in such a way that the back of his hand would be against your sideboob. I got the “but maybe it’s his culture” runaround from our nice but utterly useless HR lady until I reminded her that in my culture coworkers didn’t graze each people’s breasts at work and that in my culture the appropriate response would be ot file a lawsuit and she finally spoke to him.

      1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        Wow what?!

        I have not yet heard of a culture where a man has to get his hand on a woman’s breast in order to get his point across. I cannot believe the HR lady tried to use that as an excuse. She should have known better!

    2. Elspeth Mcgillicuddy*

      My hand is 8.5 inches from thumb to pinky when spread out. I don’t want someone less than a handspan from my face. Even if OP was exaggerating slightly, that is way, way too close.

  14. LadyGray*

    This sounds very uncomfortable – and is it possible that your co-worker has a hearing deficit? I have difficulty hearing low voices in areas with a lot of background noise (like blowers), so I probably inadvertently violate some personal spaces at times, just trying to follow a conversation. It is sometimes difficult and a little embarrassing to have to ask others to repeat something they’ve said.

    1. SomebodyElse*

      6 inches though? That is whispering sweet nothings in someone’s ear or loud bar territory. My iPhone is 5 1/2 inches… a can of pop is ~5 inches.

      If the coworker does have a hearing deficit that they have to get within 6 inches to hear in an average office that would be a pretty severe deficit.

    2. MistOrMister*

      I don’t think it’s a hearing problem because it seems like the coworker only does this when she wants to ask OP a question. When OP talks to the coworker, they don’t appear to drop what they’re doing and scoot to within a inch of OP’s face. Which makes it more odd to me….why are they doing it ONLY when they go to OP? I wonder if OP has noticed them doing this to anyone else.

      It can be embarrassing to have to ask people to repeat themselves, but if the coworker did have a hearing problem to the point where they had to be 6 inches away in order to have a conversation, I would think that’s something the bosses and everyone else needs to know so accomodations could be made. Something besides “make sure you’re in kissing distance of Jane when you speak to her since she can’t hear well.” I am not being flippant about hearing loss, I just don’t think anyone with hearing loss that severe could function in a workplace without hearing aids or some sort of acknowledgement and help from others. I had a deaf coworker once (didn’t know he was deaf until he joined my unit. I had just thought he didnt like me since he never said good morning back) and we were all able to work with him with no problems. But if we’d not known he was deaf it would have been a disaster and I feel like a 6 inch hearing disability is pretty much right up in that range as far as what changes would be needed to be able to work with the person so information is shared properly.

    3. juliebulie*

      I was thinking the same about the hearing. Otherwise, it’s very odd.

      Actually, it’d still be odd… most people with hearing issues will apologize for speaking too loudly, leaning in closely, asking you to repeat things, etc. because they are aware that their behavior (multiple times a day) would otherwise be seen as, well, odd.

      I was going to jokingly suggest that OP have onions with her lunch, but no, a polite request “do you mind giving me some room” is much simpler.

      1. valentine*

        Hard of hearing customers would ask me to speak up, even if I felt like I was yelling. Unlike boundary tramplers, they kept an appropriate distance, inches away from their side of the desk, and didn’t so much as lean toward me.

    4. stitchinthyme*

      I had the same thought, but if she’s not doing that to everyone and she doesn’t do it when OP is the one who initiates the conversation, that’s probably not the issue. And as a hearing-impaired person, less than a foot away is pretty extreme; the only time I need someone to be that close is if I’m not wearing my cochlear implant processor or hearing aid (which is pretty much never if I’m out of my own house).

      I tend to have to get a little closer to people in order to understand them, but I always tell them why, and since I have my own personal space bubble, it’s more like a few feet away, not inches. If I can’t understand them from a reasonable distance away, I have a microphone that streams directly into my CI processor, so I can just hand them that and ask them to speak into it.

        1. stitchinthyme*

          Yep. Same goes for hearing aids. Most makers have something like this. The one I use with my CI can be focused or multi-directional; I put it in the middle of the conference table at meetings so I can hear everyone better. It also comes with a clip so that if I’m talking with one person, they can clip it to their shirt.

    5. Emilitron*

      This is 100% not about the coworker being hard of hearing. But it reminds me – you know which coworker I never get into the personal space of? The guy with the foghorn voice whose conversations you can hear 2 doors down. I’m not advocating the OP start bellowing, but do speak plenty loud.
      The natural tendency when someone is quiet is to lean in; and the natural tendency when someone is leaning in is to get quiet. Speaking at the same volume that you would if she were 4 ft away at her desk, or even 10 ft away across the room, might set the right tone. Especially after you’ve told her to stay back a few feet, you’re just maintaining a good sonic fence to keep her there.

      1. MistOrMister*

        I apparently have a pretty soft speaking voice. It sounds fine to me, but I can usually tell when people are having trouble hearing me. Interestingly, I fin people rarely lean towards me when they can’t hear unless we’re in a lpud area. Usually the facial expressions are the cue, or there might be a slight incline towards me, but I can’t think of a single instance where someone has gotten super close due to lack of hearing.

        It would just tickle me pink if i had a foghorn voice coworker who came in dressed as Foghorn Leghorn for halloween. But, alas, I will probably never be so lucky as to experience such joys.

  15. AdAgencyChick*

    I don’t even think you need to present it as “I’m weird, can you deal with my weird?” Just a simple, polite, “I need a little more space than this. Could you please back up a few inches?”

  16. Seeking Second Childhood*

    Just acknowledging that another culture “translates” the appropriate conversation distances can help. I worked with an older man who had immigrated to the US from the Soviet Union. He made some of my co-workers uncomfortable; I forced myself to think about my favorite science fiction novel, which deals with proxemics & kinesics (see link). I got through the initial few conferences then simply told him I am a little claustrophobic, and could we spread out a little when we’re working? We’d shake hands and then back up. He was always full of smiles, so I think it worked for him too.

      1. Arts Akimbo*

        OMG!! This is a great book, and I haven’t thought about it in a while– thanks for bringing it up, and it’s totally pertinent to the LW’s question!

      2. Rick Tq*

        +100! Hells Park is a great book, Janet was a great author who wrote one of the better Star Trek spinoff books. Her Mirable book was fun too.

        PS – Read the book to know why both SSC and my naming is correct….

        1. Rivakonneva*

          Uhura’s Song is one of my favorite spinoff novels. I actually spent the money to buy it in ebook when my print copy started falling apart. :)

          Now I have to go read Hellspark……

  17. facepalm*

    Fake a coughing or sneezing fit when she’s in your face and don’t cover your mouth/nose. I guarantee she’ll keep some space.

  18. Budgie Buddy*

    Like another person, I wonder if a hearing issue might be why the coworker isn’t staying in her original position.

    However, the advice is the same. State that your personal space bubble is bigger than 6 inches and ask her to move back. A polite person won’t want to violate her coworker’s personal space. There will be a compromise that doesn’t involve her getting weirdly close.

    I don’t have hearing issues, but I have a natural speaking voice that most people have trouble hearing, so if someone is facing away from me even while still only a few feet away, I know they are not going to understand me or possibly not even know I’m trying to get their attention unless I cross into their line of sight. However there should be a good way to do this without getting in someone’s face.

    1. san junipero*

      I’d hope the coworker would have said something herself, though, if that were the case. I have a mild hearing issue that sometimes requires me to basically stare at people’s mouths (not exactly lipreading, it’s more that it helps me focus on the relevant sound). I always tell them the first time I do it, because I know it looks pretty weird otherwise.

  19. Josie*

    I guess what I would do is, when she starts wheeling over, say loudly and cheerfully “That’s OK – I can hear you from there!” This is VERY, VERY odd behavior. It needs to be remedied.

  20. Sharrbe*

    If she’s new, I’m wondering if she’s self-conscious about asking questions, so she gets close to you so she doesn’t have to speak that loudly and risk other people overhearing.

  21. She's One Crazy Diamond*

    Omg. I have PTSD from sexual assault and this sounds straight out of my nightmares. I am so sorry, OP.

  22. Matilda Jefferies*

    I suppose most of the youngun’s in the workplace these days wouldn’t recognize the reference, but I would default to the “this is my dance space/ this is your dance space” gesture from Dirty Dancing. Most people my age would get it, and in fact it’s a pretty common way to make this point!

    1. Mama Bear*

      I think of the old Roseanne episode where Jackie waves her hands and says, “There’s a difference between you and me.” Waving at Roseanne “YOOOOU!” Waving in front of herself “MEEE!”

  23. (Mr.) Cajun2core*

    I seem to be the opposite of most people here. Six inches would not bother me unless you were a total stranger.

    1. JimmyJab*

      But would you respect your colleague if they asked for more than 6 inches? That’s really all that matters in the end.

      1. (Mr.) Cajun2core*

        Most definitively. I would have to know a co-worker extremely well before getting that close to them.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I have sit shoulder to shoulder with my coworkers before, so I agree that I really don’t care. Then you get to turn your head to talk tot hem and yeah, you’re about 6 inches from their face in the end.

      But I understand why it bothers others, people have their reasons, even if it’s just that it makes them feel nervous or like they’re being monitored, etc. Some people are self conscious to a point that being that close you’re like “how’s by breath, what if they’re looking directly at this pimple.” kind of stuff.

      1. biobotb*

        But I think talking to someone when the default positioning is close is different than someone who *isn’t* close going out of their way to *get* close before speaking.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          That’s fair too. However I’m used to also training people while elbow to elbow as well. It’s always been a “Grab that chair over there and scoot up over here so we can share this computer.” situation.

          1. Close Bracket*

            I can adjust my personal bubble to fit the circumstances — which is what allows me to see a gynecologist without discomfort. However, once the circumstances which necessitate the closeness, whether they be a medical exam or reading the same computer screen, are over, I step back and reclaim my space, and so does everybody else. Just bc we have to sit elbow to elbow at the computer, that doesn’t mean I want you that close to discuss the next steps on the Jones account.

            1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

              The point really is that everyone is different, they do what feels right to them until someone uses their words and redirects the situation.

              The thread here is about the fact that some of us simply don’t care about personal space, whereas others of course do. We can’t read each others minds.

  24. Former HR Disney Princess*

    I too have a stronger desire for personal space. I’m very open about my anxiety and whenever someone gets too close I back up and let them know it’s about me, not them. This has normally worked and my friends all understand and can laugh with me about it since I don’t hug, or touch, or stand closer than a typically a few feet from people.

    It’s okay to be honest with her, that you like more space than she is allowing. I like Allison’s script and it keeps things in a nice warm conversation.

    1. pleaset*

      This isn’t really about a particularly strong need for personal space or problems people have had with assault or harrassment – though those things make the situation even worse.

      At the most basic level, six inches is too close in almost every work context – it’s about that person, not the OP.

  25. sometimeswhy*

    Oh goodness yes. I had a trainee in a technical environment who had both a lack of awareness of personal space AND poor vision.

    I did a few polite requests to stay out of my pocket, give me a little breathing room, oh don’t worry I’ll pause at intervals and step back so you can see what it is I’m doing, oh how about we work from opposite sides of the bench so you can get a better look. And followed up with pointed staring back and forth between him and his feet which were inches from my feet until he said “oooooooooooooooooooh” and backed up again. (and again) (and again) until finally…

    >>and let me be clear, I DO NOT recommend doing this<<

    … I told him that if I could swing and hit him with a closed fist without taking a step, he was too close and THAT was what finally solidified what "proper standing distance from people at this here work site" for him.

    1. nonymous*

      hahaha! There was a comment describing someone cheerfully handling a oblivious/autistic spectrum coworker by holding out her arm so that it almost touched the person’s nose and pronouncing it the correct distance. Apparently the rest of the team had been giving him “strong hints” and this is what it took to make it click.

      I mean, be sure of your audience, but some people just need clear and explicit directions. I wish I could find the comment in the archives. It was a great example.

      1. Harper the Other One*

        Actually, that was what my kids (both on the autism spectrum) were told in their social skills programs! For personal space, they were told to imagine bubbles an arm’s length out in all directions, and that they shouldn’t overlap bubbles without the permission of the other person.

      2. Free Meerkats*

        I vaguely remember reading somewhere that the “typical American” conversational distance with someone they know is just far enough away that you can extend your arm and stick your thumb into their ear. I’m going to start paying attention to this and see if that’s mine.

        And I’ll ask before I check the distance using that method…

  26. nonymous*

    So using my appendages as a unit of measure it sounds like OP and coworker sit about an arm’s length apart normally (like if you stretch out your arms like in a warrior 2 pose, it would be just your left arm) and during these convos the distance is reduced to a hand’s length (from longest finger tip to base of palm).

    This is a pretty common spacing at school, when you are studying with friends or doing a group project with people you really like. I’m pretty sure I’ve been this close to my PhD advisor occasionally. Obviously not everyone is okay with this even in school (Alison gave a great script!) but I just wanted to point out that it’s not necessarily a sign of Odd.Things. on the part of coworker.

    1. pleaset*

      Bodies six inches apart is acceptable in some contexts/cultures. Faces that far apart is not. Especially facing one another.

      1. Jules the 3rd*

        Actually, faces that far apart are acceptable in some cultures. Neither OP nor coworker are being very weird, they’re just being different.

        This is very much a situation that calls for ‘use your words’ to resolve two different styles, no need to stigmatize coworker’s behavior.

          1. Jules the 3rd*

            check Wikipedia Proxemics – the WP article looks like it’s measuring what Hall calls the “Personal” and “Social” distances. The “Intimate Far Phase” distance runs 6 to 18 inches, in his research, which is based on US expectations. US personal space expectations are usually on the high side (see Cultural Differences section), so it’s not a stretch to think that there are cultures that put 6″ well within their “Intimate Far Phase” range, and that coworker might feel ‘close’ to someone who is about the same age and gender. (It’s also totally normal for OP to not feel that ‘close’ or to have a wider ‘Intimate’ range).

            Think about two close friends giggling over a picture or sharing a tablet – 6″ is not weird. I just saw my kid closer than that to his friend watching him play a video game on a handheld, though that was face – by – face, not face to face. US males, which is usually the biggest bubble around…

            1. pleaset*

              “Think about two close friends giggling over a picture or sharing a tablet – 6″ is not weird.”

              Or someone trying to listen closely if the other person is breathing. They might be just a few inches apart. Not weird.

              Or two people making out. Zero distance is pretty normal. Not weird.


        1. LawBee*

          But there’s no indication in the letter that either the OP or her coworker are from, or currently living in, a culture where having your face 6″ away from the person you’re talking to is considered normal. Nor are they children sharing a tablet, or girlfriends giggling over a picture. In America, getting that close face-to-face with a coworker to ask a question in an office environment is, in fact, very much not the norm.

          1. pleaset*

            I don’t think it’s normal in any culture in an office apart from whispering/etc or briefly being that close for a specific reason such as a hug upon greeting. Or looking at some small thing together.

            Face-to-face just talking? No. Nowhere on this planet in an office is that normal.

      2. nonymous*

        I am basing my comment off what I saw in my midwestern and west coast state universities. Sure, people weren’t in each other’s faces all the time, but it was not uncommon to see two undergrad or grad students squinting at some detail on a 13″ macbook and then one turning to the other to explain a concept.

        Do all student groups do this? I certainly didn’t. It was definitely more common between asian students. But I doubt that I had a unique experience given that my degrees were separated both by states and decades.

        1. Jules the 3rd*

          I did not do this in undergrad, early 1990s, mostly US, white and black students. I did this in grad school, early 2000s, multicultural / multicountry class (many Asian / South Asian students). My kid does this now, US multicultural (magnet IB) elementary school.

          Would be funny if technology was literally bringing us closer together as we all hover over shared mobile devices…

    2. londonedit*

      Where I work we have banks of desks with people sitting about an arm’s length from each other. In most UK offices we don’t have personal space for everyone like cubicles (I’m sure some must exist but personally I’ve never seen an office in the UK with US-style cubicles). In my current workplace we have rooms for each deparment, with maybe 8-10 desks per room, and the desks are in banks of six, so three in a row with another row of three facing those. The higher-up bosses might have a small office to themselves, or an office that they share with another person. I have a whole desk to myself, but if I extended my left arm I’d just about be touching the person who sits next to me.

      So…maybe we have slightly smaller bubbles than in the USA (heck, it’s a much smaller country, there’s less space here generally! Houses are smaller and more closely packed together, too). Standing four feet away from someone to have a normal conversation sounds bizarre to me. But someone coming right up to six inches from my face? Nope.

      1. Media Monkey*

        agreed. in my in-my-experience-normal-for-the-UK-sized desk, if i stretched out my arm my fingers would be about 3 or 4 inches from my co-workers shoulder. If we were chatting, we might well move closer. 6″ is crazy close. not sure anyone other than my husband, daughter or cat are regularly that close and i think it would feel too close even for my mum.

  27. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    I agree that you just need to speak to her about it! It’s the easy breezy correction mode of “Would you please back up, you’re too close for me to comfortably speak with you about this.”

    I have no personal space. I have full grown people crawl into my lap for various reasons [not at work, God of course not] and I’m just like “whatever, you’re just a bigger version of my cat.” [Just an example of how few ef’s I get about my own personal space.]

    However!!! My point is that if someone ever says “Gurl back up.” I do it and I don’t think twice about it. I am well aware that most people have much bigger bubbles. So please, don’t bother prefacing it with “I’m weird about personal space” if you don’t feel up to it. Just ask! Be kind and friendly with just about any request to change behaviors that affect both of you and reasonable humans will adjust themselves. Sometimes you’ll have to “retrain” them and keep reminding them over the course of time. Reminding them is okay, don’t feel bad about that either. It’s okay to want your space and request it firmly.

    1. Pieska Boryska*

      Would you be willing to share some of these various reasons? :) I feel like there’s a story there (assuming you’re not talking about your SO).

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Drunkness, emotional distress, and a lack of seats are the short version to avoid a total derailing :)

    2. Another HR manager*

      +1000 Its definitely okay to want your space and request it firmly. And expect a happy – “oh, okay!” in response. I get concerned about how judgmental people are being about these differences. Let’s just talk with each other!

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        I’ve learned a lot of people weren’t raised to speak up and talk about things when it’s bothering them, so they’re used to bottling it up and wondering what the magic spell is to get people to do what you want them to or change their behavior that annoys you.

        I was raised to trust people aren’t monsters and that most are decent who will accept your input if you just do it nicely. No dancing around it or finding out tricks to con them into doing what you want. No hinting. Just straight up “Nance, this is my bubble, please remove yourself from it by stepping back about a foot! Now let’s discuss what you have a question about.” Correct and then avoid the awkwardness by jumping back into what you were interrupting to have adjusted.

        You can thank my dad for my straight forwardness, he doesn’t do hints and is immune to wishing magics ;)

    3. MistOrMister*

      Now I am picturing someone plopping into my lap at work and me saying mousily, uh, it’s not you, it’s me, I need more space can you please scoot over a skosh?? Ha!!!

      I agree that OP doesn’t have to make it sound like they think they’re weird for needing to ask for space. But I think it is often easier to preface with the fact that they have a large space bubble, to soften the message a bit. Some people (sounds like you are one!) are reasonable and can have someone ask them to move with no hard feelings. But others will turn it into a whole Thing. Which is annoying and on them but still something one might want to take into account.

      Love the bit about it being ok to request your space. That really is so true!

  28. overcaffeinatedandqueer*

    I actually have this going on with my exchange kid. Germany isn’t that different from the US in many ways, but just back up two inches, bro!

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I’m laughing at “Germany isn’t that different” because I’m constantly bombarded by “tell me more about [this thing] in America because in Germany it’s not like this.” It’s more different than I ever imagined it turns out and my German is not just here on an exchange program!

  29. Mama Bear*

    I used to work in an open office where, depending on the configuration and who was in the office, we could be nearly elbow to elbow. I couldn’t run my chair back at the same time as my coworker or we’d collide. Open offices are hard if you have a large personal bubble.

    If OP thinks the coworker is trying to be quiet, then just tell her that normal voice is fine, everyone is used to it. Or if she doesn’t need to show you anything, then where she’s sitting is fine. “Oh, no need to roll over, Coworker. I can hear you.” If that doesn’t work, then I agree OP needs to be direct, “Can you back up a little? I don’t like to work so physically close to people.”

  30. Kiwiii*

    While 6 inches is … really close, I’m wondering if there’s a reason she’s choosing to do this? Does she not want to be overheard asking questions? Is she particularly hard of hearing? I know when I was a retail supervisor, there was one boy who always had to come within about a foot of me and be focused directly on me/my face to catch or retain most of what I was assigning him. And I personally am terrible at catching or retaining any information if not specifically addressed (as in, you start talking before catching my attention) and/or when there’s music playing.

  31. Ellen N.*

    I’m an extrovert with very little need for personal space. Yes, I welcome hugs in the office.

    I know that many people like more personal space than I do. I try to respect their cues about how far away they want me to be, but if I’m too close all they need to do is tell me. There is no need to attempt to offend (don’t wear deodorant, smoke a cigarette, etc.), make self-deprecating jokes, etc. Just have a normal conversation between adults.

    Unfortunately, the trend toward open offices is the enemy of personal space. If one doesn’t lean in close to the person one is talking to: it can be hard to hear because of background noise, people whom you didn’t intend to hear will hear and often will weigh in, you risk being told that you’re speaking too loud by others. I used to have a manager who needed about three feet of personal space. This meant that I needed to raise my voice so that she could hear me.

  32. LizArd*

    Since it’s both of your first office jobs, I wonder if she’s taking her cues from how you’re supposed to act in school, where a full volume exchange in the middle of class would be rude and against the rules.

  33. juliebulie*

    On re-reading the letter more carefully, I see that the coworker does NOT zoom in to a six-inch distance when OP asks her a question. It’s only when the coworker has a question that she moves in. This suggests that this isn’t being driven by a vision or hearing issue.

  34. Jennifer*

    Is it not possible for you scoot away a bit? Usually, they get the hint when I do that and that way you won’t have to say anything. If continue to scoot closer, then Alison’s script works.

    1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      According to the update, this coworker is doing it to all young women on OP’s team, so we can hopefully rule this version out!

        1. Arts Akimbo*

          I don’t know, I’ve experienced this from colleagues from other cultures where there seem to be much stronger bonds between female friends (Japanese and Filipina are the ones that come to mind). They made friends with me faster and had smaller personal space bubbles with similar-age women than with men. Not saying all Japanese or Filipina young women do this, but it was a thing I noted amongst my own colleagues.

          1. Jules the 3rd*

            Yeah, the feeling of emotional intimacy strongly affects the size of your comfort bubble, without any requirement for a sexual element…

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        I’m reminded of middles school where there was always someone who had a crush on everyone.

        I was that child, not going to lie. But I was also anxious about it, so I would cower away instead of trying to snuggle up.

  35. Catsaber*

    I like the “no need to roll over!” suggestions, combined with putting your hand up. Sometimes seeing the “stop” hand will get people to respect your space. I had to do that with a coworker once, and it took a few times, but eventually they got it and didn’t invade my space anymore.

  36. Gobsmacked*

    I like to do things that makes it impossible for people to do this comfortably. Like quickly turn my chair so that my knees are facing the person, so they can’t get any closer than knee-distance. Or go the other way, and make the closeness uncomfortable for them – if she’s six inches from your face, she’s almost certainly talking to the side of your face. Turn and face her head on, and the weirdness of it may push her back. Or pull your trash can out from under your desk and put it in the way of where she’d roll.

  37. Carlie*

    Not even based on personal space, I’d have to say “Please move back, I can’t see you when you’re that close.” Aging eyes are a pain.

    You could try it without explanation at all. “Hey, could you move back a bit? Thanks.” When they ask why, then “This is better for me, thanks. ” Be cheerful enough, and there might not even be follow-up questions.

    1. juliebulie*

      You’re right, Carlie. You can ask her to move back WITHOUT giving a detailed reason. That is what I would recommend.

      Sigh. I’ve been reading this site on and off for a few years and I still haven’t internalized one of the best lessons that comes up again and again: don’t give a detailed reason.

  38. BUBBLE PLEASE (Letter Writer)*

    Hi everyone! This is the letter writer! Thanks, Alison for your advice – I do really like your script. Commentariat, you are cracking me up. I’ll give some more context based on the most common questions I see in the comments so far. As some close readers noted, she only scoots in when she wants to ask or tell me something, so it is definitely not a hearing or volume concern. When I have something to tell her, she stays put at her desk. Also, she is from a different part of the country than me (I’m from New England, the Land of Major Personal Space), but there are a handful of other people from the same region in the office and nobody else does the same thing. I am not the only person who experiences this waking nightmare, it’s actually all the other young women on our larger team. Although sitting next to her, another colleague and I are the ones who experience it the most.

    As for solutions that I’ve tried, I do try to move away, but I’m on the end of our row so I can’t move enough to alleviate it without moving into a busy aisle. I find it so surprising that she doesn’t pick up on my telegraphed discomfort. And like lots of young women I have plenty of experience with people not respecting personal space, so it is not ideal in the workplace to say the least. And that has almost always been with men, so this is throwing me a little bit.

    After Alison’s advice and your comments, I’m actually going to first try a big trash can or filing cabinet when we move offices in a week and a half. And if I still have to address it verbally, I will go with something warm but direct that includes Alison’s phrase “Can I move you back a foot?”. My main concern is that one day I’m going to snap and let my irritation show, so I wrote in to ask for a script that can help me avoid that! Thanks everyone and I promise to update in a few weeks :)

    1. MCMonkeyBean*

      I’d really recommend saying something now rather than waiting! With something like this it can be more awkward later because if you tell her after a month or two months or more she may feel extra embarrassed about it because she’ll think back on how long she’s been doing it for not realizing it bothered you all that time. And it’s really such a normal thing for you to be asking for that it really shouldn’t be a big deal to bring it up, but waiting just risks making it weirder.

      1. valentine*

        I’d really recommend saying something now rather than waiting!
        Yes. Ideally, you train her now and are all set for the new space. I wouldn’t go with physical barriers because you don’t want her removing them or someone else intervening because poor coworker keeps crashing into your perfectly reasonable physical barrier.

        Maybe there is something about her interactions with older and/or non-female colleagues you can point to when you speak to her.

    2. Alice*

      Great context, OP. But I’d really like to encourage you to start with talking instead of a trash can. It will be good for you to see that most workplace problems can be resolved quickly and easily and without hurt feelings. In fact, the annoying person doesn’t even know there is a workplace problem yet, because you haven’t asked her to stop doing it!

      1. Jules the 3rd*

        +1 – It’s great to practice using your words in low-stakes situations like this, so that it is easier to use them when the stakes go up. Also, you may help all the other women on your team get some relief.

    3. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Woman to woman, the best way to address these things is verbally. We’re trained not to do that and to work around things, this is why people continue to invade our personal space and do inappropriate things to us in the end. Speak up, it’s okay, you should stand up for yourself.

      The sooner you start being more assertive, the better you’ll feel. It’ll feel weird at first because it’s not your norm but it will become your norm if you continue down that path. It will help you to grow and become more respected over all.

      1. Formerly Arlington*

        I completely agree. It’s healthy to politely advocate for yourself and also likely that you will do her a favor! Think of all the possible opportunities she might be missing out on because she unknowingly makes people uncomfortable. This is like toilet paper on her shoe!

    4. Close Bracket*

      I find it so surprising that she doesn’t pick up on my telegraphed discomfort.

      Nobody in the history of ever has picked up on a non-verbal cue. Don’t believe me? Read the archives. It is filled with variations on “they aren’t getting the hint.” Use your words. Always.

      1. Hrovitnir*

        I get that you’re probably exaggerating for effect, but that’s absolutely not true. I am a big fan of direct communication! But what issues get reported to an advice column are hardly representative of all human interaction.

        Most people* can read non-verbal cues to one degree or another; there’s plenty of evidence of how important body language and tone are to communication. It’s mostly when there are cultural differences (and that often means regional and even family culture), it’s a area with a lot of personal variability (like personal space when we’re talking a bit less egregious than this), or the classic studied ignorance of someone who likes to disregard boundaries that we end up with this kind of stalemate where it’s natural to wonder whether the best thing is to address it directly. What seems obvious or intuitive from the outside or with more experience is not necessarily obvious when you’re experiencing it! We’ve certainly seen letters here where letter writers really believe they should be addressing something directly and it’s something that would make them look bad to appear to overreact to by calling it out.

        *Obviously there are neurotypes where this is not true and we should be considerate of this, but it doesn’t mean it’s unreasonable to expect a baseline of respecting telegraphed discomfort. If this doesn’t work because the person can’t read it then we can expect them to respond well to direct communication as the second-line response.

        1. Avasarala*

          Agreed. When you’re talking to someone and they move back a bit, that’s the universal signal for “You’re too close.” Most of the time we communicate fine and figure things out. The times we don’t, we write to an advice blog.

    5. Librarian of SHIELD*

      I’m joining the chorus of people recommending that you skip the filing cabinet and head straight for a light and breezy sentence at the beginning of your next interaction. Speaking from experience, it’s SO much better to have the small, low stakes conversation now. I’ve been in situations where I’ve held back from saying something until I got so frustrated I exploded, and it did not end well for anyone, least of all me. I know you want the lowest conflict option that’s available to you, but I honestly believe that saying “can you scoot back a little?” when she gets too close is actually the lowest conflict option that consistently gets you what you need.

      I know you don’t want to hurt her feelings or make her feel weird. But what you need matters too. You can ask for that. And yeah, she might feel weird about it. But feeling weird about stuff is how a lot of social skills get learned, and it’s possible that her feeling weird about being asked to scoot back when she’s too close to people might lead to her re-evaluating how close she gets when she talks to people, and that’s the best thing for everybody involved.

    6. MistOrMister*

      If she’s only doing this to women, and young women at that, I wonder if this is some misguided attempt at bonding. Maybe she thinks it helps her become closer (ha!) to potential friends.

      Since you can’t move far without blocking the aisle, is there some way you can physically position yourself so she can’t get to within a hair of your face when talking? People always say when someone is too close to you in a line to put your foot out and lean back for extra breathing room…I’m trying to think of a good office equivalent. A physical barrier like a trashcan could work, but I am concerned that she might scoot around it and then with the lack of space actually end up plastered to you instead of a whole 6 inchese away. Unless the can wouldn’t allow her chair through. But then would she walk over and sit on your lap? Because it kind of feels like she could go that route…

      I would also argue for speaking to her about this, but as a kindness to her. She apparently somehow doesn’t realize that she’s consistently making an entire group of people uncomfortable. I feel like there is a probability that eventually someone is going to snap at her and it could be very demoralizing for her to learn that she’s been making people uncomfortable. Plus, people sometimes gossip about/make fun of that kind of thing. It would be awful for her to overhear coworkers talking about how horrible it is when she gets so close, when someone could have just said a quick word.

  39. Argh!*

    I used to work with a boss like this. One time we were sitting together on the same side of a table talking about something and we kept moving until we were at the end. I’d shift away from her. She’d close the gap. I shifted again, and then so did she! To make matters worse, she always had HORRIBLE coffee breath!

    People like this feel hurt or snubbed when you move away, so whatever you say has to take that into account. I would love to hear how this turns out!

    1. Close Bracket*

      People like this feel hurt or snubbed when you move away, so whatever you say has to take that into account.

      Which is why “please stay at your desk when you ask me a question” is not a warm way to request a change.

  40. Hooray College Football!*

    If you’re that close to me, you’re blurry and making me nauseaus! I have told people that I can’t focus on them when they are that close. Even w/ my progressive lenses, anything that close up is a blur.

    1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      Good point. It’d make me dizzy to have something so close to my face.
      (Chuckling as I picture myself saying to the coworker, “oh wait a minute, let me get my reading glasses, I cannot see you this close”)

  41. Delta Delta*

    “Ooh, you don’t want to get so close. I feel a cold coming on/ate six onions for lunch/forgot my deodorant.” Gently nudge her away. Repeat ad nauseum.

    Or, if you can pull off physical comedy, back up until you trip over something.

  42. Hedgehug*

    I would honestly just physically roll her chair away from me while laughing it off and say “you don’t need to come so close, my hearing is fine”

  43. Formerly Arlington*

    Isn’t it possible to move away or refuse to get that close? If someone tried to get that close, I thought no my instinct would be that prevent that. Maybe I’m not picturing this correctly? Like if someone tried to kiss me, and it wasn’t welcome, I would duck before I could think through the way to respond.

  44. Kisses*

    I was pretty big into in the early 00’s and something stuck with me since my time there. There was one particular character in my fandom that hated being touched or just around people. Any time someone was near him fanfic authors took to having him say “PERSONAL SPACE 3 FEET NOW”
    And I forever think of this any time someone is too close to me. Pointless, but fun. :)

    1. LawBee*

      “Hey, can you back up a bit? Thanks.”

      Honestly, that’s all that is needed at first. Repeat as needed if she keeps doing it, and if you need to get more firm, you can change to a more direct “Please back up, you’re in my personal space.” Eventually she’ll catch on.

  45. No Tribble At All*

    Are you SURE your coworker isn’t a cat? Because that sounds like my cat’s behavior when she wants to discuss the frequency or quantity of her meals.

  46. Casino*

    If there’s something you can physically put on the ground so she can’t roll as close to you that can nip this habit in the bud without much fanfare. Maybe your bag, or a a fan or space heater?

  47. Marion Q*

    So I must be from cultures with smaller personal space. I converted inches to cm, and … While 15 cm is a little close, it’s not weird at all? Especially between women.

    But yeah, say something! If your colleague is like me she probably won’t pick up non-verbal hint and just think you’re looking for something else when you shift away and so keep doing it.

    1. Jules the 3rd*

      Thank you! My personal space is bigger, but I knew I’d met people for whom 6″ isn’t that weird.

      Thinking back, yeah, it *was* way more common with women.

      But we do know that there’s lots of variations within cultures too, based on personal experience and neurodiversity. The why’s for that would be interesting, if I had time to look them up. I’d guess that people who grow up in a crowded house would have smaller spaces than people who had whole bedrooms to themselves. I could see people with weak prioperception also having smaller personal spaces.

  48. Name of Requirement*

    Use your body. Extend your legs out and cross them so she can’t roll closer, put your arm on the desk but lean away, just keep her head away from yours. Stand up and put your chair between you.
    But the conversation you’re imagining doesn’t have to be a come-to-Jesus moment, just a quick, “Hey, can you back up a foot?” and then keep talking. Just casually ask her to move whenever she’s too close.

  49. Jennifer Juniper*

    Maybe the co-worker has hearing loss and can’t hear you clearly unless she’s that close to you. I’m guessing you work in an open plan office, which would have lousy acoustics.

  50. Diamond*

    Ohh my boss used to be like this! I would do a little dance with her where I would take a step back, she’d take one towards me, I’d step back again, she’d follow… she never caught on that she was TOO CLOSE. One time she was sick and still insisted on standing so close I could feel her breath :(

  51. 'Tis Me*

    Apparently you need a toddler chaperone – I had my 20 month old at my GP appointment getting my sore throat checked out and she was visibly unhappy with him when he wanted to do things like stand close enough to me to look at my throat, check my glands, etc. She’s too adorable to take offence at but has very clear ideas of how much space other people she doesn’t know are supposed to leave her mother…

    Side effects to this method may involve a toddler on your lap, trying to climb on the desk, hitting your computer, seeing what they can put down your top as a convenient pocket/chute, and crossly screeching when prevented from doing these things. And management wondering why on earth you thought this was a good idea…

  52. HangInThere*

    I refer to it as my personal space “hula hoop”

    When I’ve done this, it both gives a good visual that comes across ‘safely’ while communicating my spacial requirements.

    “Fergus, you’re in my hula hoop again!”

    People typically chuckle and back off.

  53. (Mr.) Cajun2core*

    Those of you with very large bubbles, how do you ride on a plane, train, go to a crowded movie, theater, etc. I am seriously curious. I am not trying to argue, just trying to understand.

    1. HangInThere aka HulaHoop*

      There’s a difference in intent and being prepared.

      If I go on a plane, I pretty much know I’m going to feel violated to some extent – but I realize that isn’t the intent of the person next to me. They are as stuck as I am. So, I just take a deep breath and try to make myself as small as possible to gain back my space. And, occasionally end up elbow fighting over arm rests.

      When there are no external factors and you choose to saunter up within 6” of my face unannounced – that’s an intentional move that I would initially interpret as aggressive.

      And yes – I’ve literally had to tell men at work to get out of my hoop and air draw the hoop around me.

      Also, keep in mind culture and gender come into play as well.

      1. (Mr.) Cajun2core*

        The intent and preparation concept makes perfect sense. Thanks for clearing that up for me.

        Yes, you are right, gender and culture do come into place. Growing up in south Louisiana and now living in Alabama, sort of prepares you for not having a very large bubble.

  54. lilsheba*

    If someone is encroaching on my space like that I visibly recoil, I can’t help it. I might add a panic attack to it too. I wouldn’t be nice about it, it’s a fight or flight thing with me.

  55. Warm Weighty Wrists*

    Personally, I would start taking a lot of drinks from my large water bottle. If they get booped on the nose while I’m hydrating, fine. If necessary, LW, start drinking from one of those novelty yard-tall blended drink cups they give you in Vegas.
    If you take this advice, LW, please also take photos.

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