How close is too close? Thinking about personal space in the dental practice

Have you ever noticed that everyone has differing definitions of personal space? Recently I was at an airport (my favorite location for observing people) and was taking note of the sanctuary of people’s “comfort zone.” Did a person choose to leave a seat open or sit right next to a stranger? When speaking to the airline representative, one person chose to not even touch the counter while another felt the need to practically climb on top of it to get closer into the conversation. I observed the people that were standing around the terminal talking to each other. There were the two men that must have needed to yell because of the distance between them and the other group of people with the one lady who would get up in everyone’s face as they spoke.

So how close is too close?

People define personal space based on many different factors: the relationship with the other person, for example. Couples, children, and family relations tend to have a smaller zone than when they are speaking with strangers. People who live in more urban or more densely populated areas are more comfortable with closer proximities than those in a more rural region. Americans require a much larger personal space than our neighbors on any other continent … and that space is typically between 1.5 to 3 feet apart.

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I would like to bring this conservation to the dental office. For those of you who sit in the “greeter” position – the first place people come to when they enter your office – have you noticed how some people will practically climb through the window or across the counter in order to have a conversation with you? I never worked in an office that had the sliding glass doors, yet it was always at that moment that I wished I had something to put up as a barrier. Talk about invasion of personal space! In this day of HIPAA, it’s more than entering your personal space … it also violates federal regulations.

The very nature of our business is not only to invade but to literally obliterate anything close to the personal space of our patients. I remember once, as a child when I was receiving treatment, thinking that the dentist’s nose was in my mouth. Of course, that was way before OSHA required PPEs. Now as a patient, I appreciate the masks that the clinicians are required to wear. However, once the clinical exam or treatment is completed, do we revert back to respecting our patients’ personal space? Or did we get too comfortable being in their face?

This can be a vital element to increased treatment acceptance or even whether or not a patient will return to the office at all. Invading someone’s personal space can cause irritation, anger, and/or anxiety. The latter of these is already the leading factor that people avoid the dental office. It would seem prudent to respect the area (personal space) that the patient considers psychologically theirs during any conversation before or after the “oral invasion.”

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Developing some personal space etiquette may be a team approach to ensure that your patients’ comfort zones are respected. These may include:

Reading body language: If someone steps back or leans back, you may be invading their space.

Never touch someone you do not know.

Ask permission to discuss their treatment, payment arrangements, etc. These are “personal issues” and thus personal space.

When entering a room, lightly knock and/or introduce yourself.

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How close is too close? It is different for everyone. As inhabitants of this world, it is our duty to value the personal space of the people around us. As constant invaders, we might want to take an extremely cognizant approach to our patients’ comfort zone with heightened levels of respect. We might find that they will be more comfortable and trustworthy of us as a dental team.