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How to Politely Deal with a Close Talker (6 Quick Tips)

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Have you ever experienced someone getting in your face while talking? Close talkers violate your personal bubble and get too close for comfort. In the workplace, close talkers are particularly awkward because you must maintain professionality when dealing with them. You don’t want to be impolite to your client, colleague, or manager, but you really need some more personal space.

Here are 6 tips for confidently and respectfully dealing with a close talker.  

What Is A Close Talker? (Definition) 

A close talker violates others’ personal space by getting uncomfortably close during a conversation. In Western cultures, this is usually someone who gets within 18” of your face while talking. A close talker often lacks awareness of personal boundaries and can even get so close that you feel or smell their breath. 

The classic example of a close talker is Judge Reinhold’s character, Aaron, in a Seinfeld episode. Watch this funny clip to see how uncomfortable he makes everyone feel by getting in their face while talking: 

6 Tips to Deal with a Close Talker

Author Robert Frost famously wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors.” If people do not know where your fence lies, they may accidentally cross it. Here are 6 simple ways to communicate your personal boundaries without being rude: 

#1 Hold something out in front of you

Close talkers often don’t realize what they’re doing until they bump into something. If you put an object in front of your body, you can create a tangible boundary between the two of you. 

Depending on your surroundings, you may use:

  • A cup or coffee mug
  • Note cards
  • A book
  • Laptop or computer 
  • Move behind a desk
  • A bag or purse 
  • Plates or eating utensils 

This trick simply extends your personal bubble to encompass the object that extends in front of you. 

#2 Use broader hand gestures

Gestures are vital nonverbal cues to signal someone to back up. Don’t be afraid to open your hands and arms as you talk. If they are so close that it touches them, the gesture will cue them to back away from you.

As a bonus, research has shown that people who “talk with their hands” are more warm, agreeable, and energetic.

#3 Take a step back and angle your body

If someone is too close to you, your first instinct is usually to step back. Physically moving your body away from the person adds distance between the two of you. You can also angle your shoulders and torso in the opposite direction. This subtly defensive posture signals to them that they are invading your privacy. 

If stepping back prompts them to move closer again, it may be time to layer on other tactics. 

#4 Take a seat

When you sit down, it automatically creates a vertical area between you and the close talker who is still standing. You may back up in the chair or invite them to sit in the seat next to you. 

Better yet, use a table as a barrier and signal with your hand that you’d like them to sit across from you. It is unlikely that they will pull their chair closer to you, but if they do, try the next tools…

#5 Use the stop hand gesture

A hand up with the palm facing forward is an almost universal sign to “stop.” This is a subtle way to tell a close talker to “stay there” while you move away from them. 

OK… maybe don’t be as dramatic as The Rock, but you get the idea. In polite conversation, this gesture will probably look more like Oprah’s stop cue: 

#6 Be direct

While it may seem impolite, being direct can actually be the kindest thing you can do. Imagine if this close talker has gone all their lives without someone telling them they are making people uncomfortable! Once you have exhausted the other tactics, it could be time to speak up. 

Use a confident yet respectful tone to say something like:

  • “Could you back up a little bit, please?”
  • “Wow, I can see your pores from here! I’m going to step back.”
  • “You are in my personal bubble.” 
  • “You’re standing too close for comfort.” 
  • “I need more personal space, please.” 

How Much Personal Space is Normal?

Personal space or a personal bubble is the invisible space around a person where they feel most comfortable. Psychologically, this area belongs to them. When you violate someone’s personal space, they may feel uncomfortable, awkward, unsafe, anxious, or even angry. 

Social scientists call this concept of personal space proxemics or the study of how people unconsciously structure the space around them. The “normal” amount of personal space is different in every culture. For example, in Argentina, “close talkers” are fairly normal. There is virtually no personal bubble, and strangers may stand within 2.5 feet of each other while chatting. 

However, Americans typically have 4 socially acceptable zones of personal space:

  • Intimate: 0 to 18 inches
  • Personal: 18 inches to 4 feet
  • Social: 4 to 12 feet
  • Public: more than 12 feet  

These ranges also vary in urban versus rural or professional versus casual environments. Your relationship with the conversation partner will dramatically affect what is appropriate for each of you. 

All these nuances aside, the best rules of thumb to find someone’s personal bubble is:

  • Rule of Thumb: If you take a step forward and they step back–you are too close!
  • Rule of Thumb: If they keep taking steps toward you, you are too far!

Whether they’re from another culture or they don’t know your boundaries, some people just haven’t gotten the memo! Close talkers are the people that dive into the personal and intimate zone without knowing you like that

Key Takeaways: Deal With A Close Talker with Non-Verbal and Verbal Cues

Close talkers can make conversations unbearably awkward. When you can smell what someone had for lunch or feel their hot breath on your cheek, it’s probably time to say something. Thankfully, you don’t have to be rude or unprofessional about it. There are several non-verbal and verbal tools at your disposal to get the message across:

  • Step back: The easiest and most socially-obvious reaction to a close talker is to step back. Add another 12-18” of space between you by backing up. 
  • Use an item as a barrier: Pick up an object or move behind a desk to create a physical barrier between you and the other person. 
  • Broaden your hand gestures: Expand your personal space by reaching out with your hands and arms as you talk. If they bump into you, they might get the memo that they’re too close.
  • Sit down: Take a seat to add vertical space between you, and then invite them to sit in a chair across from you. 
  • Signal them to stop: Face your palm toward them as you back up or use another cue. 
  • Directly say something: Use a respectful, confident tone to tell them to move back. Try questions or statements like, “Can you please move back?” or “You are in my personal bubble.” There is no need to call them a “close talker” or insult them. 

Remember to give close talkers the benefit of the doubt— they may not have the social skills or body language awareness to understand your cues. These are skills that take time and observation to develop. Using and reading non-verbal cues can give you a major advantage in the workplace and beyond. Make body language your superpower with this complete Body Language at Work guide.

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