Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Proxemics: Don't Stand So Close to Me

Space can be a very mysterious concept when it comes to interpreting body language across cultures. Personally, unless I'm dating you, sharing a very small bed with you, or clearly in distress, then I'd prefer that most people keep their distance. I don't think I'd classify myself as claustrophobic.. that may be a bit extreme.. but we'll just say that I prefer to go to the 11:30a movie on a Tuesday rather than the 7:30p show on a Saturday. For me, the distraction has more to do with all of the white noise than the volume of people within one area. If someone in that theater is snapping gum, whispering, or lightly tapping on an arm rest - FORGET IT, that's all I'll hear for the remainder of the film. Ask any roommate I've ever had.. I'm insane when it comes to small noises.

Anyway, in 1966 anthropologist Edward Hall introduced the term 'proxemics'. The word signifies set measurable distances between people as they're interacting. To quote Hall, "Like gravity, the influence of two bodies on each other is inversely proportional not only to the square of their distance, but possibly even the cube of the distance between them".

Here's the general chart of proxemics per Hall's delineations in regard to body spacing, posture, & unintentional reactions:

  • Intimate distance: embracing, touching, whispering
    0 inches - 18 inches
  • Personal distance: interactions among close friends
    1.5 feet - 4 feet
  • Social distance: interactions among acquaintances
    4 feet - 12 feet
  • Public distance: typically used for public speaking forums
    12 feet - 25+ feet

While these delineations are standards upheld by North Americans, it's important to note that they do vary according to different cultures. High-contact cultures maintain smaller relative distances when interacting. Latin, Arab, & Mediterranean cultures are more comfortable with a shorter amount of personal space. Conversely, low-contact cultures such as Nordic & Asian people prefer most interactions remain within Hall's social distance zone. In fact, low-contact cultures often prefer no contact at all as it can be viewed as intrusive (i.e. hand-shaking, light tap on the shoulder).

Of course, in all cultures, the degree of space is heavily determined by specific elements involved in each unique situation. Gender, circumstances, privacy, and comfort levels among many other factors can alter or determine an individual's reaction. I'm sure that - if given the opportunity - any one of us would prefer a private jet over a crowded airplane. The important thing to remember is that facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language can easily be misinterpreted across cultures. Developing your knowledge of cultural awareness in regard to space can help to eliminate discomfort, confusion, and anxiety that the person on the receiving end may be experiencing.


Bruce said...

Thank you so much for your input on space and helpful to my class projects

Bruce said...

thank you for the input on non verbal communications. big help on my project

Anonymous said...

Thank you, that was extremely valuable and interesting...I will be back again to read more on this topic.

Anonymous said...

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Carry on the excellent work!

Lil' Boozie said...

We're glad that you've found these tips helpful! We'll be posting weekly regarding various cultural interactions and hope to see you back again!