Does physical space influence communication? Could it have an effect or meaning behind it? Is it capable of altering the nature of communication? As subtle as it may seem, proxemics can influence communication to a great extent. It has great advantages and sometimes can also turn detrimental to the quality of communication.
What is Proxemics?
It is the study of physical distance and its influence on human interactions. The amount of space existing between people when communicating can reveal the nature of the relationship.
This term was coined by Edward Hall, who was an anthropologist. He was interested in understanding how humans place themselves in terms of space. He defined proxemics as “the spatial dimension of non-verbal behaviour.”
Humans tend to establish a clear boundary regarding the physical distance between them and other people. They base this tendency on the level of comfort and preferences. People may be close or distant from other individuals for various reasons. However, when the preferred distance is breached they become alert and uncomfortable.
Although this concept is predominantly the same amongst almost all cultures, some cultural differences might view physical distance through a different set of lenses. In some cultures such as Latin America and Arabia, “physical closeness” is viewed in a favourable light. It is completely acceptable to be “close” during conversations. For example, Arabs have the custom of wishing someone by hugging them and giving a light peck on the forehead.
However, such “closeness” might not be as favourable in other cultures such as Asia, where people prefer “distance” during their interactions. Commonly amongst many cultures, breaching the personal space would mean aggression or sexual interest.
Environmental factors can also determine the underlying message a person tries to convey.
For example, in making the seating arrangements during a meeting or a conference, the seat of the director or the head of the organization would be placed a little away and more centred from that of the employees to show the sign of power and authority.
Importance of Proxemics
Understanding proxemics can be beneficial during conversations as it gives us knowledge about the intent of the one talking to us. Different levels of distance can imply different messages. However, the amount of space given shouldn’t be the only aspect to be considered when trying to understand the intent of an individual. It should always be coupled with other non-verbal and verbal cues that seem to indicate a specific intention.
Humans tend to draw clear-cut boundaries about their space and who is let in. They classify people into different categories such as friends, family, intimate partners, acquaintances, strangers etc. and also determine the amount of space they would opt for each group.
For example, the kind of physical closeness they desire with their intimate partners might change when it comes to friends or acquaintances.
Based on the category of people, they decide the level of space between themselves and others. When this personal boundary is unexpectedly breached, they feel violated and become uncomfortable.
What are the different levels of space?
Every individual would define “personal space” differently based on their experiences and preferences. Studies have shown that people usually have four different types of personal zones and the interactions between each zone vary as well.
- Personal space
- Public space
- Social space
- Intimate space
Personal space would mean 1.5 – 4 feet and it extends from a person to four feet away from their body. This is the zone, which is reserved for friends, family and close acquaintances. In this zone, people enjoy having close individuals around by interacting with them and subtle touches are considered normal or friendly.
For example, when friends get together they are more likely to sit closer to each other as that provides a sense of closeness.
Public space is the least personal zones of all the other zones. It extends 12 feet from a person’s body. Such a zone is held mostly during a professional setting where a person has to address a group of people. They hold a distance of 12 feet between them and others. Celebrities and other high-profile also make sure to keep themselves from others at 12 feet for safety reasons and as a sign of power.
For example, when people give public speeches, they place themselves far from the audience especially to be visible and to address the entire crowd.
Social space extends from 4 to 12 feet away from a person’s body. This is not as impersonal as the public space and not as close as the personal space. This is the zone where normal social interactions between distant acquaintances and colleagues take place.
When someone is in a social space, one is not obligated to interact with them. However, as they approach closer it would be hard to ignore their presence and hence interactions would become necessary.
It is considered an intimate space when the extended space is 1.5 feet or lesser. This zone is usually reserved only for romantic/intimate partners, closest friends and family. Based on context, other people closing on our intimate space can be comforting, frightening or even annoying. People usually look for physical closeness with significant others as that can be more soothing than words on many occasions.
Apart from these zones, humans intrinsically tend to mark territories just like animals. They experience a sense of ownership over the physical place where they live.
For example, even during bus travel we naturally prefer one particular seat over the other ones. This concept is called territoriality. It is of three different types: primary, secondary and public.
- Primary territory refers to a person’s personal belongings such as a house, room, bed, things etc.
- Secondary territory doesn’t directly belong to but is associated with someone. Although people don’t have direct control over it, they do experience indirect ownership of it. For example, an abandoned neighbourhood alley that a person can temporarily use for personal reasons.
- Public territory belongs to no one yet. Yet, people somehow take ownership of the little time they spend there. For example, placing a bag on a seat to let people know that it is taken.
Learning this phenomenon makes us understand the human nature to fight for their place; be it a seat, a house, a lane or even a country.