Twenty study abroad students gather for a conference at an international university. The students arrive in groups by nationality and spend some time talking before the conference. The Japanese students converse softly in one corner of the room. Though they stand close together, they carefully maintain a personal distance from each other. The American students, in contrast, stand in a loose-knit group, talking loudly and gesturing enthusiastically. A few Italian youths are seen greeting each other with pats, clasped hands and hugs; some even lean against each other during conversation.
As the three groups begin to mingle, some awkward shuffling takes place. A Japanese student winces at an American’s booming voice. Another American backs away as an Italian encroaches on his personal space. One of the Italians strains to clearly hear a Japanese girl who is speaking to him. By the end of the conference, all of the students are exhausted. Dealing with proxemics has worn them out.
Proxemics is a theory of non-verbal communication that explains how people perceive and use space to achieve communication goals. Introduced by anthropologist Edward T. Hall in the 1960s, the theory emerged from studies of animal behavior conducted in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Just as animals use urine and physical posturing to define their territory, Hall posited, so do humans use personal space and concrete objects to establish theirs. Proxemics is one of five non-verbal communication theories, the others being semiotics (sign language), kinesics (body language), haptics (touch) and chronemics (time).
Core Concepts and Assumptions
In his book, The Silent Language, Edward Hall outlined the following ideas behind proxemic theory:
1. There are four types of distances people keep: intimate (0 to 18 inches), personal (18 inches to 4 feet), social (4 to 10 feet), and public (over 10 feet).
2. The distances outlined are those deliberately chosen by individuals. Forced closeness doesn’t factor in proxemics.
3. Proxemic behavior is learned mostly from observing others rather than from explicit instruction, which is why personal distance and physical contact varies by culture.
4. The physical distance between communicators indicates the type of relationship they have. Body angles, touch and eye contact further reveal the familiarity between people.
5. Americans generally prefer 18 inches of personal space.
Hall believed that proxemics could not only help illuminate relationships and communication goals, but also explain other cultural and anthropological phenomena, such as the organization of towns and living spaces. Furniture, walls, streets, buildings and fences are arranged in ways that delineate one’s territory, whether for living, working or meeting others. Territories are designed to provide comfort for their owners and produce anxiety within intruders.
Even color is used to identify certain kinds of territories and the behavior expected from those who enter them. For instance, a bright purple sofa in a small apartment would encourage a fun, carefree attitude, while a pristine white sofa in the same apartment would indicate an owner who prefers formality and restraint. Restaurants painted in soothing pastels invite diners to linger over their meals; those decorated with loud, obnoxious tones say, “Eat quickly and leave.”
Types of Territories
There are four main kinds of territories in proxemics:
1. Body Territory – refers to the personal space, or “bubble,” that one maintains around their person.
2. Primary Territory – one’s home, vehicle or other living space.
3. Secondary Territory – a structured place where entry is reserved for particular individuals and certain norms are expected, such as a school, office or church.
4. Public Territory – an open space where anyone can come and go, such as a park or shopping mall.
Territories can overlap. For example, a book club might meet in a person’s home. For the homeowner, the home is a primary territory. For the book club members, it’s a secondary territory. Territories function as a way to protect their owners’ comfort, interests and possessions from unwelcome invaders.
Proxemics and Anxiety
Encountering proxemic behavior different from one’s own has been known to trigger anxiety, or a fight-or-flight response. Researchers have conducted experiments that prove whenever an animal experiences a violation of its personal territory, it reacts by either running away or attacking the intruder. The same holds true for humans in most cases.
The exception comes in instances where people voluntarily give up their personal space to, for example, ride a crowded train or elevator. Research has shown that humans can put aside their personal discomfort to achieve certain goals day after day (i.e., getting to the office on time) without becoming overtly anxious, hostile or violent in the process. The key, researchers found, is withholding eye contact from others. Those who averted their eyes while in close physical contact with strangers exhibited markedly less anxiety. Thus, eye contact plays a significant role in proxemics research.
For the purposes of understanding how different people communicate non-verbally, Edward Hall separated cultures into two basic categories: contact and non-contact. In contact cultures, physical touching between acquaintances is permitted and even necessary for establishing interpersonal relationships. Such cultures include Arab, Italian, French, Latin America, and Turkish. For non-contact cultures, touching is reserved for only the most intimate acquaintances. Examples include the U.S., Norway, Japan, and most Southeast Asian cultures.
British linguist and businessman Richard D. Lewis later expanded upon this idea by outlining three specific types of cultures based upon communication styles:
1. Linear-active – cool, logical and decisive (non-contact). Speakers tend to be direct and occasionally impatient, but otherwise remain reserved and deal mostly in facts. Examples include the U.S. and most Northern European cultures.
2. Multi-active – warm and impulsive (contact). Speakers communicate enthusiastically, readily express emotion and prefer personal stories to facts. They tend to interrupt during conversation and display impatience more openly. Examples include Brazil, Mexico and Greece.
3. Reactive – accommodating and non-confrontational (non-contact). Speakers value decorum and diplomacy over facts or emotions. They’re usually very patient listeners who remain reserved in their body language and expressions. Examples include Vietnam, China and Japan.
Lewis’ cultural classification is known as The Lewis Model. It even includes a test individuals can take to identify their cultural communication style.
Researchers must consider many factors when studying proxemics. Edward Hall, for instance, measured posture, body angle, physical distance, touch, eye contact, thermal heat, smell and vocal volume when defining the different types of distances people create between themselves and others. Though some of Hall’s successors discounted heat, smell and volume as somewhat extraneous, they discovered several additional variables that often affect conversational distance: age, gender, social status, conversation topic, available space and environmental noise.
Such a reality begs many questions. For instance, were two women whispering in the corner because they’re close friends or because they’re coworkers planning a surprise party for their boss? Would those strangers on the corner still be talking loudly if there weren’t a siren going off one block away? As a result of so many variables, researchers now treat distance as part of an integrated system of communication rather than a stand-alone phenomenon. They also select which measures to include and isolate the variables for individual analysis.
Most proxemics research is conducted through observation, either in a laboratory or a natural setting. During observation, the actual distance subjects maintain between each other is measured, along with duration of eye contact and instances of touching. However, some researchers use a method called projection, in which subjects must simulate proxemic behavior by arranging dolls or similar objects on a flat surface. Researchers then measure the distance between the objects according to scale.
Approaches to Proxemic Theory
Research into proxemics has yielded two divergent theories about why people use space in communication:
Equilibrium Theory – Proxemics aids humans in maintaining a status quo. People will adjust proxemic factors during conversation to keep their relationships at a consistent level of intimacy (Michael Argyle, Oxford University psychologist).
Expectancy Violation Model – Proxemics helps people to obtain what they want. Those who violate the spatial expectations of others can often achieve specific, desirable communication goals. Violation has a better outcome than equilibrium (Judee Burgoon, University of Arizona communications professor).
Proxemics research has proved useful in several different fields. Film analysts have discovered that by decreasing the distance between the camera and the actor, audiences become more emotionally attached to the actor’s character. People in business have found that increasing face-to-face interactions between employees strengthens corporate culture.
Perhaps its most important application, though, is in the field of communication technology. Studies have shown that people naturally gravitate toward media in which proximity can be accurately simulated in the virtual world. The greater the perceived proximity, the more successful and effective the technology becomes.
Despite the popularity and usefulness of proxemics, some have criticized the theory. Critics say the proxemic theory promoted by Edward T. Hall makes sweeping generalizations and promotes cultural stereotypes. They also say that several of his claims concerning proxemic behavior remain unsubstantiated. However, proxemics continues to aid people in understanding non-verbal behavior and in communicating effectively with members of different cultures.