People communicate with each other not just with words and gestures. There is one more aspect of interpersonal communication that people often miss. We may not be aware of this, but the way we utilize space plays an important role in how we communicate with each other. We often do not know that this aspect of communication exists at all, but we do notice when another person makes us uncomfortable because they “invade our personal space.” There is one term that encompasses this and related phenomena and that word is “Proxemics.”
What is “Proxemics?”
“Proxemics” sounds difficult and rather complicated but it’s simply about the distance between people. It is the study of “interaction distances and other defined uses of space typically defined by cultural factors.” This topic is a very interesting research study for most because of how people use space.
American anthropologist and researcher Edward Hall coined the term in 1963. Hall’s personal reaction bubble puts boundaries around a person, which starts with intimate space at 1.5 feet or 0.45 meters. Beyond this is personal space up to about four feet or 1.2 meters. Then it moves out to social space at 12 feet (3.6 meters). The last circle is public space at 25 feet or 7.6 meters.
When we are waiting in line, or in elevators and escalators, we carry with us a “bubble” to protect our personal space, even though we do not always have the opportunity to impose it. People living in westernized urban centers may be used invasion of personal space due to lack of available space in infinitely long lines, packed trains and subways, crowded shops and public places. Still, we do mind when we do not get to maintain that protective bubble though we can’t do anything to remedy it in certain situations.
The comfort zone
An observer given the opportunity to observe a pair or a group of people interacting with each other will notice that there are differences in how people orient themselves with respect to each other. The distance between the bodies of people communicating with each other can tell the observer a lot of things about the relationships of the people in conversation, whether they are friends, family, strangers, or in an intimate relationship.
Every single person has a sense of what is comfortable for him. If a person that he is not intimate with gets closer than the distance set for strangers, the person backs up a bit. This is done in order to re-establish a “comfort zone.” There are times when we are not even aware that we are backing away.
Space is a game-changer
Proxemics is actually something that we use every day. If we are talking to someone and the person is too far away, we tend to get closer. It becomes more interesting when two people engaged in conversation have different interaction distances. In order to maintain their respective comfort zones, these people would typically shift positions and keep doing so to maintain a certain level of comfort.
In some unfortunate situations, one interlocutor could end up inadvertently trapped in a corner. There are times when just because of the invasion of space people perceive the intentions of other individuals as hostile even when it is not.