Proxemics: Personal space
Exploring various aspects of nonverbal communication in animals and humans, cultural anthropologist E.T. Hall (1966) came to the conclusion that around each person, there exists an invisible “bubble”, a personal space which can be measured with surprising accuracy. The term that he coined to refer to the branch of knowledge dealing with personal space was proxemics (see “Types of nonverbal communication” post for the definition). This term is now widely accepted by anthropologists, psychologists, and linguists.
Hall (1966) noticed that social distance can be correlated with physical distance. Using his taxonomy, it is possible to outline following four types of distances each of which is used by people only for a certain type of communication:
1) intimate ( up to 0.46m = 1.5ft) – touching, embracing, whispering: only close people are usually admitted to this zone, for example, children and a spouse;
2) personal (0.46m to 1.2m = 1.5ft to 4ft) – talking with a normal voice: usually acceptable for friends and relatives;
3) social (1.2m to 3.7m = 4ft to 12ft) – talking with a normal or somewhat loud voice: used for acquaintances or unfamiliar people;
4) public (3.7m = 12ft or more) – talking with a loud voice or using a special device (e.g. a microphone, a loudspeaker): used for lectures and public presentations to a group of people.
Knowing these distances may help to communicate more effectively with people in different situations such as work, home, tourism. It is important to note that such factors as the density of population in a given country or region, rural vs urban area, and cultural background influence the space which people use for communication. For example, a Canadian from a rural area or a sparsely populated city is likely to keep a bigger distance than a European from a densely populated city.
Another significant contribution of Hall (1966) to the study of interpersonal space (in my opinion, it is more accurate to use the term “interpersonal space” than just “distance” or “personal space” because we speaking of communicative context where there are at least two people) was the introduction of the following two concepts: sociopetal and sociofugal. These terms refer to the spaces that surround us.
Sociopetal spaces encourage conversations, they are designed in such a way that people can see each other and communicate easily (e.g. speaking, shaking hands).
Sociofugal spaces, in contrast, discourage conversations, they are designed in such a way that people do not face each other and/or cannot speak easily.
One of the places where it may be necessary to ensure that the space is sociopetal is a restaurant. A classroom setting in contrast may benefit from sociofugal space (students are seated one besides the other or one behind the other) since typically students are not expected to converse.
To sum up, in order to communicate effectively it is necessary to consider different types of distances that people usually use. These distances depend on the familiarity with the interlocutor and the overall context (e.g. whether it is a private conversation or a public event). Culture, density of population, and the area type (rural vs urban) are the factors that need to be considered since they may influence the distance that people prefer to keep in communication. Another aspect that may influence interpersonal and intercultural communication is the design of the physical space. The physical spaces which position communicators face-to-face and provide conditions for an easy exchange of words tend to enhance communication (sociopetal spaces). The physical spaces which position communicators in such a way that they do not see each other tend to discourage communication (sociofugal spaces).
Hall, E. T. (1966). The hidden dimension. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.