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Personal Space - Proxemics

Personal Space - Proxemics

Personal Space - Proxemics

What is Proxemics?

Proxemics is the study of how people react to the varying amount of space between them.

In some situations, such as in a crowded tube train, you are pressed up against strangers.

In other situations, such as in a museum, you may share a large space with relatively few people.

You will probably feel and act differently in each situation.

Proxemics is the study of how you feel and react under conditions of varying proximity.

The origin of Proxemics was a book called, The Hidden Dimension, written in 1963, by an anthropologist Edward Hall.

According to Hall, Proxemics is useful in thinking about the way people interact with others in daily life, and how this knowledge may affect the design of buildings and public spaces.

Space Boundaries

According to the theory, you could envisage each person as having a series of four concentric circles around them, with themselves at the centre of the circles. Each circle is wider than the next and each mark-out a space into which only certain classes of people are permitted.

The four spaces are called:

  1. The intimate space, into which you allow only family and lovers.
  2. Personal space, into which you allow good friends and people with whom you have good rapport.
  3. Social space, into which you allow casual friends and acquaintances.
  4. Public space, into which the rest of humanity fit.

What are the sizes of the four spaces?

There are no absolute and fixed boundaries because different people have set their limits at different distances, but in general the vast majority of people seem to operate according to the following rules.

  • The intimate space, 0 - 1.5 feet.
  • Personal space, 1.5 - 4 ft
  • Social space, 4 - 12 ft.
  • Public space, 12 ft and beyond.

How distance affects interactions

1. Intimate space is reserved for contact by close family members and lovers. If a stranger violates this space, then the violation is perceived as an attack. It would be a breach of social convention and the criminal law.

There are exceptions, such as medical practitioners; dentists, doctors and medics.

Other people you would allow into your intimate space may be masseurs, hairdressers and others who provide personal services.

If you are on the tube train or in a crowded lift, and the situation forces you to mutually invade each other's intimate space, (ie you are pressed up against and touching) then that is a stressful situation and most people don't like it.

2. Personal space is the region into which you allow people with whom you have good rapport.

People value their personal space and they feel irritation, antagonism, or anxiety whenever someone they don't know invades their space.

When you allow someone to enter your personal space, you are socially promoting them. And if you do not allow them to enter your space, (by moving backwards, in response to their approach), then you are socially rebuffing them.

3. Social space. This is the zone for normal professional relationships. You use this for business conversations with colleagues and associates, and for group discussions.

If you are a work colleague, it is important that you don't accidentally invade people's personal space.

Depending on the relationship, invading other people's personal space will be perceived as being pushy, creepy, bullying, insensitive or crass.

4. Public space. This is for strangers, and members of the general public. There is not much to say about this zone since it covers the whole world, outside your social space, 12 ft - infinity.

Appropriate distances for Business Networking

It is important that you do not violate other people's sensibilities. When you are in business situations, keep your distance.

  • Don't get too close.
  • Don't touch people, unnecessarily.
  • Don't sit next to someone if there are other options available.
  • Err on the side of caution.

On the other hand, if you want to build rapport with people, then you may want to gently test their distance boundaries and NOTICE the feedback-response you get.

For example, if you try moving from their social space to their personal space and they seem to respond positively, then you have promoted yourself to the next level; which may be to your advantage.

But if you try moving from their social space into their personal space, and they respond negatively, (by moving themselves to re-establish the social space) then you have NOT been promoted and it would be a major error to keep trying.

If you keep trying, you will seem insensitive.

Differences in cultures

The boundaries are NOT fixed and invariable. They are fluid and flexible. They vary between different people and they vary between different cultures.

For example, the French kiss strangers on the cheeks, as a greeting, and call it the "Bisou" (Bee-zoo).

The British and Americans generally don't do this.

Another example; in Myanmar it is normal for a shop assistant to follow a shopper at close proximity around the shop, to provide good service. But if that happened here, in the UK, you might find that irritating.

In Kenya you will commonly see men holding hands with other men as a sign of friendship. In the UK you would likely interpret that to indicate a romantic relationship.

It is important to be observant

Pay attention to distance cues. For example, if someone doesn't offer their hand as a greeting, don't offer your hand. Greetings are influenced by many factors; religion, customs, personality traits, social hierarchy and context.

Observe people's behaviour and be sensitive to the effects of your behaviour on them.

Be ready to make the necessary adaptive changes in your behaviour, based on the feedback results you are getting from your recent actions.

Then all will be well.

About the Author: Chris Farmer


Chris Farmer is the founder of the Corporate Coach Group and has many years’ experience in training leaders and managers, in both the public and private sectors, to achieve their organisational goals, especially during tough economic times. He is also well aware of the disciplines and problems associated with running a business.

Over the years, Chris has designed and delivered thousands of training programmes and has coached and motivated many management teams, groups and individuals. His training programmes are both structured and clear, designed to help delegates organise their thinking and, wherever necessary, to improve their techniques and skills.

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Further Reading in Communication - Nonverbal Communication

  • Personal Space - Proxemics
    Personal space is a form of non-verbal communication. It is important to recognise that the physical space surrounding each person has dedicated zones, which should be respected according to the rules of Proxemics, in order to gain trust.
    Read Article >
  • How to use eye contact
    Eye contact is an important part of communication. Giving too much, or too little, eye contact can be seen as being rude in Western cultures. So what is the correct amount to give?
    Read Article >
  • Ten Ways to Improve Your Body Language
    Body language is an important part of being an effective communicator. You can make a positive impression with other people, when you learn to use good body language. Effective body language is well known to improve your self-confidence.
    Read Article >
  • Are Hand Gestures Considered Aggressive?
    Hand gestures are a form of non-verbal communication. Some gestures are considered aggressive, others are ambiguous. What hand gestures should you avoid using?
    Read Article >
  • What is Passive Behaviour in the Workplace?
    Passive behaviour is a failure to communicate, either affirmatively or negatively, to conversations or events taking place. We examine why is it dangerous and why it should be discouraged in the workplace.
    Read Article >

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