Proxemics is the study of the communicative aspects of personal space and territory. Everyone is surrounded by an invisible zone of psychological comfort that follows us everywhere we travel. This protective bubble acts as a buffer zone against unwanted touching and attacks. Our comfort zone varies depending on who we are talking to and the situation that we are in. The amount of space that we use while interacting with others can play a significant factor in the type of interaction we have with that person.
Anthropologist Edward Hall discovered that humans are distinctly aware of our perception of space and territory. He conducted numerous studies and experiments in which he concluded that Americans in the United States had four distinct comfort distances, each with their own specific ranges of comfort, and that these distances were surprisingly universal to most Americans. The four distances of personal territory are:
- Public space ranges from 12 to 25 feet and is the distance maintained between the audience and a speaker such as the President.
- Social space ranges from 4 to 10 feet and is used for communication among business associates, as well as to separate strangers using public areas such as beaches and bus stops.
- Personal space ranges from 2 to 4 feet and is used among friends and family members, and to separate people waiting in lines at teller machines for example.
- Finally, intimate space ranges out to one foot and involves a high probability of touching. We reserve it for whispering and embracing.
The territorial space that people claim as distinctly belonging to them is their personal space (4 feet). When someone who has not yet gained our trust enters our personal space, we tend to feel uncomfortable or even threatened because the intruder has trespassed onto our own space. This can be compared to a stranger walking into the backyard of your home without your permission. Entering someone’s personal distance without first establishing some level of trust can cause conflict and defensiveness to occur. When a violation of space occurs, it causes the other person to become uncomfortable and instinctively they will move themselves away from the person to regain the correct level of personal territory. You should pay attention to this behavior because it is a sure indication that you have intruded upon someone’s comfort zone.
Our social use of space can tell us a lot about the status, confidence and power of the people around us. Look at your own work place and examine who has the biggest office and who commands the most space while walking around. The people who possess the most power and authority command a greater amount of personal space that they can call their own. They will often distance themselves from others. In the workplace, the “top dog” might have their own corner office apart from the rest of the workers who might be scrunched together in cubicles.
In an office setting, proxemics can help us determine where to sit. If you are trying to facilitate cooperation, then the best place for you to sit is by someone’s side (to their right or left). By sitting to their side, we enhance cooperative behavior from them by conveying that we are not competing against them. It also points both of you towards the direction of the problem that exists, such as a report on the table, or research material that needs organizing.
Sitting on opposite sides fosters competition. Sitting directly across from someone, such as an employer sitting directly across from a prospective applicant with a table in between them, tends to foster a competing-type attitude.
Sit at 90 degree for good conversation. The best seating position at a table for a cooperative exchange of information is at the corner of the table. One person takes one side of the corner and the other person takes the other side. The benefits of this position are that: (1) It allows for both parties to enter into each other’s personal space, creating a stronger bond than if they remained distant from each other. (2) It breaks up the stuffy formalness of the situation by moving you closer to them. The corner of the table adds a bit of psychological security for both parties by having a bit of a barrier between them, but it is not as much of a barrier as if you sat opposite one another.