Proxemics: How to Communicate With Space

· October 1, 2018

Proxemics is the study of the proximity and distance between people and objects during interactions. It investigates the distance that people maintain when they interact with each other, as well as the presence or absence of physical contact. Also, proxemics establishes the emotional distances that occur between the people as they interact.

Proxemics teaches us that it may seem normal to talk to a person face-to-face, but some cultures find it more acceptable to position oneself at a 90-degree angle to the other person. The same happens with using a kiss or a handshake as a greeting. These practices, which Hispanics do a daily basis, are really intense in other cultures. For example, in Japan, they prefer to avoid physical contact and greet each other with a nod.

Proxemics and physical contact

Every culture establishes different types of contact. Some cultures allow no physical contact in public, whereas others find it completely acceptable. These cultural differences have led to the classification of high and low-contact cultures. High-contact cultures tend to have shorter distances between people. In contrast, there is more space between people in low-contact cultures.

But these cultural differences not only manifest themselves in how people make contact with each other but also in how they position themselves in space. The distance between people and the configuration of the environment indicate what distance is considered acceptable. The spaces that different cultures use can be divided into three subcategories: fixed space, semi-fixed space, and personal or informal space.

Proxemics defines intimate space as beyond personal space.

Proxemics and space

Fixed spaces have immovable structures that mark distances. The borders between countries represent the most easily recognized fixed spaces. But other examples of fixed spaces include the walls in a house or building, a family’s structure, a city’s layout, or even the trees found within a city. All of these aspects partially determine the distances we have with other people.

“Some thirty inches from my nose
The frontier of my Person goes,
And all the untilled air between
Is private pagus or demesne.
Stranger, unless with bedroom eyes
I beckon you to fraternize,
Beware of rudely crossing it:
I have no gun, but I can spit.”

-W.H. Auden-

Semi-fixed spaces are those where objects don’t limit our movement because they themselves can be moved. For example, a door can be opened or closed. Two types of semi-fixed spaces exist. Sociofugal spaces, such as uncomfortable chairs or the layout of a supermarket, make people move. On the other hand, sociopetal spaces incite conversation or interaction, such as the seats used by therapists or round tables that favor conversation.

Finally, your personal or informal space exists around your body. While Nordic cultures tend to be distant, Mediterranean and Latin cultures use more physical contact and maintain less distance between people.

In proxemics, this is a fixed space.

Proxemics and distance

A sense of personal space gives rise to the distance between people during different interactions. The distance we maintain with other people depends not only on our culture, but on the relationship we have with those people. With this in mind, four types of distances exist:

  • Intimate distance. This distance occurs in close relationships, with partners, family members, and close friends. Intimate distance is an invasion of personal space, and therefore not everyone accepts it.
  • Personal distance. Contact occurs with the other person without invading personal space. It’s used with people we feel close to and people we know well. Although it varies between cultures, personal distance is about an arm’s length away.
  • Social distance. This is the distance we maintain with strangers. We use it with people we don’t have a relationship or friendship with and therefore have no emotional closeness with. We also use social distance for meeting new people or for work meetings.
  • Public distance. This is a distance of more than 3.5 meters and represents the ideal distance for addressing a group of people. This distance makes us raise our voice, and we use it in conferences and speeches.

Although many factors play a role, proxemics often remain consistent in our day-to-day interactions. The distances we maintain and contact we have with other people will be differentiated by the emotional closeness we have with them. Even so, objects and cultures also influence our use of space.