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body language: proxemics

August 10, 2010

Proxemics is the study of spatial distances that humans keep as we interact with each other.

In his poem, “Some Thirty Inches from My Nose,” W. H. Auden describes this:

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.

We have invisible borders around us – our personal space. If someone (especially someone we don’t know well) comes too close and invades our personal “bubble,” we feel uncomfortable or even threatened.

Here’s a somewhat funny commercial that deals with personal space.

According to Edward Hall (1966), there are four zones:

  • Public distance (12-25 feet): This distance is maintained for anonymous interactions, e.g., giving a speech in front of an audience or passing strangers when walking down the street.
  • Social distance (4-12 feet): This is a comfortable distance when interacting with acquaintances or business associates. We’re not within touching distance.
  • Personal distance (18 inches – 4 feet): Friends and family members are allowed closer without feeling uncomfortable. This is within touching distance, but still almost at arm’s length.
  • Intimate distance (less than 18 inches): Only lovers and very close friends or family members are allowed within our intimate zone. At this distance, our main senses are smell and touch. You can sense each other’s body heat.

So next time when you walk down a street and a stranger walks toward you and you pass each other, heading in different directions, pay attention to how you both react as you come closer and closer to each other. You are free to look at each other from a distance, but as you near each other, both of you will normally look away — because you’ve now reached a distance that is within your social or personal space, in which you interact with friends, not strangers. So to avoid confrontation, both of you look away.

It’s an unwritten rule and we do it automatically. Most of us probably aren’t aware of how humans use distances to regulate relationships. That’s probably why Edward Hall called his book “The Hidden Dimension.”

The size of our personal space varies, depending on:

  • Culture: In many Latin and Southern European cultures, personal space is smaller than in Nordic cultures. That’s why an Italian might think a Brit is stand-offish because he keeps his distance while communicating, while the Brit might think the Italian is intrusive because he stands much closer. Hall distinguishes contact cultures (e.g., Latin Americans, French, Italians, Arabs, etc.), who stand closer, touch more, and hold eye contact longer, and no-contact cultures (including Germans, British, US Americans, etc.).
  • Gender: In Western cultures, two men interacting keep more distance than two women interacting with each other.
  • Age: Children have smaller personal spaces than adults. At around the age of six, most children become aware of personal space, and the size of their personal space increases with age and is finally “adult-size” when they reach puberty.
  • Personality: Extroverts often have smaller personal spaces, while introverts prefer a larger distance in their interactions.
  • Population density: People who live in or grew up in the countryside, with lots of space, will most often have a larger personal space than someone who grew up in a big city.

Next, I’ll blog about what happens if we’re in crowded spaces, where others invade our personal space.

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7 comments

  1. Using proxemics and the awareness of your characters’ various natural responses to same, you can do so many nuanced things in your stories. When the normal instinct to look/shy away doesn’t happen — is it fascination, attraction, etc. When you become aware of what someone else is doing when you pass through each other’s space-levels. When you feel the urge to close personal space with an unfamiliar person… curiosity, attraction, desire… and wrestling with it is a whole story plot in itself.


  2. How true this aspect of our nature is! And so, in our writing, there may appear the intrusion of one’s personal space, the willing offer to allow entrance into that otherwise private space of another, the effort of one character to gradually penetrate the other’s reserved private space, all of which may lead to tension. I liked the advertisement with all the bubbles! Thank you for this great post!


  3. You’re both right. Proxemics offer so many opportunities to show (not tell) the progression of a romantic relationship as the characters become more comfortable with each other.

    I’ll blog about that later.


  4. […] been asked to blog a bit more about proxemics. I mentioned before that the interpersonal distance we keep from other people depends on factors such as gender, […]


  5. […] body language: proxemics August 2010 4 comments and 2 Likes on WordPress.com 5 […]


  6. […] Jae's Fiction « Revising True Nature Body angling June 23, 2011 I had a very nice e-mail this week, asking me to resume my blogging about body language. So here’s a bit more about proxemics. […]


  7. Salut la compagnie je suis allé par hasard sur cette page, je trouve qu’il est beau Si vous avait besoin de des proxies pour naviguer depuis n’importe où



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