Proxemics is what brings us together, today. The term ``proxemics'' was coined by researcher Edward Hall during the 1950's and 1960's and has to do with the study of our use of space and how various differences in that use can make us feel more relaxed or anxious.
  1. Proxemics comes in two flavors,
    1. physical territory, such as why desks face the front of a classroom rather than towards a center isle, and
    2. personal territory that we carry with us, the "bubble" of space that you keep between yourself and the person ahead of you in a line.
  2. I plan to examine two aspects of proxemics and the important role they can play in our interpersonal communication. These two areas are the use of color in our environment, and how cultural differences in the use of personal territory can make us feel discomfort.
  1. Let's begin with colors. As we briefly discussed in class, colors can have a major impact on our comfort level in a given situation.
    1. You would not, for instance, take a business client out to lunch at McDonalds, due at least in part to the bright reds and yellows used in their color scheme. These colors cause people anxiety and cause them to rather rush in, consume their food, and rush back out, than stay and chat.
    2. You would be more likely to take that client to Denny's with its muted color scheme, or better yet to Marie Callender's where you can relax in a homey pastel colored environment.
    3. Furthermore, studies have shown that bright colors are disturbing not only to restaurant patrons, but also to their employees. Restaurants with brightly colored interiors such as Taco Bell and McDonalds have the highest employee turnover in the food service industry.
  1. Another important aspect of proxemics is the use of Personal territory. Let me briefly outline the four areas of personal territory; public, social, personal, and intimate, that we Americans intuitively respect and use.
    1. Public space ranges from 12 to 25 feet and is the distance maintained between the audience and a speaker such as the President.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. Finally, intimate space ranges out to one foot and involves a high probability of touching. We reserve it for whispering and embracing.
  1. Personal territories, however, can vary both culturally and ethnically.
    1. Take Saudi Arabia for example, you might find yourself almost nose to nose with a business associate because their social space equates to our intimate space. You would probably find yourself backing away trying to regain your social space while your associate persues you across the floor trying to maintain his. Finally, you would come away from the encounter thinking he was "pushy", and he thinking you were "standoff-ish."
    2. If, on the other hand, you were visiting a friend in the Netherlands, you would find the roles reversed, you would be doing the chasing because their personal space equates to our social space.
    3. As a final example, let me examine our use of public transportation. We Americans tend to pull in our elbows and knees and try not to touch or even look at one another while riding the bus. In Japan, a country with a population half the size of the United States cramed into an area half the size of California, subway passengers are literally pushed into the cars until not even one more person will fit. You cannot help but be pressed against someone else's sweaty body.
As you can see by the examples I have given, cultural differences and the use of color in our physical environment can have a great impact upon our interactions with others. But these are only two of more than twenty major aspects of proxemics such as eye-contact, facial expression, smells, body warmth, gender, number of people involved, subject matter, and goals of the communication, for which we continuously and automatically adjust our use of space. In conclusion, it is my hope that I have made you more aware of the ways in which proxemics can affect the success of our interpersonal communication.
  • Harrison, Ishii, and Chignell
    An Empirical Study on Orientation of Shared Workspaces and Interpersonal Spaces in Video-Mediated Collaboration
  • Maginnis, Tara
    How's your personal distance -- watch this space
  • Mulvaney, Becky
    Gender Differences in Communication: An Intercultural Experience
  • Olson, Traci
    Analysis of Cultural Communication and Proxemics
  • Simons, Jennifer
    Focus Session Summary 4: Bodies in Space
  • The Body Language of Proxemics
  • Sociolinguistics
Mike Sheppard
July 1996