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Proxemic Communication


Explanations > Understanding body language > Proxemic Communication

Geographic territory | Personal space | Body angling | So what?


Proxemic communication is communicating with others by virtue of the relative positioning of your bodies.

Geographic territory

There are different parts of the world where people act differently.

The primary territory of a person is their personal area, which may be a house, a bedroom, a den or study, where they feel most at home. Here, they can be themselves and be relaxed.

Secondary territory is where they also feel comfortable. This may be neutral places such as bars and restaurants or other private places such as at a friend's house or a club.

Public territory is not owned by us or people we trust, but it is neutral. This includes streets, parks and other public places. There may be threat or safety here, depending on the place and the time.

Interaction territory is a temporary private space where I am having a conversation with others. This may be in a caf?or even moving along a corridor. It is assumed I can communicate with relative privacy within this space.

Personal space

The personal space around my body includes a number of concentric circles where the closer areas are reserved for more trusted people. If you are closer to me, you may attack me, so I will seek to keep close areas safer by forbidding all but approved friends.

Hall (1966) found four key zones:

  • Intimate: touching to 10 inches. For close friends and family.
  • Casual-personal: 18 inches to four feet: Informal conversation with friends.
  • Social-consultative: four to twelve feet: formal transactions.
  • Public: Addressing groups of people.

Note that this distance can vary significantly. Extraverts, for example, may have smaller distances whilst introverts may prefer to keep their distance. People who live in towns and cities are used to squeezing closer to people so have smaller spaces, whilst country people stand so far apart they have to lean forwards to shake hands.

Also the distance varies greatly with nationality. For example the casual-personal distance may be:

  • North America: 18 inches
  • Western Europe: 14 to 16 inches
  • Japan: 36 inches
  • Middle East: 8 to 12 inches

For close conversation, an appropriate proximity needs to be sustained. If the distance is too far, then the person may be seen as 'stand-offish' or distant (perhaps insultingly so).

Body angling

Bodies may be angled with other people ranging from side-to-side to face-to-face.

Direct face-to-face can be confrontational or intimate and so many conversations are held with people sitting or standing at an angle to one another.

When side-by-side, people face the same way and hence it is difficult to see the other's face. This is done as a practical step when walking or may be deliberately used to 'face the same problem'.

So what?

So be very careful when you are approaching people, for example if you move into their personal space without permission you will effectively threaten them. Understand local distances and manage your distance for deliberate effect.

See also

Using Body Language, Greeting body language, Social distances

Edward T. Hall, The Hidden Dimension, Doubleday, Garden City, N.Y., 1966

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