Proxemics is the study of how humans perceive, structure, and use space as communication. Space helps people manage the dual needs for privacy and closeness in social and personal relationships. Early work on proxemics focused on classifying territory and conversational distance. Contemporary research has examined how proxemics is related to messages such as liking and dominance.
A territory is a fixed geographic space that is occupied, controlled, and defended by a person or group. Scholars have identified four basic types of territory (Altman 1975; Lyman & Scott 1967). “Body territory” includes a person’s physical body as well as the invisible, adjustable, and portable bubble of personal space surrounding one’s body. Personal space insulates people against physical and emotional threats from the external environment, including other people. “Primary or home territories” are private spaces that clearly belong to a person or group and provide a physical and psychological retreat from the public world. People can let their guard down in primary territories such as homes, cars, and private offices. “Secondary or interactional territories” are semi-public territories that are inhabited and temporarily “owned” by particular people at different times. Examples include university classrooms, country clubs, and gyms. Finally, “public territory” is open for use by anyone. Public beaches, shopping malls, and sidewalks are all examples of public territory, although public places are sometimes claimed as primary territories (e.g., a gang’s turf).
Research has examined how crowding affects humans and other animals. Studies of deer and rats showed that crowding leads to stress, hyperactivity, infertility, and even death. College students are healthier and earn better grades when they live in less crowded dormitories. Crime, juvenile delinquency, and neighborhood violence go up in crowded conditions. Yet people can experience positive affect when they are part of a unified crowd, such as fans at a football game. Altman (1975) distinguished between density (the number of people per square foot or mile) and psychological crowding (discomfort and anxiety due to having one’s personal space violated). Although these two terms are related, some people may experience psychological crowding in an environment characterized by low density; conversely, densely populated environments may not be experienced as crowded.
People actively identify and protect their territories. Boundary markers such as doorways, fences, and walls demarcate where a territory begins and ends. Central markers, such as draping a sweater over a chair, are used to reserve a territory. Ear markers are placed directly on possessions (e.g., “This book belongs to Maria”) or boundary markers (“Steve’s room”). When a person’s territory is invaded, people often become aroused and defensive, leading to a flight or fight response. Research by Judee Burgoon suggests that violations of personal space lead to aversive reactions when they are committed by an unattractive or unrewarding communicator (Burgoon et al. 1996). People are more lenient when proxemic violations are committed by a highly regarded person. In fact, such violations sometimes lead to increased liking.
Like territory, conversational distance is an important component of proxemics. Edward Hall’s classic work identified four perceptual categories of conversational distance: “intimate” (0 to 18 inches), “personal” (18 inches to 4 feet), “social” (4 to 10 feet), and “public” (over 10 feet; Hall 1966, 1968). Conversation at closer distances is defined by more sensory stimulation and a perceptual focus on the face and upper body. At farther distances, people have an overall rather than close-up view of each other and are more easily distracted. These specific distances are most applicable to North America and central/northern Europe. The intimate zone is smaller in places such as South America and the Mediterranean region and larger in most of Asia (Andersen 1999). Yet, across various cultures, people generally use smaller conversational distances with people whom they like and trust. Couples are more likely to sit close together when they are satisfied rather than dissatisfied with their relationship. People also use closer distances when they discuss personal topics and expect to have a positive interaction with someone. In the US, romantic partners and women friends generally sit closer together and in more face-to-face positions than men friends.
Contemporary communication research has investigated how other proxemic cues relate to liking. Leaning forward, communicating on the same physical plane (or at the same level), and using a face-to-face position all help reduce physical distance between people. These three cues, along with close distancing, are part of a larger cluster of immediacy behaviors that communicate intimacy, liking, and social support. However, proxemic immediacy only leads to liking if the receiver is comfortable with increased physical closeness.
Proxemic cues also communicate dominance and regulate interaction. Leaning in close to someone can be intimidating, as can towering over someone rather than communicating on the same physical plane. Powerful people also have more control of space; they have larger and more private territories, display more territorial markers, and have gatekeepers such as secretaries who prevent intrusion into their private quarters. In terms of regulating interaction, people lean forward when they want a speaking turn, lean back when they wish to relinquish their turn, and step away when trying to end a conversation. As these examples illustrate, proxemics play a subtle yet powerful role in people’s everyday interactions.
- Altman, I. (1975). The environment and social behavior. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.
- Andersen, P. A. (1999). Nonverbal communication: Forms and functions. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.
- Burgoon, J. K., Buller, D. W., & Woodall, W. G. (1996). Nonverbal communication: The unspoken dialogue, 2nd edn. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Guerrero, L. K., Hecht, M. L., & DeVito, J. A. (eds.) (1999). The nonverbal communication reader: Classic and contemporary readings, 2nd edn. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
- Hall, E. T. (1966). The hidden dimension. New York: Doubleday.
- Hall, E. T. (1968). Proxemics. Current Anthropology, 9, 83–108.
- Knapp, M. L., & Hall, J. A. (2005). Nonverbal communication in human interaction, 6th edn. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
- Lyman, S. M., & Scott, M. B. (1967). Territoriality: A neglected sociological dimension. Social Problems, 15, 236–249.