Edward T. Hall virtually single-handedly invented the science of proxemics a generation ago, studying how humans handle the distances between us. The word never caught on, but his insights have been extraordinarily valuable to those of us who are fascinated with body language and the ways in which humans communicate with one another.
As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, Hall taught us to recognize four basic zones of space between us, beginning with public space – twelve feet or more – moving closer to social space – four to twelve feet – and on to personal space – four feet to a foot and a half – and finally into intimate space – eighteen inches to zero.
What’s interesting about these zones for public speakers, communicators, and students of body language are the ways in which the zones get used for different social activities, as their labels imply. Intimate space is reserved for those we are intimate with, for example, and if anyone else enters that space, it feels like a very disturbing violation of a taboo. One’s reaction will be visceral and immediate. If someone attempts to intimidate you, moreover, by using intimate space, the result is deeply uncomfortable.
Personal space is cooler, but we still monitor strangers and even intimates when they come into our personal space. It’s a matter of safety and our hard-wiring for survival.
Contrast these strong feelings and reactions with the much cooler social and public space. At parties, in fact, while most of us find talking with strangers in social space more or less stressful, we also don’t find it deeply engaging. Because our senses are not on high alert, the whole activity is both less alarming and less interesting for us. And once we’re in public space, our unconscious minds are virtually asleep. It’s why most public speaking is so un-engaging for most of us.
One of the ongoing debates in the body language world has been the extent to which various aspects of non-verbal communications are culturally determined. Very roughly, the first generations of post-World-War-II researchers assumed without much actual evidence that body language would be almost entirely culturally based, with significant differences from one culture to another.
Hall’s work was part of a reaction against that early stance in which researchers began to find that a good deal of body language was in fact universal, not particularly dependent on culture. The four zones, for example, appeared not only to exist across cultures, but indeed across primate species. Chimps and apes also monitor personal and intimate space closely, it turns out.
Now from last year comes a major update on Hall’s research. Researchers in 42 countries tested Hall’s zones for a number of variables – age, gender, climate, and something fascinating which can best be explained as the risk of disease (the closer you get to someone, the more likely you are to share your parasites). The results are an important and useful updating of Hall’s original work.
First, the basic zones have stood the test of time. Across cultures, we humans maintain the four zones of public, social, personal and intimate space. The variations noted are a matter of inches one way or another. For example, intimate space seems to vary from about 8 to 30 inches. That means that if you’re part of a culture that finds itself comfortable with the larger space, going to a culture where intimate space is a narrower field will make you uncomfortable. And conversely, if you’re from a small-intimate-space culture, be prepared to find people recoiling if you unintentionally transgress the personal-intimate space barrier for that larger-space culture.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, the researchers discovered a number of differences that represent a useful set of nuances in applying Hall’s work. If you’re a public speaker, for example, understanding these zones and understanding the differences among them culturally are helpful as you speak to one audience or another.
There are three main sets of ways, the researchers found, that we humans vary the basic Hall zones. And some of them are quite paradoxical. First, the hotter the country, the closer we like to get to strangers, but the further away we like to keep our intimates. Second, women generally like to maintain larger distances between people than men. And third, the older you are the more distance you like to maintain. For any category of person, the variability is greater in intimate distance than it is for social or personal space. Indeed, the greatest variation came between Norway (almost 40 cm marking the intimate space barrier) and Saudi Arabia (just over 90 cm marking the intimate space barrier). None of the other categories varied that much.
Two main conclusions are possible from this update to Hall’s research. First, the basic idea of the four zones of space hold up quite well and works across cultures. And second, you’d be well-advised to keep the categories and variations in mind as you deal with varying audiences and varying situations. The only significant things that happen between people take place in personal and intimate space, so knowing those variations and respecting the differences will make you an emotionally intelligent communicator wherever you go.
Thanks to reader Alex Owen-Hill for the pointer and earlier discussion that prompted me to write this update.