Proxemics 101: Understanding Personal Space Across Cultures

Where you stand when you talk to someone is reflexive and varies widely depending on your culture.
Developed by anthropologist Edward T. Hall in the 60s, proxemics is the study of how we use space when we communicate. Image: Cristina Gottardi, via Unsplash

It happens so naturally that most people never even think about it, but the amount of space that they maintain between each other is not random. It depends in large measure on where you’re from and who you’re talking to. Furthermore, these distances vary from culture to culture. If you run into an acquaintance on the street and stop to ask her how her new job is going, you’ll unconsciously choose to stand a culturally specific distance from her. For Americans, it would be considered quite disconcerting to hold this sidewalk conversation with only an inch or two separating your bodies. At the other extreme, it would be strange to stand several yards away, raising your voice so that the other person can hear you. In the first case, your friend might back up a bit, and in the second, she might make a point of moving closer to you.

This article is adapted from Kreuz and Roberts’ book “Getting Through: The Pleasures and Perils of Cross-Cultural Communication.

It turns out that this whole “how far apart do we stand” business has a name — proxemics — and it can be defined as how personal space is maintained as a function of one’s culture. The term was coined by Edward Hall in 1966 and is just one aspect of nonverbal communication. Hall interviewed large numbers of people from all over the world to see whether there was any regularity to personal distance. It might be the case, for example, that this is simply a personal idiosyncrasy, an individual difference that varies from person to person. Devotees of the American TV program “Seinfeld” may remember an episode in which Elaine’s new boyfriend, played by Judge Reinhold, is shown to be a “close talker.” Part of the episode’s humor revolved around how disconcerting this was to the other characters, culminating with Kramer falling over backward as he moved away from the close talker’s verbal assault. What Hall found, however, was a great deal of consistency about personal space. In fact, he even derived exact measurements for the size of the zones that surround an individual’s body. We will dispense with the exact numbers, but we think it’s important to summarize Hall’s four main zones of personal space.

The closest of these zones is referred to as intimate distance, which includes the space from bodily contact, such as a hug, to the distance it would take to whisper to a confidant. Very few of our public interactions occur within intimate distance. Even handshakes, which involve physical contact, tend not to take place within intimate distance: Instead the two greeting parties stand apart while extending their arms outward from their bodies to clasp hands.

In Tokyo, Seoul, Rio de Janeiro, and other cities, subways have special cars that are to be used only by women to avoid violations of their personal or intimate space by men.

A second zone, extending out beyond intimate distance, is personal distance. This is the zone within which people interact with family members or good friends. Of course, there are times when personal space or even intimate space is violated by strangers. This might occur, for example, in a crowded elevator. However, the discomfort that people feel is likely to be transitory, since most elevator rides last only a moment or two. A packed subway car is another matter. In this case, the unwanted closeness may go on for considerable lengths of time, accompanied by physical jostling as the train moves and when people enter and exit the car. People often deal with the violation of their space by psychologically removing themselves from the situation, for example, by closing their eyes or by listening to music through earphones. In Tokyo, Seoul, Rio de Janeiro, and other cities, subways have special cars that are to be used only by women to avoid violations of their personal or intimate space by men.

When it comes to interacting with acquaintances, we’ve now entered a third zone, moving outward from personal distance, called social distance. If you’re chatting with a colleague at work, it’s likely that you’re maintaining a social distance. In fact, if two of your colleagues at work are carrying on a secret affair, they may unconsciously adjust their personal space from a social distance to a more intimate one. What they may not realize is that they are broadcasting a signal to others, as well.

Finally, there is public distance, which is the distance used in public speaking. Individuals make a number of unconscious changes to their behavior when presenting at a public distance. For example, they typically speak more loudly and may change their bodily posture to project their voice so that it carries farther. And as is often the case, we’re really only aware of these changes when they create a problem.

In the Middle East, social distance is closer than it is in the United States, so as you back up, your conversational partner may attempt to close the gap once again.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that personal space varies from culture to culture. In Saudi Arabia, for example, if a stranger moves close to you to converse, you might find yourself unconsciously backing away (as in the case of Kramer and the close talker). In the Middle East, social distance is closer than it is in the United States, so as you back up, your conversational partner may attempt to close the gap once again. It’s easy to imagine an awkward dance down a sidewalk, with one party retreating and the other advancing as the conversation progresses.

The point here is that where you stand when you talk to someone is reflexive. Although you certainly don’t measure the distance physically, you are calculating it mentally. When a mismatch occurs between what you think the distance should be and what the distance is, you then must make an attribution. Why is this person standing so close? Hall’s theory about personal space can help answer this question. Sometimes a person is standing too close because it is typical of their culture. Sometimes a person is standing too close because they really are pushy or aggressive. Cross-cultural miscommunication arises when you make the wrong attribution. For example, you might decide someone is pushy (personal attribution) instead of realizing that their idea of social distance may be different (situational attribution).

In Mongolia, when two people inadvertently bump each other (such as kicking someone’s leg under a table), they must immediately shake hands, which in a sense reestablishes the correct personal distance. But when someone bumps into you on a crowded sidewalk in Ulaanbaatar, should you shake his hand or tighten your grip on your purse? Unfortunately Hall’s theory won’t help you there.

It’s important neither to underestimate nor to overestimate the influence of cultural factors. With luck, an awareness of proxemics and differing cultural attitudes about personal space might prevent you from executing a backward two-step when someone is, quite literally, getting too close for comfort.

Roger Kreuz is Associate Dean and Director of Graduate Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Psychology at the University of Memphis. Richard Roberts is a Foreign Service Officer currently serving as the Public Affairs Officer at the US Consulate General in Okinawa, Japan.

Kreuz and Roberts are the co-authors of “Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language,” “Getting Through: The Pleasures and Perils of Cross-Cultural Communication,” and “Changing Minds: How Aging Affects Language and How Language Affects Aging.”

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