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Proxemics is the study of measurable distances between people as they interact. The term was introduced by anthropologist Edward T. Hall in 1963.[1] The effects of proxemics, according to Hall, can be summarized by the following loose rule:

Like gravity, the influence of two bodies on each other is inversely proportional not only to the square of their distance but possibly even the cube of the distance between them.

In animals, Swiss zoologist Heini Hediger had distinguished between flight distance (run boundary), critical distance (attack boundary), personal distance (distance separating members of non-contact species, as a pair of swans), and social distance (intraspecies communication distance). Hall reasoned that, with very few exceptions, flight distance and critical distance have been eliminated in human reactions, and thus interviewed hundreds of people to determine modified criteria for human interactions.


Body spacing and posture, according to Hall, are unintentional reactions to sensory fluctuations or shifts, such as subtle changes in the sound and pitch of a person's voice. Social distance between people is reliably correlated with physical distance, as are intimate and personal distance, according to the following delineations:

  • Intimate distance for embracing, touching or whispering
    • Close phase – less than 6 inches (15 cm)
    • Far phase – 6 to 18 inches (15 to 46 cm)
  • Personal distance for interactions among good friends or family members
    • Close phase – 1.5 to 2.5 feet (46 to 76 cm)
    • Far phase – 2.5 to 4 feet (76 to 120 cm)
  • Social distance for interactions among acquaintances
    • Close phase – 4 to 7 feet (1.2 to 2.1 m)
    • Far phase – 7 to 12 feet (2.1 to 3.7 m)
  • Public distance used for public speaking
    • Close phase – 12 to 25 feet (3.7 to 7.6 m)
    • Far phase – 25 feet (7.6 m) or more.

Hall notes that different cultures maintain different standards of personal space. In Latin cultures, for instance, those relative distances are smaller, and people tend to be more comfortable standing close to each other; in Nordic cultures the opposite is true. Realizing and recognizing these cultural differences improves cross-cultural understanding, and helps eliminate discomfort people may feel if the interpersonal distance is too large ("stand-offish") or too small (intrusive). Comfortable personal distances also depend on the culture, social situation, gender, and individual preference.

A related term is propinquity. Propinquity is one of the factors, set out by Jeremy Bentham, used to measure the amount of pleasure in a method known as felicific calculus.

Types of space

Proxemics defines three different types of space:[2][3]

Fixed-feature space

This comprises things that are immobile, such as walls and territorial boundaries. However, some territorial boundaries can vary (Low and Lawrence-Zúñiga point to the Bedouin of Syria as an example of this) and are thus classified as semifixed-features.

Semifixed-feature space

This comprises movable objects, like mobile furniture, while fixed-furniture is a fixed-feature.

Informal space

This comprises the individual space around the body, travels around with it, determining the personal distance among people.

The definitions of each can vary from culture to culture. In nonverbal communication, such cultural variations amongst what comprises semifixed-features and what comprises fixed-features can lead to confusion, discomfort, and misunderstanding. Low and Lawrence-Zúñiga give several anecdotal examples of differences, amongst people from different cultures, as to whether they regard furniture such as chairs for guests to sit in as being fixed or semifixed, and the effects that those differences have on people from other cultures.[3]

Proxemics also classifies spaces as either sociofugal or sociopetal (c.f. the sociofugal-sociopetal behaviour category). The terms are analogous to the words "centrifugal" and "centripetal". Sociopetal spaces are spaces that are conducive, by means of how they are organized, to interpersonal communcation, whereas sociofugal spaces encourage solidarity.[3]

Behavior categories

Proxemics also defines eight factors in nonverbal communication, or proxemic behaviour categories, that apply to people engaged in conversation:[2][4]

posture-gender identifiers

This category relates the postures of the participants and their gender. Six primary sub-categories are defined: man prone, man sitting or squatting, man standing, woman prone, woman sitting or squatting, and woman standing.

the sociopetal-sociofugal axis

This axis denotes the relationship between the positions of one person's shoulders and another's shoulders. Nine primary orientations are defined: face-to-face, 45°, 90°, 135°, and back-to-back. The effects of the several orientations are to either encourage or discourage communication.

kinesthetic factors

This category deals with how closely the participants are to touching, from being completely outside of body-contact distance to being in physical contact, which parts of the body are in contact, and body part positioning.

touching code

This behavioural category concerns how participants are touching one another, such as caressing, holding, feeling, prolonged holding, spot touching, pressing against, accidental brushing, or not touching at all.

visual code

This category denotes the amount of eye contact between participants. Four sub-categories are defined, ranging from eye-to-eye contact to no eye contact at all.

thermal code

This category denotes the amount of body heat that each participant perceives from another. Four sub-categories are defined: conducted heat detected, radiant heat detected, heat probably detected, and no detection of heat.

olfactory code

This category deals in the kind and degree of odour detected by each participant from the other.

voice loudness

This category deals in the vocal effort used in speech. Seven sub-categories are defined: silent, very soft, soft, normal, normal+, loud, and very loud.

See also

▪   Body language

▪   Environmental psychology

▪   Intercultural competence

▪   Kinesics

▪   Personal boundaries

▪   Maai

▪   Skinship

▪   Spatial empathy

▪   Territoriality

▪   T-V distinction

▪   Zoosemiotics


  1. ^ Hall, Edward T. (1966). The Hidden Dimension. Anchor Books. ISBN0-385-08476-5.
  2. ^ a b Stephen W. Littlejohn and Karen A. Foss (2005). Theories of Human Communication. Thomson Wadsworth Communication. pp. 107–108. ISBN0534638732.
  3. ^ a b c Setha M. Low and Denise Lawrence-Zúñiga (2003). The Anthropology of Space and Place: Locating Culture. Blackwell Publishing. pp. 61–62. ISBN0631228780.
  4. ^ Joseph A. DeVito (1986). The Communication Handbook: A Dictionary. Harper & Row. pp. 243,241,301,322,333,334. ISBN0060416386.

Further reading

External links

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