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The Role of Proxemics in Communication & Productions

Instructor: Duane Cloud

Duane has taught teacher education courses and has a Doctorate in curriculum and instruction. His doctoral dissertation is on ''The Wizard of Oz''.

This lesson will discuss proxemics, the study of personal space. We will discuss the use of proxemics in entertainment and communications, as well as what space means in certain contexts.

Uncomfortably Close or Too Distant?

I'm sure many of us can relate to being too physically close to a stranger. Sometimes this happens in a crowded elevator, with everyone anxious to get out at their designated floor. On the flip side, there are situations where someone who is supposed to be close to us shuts us out. A significant other who's angry may decide not to sit close to their partner to communicate their displeasure. The study of personal space is an interesting field called 'proxemics'.

Proxemics

Proxemics is the study of people's territory, and the implications of space in relationships with others. 'Territory' refers to how a person feels about their home or work space, and proxemics expands this definition to include a person's immediate environment. It really is often a matter of territory in the sense that a biologist would use it when studying a species.

The meat of this lesson will discuss the idea of space around a person, and how people allocate that space to friends, intimates, and strangers to communicate. However, be aware that proxemics also deals with how people feel in their own homes versus other places.

Culture

A person's space is simply an area around each individual that they consider an extension of their body. Humans aren't the only animals with personal real estate, however, we have the most complicated array of rules regarding it.

With humans, the exact way their space is allocated is often a function of their culture. People from European and American cultures tend to stand farther away from conversation partners than people in Asian cultures. People from Asian cultures usually do not employ physical contact, while people from Latin America tend to stand as close as Asians in conversation, but have more casual contact, patting shoulders, shaking hands, and the like.

These guidelines are incredibly vague, and there is some variation within these categories as well. Make sure to study a culture first before jumping to avoid offending someone with incorrect body language or personal space!

Hall's Divided Space

American anthropologist Edward T. Hall provided the framework for the current understanding of personal space in his book, The Hidden Dimension. Hall has his critics who have different interpretations of his facts and findings, but nevertheless, Hall's work started the conversation and we should touch on it here.

Hall's concept was of a dynamic exchange among people, as they adjust their posture, distance, and tone when dealing with others. He divided up the space around a person into four areas:

1. Intimate space is eighteen inches or closer, and includes the realm of physical contact such as kissing, embracing, or whispering. Conversation tends to be very private and can be about nearly anything.

2. Personal space includes the area between eighteen inches to four feet away from an individual. In this space, one can easily see the other's body language and generally perceive the full amount of nuance in their speech. This is still a space reserved for friends and family, but the conversation tends to be less private. An individual that finds a stranger moving into this space may adjust their own position or become angry with the stranger.

3. At four to twelve feet, social distance is the sphere of impersonal interaction. Conversations are usually casual, such as between a customer and employee in a department store. At this point, it is easier to ignore a person one doesn't want to acknowledge.

4. From 12 feet on, people are within public space. This is typically where one finds mass speakers such as the clergy, teachers, and people engaging in stage productions.

Uses

There are a variety of uses for proxemics as a field. The theater and associated entertainment industries, such as film and television, need to use proper proxemics to convincingly portray a relationship. Incorrect distance could damage the experience of the audience.

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