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Proxemics: What Space and Distance Communicates to Others

Andrea Morales, Emily Cummins, Lesley Chapel
  • Author
    Andrea Morales

    Andrea Morales has taught secondary Science, Social Studies, Speech, and debate for over 14 years. She has a Bachelor's Degree in Bilingual Education from the University of Texas in El Paso and currently working on her MEd in Instruction Technology and Innovation. She holds multiple teaching certifications across all grade levels.

  • Instructor
    Emily Cummins

    Emily Cummins received a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and French Literature and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Sociology. She has instructor experience at Northeastern University and New Mexico State University, teaching courses on Sociology, Anthropology, Social Research Methods, Social Inequality, and Statistics for Social Research.

  • Expert Contributor
    Lesley Chapel

    Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

Proxemics defined. Learn what proxemics is, as a part of nonverbal communication and its importance in the communication process. See proxemics examples. Updated: 11/29/2021

What Is Proxemics?

Proxemics is a type of nonverbal communication involving how we deal with the environment around us. Proxemics is defined as the study of the nature, degree, and effect of the spatial separation individuals naturally maintain (as in various social and interpersonal situations) and how this separation relates to environmental and cultural factors. (Merriam-Webster)

This explains how we use the space around us to communicate our personal comfort or perceived relationship to the world around us. For example, if someone were sharing personal secrets with a very close friend, their proxemics would be different than if they were attending a lecture at a school. A person would not be standing within a few inches of a professor while he is giving the lecture. These proxemics communicate that one person is intimately close to their friend and values a professor's space as a public speaker (and possibly a stranger).

Examples of Proxemics

Everyone has a certain amount of space that surrounds their body in different settings and varying situations. Certain situations have unspoken rules about personal space, such as a crowded bus or an elevator. In these instances, we cannot always dictate to the world what amount of space we are comfortable with; we must abide by the proximity to others that has been put in place by that social circumstance. In many cases involving shared spaces, such as urinals in a crowded restroom or the subway on the way to work, we do not always get to decide how much room is around us. But in most social situations, we can set a perimeter around ourselves that is appropriate for the setting and our comfort level. If someone were standing in a crowd at the front of the stage in a concert, they might be practically touching those around them. But do they need to be? If a person becomes uncomfortable with this level of closeness with strangers, they could choose to walk further from the crowd and watch the stage from a different spot in the venue that might allow for a little bit more breathing room. These are all common examples of proxemics.

Proxemics in Communication

"Proxemics refers to the study of how space and distance influence communication. We only need to look at how space shows up in common metaphors to see that space, communications, and relationships are closely related." (Hans, 2015) Proxemics can either inhibit or encourage communication, depending on what we view as the norm in our society. We can communicate that we don't want to talk to a person by standing further from them. Conversely, someone can communicate to a friend or loved one that they want to speak to them by standing closer. The relevance of proxemics in the communication process is to set the tone with others about how close someone perceives the relationship to be. This nonverbal cue can set the tone for the type of verbal communication people will have. Teachers standing in the front of the classroom to lecture will prime their proxemics to be able to see and speak to the whole group. They know this sets them up to use a certain volume and tone based on their distance. But a teacher can also approach an individual student at their desk to be able to speak to them more privately and quietly.

Proxemics as Nonverbal Communication

Proxemics as nonverbal communication involves the cues and signals we give to others using personal and social space. We dictate these cues and signals depending on how close we perceive the relationships to be or based on the setting, such as work or school. We may determine these signals either consciously or subconsciously.

  • Proxemics communicates levels of intimacy with those near or around us.
  • A person can signal to someone else that they don't feel very safe around them by standing further away.
  • We signal to a romantic partner that we want affection by standing closer.
  • We allow others into our bubble by allowing our personal space to be occupied by them.
  • We display that we feel uneasy with someone by creating a safe distance between ourselves and others.
  • The distances people place between themselves and others can vary greatly by culture.

The space around us can be defined by four proxemic zones:

  1. Public: Over 12 ft. away - Delivering a lecture or speech.
  2. Social: 4-12 ft. away - Addressing a customer/employee at a store.
  3. Personal: 1-4 ft. away - Conversing with a friend/family member or about to shake hands with a colleague.
  4. Intimate: Less than 1 ft. away or touching - Reserved only for people we are intimately close with, such as romantic partners.

Definintion of Proxemics

Do you feel uncomfortable when someone stands too close to you? Do very bright colors in a room make you feel distracted? These questions are important to the study of proxemics.

Basically, proxemics is the study of space and how we use it, how it makes us feel more or less comfortable, and how we arrange objects and ourselves in relation to space. The term was coined by the anthropologist Edward Hall. Hall was interested in understanding how humans use space in communication.

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Being less than 1ft away is considered intimate space.

Personal Territory

In order to understand more about proxemics, we need to discuss different kinds of spaces. There are four kinds of distance that people generally use in communication. This can vary by place, and different cultures have different standards. These are known as realms of personal territory. Let's talk about these now.

  • Public space is the space that characterizes how close we sit or stand to someone, like a public figure or public speaker. So, if you are at an event listening to a professor give a lecture, you are probably about 12 - 25 feet away.
  • Social space means we're getting a little closer, about 4 - 12 feet away. This is the kind of space you're probably in if you're talking to a colleague or a customer at work.
  • Personal space is even closer. In this case, you're probably about 1 - 4 feet away from someone. This is reserved for talking to friends or family.
  • Intimate space is for people who you are very close to. In this case, you're probably less than a foot away and you might even be touching the other person. This is the space you're in with a romantic partner, for example.

It's important to note that this can vary culturally. These are the standards we generally find in the United States. But this might not be the case everywhere.

For example, it might be considered rude to stand too close to someone in one place but not another. It might be very common to touch someone's arm or shoulder while talking in one place, but this could be considered rude in other places. In one country, you might greet someone with a kiss on the cheek, and in other places this might be considered too intimate.

Physical Territory

Next, let's talk about physical territory. This is a little bit different than personal territory. It's more about the ways that we arrange objects in space. For example, you probably have your bed set up so that you face the center of your bedroom, instead of the wall.

Another example of physical territory might be the color of the walls in a room. Very bright colors have been shown to be distracting. So, a person designing an office building probably would not choose to use bright orange or red paint on the walls, as it might be jarring to employees or students.

Geographic Territory

Finally, proxemics also involves the study of geographic territory. This is a lot like what it sounds like! It refers to how we act depending on the kind of geographic space we're in. There are a few types of geographic territory:

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Video Transcript

Definintion of Proxemics

Do you feel uncomfortable when someone stands too close to you? Do very bright colors in a room make you feel distracted? These questions are important to the study of proxemics.

Basically, proxemics is the study of space and how we use it, how it makes us feel more or less comfortable, and how we arrange objects and ourselves in relation to space. The term was coined by the anthropologist Edward Hall. Hall was interested in understanding how humans use space in communication.

Personal Territory

In order to understand more about proxemics, we need to discuss different kinds of spaces. There are four kinds of distance that people generally use in communication. This can vary by place, and different cultures have different standards. These are known as realms of personal territory. Let's talk about these now.

  • Public space is the space that characterizes how close we sit or stand to someone, like a public figure or public speaker. So, if you are at an event listening to a professor give a lecture, you are probably about 12 - 25 feet away.
  • Social space means we're getting a little closer, about 4 - 12 feet away. This is the kind of space you're probably in if you're talking to a colleague or a customer at work.
  • Personal space is even closer. In this case, you're probably about 1 - 4 feet away from someone. This is reserved for talking to friends or family.
  • Intimate space is for people who you are very close to. In this case, you're probably less than a foot away and you might even be touching the other person. This is the space you're in with a romantic partner, for example.

It's important to note that this can vary culturally. These are the standards we generally find in the United States. But this might not be the case everywhere.

For example, it might be considered rude to stand too close to someone in one place but not another. It might be very common to touch someone's arm or shoulder while talking in one place, but this could be considered rude in other places. In one country, you might greet someone with a kiss on the cheek, and in other places this might be considered too intimate.

Physical Territory

Next, let's talk about physical territory. This is a little bit different than personal territory. It's more about the ways that we arrange objects in space. For example, you probably have your bed set up so that you face the center of your bedroom, instead of the wall.

Another example of physical territory might be the color of the walls in a room. Very bright colors have been shown to be distracting. So, a person designing an office building probably would not choose to use bright orange or red paint on the walls, as it might be jarring to employees or students.

Geographic Territory

Finally, proxemics also involves the study of geographic territory. This is a lot like what it sounds like! It refers to how we act depending on the kind of geographic space we're in. There are a few types of geographic territory:

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  • Activities
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Prompts About Proxemics:

Essay Prompt:

In one paragraph, define proxemics and how the term developed.

Example: Proxemics developed after an anthropologist named Edward Hall wanted to understand the link between space and communication.

Graphic Organizer Prompt 1:

Create a poster, chart, or some other type of graphic organizer that lists and describes the components of personal territory (public space, social space, personal space, intimate space).

Example: You could illustrate a ruler to show the general length for each component of personal territory.

Graphic Organizer Prompt 2:

Make a poster, chart, or some other type of graphic organizer that lists and describes the components of geographic territory (primary territory, secondary territory, public territory). Provide the definition of geographic territory at the top of your graphic organizer.

Example: If using illustrations, for secondary territory, you could draw a gym that a person goes to several times a week.

Reflection Prompt:

Consider the concept of physical territory. In one to two pages, write an essay in which you describe one or two of your own experiences with physical territory. For instance, you might explain your reasoning behind the furniture arrangement in your bedroom or office, or you might write about a time that physical territory made you uncomfortable in some way. If you do not want to use examples from your own life, that is ok; you can make them up.

Example: You were really uncomfortable in the physical territory of a doctor's office that had skulls on the walls.

What do you mean by proxemics in nonverbal communication?

Proxemics in nonverbal communication involves the signals we show with our body language and the space we create. If we stand farther away from someone, we communicate nonverbally that we don't feel very close or safe with them. If we get close to another person, we communicate to them that we would like a more intimate relationship or feel safe with them.

What are some examples of proxemics?

Examples of proxemics can include any way we position ourselves in relation to those around us. One example can include standing closer to someone when we are about to share something private. Another example can be backing away from someone when we feel that our personal space is being invaded.

What do you mean by proxemics in communication?

Proxemics in communication involves the distance between ourselves and others when having a conversation, delivering a speech or a lecture, or sharing an intimate moment. The amount of space we leave between the other person and ourselves can signal our level of trust or relationship with that person.

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