What does it mean to say you’re close to someone? We use that term in both physical and psychological contexts.

When you get into an elevator, you are physically close to strangers, who by definition are not close psychologically or emotionally. The study of such behaviors is called “proxemics,” a term usually associated with the research of anthropologist Edward Hall and associates. Proxemics is considered a subcategory of nonverbal communication, and considers how we use space to communicate.

Generally, we only allow people who are close to us emotionally or psychologically to get physically close to us. If you’ve ever had the most basic exposure to the concept, you’re probably learned that humans generally have four zones: intimate space, personal space, social space, and public space. Later research divided each of these into two subzones, for a total of eight, but for practical purpose considering four is enough.

  • Intimate distance for embracing, touching, whispering, etc., ranges from skin to 18 inches.
  • Personal distance for interactions among good friends or family members ranges from 18 inches to 4 feet.
  • Social distance for interactions among acquaintances ranges from 4 feet to 12 feet.
  • Public distance is used for public speaking as well as being the distance at which we feel psychological pressure to acknowledge another’s presence. It ranges from 12 to 25 feet.

(I’m not trying to write an academic article, but in the interest of accuracy, let me point out these distances are general, approximate, and vary according to a number of factors, such as whether an individual comes from an urban or rural environment, what country the person comes from, what profession the person practices, etc.)

Research doesn’t try to explain why the distances are what they are, but I notice that intimate distance happens to be about the same as the distance to the crook of your elbow–in other words, the distance that you could start an embrace.

Personal distance is the distance that you can sweep with a swing of your arm. You let people inside that distance, therefore, whom you don’t expect to punch you.

Social distance is outside that range, and yet close enough that you can easily toss something to without the other person dropping it–another trust distance, because that’s also close enough that a throw could be dangerous, which is why public distance begins at 12 feet–we’re uncomfortable letting strangers within that distance because it’s close enough to do harm relatively easily. We acknowledge each other’s presence within that distance partly to indicate a lack of ill intent.

Obviously, public distance is also the distance where most public speaking interactions occur, and beyond, and yet through delivery speakers attempt to foster a greater sense of closeness, a sense of having a conversation with individuals.

This is a huge topic that will go beyond this one post, but for now, consider these questions:

What does your use of space say to people around you? Are you one of those people who stand uncomfortably close to people you don’t know that well? Or, on the other hand, do you have trouble letting friends get within personal space? In other words, do you keep people at a distance by keeping them at a distance? Do you have “tricks” to keep people from feeling too close when you have to physically be close? (Nurses and food servers develop behaviors for this, for instance, as do police officers and people in crowded elevators.)

On the other hand, do you have delivery or content “tricks” to make people feel closer to you than what the distance would suggest when you’re speaking?

How might your awareness of space give you an advantage in communication situations?

Photo by Flickr user malias.

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