For the second installment of this article series I’d like to remove the focus from specific body parts as tell-tale signs of attitude, and instead, I’d like to talk about proxemics. Proxemics is, simply put, the study of animal behavior in regard to spatial relationships. This field of study spans the disciplines of psychology, sociology, and anthropology since it reveals a wealth of information about how organisms interact with one another.
How many of you pay attention to how close a person is standing or sitting when you interact with them? Do they seem to keep a safe distance away, or do they stand close enough for you to smell their breath? We all have these odd rules of engagement when it comes to interpersonal distance; let’s find out why.
We have an incredible sense of spatial relationships. This is the mechanism that allows us to maneuver cars, throw basketballs, and generally judge distances between multiple points of reference. It also allows us to project an invisible perimeter around our bodies that we can monitor with relative ease. This perimeter is metered by sub-zones that indicate the level of intimacy we have with a person who is within the individual zones. For example, if we feel comfortable speaking to someone only when they are at least six-feet away, then we are not very intimate with them, and probably do not know them very well. On the other hand, if we feel comfortable speaking to them while they are a foot away, then we are very intimate with them.
The closer a person can stand or sit near you during interaction; the more it shows that you trust them and that they trust you. When we take this concept to the extremes, it becomes very obvious since the closest physical contact that two people can have is sexual intercourse, which by its very nature is an activity that requires a tremendous amount of trust on behalf of both partners, and a situation where two individuals negate all trust for each other, such as in a combat situation, is marked by attempts to increase the distance between the two individuals.
Many resources about body language will present generalized rules for distances, such as a distance of three to six feet representing one tier of intimacy while six to twelve represents another. I would rather not attempt to map out this invisible perimeter since it is different for each person in accordance with their personality. What is “too close” for one may be “too far” for another. Instead, I would rather you focus on the simple maxim that “closer is more trust, farther is less trust.
To fully understand proxemics, we have to understand what occurs internally, and why, when we are in close proximity with one another. When we encounter a stranger our bodies are primed for the “flight or fight” response. Our heart rate increase as does our blood pressure, and we may even release some adrenaline. This is, no doubt, an evolved psychological mechanism passed down from our ancestors to ensure our survival in situations where we encounter a strange animal or person that may want to attack and kill us. If this worst case scenario comes true, then we are already prepared to run fast and hard in the other direction, or fight with an enhanced strength.
In modern times this worst case scenario rarely manifests. It’s not often that we have to karate-chop someone we’ve just met, or in general, someone who stands too close to us. Regardless, we still feel anxiety for the same reasons. It is this anxiety that will propel a person away from another if they do not feel a prerequisite amount of trust or intimacy.
It is important that we consider other sources of anxiety. If the source of anxiety that determines interpersonal distance stems solely from the knowledge of whether or not someone will attack us, then any two people on a first-name basis should be able to interact while being intimately close to one another. This is not the case, and this is why interpersonal distance is a powerful indicator of attitude. If a person has apprehensions about you, then they will have anxiety. If they have anxiety, then they will keep their distance from you.
I’d like to go off on a brief tangent and talk about some wider implications for the theory of proxemics. Since a lack of interpersonal space can cause this form of anxiety and “flight or fight” response, many sociologists and psychologists argue that it can explain certain phenomenon such as mob mentalities during riots, violence in overcrowded prisons, and violence in overpopulated areas. As much as we are social creatures by nature, it’s quite clear that we certainly require a certain amount of physical space.
One of the most notable uses of proxemics is in interrogations. Often police, military, or whoever will crowd the person they are interrogating. They will sit very close leaving them no personal space. This creates an enormous amount of anxiety in the interrogatee, and compounded with other stessors, the interrogatee will crack, confess, or slip up in some manner. This is obviously an exploit in human behavior, something that I don’t want you, dear readers, to use unless the situation warrants.
Instead of using proxemics as an active method of information retrieval, I’d rather you use it as a passive method, which is simply done by observing behavior rather than trying to force it. You can monitor how a person moves toward and away from you during a conversation. If you make a comment, and you notice the individual step backward, then you probably said something he or she doesn’t agree with. If throughout the course of your conversation, he or she slowly inches closer and closer, it’s a sure sign that they’re becoming more comfortable with you, and the likelihood for intimacy is increasing.
I’d like to talk about personality and cultural differences in the context of proxemics. Each person has a unique upbringing that determines their “rules of engagement”, which I had cited before as a reason why I would not present a standard of distances and their respective levels of intimacy. If an individual grows up in a household with ten siblings in a cramped apartment, then chances are they will have a very different conception of “too close” and “too far” when compared to someone who was an only child reared in a large mansion. The former will find that talking with a person who is six feet away is very cold and impersonal, while the latter may find that this distance is suitable.
In addition, there are certain cultural norms that may be a factor in proxemics. Westernized societies, such as America and Britain, have an attitude of “farther rather than closer” for interaction. In Japanese society, respect for interpersonal distance is paramount and therefore distances are usually larger than those in other countries. Citizens in Greece and Italy, however, stand much closer and, in some Arabic countries, if you’re not standing close enough for the other person to smell your breath during a conversation, you’re being rude.
The experiences of our members with the methods presented in this article are contained here.