An overview personal space and communication, including a discussion of how gender and culture effect personal space and communication norms, and a summary of the work done on personal space and communication by behavioral and social scientists and communication experts are presented. The main focus is on Edward Hall's proxemics, which is the seminal work on personal space as a nonverbal communication source. Proxemics is the understanding that all humans have at least some personal space requirements, although these vary based on gender and culture, and that humans use distance-setting mechanisms of which we are not aware. Participant observation and norm breaching are the most common methods researchers use to understand where personal space begins and ends for various groups in various situations. This article also provides a brief look at some applications of what is known about personal space and how people communicate with and about it.
Keywords Eight Dimensions of Personal Space; Non-verbal Communication; Norms; Participant Observation; Personal Space; Proxemics; Proxemic Bubble; Proxemic Communication
Personal space is the space we keep between ourselves and others; it is the space that travels around with us. It is the space we "claim as our own" (Lefebvre, 2003). Put another way, personal space is the region surrounding each person, or the area that a person considers his or her domain or territory (Hall, 1966). This boundary is established by about age 8 (Guard, 1969). Personal space, and how an individual operates in a given space, is considered a form of nonverbal communication by behavioral scientists and communication experts. Researchers have found that personal space is that space that, when crossed, causes the person to feel threatened by the "invader," who is too close. When personal space is violated, people tend to use subtle messages, nonverbal cues, to let others know they are uncomfortable. We are quite unaware of this much of the time.
Norms of Personal Space
The norms surrounding the amount of space maintained between an individual and others varies depending on the person's culture, gender, and the relationship between individuals—for example, whether it is intimate or formal. While personal space differs within and across cultures and there is "no fixed distance-sensing mechanism…in man that is universal of all cultures, [but] it is often considered universal that all individuals have a need for some personal space" (Hall, E., 1968, p. 91).
As with most rules for social behavior, humans are not generally aware that they are following them. Our need for personal space, and our need to control this space, is neither conscious nor intentional. What this means is we are not aware that we set distances or that there are rules for how close to stand or where to sit, but each culture has norms people are expected to follow regarding personal space. These norms, or rules, are strictly enforced, but generally only through informal social controls, like giving someone a "funny look" when she gets too close or moving away slightly when someone brushes up against you in a store. These powerful rules, besides being a form of nonverbal communication, are significant to understanding how we communicate with one another.
Sociologists who study personal space are sometimes called social psychologists, or sociologists of everyday life, and are interested in the individual within a society. Because people's definition of personal space is learned and embedded in the individual's culture (Hallowell, 1955) and gender (Hall, J., 1994), social scientists use a research method called "participant observation," in which they watch what people do and record it, to determine what that space actually is in various situations and cultures. Some of the earliest studies of personal space come from sociological thinkers such as symbolic interactionist Erving Goffman (1967), and ethnomethodologist Harold Garfinkel (1967). One of the best ways to find out the personal space rules of a culture is to engage in what are called norm-breaching experiments (Archer & Constanzo, 1997; Garfinkel, 1967), in which the sociologist intentionally upsets the order of things, like sitting right next to someone on an empty bus, and recording the reactions of the subject. Researchers identify personal space by "invading" peoples' spaces and watching and recording their reactions (Archer & Constanzo, 1991; Garfinkel, 1967); in other words, they intentionally break the social rules, or norms, and watch what people do in that situation.
Sociologist Dane Archer studies personal space. He videotapes people making decisions about where to sit in public places—for example, libraries or train stations—and people predictably select seats far away from others already in the space. But when norms about where to sit are broken, the one already in the space makes it very obvious how much he or she dislikes it, although this is done is very subtle ways, like pulling books closer or quietly turning away from the person who has invaded the space (Archer & Constanzo, 1991). Nonverbal communication is powerful because it seems to happen so automatically and feels so natural. But, in truth, the establishment of personal space, and its role in nonverbal communication, is a learned behavior.
Sociologists are not the ones who are best known for developed theories on personal space. These come from outside sociology, namely anthropology, communication, cultural studies, and psychology.
It was anthropologist Edward T. Hall's 1960s work on personal space that is a benchmark for much of the contemporary work done on personal space. Hall developed the term "proxemics, the study of man's perception and use of space" (1968, p. 83) to describe how humans socially construct personal space. Hall says we communicate through how close we stand to one another. and this is called "proxemic communication" (1966). This work looks at how humans set personal space through a type of "out-of awareness distance-setting" (Hall, E., 1968, p. 83).
Hall uses the term "proxemic space" or "bubble" to describe this unconscious territory. Hall also knows that we cannot determine personal space by directly questioning people; rather, a researcher must observe people carefully as they operate in a normal social setting, listening and watching for tone of voice changes or pitch and stress levels when personal space has been "invaded" (Hall, 1963). Hall says individuals' proxemic bubbles vary, and each culture has different norms surrounding personal space.
Interestingly, Hall's theories were originally informed by a zoologist, Heini Hediger (1955), who observed that animals keep biological social distances; these are the distances animals keep from one another depending on the circumstances of the interaction. Two of these distances, flight and critical, are seen when animals from different species interact, while the other two, personal and social, occur when animals from the same species interact. Hall noticed that humans do not have the first two, flight and critical distance, but only the latter two, personal and social distance. From a series of interviews and observations with humans, Hall developed his notion of proxemics, determined that humans as have four zones of personal space:
• Social, and
These zones are a little different in different cultures, but they always affect how communication works between people in the space.
Four Zones of Personal Space
For Hall, the four zones of personal space are based on distance. In Western societies, generally, the intimate zone is reserved for embracing, touching, or whispering, and ranges from the closest at 6 inches to the farthest at 18 inches. One’s comfort level with one’s friends is a little farther away than with a lover, though, generally from about 2 to 4 feet away, and this is called the personal zone. If one knows someone, but this person is only an acquaintance, Westerners tend to stand between 4 and 12 feet from the person, and this is the social zone. And, finally, when speaking to the public, the normative distance kept is between 12 and 25 feet or more, and is called the public zone. The personal zone, 2 to 4 feet away, is this highly regulated space for the individual in Western society. It is also found in other cultures, although the space is closer. When someone enters this space, Hall says we use an eight-factor scale to determine how we will react to this.
Eight Dimensions to Determine Personal Space
Hall says there are eight dimensions people use to determine how to interpret and communicate with someone in our personal space. We are socialized into, or learn, the rules of our culture, and then we use some communication tools to determine if the rules are being followed. We do not do this on an individual basis, although people do differ within cultures. Rather, broad cultural norms are found based in these eight dimensions:
• Postural-sex identifies how a person's sex and the placement of the body as related to another person's body is part of how we communicate to others about personal space;
• Sociofugal-sociopetal describes whether the space discourages (sociogugal) or encourages (sociopetal) interaction and communication between people in the space;
• Kinesthetic is the distance between people that will or will not allow the individuals to touch one another;
• Touch, really a code, is whether the relationship between the two people allows touch, and what type of touch is acceptable, in a given situation;
• Retinal is how long or short one is expected to hold the gaze of another and how distance from one another affects this;
• Thermal is the affect of body heat given off by those interacting;
• Olfactory is how smell affects not only distance kept from one another, but also expectations about breath and body odor; and
• Voice loudness is how loudly or softly someone speaks to another person as defined by the distance the speaker is from the listener.
Hall also divides the social world into two types: contact cultures, those who stand close to one another and touch others easily and who don't mind being touched, and noncontact cultures, people who stand far apart and don't readily touch one another (Griffin, 1991). Contact cultures are Latinos, Middle Easterners, Mediterraneans, and Southern Europeans. Noncontact cultures are Northern Europeans, Asians, and Americans.
Culture and gender directly affect how one perceives personal space and how others perceive someone's personal space. Gender affects distance setting and the level of threat the person feels if personal space is invaded. Also, the nonverbal cues individuals...
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