Everyday, we are confronted with various situations that call for different uses of distance in our communication either with a careful choice or without our consciousness. It can involve everything from choosing to sit on the other side of the library from a group of people we do not know to kissing our children when they are back from school and so on. Each one of these distances conveys diverse meanings and is interpreted in a particular way. For example, in an interview, a person would not engage their interviewer at a very close distance because it would be totally improper and quite awkward or standing face to face with a complete stranger on a bus may make us uncomfortable. Understanding these different distances will allow us to avoid inappropriate and mostly embarrassing situations.
There have been a myriad of researches on proxemic behavior which reveal extremely exciting and useful information about how space is used as communication and its subsequent effects on communication outcomes. Watson (1972) conceived two classes of variables that determine proxemic behavior, i.e. interactant (or participant) and environmental variables. Another category, variables related to the nature of the interaction, was added by Burgoon and Jones (1976). The last classification basically consists of “formality or intimacy of the situation and topic, familiarity of the interactants with the setting, the purpose of the interaction, and, in group situations, the presence of a leader” (p. 134), among which the perception of personal space will set insight into how we use space to communicate.
Personal space is defined as “the distance within which people feel comfortable when interacting with others” and “the size of such space is not only culturally determined, but also influenced by the relationship” (Liu, Vol?i? & Gallois, 2015, p. 185). In terms of degree of intimacy or formality of an interaction, Hall’s (1966) analysis based on anthropological observations described personal distance in four distinct zones: intimate space (close phase: less than 1 to 2 cm, far phase: 6 -18 inches), personal space (close phase: 1.5 – 2.5 feet, far phase: 2.5 to 4 feet), social space (close phase: 4 – 7 feet, far phase: 7 – 12 feet), and public space (close phase: 12 – 25 feet, far phase: 25 feet or more). The first phase is for private interactions or physical contact, such as embracing, touching or whispering or in Hall’s words – “this is the distance of love-making and wrestling, comforting and protecting” (p. 117). The second one is for situations involving less sensory association. The third one is for such exchanges as “impersonal business” or “social gathering” (p. 121). The last one is used for public speaking or distances from public officials. Despite not clarifying the personal space as specifically as Hall, Engleberg & Wynn (2006) maintained the four zones. Close friends, lovers, children and close family members are allowed in the intimate zone. The next zone is reserved for conversations with friends, to chat with associates, and in group discussions. A further range is used for strangers, newly formed groups, and new acquaintances. Speeches, lectures, and theater which are for larger audiences are presented in the farthest distance.
Regardless of culture, it is widely agreed that personal space is highly valued and people tend to feel discomfortable, angry, or anxious when their personal space is invaded; and according to Engleberg & Wynn (2006), permitting a person to come into personal space and entering somebody else’s personal space are indicators of perception of those people’s relationship. Moreover, clearly, the distance zones that we choose for different groups and people can communicate our feelings towards them in very powerful ways (Proxemics, 2011). Intimate distance is obviously the space set aside only for those who we trust, love and consider the most important in our social spheres. If such people are present in our most inner circle, we, of course, enjoy their presence; however, to other uninvited existence, we will shut down and try to retain somehow our comfort zone. This implies why we feel uneasy, embarrassed or even furious when a person we are not familiar with gives a sudden hug or kiss. The confusion and panic caused by one’s exposure to unwelcome invasion of his/her personal distance can be usefully exploited in some cases. “For example, one of the popular interrogation techniques is to intimidate the suspect by getting very close to invade his intimate zone. Then, while he is helpless, try to exploit his vulnerability and discomfort to extract information” (Tarakanov, n.d.). People that we feel relaxed around and have a good relationship with are accepted in personal zone, which is an easy and relaxed space for “talking, shaking hands, gesturing and making faces” (Tarakanov, n.d.). Depending on personal preference and affection, this zone may contain some smaller divisions but the main point is that the more we like someone, the closer we tend to sit or stand to him/her. This is the reason why people of the same group have a tendency of sitting in same table when they attend parties and even in the same group, people often choose to sit next to the person they share more things in common and feel comfortable to talk to. Social space is the most neutral zone reserved for starting a conversation with strangers and new acquaintances that we may have some interaction with, “such as shopkeepers, clerks in the bank and other sales or service providers” (Tarakanov, n.d.); or the one we first meet in a meeting or a club. The explanation Tarakanov (n.d.) finds most appropriate to this behavior is that:
in those cases, there is usually some kind of an artificial barrier between you and the stranger – a desk or some board/book/paper you or they hold. This barrier helps to relax and maintain the comfort zone and in the meanwhile allows you to be in closer proximity to discuss and examine details
The outermost distance is suitable for public speaking, lecturing or art performance in that not only do people find it advantageous and convenient to address a large group of audience from such space but this is comfortable for the audience as well. More exactly, the speakers, lecturers or artists seem to consider the whole group of audience as one individual with a great amount of personal space and vice versa, the latter all gets to see and hear the former well enough.
Generally, the distance zones we choose with the people around us can change from time to time and such a shift might reflect two-sided meaning. On one side, it may result from the change in our relationship with others. For example, when the students in a class meet the first time at the beginning of the school year, they communicate in the social zone. However, after getting to know about one another better, they enter the closer space – personal one, or even the innermost place of the circle. On the other side, we may prefer a closer or farther distance to imply a desire to change our relationship with others. For instance, a man meets a woman for the first time and the distance zone they use at the beginning of the party is social. Towards the end of the party, nevertheless, if the man begins to use more of a personal zone, he is probably communicating an interest in the woman and expresses a wish to have a certain relationship with that woman.
What we have discussed about the meaning of spatial relationship is just something very basic. The application should focus on the context in which people share the same culture in that, as mentioned before, different cultures have different expectations of what is socially acceptable in regard to proxemics. It is true that the concept of personal space is not the same in different countries, and even in a country, such a concept is dissimilar in urban and rural areas. Therefore, to be successful in communicating non-verbally by personal space, we should both consider the general knowledge of personal space and take account of the counterparts’ culture.