Proxemics – minding your personal space in communication

The physical distance you keep between yourself and others during social situations is your personal space.  In normal conversations we don’t give our personal space much thought; it’s a natural distance that we grant between ourselves and others based on our culture, gender and personality.  However, when you enter into a cross cultural conversation, you may want to keep your personal distance in mind.

Researcher E. T. Hall first coined the term “proxemics” to describe the effects of personal space in his 1960’s academic research on the topic.  His work provides us with a model of concentric circles around our body that make up different levels of personal space.  Specifically, we have four levels of personal space:

  • Intimate – 0 to 10 inches – Reserved for close friends and family
  • Personal – 18 inches to 4 feet – For friends and informal conversation
  • Social – 4 to 12 feet – An area for formal conversation and business transactions
  • Public – beyond 12 feet

The amount of social space you need to maintain varies.  As you enter into a cross cultural interaction, consider how much space you give your colleague and how much space your colleague gives you.  You may find that early in the conversation you do a bit of a social “dance” as you adjust to each other’s space distance needs.

If you look at personal space strictly from a cultural perspective, typical North American personal distance clocks in at about 18 inches.  Western Europeans tend to be a bit closer at 14 to 16 inches.  Middle Eastern cultures move even closer at 8 to 12 inches. 

Be cognizant of the personal space of your colleague.  Standing too close may seem intimidating.  Being too far away could come off as cold.  If you know that you are entering into a specific cross-cultural situation, do your research beforehand, but remember culture is just one of many variables.  Ultimately, personal space is a personal preference decided on an individual level.