Overview of Crowding in Proxemic Communication

Crowding is a concept of central importance to the study of proxemic communicationOpens in new window. To begin, crowding should be clearly differentiated from density. Density is a concept that is defined strictly in physical terms, and as such, refers to the number of people per unit of space. Crowding, in contrast, is a psychological concept.

Crowding is the condition that exists when an individual’s attempts to achieve a desired level of privacyOpens in new window have been unsuccessful, in the sense that more social contact continues to occur than is desired (Altman, 1975).

Common sense seems to suggest that there is a strong relationship between objective measures of crowding and the subjective feeling of being crowded. However, the actual relationship between objective and subjective crowding is not strong. For example, objective measurement indicates that four individuals forced to share a single room in a household are crowded.

These individuals may not all feel equally crowded. In this instance, the lower the level of a person’s perceived control of space, the stronger the feeling of being crowded and of psychological distress. The sensation of feeling crowded can be greatly reduced by giving people exclusive control over the small amount of space in which they find themselves (Edwards, Fuller, Sermsri, & Vorakitphokatorn, 1994).

But what happens when we perceive more opportunity or greater control to reduce the perception or impact of crowding? For instance, one might be able to move a bed to create more space in a room. Sinha and Nayyar (2000) found that elderly people who feel they are in control and have social support are more likely to feel less threatened by or uncomfortable with perceptions of crowding.

In essence, social support and personal control are both ways that the elderly use to reduce the impact of a negative environmental stressor. A good example of this is how some elderly persons are able to choose the furniture arrangement in their room at a nursing home.

A number of factors enhance the feeling of being crowded—for example, a collectivist orientation, membership in a noncontact culture, and high population density when combined with a high crime rate. Jails constitute one environment in which both subjective and objective overcrowding are chronic and the control of the inmates over most of the space in the jail is minimal.

Accordingly, the potential for serious problems is great. Predictably, a national sample of 189 sheriffs reported that every one of the 13 problems they viewed as most important increased significantly as the inmates’ sensation of crowding increased (Kinkade, Leone, & Semond, 1995).

The sensation of being crowded is subjective in that it depends on who else is involved, when and where it occurs, and why and how it occurs. For example, a person who is on a crowded bus waiting for a stop may feel a great deal of discomfort, while an individual who is at crowded concert may enjoy the music so much that the lack of space is not important.

Regardless of the circumstances, when we experience the sensation of crowding, we usually find interpersonal communication to be less than satisfying. We may or may not have the opportunity to modify our own proxemic behaviour (or the proxemic behaviour of persons with whom we interact ) in ways that will minimize or eliminate the sensation of crowding.

Crowding clearly makes many people uncomfortable. We can now document that crowding negatively affects both health and behaviour. Evans and Lepore (1992) maintained that three major mechanisms account for these negative effects:

High temperatures are a good example of a type of stimulus overload that contributes to the perception of overcrowding. Interestingly, the negative effects of high temperatures are reduced when individuals feel that they have some control over the space in which they find themselves (Ruback & Pandev, 1992). For example, a person could pull down a window shade to reduce the temperature in a room or decrease the amount of stimuli. This control might help a person to reduce the effects of overcrowding.

The feeling of being crowded seems to have a negative impact on our ability to establish and maintain satisfying relationships with others. Not surprisingly, people tend to cope much more successfully with crowding when it occurs in the presence of friends rather than when it occurs among strangers (Kamal & Mehta, 1987).

Our ability to cope with crowding and develop satisfying interpersonal relationships is also affected by the nature and amount of space that is available to us. McCarthy and Saegert (1978) compared the behavours of individuals living in a 14-story apartment building and in a 3-story walk-up; the residents of the high-rise building felt much more crowded than residents of the walk-up. Those who felt crowded had greater difficulty establishing relationships with their neighbours, were less socially active, felt more detached from their places of residence, belonged to fewer voluntary groups, and felt they had less power to exercise influence on the decisions made by the management of the apartments. In fact, Stokols, Ohlig, and Resnick (1978) found that crowded dorm residents did poorer in school than students in more spacious settings.

The potential for perception of crowding to negatively affect our feelings about, and our relationship with, other individuals should not be overemphasized, however. Although feelings of overcrowding do typically result in some elevation in anxiety and stress levels (Altman, 1975), there are at least some indications that the feeling of being crowded is cathartic in some situations and helps to free up inhibitions in others.

A person may not experience crowding when in a large group. Interesting, many individuals seek out large crowds, such as those who attend football games, because of the intra-audience effects that they experience.

Hocking (1082) maintained that the dynamics of crowd behaviour tend to be distinctive and that the reactions that members of a large audience or crowd have to other members of the collectivity are “a major factor contributing to the excitement, the arousal, and ultimately the entertainment value” that results when large numbers of people interact with one another (p. 101).

At a music concert, fans may be worried less about crowding and more about how close they can get to the front to see their favorite band or artist. When was the last time you felt a need to get closer to the front row at a concert?

The crowding associated with a large gathering clearly has persuasive implications. This is particularly true of crowd dynamics as they affect the response to an evangelist’s persuasive message at a televised religious rally.

Leathers (1989) suggests that televangelist Jimmy SwaggartOpens in new window skillfully used intra-audience effects in large crowds to his own advantage. Presumably he recognized that his ability to draw large crowds and make mass appeals to the anonymous members of the crowd greatly increased the susceptibility of his religious audience to his persuasive message (Newton & Mann, 1989).

Today, Joel OsteenOpens in new window seems to draw large crowds to his Houston congregation with similar results. Osteen has the congregation stand before each lesson begins. Each member holds a Bible in his or her hand and cites a brief slogan before Osteen begins to speak. This serves as a modern-day example of an intra-audience effect among a large crowd.