Overview of Distance in Proxemic Communication

At least in theory, spaceOpens in new window has no finite barriers and becomes a tangible concept only when people or objects occupy space and when individuals attempt to define its boundaries. In contrast, distance is a relational concept and is usually measured in terms of how far one individual is from another.

Hall (1968) conducted a pioneering work in attempting to identify and classify the distances people use to separate themselves from others in order to satisfy their various needs. Hall identified four types of informal distance: (1) Intimate, (2) Personal, (3) Social, and (4) Public distance.

1.  Intimate distance

Intimate distance (0—18 in.) is easily distinguishable because of the number and intensity of sensory inputs. At intimate distance, all the senses are activated and the presence of the other person or persons is unmistakable. Intimate distance consists of two phases: the close phase and far phase.

The close phase (0 in.—6 in.) is an emotionally charged zone reserved for love-making, comforting, and protecting.

The far phase (6 in.—18 in.) is the distance where family members and close friends interact. Touch is frequent at both phases of intimate distance.

2.  Personal distance

Personal distance (1.5 ft.—4 ft) is the distance that individuals customarily place between themselves and others. CommunicationOpens in new window used in close interpersonal relationships typically occurs at this distance. Personal distance is important for several reasons.

The personal distance that we characteristically assume might be a reliable clue to our self-confidence as well as to our felt privacy needs. Successful communicators will be sensitive to the personal distances that others maintain when interacting with them.

Personal distance is the minimum comfortable distance between non-touching individuals. In the close phase (1.5 ft.—2.5 ft.), one can grasp the other by extending the arms. The far phase (2.5 ft.—4 ft.) is defined as anywhere from one arm’s length to the distance required for both individuals to touch hands. Beyond this distance the two must move to make contact (e.g., to shake hands). In essence, this zone constitutes a small protective space.

3.  Social distance

Social distance (4—12 ft) is the distance that typically separates individuals engaged in a business transaction or consultation and is also appropriate for a range of social gatherings that are informal in nature. Actual separation for social distance will obviously depend on such important factors as whether you are standing or seated and whether you are communicating with one other person or with a group of persons.

Social distance is considered non-involving and non-threatening by most individuals. The close phase (4 ft.—7 ft.) is typical of impersonal transactions and casual social gatherings. Formal social discourse and transactions are characteristic of the far phase (7 ft.—12 ft.)—the minimum distance at which one could go about one’s business without seeming rude to others.

4.  Public distance

The shift from social to public distance (12 ft or more) has tangible and important implications for interpersonal communication. At the close phase of public distance (12—25 ft), the types of nonverbal meanings that can be perceived vary rather dramatically. Alert communicators can give the appearance that they have received no message, or they can remove themselves physically from the situation. If individuals do communicate at the distance, they will find that the interaction is of a very formal nature.

The far phase of public distance (25 ft or more) can have a particularly disruptive impact on interpersonal communication. Beyond 25 ft, the voice loses much of its potential to transmit meanings accurately, and facial expressions and movements must be rather expansive in order to be recognized. As Hall (1969) emphasized, “much of the nonverbal part of communication shifts to gestures and body stance” (p. 125).

Hall’s distance zones have been widely cited as the guidelines we should use to assume proper spatial orientations vis-à-vis other individuals, but Burgoon’s research suggests that those distance zones should be subjected to more careful scrutiny. In fact, Burgoon and Jones (1976) argued convincingly that distance zones or “expected distancing” are determined not only by the normative expectations of our culture but also by the idiosyncratic preferences of individual communicators. They contend that “Expected distancing in a given context is a function of (1) the social norm and (2) the known idiosyncratic spacing patterns of the initiator” (p. 132).

In a study conducted at the University of Georgia, Eaves (1988) found that students varied greatly on the amount of spatial distance they expected to be maintained during the delivery of a message. Further, the study revealed that in the cases of those times when an invasion took place, subjects reported that their “new” distance was uncomfortably during the interaction.

Generally, people maintain greater distances from other people as they get older. This is true from preschool through middle age, although closer contact is characteristic of the very old and young. This is partly due to the facts that very young children have not yet fully learned norms associated with distance expectations, and that the very old have difficulty hearing in many instances.

Indeed, one study found that children who grew up insecure and with one only parent had smaller personal bubbles and welcomed more intrusions into their personal space than children who were secure in infancy with both parents (Bar-Haim, Aviezer, Berson, & Sagi, 2002). Not surprisingly, we tend to maintain closer distances when interacting with people who are approximately our own age. Age interacts with status on occasion to dictate that greater interaction distances between people are appropriate. In addition, adolescents have been found to regulate spatial behaviour as a result of infant intimacy (Bar-Haim, Aviezer, Berson, & Sagi, 2002) and peer acceptance (Stiles & Raney, 2004).