Overview of Privacy in Proxemic Communication

Privacy may be defined as selective control of access to one’s self or to one’s group (Altman, 1975). To a considerable degree, we control access to ourselves and to groups that are important to us by our use of space.

Our needs for privacy must be balanced against our needs to be perceived as friendly and outgoing individuals who seek interaction with others. Neither the hermit nor the member of the commune has achieved the balance that is necessary for most of us to be effective communicators in the real world. A case in point: during helping situations, one study found that unwanted personal space violations create a violation of privacy and interfere with the desire of one to help (DeBeer-Keston, Mellon, & Solomon, 1986).

Some individuals place a high premium on privacy. Rare indeed is the individual who views the bathroom as the appropriate place for social interaction in the home. On the other hand, some individuals make a practice of walking around nude in their own homes. Privacy, therefore, is defined by the felt needs of those who assert specialized types of claims to it.

The most comprehensive effort to compare and contrast types of privacy has been done by Burgoon (1982). She properly uses the term dimensions of privacy rather than privacy categories in recognition of a simple fact: A person rarely experiences complete privacy or a complete lack of privacy, rather, people experience varying degrees of privacy.

The major dimensions of privacy with their contrasting definitions are as follows:

Physical privacy

A measure of the degree to which one person is physically inaccessible to others.

Social privacy

Both an individual and a group state in which the option to withdraw from social interaction with another person(s) exists.

Psychological privacy

People’s ability to exercise control over both thoughts and feelings that can be expressed by them and to them.

Information privacy

People’s capacity to prevent the gathering and dissemination of information about themselves, their group(s), or their organization(s) without their knowledge or permission.

In one sense the experience of crowdingOpens in new window and privacy are polar opposites. Thus, Burgoon (1982) wrote that:

  • if a personal space invasion or crowding can be seen as one end of a distancing continuum, then physical privacy is the opposite end, since it involves freedom from intrusion on one’s self-defined “body buffer zone” and freedom from the discomfiture of too many people for the available space. (p. 211)

Significantly, privacy is one of the most powerful needs that human beings experience. Because crowding Opens in new window frustrates and often blocks efforts to achieve a desired level of privacy, the consequences of feeling crowded can be severe.

On the positive side, knowledge of other person’s privacy needs and preferences is vitally important. Such knowledge can greatly enhance our potential for successful communication. This is particularly true when we use this information to respond in sensitive and socially appropriate ways to the expressed or implied privacy needs of those with whom we interact.

We must recognize two things at minimum. The strength of the privacy needs experienced by different individuals and groups is often quite different. Individuals and groups also vary markedly in terms of the importance they attach to different types of privacy. Thus, the person who seeks absolute isolation from others places the highest priority on solitude. By contrast, the person who places the highest priority on anonymity might even savour contact with others as long as personal identify is concealed.

We do know that individuals are most apt to seek privacy when they are distressed (Newell, 1994). We know too that where we choose to sit in a room in public may make a statement about our privacy preferences. Thus students who choose to sit in the back of a classroom receive significantly higher scores on the Privacy Preference Scale (PPS) than students seated in other parts of the classroom. The students seated in the back also scored significantly higher on the “Not Neighbouring” and “Seclusion” scales of the PPS in one study (Pedersen, 1994). Finally, we know that both adults and children have certain “places” they prefer when they seek privacy.

The bedroom is the preferred place of privacy for adults because it is associated with activities that require peace and quiet (Oseland, 1993). Children ages 3 to 5 report that the places where they seek privacy in a day care center are a cubby, a chair, or a concealed space underneath a playhouse (Zeegers, Readdick, & Hansen-Gandy, 1994).

In conclusion, the relative importance of physical, social, psychological, and informatial privacy is strongly affected by the nature of the activities we undertake at a given point in time. These privacies vary and become more or less important depending on the situation. In some situations, we may not mind if someone comes into our living room to sell us a vacuum or ice cream product. On the other hand, we may take great strides to protect our informational privacy in cases of medical records or social security number.