The Concept of Space in Proxemic Communication

The concept of visual space in nonverbal communicationOpens in new window is analogous to the concept of silence in verbal communication. Though both are devoid of content, the ways we use them may be rich in communicative significance. Edward HallOpens in new window, for example, contended that our culture places severe constraints on the ways we use space. In fact, he maintained that there are basically three types of space: fixed-feature, semifixed-feature, and informal space (1969).

Rapoport (1982) amplified Hall’s (1969) classifactory scheme and modified his terminology. Rapoport identified three major types of space that have communicative significance in our society: fixed-feature, semifixed-feature, and nonfixed-feature space. As the discussion progresses, we explore each in turn.

1.  Fixed-Feature Space

Fixed-feature space refers to the characteristic arrangement of rooms by function. Within the home, for example, formal meals are rarely served in the bedroom and bookcases rarely line the walls of the bathroom. Ironically, the fixed features that define how space is to be used in the home are often quite dysfunctional.

Hall (1969) cites the kitchen as a particular problem. He emphasizes that “the lack of congruence between the design elements, female stature and body build (women are not usually tall enough to reach things), and the activity to be performed, while not obvious at first, is often beyond belief” (p. 105).

The problem may not be as severe as it seems for the working woman in our society because it is important that she foster the perception that she spends little time in the kitchen. As Rapoport (1982) emphasized:

  • In the case of the Puerto Rican culture, status is gained during a party through a hostess being seen to produce food, being seen in the kitchen, and “performing” in front of an audience of her peers; in Anglo culture, a woman is seen as a good hostess when she apparently does no work, yet food appears as though by magic. (p. 94)

2.  Semifixed-Feature Space

Semifixed-feature space refers to the placement of objects in the home, office, conference room, and other proximate environments. The objects we use in these types of spaces may include furniture, plants, screens, paintings, plaques, and even birds and animals. The objects we choose—to demarcate the boundaries and to accent the meanings of the semifixed-feature spaces in which we interact—are important because often they are direct extension of our personality.

Our choices of curtains, interior colours, shutters, mailboxes, and decorative planting may reveal more about us than our handwriting or our IRS file. The semifixed objects we choose to use do more than shape perceptions of presumed personality characteristics. The choice of objects and their placement in semifixed-feature space can have a strong impact on the credibility of the occupant of a home or office.

Important as those communicative function are, perhaps the most important communicative function of semifixed-feature space is the degree to which it promotes involvement or withdrawal among the individuals who are using the space.

3.  Nonfixed-Feature Space

Nonfixed-Feature Space is a concept with which all of us should be rather familiar. This is the space, immediately surrounding our body, that each of us perceives to be ours. We use no physical objects to mark the boundaries of our “personal space” because these boundaries are invisible.

The amount of personal space that we claim as ours may vary, depending on our size, current emotional state, status, and sex. Malandro and Barker (1983) also emphasized that people claim varying amounts of personal space to be theirs, both in front of and in back of them.

As we consider the communicative implications of the three major kinds of space, we should pay particular attention to semifixed-feature and nonfixed-feature space. We have little opportunity to modify the nature of most fixed-feature environments. In contrast, we can consciously consider the communicative implications of the objects we choose to place in semifixed-feature space, and we can contemplate the advantages and disadvantages of claiming and defending a personal space of a given size and dimension.

Uses of Semifixed-Feature Space and Nonfixed-Feature Space

Semifixed-feature and nonfixed-feature space can be used in a variety of ways to transmit meanings. Although the uses vary widely, they frequently serve one of two communicative functions. Either they bring people together and stimulate involvement (in which case they are serving a sociopetal function) or they keep people apart and promote withdrawal (in which case they are serving a sociofugal function).

The sociopetal use of space satisfies the affiliative needs of individuals by promoting interaction. By contrast, the sociofugal use of space is well suited to satisfy privacy needs.

Sommer, who has been a leader in research on the sociopetal and sociofugal uses of microspace, maintains that we transmit very different connotative meanings Opens in new windowby the way we use space. He refers to the sociofugal functions as “sociofugal space,” and finds that sociofugal spatial arrangements or conditions suggest the following meanings: large, cold, impersonal, institutional, not owned by an individual, overconcentrated, without opportunity for shielded conversation, providing barriers without shelter, isolated without privacy, and concentrated without cohesion (1967, 1974). By contrast, the sociopetal use of space promotes involvement, communicative interaction, and a feeling of involvement.

Before you consider how you can and should use space to be a more effective communicator, you should recognize that perceptionsOpens in new window and definitions of space tend to be culture-specific. Latino perceptions of what constitutes a “large” space may be affected by their strong need to conserve space.