What is Proxemics?

Proxemics deals with the use of space in communicationOpens in new window. It focuses not only on the ways individuals orient themselves to other individuals and objects in their immediate physical environment, but also on the perceptual and behavioural impact of these spatial orientations.

The term proxemics was coined by Edward T. HallOpens in new window, the pioneer of proxemic research, because it suggests that proximity, or lack of it, is a vitally important factor in human interaction. In its broadest perspective, Hall defines proxemics as the study of how people structure and use microspace (1968).

Proxemics consists in the messages people express when, for example, they prefer to sit at the front or back of a classroom, or whether they sit near to or far from the head of the table at a meeting. Most teachers will tell you that the mischief-makers dash to the back of the classroom and that the more serious students choose a front a seat.

The Proximate Environment

We use space to communicate. When we use the space that can be perceived directly, we are communicating within the proximate environment. The “proximate environment” includes everything that is physically present to the individual at a given moment. For instance, the proximate environment of a student in a classroom includes the student’s desk, the other students, the teacher, the chalkboard, the windows, and the doorway. The student’s proximate environment does not include the soccer team practicing outside or students in another classroom (Sommer, 1966).

No single concept adequately describes how we communicate in our proximate environment. Because terms such as spaceOpens in new window, distanceOpens in new window, and territoryOpens in new window are clearly related in a conceptual sense, there is a tendency to treat them as synonyms. They are not synonyms, however, and should not be treated as such.

To understand what and how we communicate via our proxemic behaviour, we must understand the meaning of five interrelated concepts: spaceOpens in new window, distanceOpens in new window, territoryOpens in new window, crowdingOpens in new window, and privacyOpens in new window. Each of these is treated singly in its designated entry. To understand the communicative uses of space, distance, territory, crowding, and privacy, it is important you see this studies. The links are provided below.

The Communicative Functions of Proxemics

The functional importance of proxemic is undeniable. In fact, Patterson and Edinger (1987) maintained that our proxemic behaviours have at least some impact on the communicative functions of providing information, regulating interaction, expressing intimacy. They highlight the importance of proxemic behaviours in persuasion and impression management, which in turn serve the social-control function of communication.

Even though proxemic may have some impact on a number of communicative functions, proxemic behaviours are particularly important when individuals are concerned with the impression management, persuasion, affiliation, and privacy functions of communication. While serving those functions, proxemic behaviours serve as a sensitive barometer that reflects the relative strength of the competing tendencies to both seek and avoid closer interaction with other individuals.

The Impression Management Function

Impression managers are concerned with many of the defining features of the images they project to others. Two of the most important dimensions of those images—likability and dominance—can be strongly affected by our proxemic behaviours.

In general, the closer you move to another person, the more that person is apt to like you (Andersen, 1988). The relationship between close physical proximity and liking is a strong one. Consider the people you know and ask yourself this question: Do I like best individuals who stand or sit closest to me when I am interacting with them?

Liking is not apt to increase if a person moves so close to you as to be threatening or if you see the person as physically unattractive, however. Because the majority of the people we encounter are neither physically unattractive nor do they attempt interaction at distances that are so close as to be unseemly, communicating at close distances with most of the people you encounter should involve little risk for you. Research supports the conclusion that people will probably like you more as you move closer to them, even if you are violating their distance preferences; the qualifier here is that the “violatee’s” general perception of you as “violator” must be favourable.

Judgments of how dominant you are will also probably be affected by your proxemic behaviour. Dominant people typically interact with other individuals at closer interaction distances and claim more personal territory than submissive individuals. The impact of proxemics on judgments of dominance is particularly strong in the small group (Andersen, 1988). In small-group contexts, dominant individuals typically choose to sit at the head of the table (Riess, 1982), and the greatest degree of dominance is attributed to the person seated highest, who sits in front of the interaction partner, or who stands (Schwartz, Tesser, & Powell, 1982).

The Persuasion Function

Proxemics also serves a valuable role in persuasion. Interpersonal distance is often perceived as favourable or unfavourable, and when favourable distances between people are maintained, likability for each other increases. Likability has a profound effect on the development of persuasion (Schultz, 1998).

There are some interesting gender differences as well. One study finds that female persuaders are more successful invaders of space than are men, primarily because individuals typically welcome a female invasion more so than a male invasion of space (Kaitz, Bar-Haim, Leher, & Grossman, 2004).

Proxemic violations can serve as a distraction for some in the persuasive process. In other words, the persuader, when violating the listener’s space, can be more persuasive with the distraction than without. For instance, one study found that when a person’s space was violated while hearing a counterattitudinal message to raise university tuition rates, he or she was more likely to agree to the tuition hike than the group of subjects whose space was not violated (Eaves, 1990).

The Affiliation Function

The need for closer affiliation with other human beings is a strong one. The term closer in turn suggests that we communicate the strengths of our affiliative needs via our physical proximity to other human beings. We do know that persons who move closer to others are often viewed as more friendly and extroverted, whereas they tend to be perceived more negatively as they move away (Patterson & Sechrest, 1970). Relatedly, if we assume a sociopetal spatial orientation, we signal our desire to develop closer interpersonal relationships with others. If we assume a sociofugal orientation, we signal our desire for greater separation in both a literal and a symbolic sense.

In some instances, individuals seem to experience strong needs for affiliation and privacy at the same time. A physically intimate couple, for example, might communicate in public in such a way as to make clear their wish to be maximally involved with each other whereas they want minimal contact with anyone else. Similarly, groups such as nudists might live in a remote, walled area in order to satisfy their need to affiliate with each other. At the same time, their need for privacy dictates that they exhibit a type of territorial behaviour that ensures that they will be protected from intrusion by and affiliation with outsiders.

The Privacy Function

The privacy need is also a strong one for many people. As we have already indicated, our attempt to satisfy that need are apt to begin and end with the ways we use spaceOpens in new window, distanceOpens in new window, and territoryOpens in new window. Although definitions of privacy are culture-specific, the need for some degree of privacy seems to be a universal one.

We communicate the strength of our desire for privacy in many ways. They include the way we relate to others spatially, the placement of furniture in our offices, and the use of territorial markers inside and outside of our home. Although the strength of our needs for privacy may vary, we should recognize that our proxemic behaviour represents an effective way of communicating and satisfying our needs for privacy.