Proxemics [prok-see-miks] is a subcategory of the study of nonverbal communication along with haptics (touch), kinesics (body movement), vocalics (paralanguage), and chronemics (structure of time). Proxemics can be defined as ‘the interrelated observations and theories of man’s use of space as a specialized elaboration of culture.’

Edward T. Hall, the cultural anthropologist who coined the term in 1963, emphasized the impact of proxemic behavior (the use of space) on interpersonal communication. Hall believed that the value in studying proxemics comes from its applicability in evaluating not only the way man interacts with others in his daily life, but also ‘the organization of space in his houses and buildings, and ultimately the layout of his towns.’

In animals, Swiss zoologist Heini Hediger had distinguished between flight distance (run boundary), critical distance (attack boundary), personal distance (distance separating members of non-contact species, as a pair of swans), and social distance (intraspecies communication distance). Hall reasoned that, with very few exceptions, flight distance and critical distance have been eliminated in human reactions, and thus interviewed hundreds of people to determine modified criteria for human interactions. In his work, Edward T. Hall separated his theory into two overarching categories: personal space and territory. Personal space describes the immediate space surrounding a person, while territory refers to the area which a person may ‘lay claim to’ and defend against others. His theory on territoriality has been applied to animal behaviors as well; defending territory is said to be a means of ‘propagation of the species by regulating density.’

Body spacing and posture, according to Hall, are unintentional reactions to sensory fluctuations or shifts, such as subtle changes in the sound and pitch of a person’s voice. Social distance between people is reliably correlated with physical distance, as are intimate and personal distance. In addition to physical distance, the level of intimacy between conversants can be determined by ‘socio-petal socio-fugal axis,’ or the ‘angle formed by the axis of the conversants’ shoulders.’ Hall has also studied combinations of postures between dyads (two people) including lying prone, sitting, or standing.

Kinesthetic factors deal with how closely the participants are to touching, from being completely outside of body-contact distance to being in physical contact, which parts of the body are in contact, and body part positioning. The ‘touching code’ concerns how participants are touching one another, such as caressing, holding, feeling, prolonged holding, spot touching, pressing against, accidental brushing, or not touching at all. The ‘visual code’ denotes the amount of eye contact between participants. Four sub-categories are defined, ranging from eye-to-eye contact to no eye contact at all. The ‘thermal code’ denotes the amount of body heat that each participant perceives from another. Four sub-categories are defined: conducted heat detected, radiant heat detected, heat probably detected, and no detection of heat. The olfactory code deals in the kind and degree of odor detected. Voice loudness is also a factor; seven sub-categories are defined: silent, very soft, soft, normal, normal+, loud, and very loud.

Hall notes that different cultures maintain different standards of personal space. The Lewis Model of Cultural Types indicates the variations in personal interactive qualities, indicating three poles: ‘linear-active’ cultures, which are characterized as cool and decisive (Germany, Norway, US), ‘reactive’ cultures, characterized as accommodating and non-confrontational (Vietnam, China, Japan), and ‘multi-active’ cultures, characterized as warm and impulsive (Brazil, Mexico, Italy). Realizing and recognizing these cultural differences improves cross-cultural understanding, and helps eliminate discomfort people may feel if the interpersonal distance is too large (‘stand-offish’) or too small (intrusive).

There are four forms of human territory in proxemic theory. They are: public territory (a place where one may freely enter); interactional territory (a place where people congregate informally); home territory (a place where people claim their individual territory); and body territory (the space immediately surrounding us) These different levels of territory, in addition to factors involving personal space, suggest ways for us to communicate and produce expectations of appropriate behavior.

Much research in the fields of Communication, Psychology, and Sociology, especially under the category of ‘Organizational Behavior,’ has shown that physical proximity enhances peoples’ ability to work together. Face-to-face interaction is often used as a tool to maintain the culture, authority, and norms of an organization or workplace. An extensive body of research has been written about how proximity is affected by the use of new communication technologies. The importance of physical proximity in co-workers is often emphasized.

While physical proximity cannot be achieved when people are connected virtually, perceived proximity can be attempted, and several studies have shown that it is a crucial indicator in the effectiveness of virtual communication technologies. These studies suggest that various individual and situational factors influence how close we feel to another person, regardless of distance. The mere-exposure effect originally referred to the tendency of a person to positively favor those who they have been physically exposed to most often. However, recent research has extended this effect to virtual communication. This work suggests that the more someone communicates virtually with another person, the more he is able to envision that person’s appearance and workspace, therefore fostering a sense of personal connection. Increased communication has also been seen to foster common ground, or the feeling of identification with another, which leads to positive attributions about that person. Some studies emphasize the importance of shared physical territory in achieving common ground, while others find that common ground can be achieved virtually, by communicating often.

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