Often referred to as personal space, proxemics is the amount of distance that people are comfortable putting between themselves and others. While this distance can vary from person to person, on average, Americans prefer an 18-inch distance between themselves and someone else during a casual conversation. The study of personal space is considered a subsection of nonverbal communication and interpersonal behavior, and it’s one of the hardest topics to study because of the range of factors that determine how much personal space an individual needs.
There are four categories of proxemic distance that people tend to keep. The intimate space for our closest relationships is 0-18 inches apart, the personal space for family and friends is 18 inches to 4 feet of distance, the social space for casual and professional relationships is 4-10 feet, and the public space for strangers is over 10 feet. Many people might even argue adding the six-feet social distancing requirement of the COVID-19 pandemic as an additional proxemic.
Our romantic partners, family members, and closest friends are allowed within this space of 0-18 inches. Familiar touch is part of this proximity; the space is close enough to whisper in another’s ear and smell that person’s scent. We become extremely uncomfortable when this space is breached by people outside our inner circle.
This is generally called the personal space bubble. At this range of 18 inches to 4 feet, we are close but not that close; we can reach over and pat the other person’s back. This space is known as friendly but not intimate. We are in this space when we must speak privately with another person, and the outer limit of this zone is acceptable in close business relationships.
Casual acquaintance and most professional interactions remain within the 4-10 foot boundary. We can’t touch others at this distance, and it is a safe gap to conduct more formal exchanges. The small classroom setting is a good example of a 4-to-10 foot social space, where students are close enough to get to know their teachers.
Shopping malls, city sidewalks, and airports are planned with this distance requirement. This range is also used in public speaking, giving a formality to the communication delivered. This type of space does not require eye contact or any personal contact, whatsoever.
One of the things to consider when determining how much space an individual needs is to recognize that this distance is intentionally chosen by individuals based on factors like prior experience, cultural background, and the kind of relationship they have with someone. For example, an individual might be comfortable being extremely close to a romantic partner but may lean away when a work colleague gets too close. Being attentive to people’s boundaries can help give clues about a person’s personal preference for distance.
The theory of proxemics was developed by anthropologist Edward T. Hall in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. While Hall served in the U.S. Army, he observed the distance people maintained with each other, and he found that different cultures perceive personal space differently. The British need a lot of space while the Middle Eastern Arab is comfortable in closer spaces.
The term social distancing was added in 2020 to dictionaries such as Merriam-Webster and Oxford English. This practice of maintaining a physical distance of six feet or more from other people during an outbreak of contagious disease has a long history. In the 14th century during the Black Death, ships that arrived in Venice had to remain quarantined off the shores to reduce the transmission of infection. This may be the earliest recording of such a measure, but accounts of people with leprosy being evicted from villages have been noted in the Bible.
Different cultures see personal space differently. The late Canadian psychologist Sidney Jourard conducted well-known research, called the coffee study, in the U.S., France, the UK, and Puerto Rico. He watched people sitting in cafes and recorded the rate at which people touched each other in a one-hour sitting. Puerto Ricans touched 180 times, the French 110, the British 0, and the Americans touched twice.
There are unspoken rules when getting to know a person. Sitting or standing too close to a new date may be off-putting to that person; some people just need more personal space than others. You have to gauge the receptiveness of the other person: Do you think the person is welcoming or ambiguous about seeing you again? If you feel the person is open and interested in you, sitting a little closer—but not too close—may be acceptable.
No. Kinesics is the study of gestures and body movements that telegraph non-verbal communication. According to former FBI Counterintelligence agent Joe Navarro, a person’s needs, feelings, thoughts, and intentions are processed by the limbic brain and expressed in body language. Just by watching a person’s body, one can sometimes learn what that person is up to.