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issue of "Dr. T's Timely Tips" by Dr. Tony Alessandra. Please send your feedback
An aspect of space that we use to communicate with others is air space around
us. We assume that this is our personal territory, much like a private air
bubble. We feel a proprietary right to this space and resent others entering it
unless they are invited. The exact dimensions of these private bubbles vary from
culture to culture, but some generalities can be useful in helping us receive
and send messages more clearly through the use of this medium.
How many times have you sat next to a stranger on an airplane or in a movie
theater and jockeyed for the single armrest between you? Since touching is
definitely a personal space violation in our culture, the more aggressive person
who is not afraid of touching someone usually wins the territory.
Research in the field of proxemics has revealed that adult American business
people have four basic distances of interaction. These are:
Intimate Zone -- ranges from actual physical contact to two feet.
Personal Zone -- ranges from approximately two-four feet.
Social Zone -- extends from nearly four-twelve feet.
Public Zone -- stretches from twelve feet away to the limits of hearing and
People are not necessarily conscious of the importance of maintaining these
distances until violations occur. How you feel about people entering these
different zones depends upon who they are. You might feel quite uncomfortable
and resentful if a business associate entered your Intimate or Personal Zone
during a conversation. If the person were your spouse, however, you would
probably feel quite good, even if he/she were so close as to touch you.
People can generally be classified into two major proxemic categories -- contact
and non-contact. According to author Edward Hall, Americans and Northern
Europeans typify the non-contact group due to the small amount of touching that
takes place during their transactions. On the other hand, Arabs, Latinos, and
people in the Mediterranean countries normally use much contact in their
conversations. In addition, although Americans are considered a non-contact
group in general, there are obviously significant numbers of Americans who are
When these two major patterns of proxemic behavior meet, their interaction
normally ends in a clash. The contact people unknowingly get too close or touch
the non-contact people. This leads to discomfort, tension, distrust, and
misunderstanding between the two.
A commonly used example is that of the South American and North American
businesspeople interacting at a cocktail party. For the South American, the
appropriate zone for interaction is Personal to Intimate and includes frequent
touching to make a point. This is about half the distance minus touch that the
North American needs to be in his/her comfortable Social Zone. The South
American would step closer, and the North American backward, in a strange
proxemic dance until both gave up the relationship as a lost cause because of
the other's "cold" or "pushy" behavior.
Contact and non-contact people have conflicting perceptions of each other based
solely on their proxemic behavior. The non-contact people are seen as shy, cold,
and impolite by the contact people. On the other hand, non-contact people
perceive contact people as pushy, aggressive, and impolite.
Often people are bewildered by interactions with others displaying different
proxemic behaviors. When a proxemic violation occurs, a person generally has a
feeling that something is not right but may not be able to focus directly on the
cause. Attention usually focuses on the other person and why the other person is
not behaving in the "proper" manner. Attention may even be focused on yourself,
causing you to become self-conscious. In either case, attention shifts to the
behavior of the two transactions and away from the conversation at hand and
interferes with effective communication.
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