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This couple shares personal space because it has developed trust for one another.

This couple shares personal space because it has developed trust for one another.

Proxemics is the study of how people use space and was first introduced by American anthropologist Edward T. Hall in the early 1960s to describe the implications distances play between people as they interact. He summarized the rule as follows: “Like gravity, the influence of two bodies on each other is inversely proportional not only to the square of their distance, but possibly even to the cube of the distance between them.” According to researcher Heini Hediger who studied the psychology and behaviour of captive animals in zoos and circuses in 1955, spacing is governed by how close animals are to one another, with four possible responses: flight, critical or attack, personal and social. People we find, are no different. “Personal” and “social” refers to interactions between members of the same species and is benign and non-confrontational, whereas “flight” and “critical”, usually occurs between members of different species and represents a direct threat or perceived threat to safety. Hall reasoned therefore, that with few exceptions, flight and critical distances had been eliminated from human reactions. This is largely do to the environment by which we all exist as we tolerate mild intrusions of our personal space on a daily bases.

When people enter our personal space we predict that they are either close friends, making a sexual advance, or they are hostile and are attempting an attack. Close encounters from strangers produce visceral reactions. Our hearts beat faster and we become flush as our bodies prepare us to fight or run. The same reactions are commonplace when our lovers enter our personal space for the first time. Even a touch of the hand can send the heart into flutter and release pleasure hormones. Except in the case of a lover the hormones are stress hormones which are naturally bad for us and in all due to all exhilaration we get a good dose of the “action hormone” adrenaline. This is why it is so important to respect the personal space around others. Not only will the intrusion make them feel uncomfortable, but they will also formulate negative judgments about you. The rule of thumb is to always give provide as much space as possible and allow others to approach you instead of vice versa.

When in public and especially in crowded areas filled with strangers our bodies will follow very specific silent speech rules. These rules protect our sanity first and foremost. They also convey our desires to get along with others in harmony, and that we respect them. In close, unavoidable proximity with strangers, our bodies will tense up or remain motionless so as to avoid contact. If accidental contact ensues, we will pull in whatever part of the body was touched and if particularly obtrusive we offer a verbal apology. Even if contact is rare, any part of the body that may result in touching is kept under heavy tension. We wouldn’t want our bodies to leave our control and move into the space of someone else. To loosen up or relax our bodies, is to ignore an important rule in congested places. Even our faces will remain rigid and free from emotion. Our gaze will be fixed or we will glaze over, looking “through” people instead of making eye contact. We even tend to limit conversations with people we know as this too violates the unwritten code of conduct. We’ll pick up a newspaper, even though we might have no interest in it, just to remove ourselves from the situation even further.