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Proxemics Behavioral Connotations
Dear participants, welcome to the third module of 1st week. In the previous module we
had discussed the basic definitions of Proxemics, what are the different zones namely the
four zones of intimate social, personal and public distances. We had also looked at the
cultural connotations of these zones. In today’s discussion we would look at how
cultures can be differentiated on the basis of being contact and non-contact, how context
is important in certain cultures where as in certain it is not and also we would look at
different types of space understanding.
As we have discussed in the previous module proxemics is a way through which we look
at the distances, we unconsciously and sometimes consciously also maintained between
ourselves and the other people in order to assess the emotions and ideas which are
communicated. However, we find that it is not only the structuring of the micro space,
but it is also the structuring of the micro space which is important to understand the
principle behind proxemics. Hall has very rightly commented that this is the distance
between men in conduct of their daily transactions and further he says that it is also the
organizations of space in his houses, buildings and ultimately the layout of his town.
So, we find that proxemics does not only looks at the distances which people maintain
between and amongst themselves in dyadic and team situations, but it also looks at how
different aspects related with the space and its arrangements are significant in
communication of certain messages. At the same time we find that proxemics also
identifies the ways in which people bank on their cultural background to suggest how a
particular spacing can pass on feelings and emotions related with their confidence, how
much distance can create annoyance amongst people.
Whereas Hall’s distribution of four zones sometimes has been commented on if not
actually criticized, his basic supposition that proxemic behavior is also dependent on the
cultural aspects has never been questioned so far. And it is this aspect of cultural
associations which we will discuss in detail.
Hall has commented that cultures can be grouped in two ways, he has talked about
contact and non contact cultures in his book The Silent Language which was published in
1959. His idea of contact culture is to denote those cultures in which close interpersonal
distances are maintained and at the same time those distances in which personal and
individual touch can be promoted.
On the basis of his studies he has suggested that countries of Southern Europe as well as
Arabic countries can be termed as being contact cultures because in these societies
normally he found that people are prone to touching each other and at the same time they
maintain closer interpersonal contact in dyadic and team situations. In comparisons to
others, he has put certain countries under his division of non-contact culture, he has
commented on the basis of his researchers again that Northern European countries as
well as in Northern America people exhibit opposite preferences and behaviors and
prefer to maintain well defined and relatively more distance in their inter personal
It can also be commented in passing that Hall’s distinction of four zones of proxemic
distances was also deeply inspired by a study by Heini Hediger who is also known as the
father of zoo biology, he was a Swiss ethologist and he had systematically observed the
distances which different species of animals maintained in their behavior in contact with
He has named these distances as flight, critical, personal and social distances and Hall
had drawn a lot in his study on the four zones which human beings maintained with each
other. However, the aspect of cultural dimensions of proxemic behavior is something
which can be credited only to him.
Another aspect towards which Hall has drawn our attention is of high and low context
By the idea of context, he wants to suggest that in order to understand the behavior of a
person it is necessary to encode the whole situation or background of the given
information. Sometimes it is reflected in the phrases which we use in our day to day
speech and at the same time it is also reflected in the proximity and distance which we
maintained with each other.
He had suggested that in high context cultures communication is highly symbolic and
people are aware of so many unsaid things which remain in the background, but which
do effect the way in which our meaning is interpreted or has to be decoded by others. For
example, the social hierarchy, and the social status and at the same time certain ironical
linguistic behavior which compel that we maintain a certain way of distance and certain
way of communication. In Hall’s studies he has commented that Japan as well as several
Asian societies and certain Western countries are also under this group of symbolic
He has quoted a very interesting example from the vocabulary which a British person
can normally use. A British may comment “I hear what to say” or may also say “oh I
almost agree”. A person who does not belong to the high context culture may often
interpret it as a confirmation of this statement which he has been trying to make,
however, he would not be able to understand the ironical denial which is in built in the
high context culture.
On the other hand we find that the low context culture believes in a precise
communication. In low context culture a single information has only a single meaning
and the way an information is to be decoded is not to be influenced by the rest of the
unsaid things which have gone into the background.
We can also say that communication in low context culture is rule oriented, it is also
better codified and since it is better codified and rule oriented knowledge can be easily
transferable in such low context culture. And the examples which Hall has put across is
that of the USA and Germany. At the same time we find that whether a person is mindful
of the context or not also depends on the social positions.
And as we had seen in our earlier discussions a single aspect of non-verbal
communication cannot be taken up as being the final meaning; however, it is a very
positive indication. Hall has also suggested that these characteristics of high and low
context cultures are also reflected it is space arrangements and nowadays very recent
researchers have found that these tendencies are reflected not only in space
arrangements, architecture and interior designing; they are also reflected in the designing
of the web pages in different cultures as well as in our understanding of time.
Whether the time we keep in our communication is monochrome or polychrome or
whether during our dialogues and conversations we are using different aspects related
with our understanding of time. So, in a way we can say that the proxemic understanding
has an over reaching significance in our today’s communicating behavior.
To continue this argument further, we can say that a high context communication is
normally polite and respectful. It maintains certain proxemic distance, but at the same
time it is never direct and therefore, it integrates by similarity and harmony etcetera. It is
also critical of the low context communication because it believes that it is impolite and
it does not have the ability to read between the lines and therefore, it is rather naive or
may be too fast.
In the same way we find that low context communication is believed to be open and true,
it is suggested that it is integrated with a certain directness and therefore, it has a certain
authenticity also. It therefore, also claims that high context communication normally
hides information, it is arrogant and therefore, it cannot be trusted easily, it is too formal;
too slow etcetera.
This diagram suggests how the significance of low and high context culture is important
for us to understand in any intercultural situations. It is very important to understand the
context, the cultural context in which a person is speaking to find out what exactly are
the connotations of given information or to understand the ways in which the given
information has to be decoded. It also provides us insight into different possibilities at
the work place in order to share information properly and at the same time to judge what
are the expectations of different people from leadership role? We can say that each
approach has its own strength.
This particular video which you can check later on provides a very interesting
commentary on the differences between the high context and low context cultures.
What is high and low context culture? What is the low context culture? In a low context
culture it is more common for people to be direct say what they mean and could be
considered more informative because of these points.
What is high context culture? High context culture is based on long term relationships,
high context is formal and implies meaning and you have to look for the body language.
Some examples of higher and lower context culture; here is an example of low versus
high context culture. French people can feel that Germans insult their intelligence by
explaining the obvious. While Germans can feel that the French managers do not provide
Here is an example of a high context culture. In Chinese culture its common for the
hostess at the dinner party to serve to guests less food. It is seen as a compliment for the
guests to ask for more. This also prevents against for losing face if he does not like the
Here is an example of a low context culture, because of a personal effort business is
doing better and better.
Business culture: Here a case in high context cultures, this is lesser in low context
cultures. For example, Chinese people really care for status this is what determines if you
deserve respect. In a low context culture like Germany they do not care about you and
your status, if you work hard and efficiently they respect. A supervisor in a German
business does not have a higher status than his employees just because his position is
higher, if you work hard your supervisor would treat you as equal.
With this background now we come to a discussion of cultural differences in this spatial
connotations, we have already looked at the four basic zones of distances that is intimate
personal, social and public. These zones are practiced in all cultures, but the space which
is attributed to these different distances in different cultures is different. David
Matsumoto has quoted several studies in this context, he has quoted a 1966 study over
Watson and graves in which it was found that Arab males tend to sit closer to each other
in comparison to American males.
At the same time Arab males were seen with the direct and confrontational types of body
orientation, they also had a greater eye contact and were using louder voice. Another
study which he has quoted is the 1968 study by Fortson and Larson in which it was
found that the Latin Americans tend to interact more closely than students from
European background. This study was conducted in academic university background; he
has also quoted a study by Noesjirwan which was conducted in 1977 and 1978. And
which had found that Italians interact more closely in comparison to either Germans or
Another study which David Matsumoto has quoted is the 1976 study by Shuter in which
he had said that Colombians interacted at closer distances than Costa Ricans. These
spatial connotations alert us to the possibility of cultural differences which are in built in
This diagram also helps us to understand how different cultures understand and interpret
the sense of a space in their inter-personal dealings.
Another aspect which is significant for us to understand in the context of proxemics is
how it is affected by our understanding of gender and at the same time how does our
understanding of social hierarchy influences our understanding of proximity. Space is
always influenced by our understanding of how a particular gender code has to be
enacted in a society and also what is the role of power relationships within and outside
different gendered relationships.
We have seen how contact cultures use a small interaction distances whereas, noncontact
cultures avoid these close inter-personal distances as well as the frequent
touching of each other. These cultural practices in fact, are the culture codes which
human beings learn at a very early stage of their life. Different researchers have told us
that by the time a child is 3 years old, the child has imbibed these social codes. So, these
social and cultural codes which define our understanding of distance and at the same
time which define our understanding of a proper gendered behavior “are learnt at a very
early and impressionable age” so that they become almost a permanent part of our
Context helps us in internalizing the messages which are passed on regarding the
requirements of a space and distances for functional purposes in our day to day and work
life. Since different societies in our world today have different gender norms, these
gender norms are not necessarily symmetrical and therefore, we find that different types
of cultures have different designated spaces for different genders. This idea is known as
genderization of the space or space genderization.
Particularly in conventional cultures when the gender appropriate behavior is highly
different for people belonging to different genders, this idea becomes important for us. It
is seen that depending on the genders people interpret the space and its intervention by
people belonging to different genders in different manners. Certain researchers have
found out that Hispanics followed by Europeans or people of Caucasian origin are least
likely to feel that women are invading their personal space. So, they do not feel bad or
threatened if women are coming into their personal space on the other hand people of the
Middle East as well as in terms of intensity they have followed by Africans who are the
most likely to feel when women invade their personal space. This can be found in other
aspects of our understanding of space.
Since cultures have different modules of behavior as far as different genders are
concerned, it plays a very important part in our understanding of how a space is to be
used. The understanding of proxemics by a man in any cross gender situation is likely to
be different in different cultures in comparison to how a women understands it. In certain
cultures we find that women are likely to be more sensitive in those social situations
when they have to interact in any cross gender situation and therefore, they try to avoid
what they perceive to be an invasion of the personal space by men.
Generally, it can be said that closer proximity during dyadic interactions conveys a
higher dominance and in several cultures we find that this role of higher dominance is
normally referred to the male psychological characteristics and therefore, such
stereotypes are especially strong in such cultures. The idea behind all these discussion is
that our understanding of a space how do we negotiate it in our inter-personal interaction
with other people is guided by our understanding of gender roles in a particular culture.
Our sensitivity to these differences which may be cultural as well as individual because
in the same culture we find that individual behaviors may also be different. So, this
sensitivity to these differences would make us more observant of the behavior of other
people and would turn us into a more effective person in our communication because it
would enable us to have a better empathy.
Another precaution which we have to take during our understanding of the proxemic
behavior is that these cultural differences should never be turned into cultural stereotypes
to look down upon any cultural norm.
Another aspect which is significant for us to understand in the context of proxemics is
the different dimensions which initially Hall had talked about. According to Hall
proximate behavior is a function of eight different dimensions, he had developed these
different dimensions basically as a system of notation so that these dimensions can be
recorded for research purposes on appropriate scales. This system also enables the
researchers to keep meticulous observations.
The first dimension which he has referred to is the postural sex identifier which is related
with the postures which people take according to their gender. In our understanding of
the postural sex identifier the role of the culture is important. The second dimension he
has talked about is the SFP axis or the sociofugal or sociopetal orientation, it is also
culturally coded and it is also linked with our age, gender, status as well as the social
Sociofugal describes those space arrangements that push people apart away from each
other. And sociopetal space arrangements are those arrangements which are based on
those patterns which pull people together. The third dimension he has talked about is
related with the kinesthetic factors, it looks at the positioning of body parts and different
ways in which these body parts can touch each other. He has illustrated four ways and
different body parts can touch each other.
After that he talks about the touch code that is the amount of touch which is permissible
during each interaction. How do people touch, how much frequently they touch each
other, whether this touch is accidental or is it prolonged is it caressing or is it holding,
whether people accept these touches conveniently or do they feel uncomfortable.
So, the amount in frequency of touching each other in public is conditioned by our
cultural understanding and at the same time which body part is being touched upon is
also decided by our cultural understanding. As we shall see in our further discussions
particularly our discussions of haptics, we would look at how in certain cultures touching
over head is considered to be inauspicious.
The fifth dimension he has talked about is that of retinal combination. That is the amount
of eye contact as well as the nature of eye contact, whether it is sharp, clear, peripheral or
whether there is an avoidance. As we shall see it is also based with our cultural
understanding, our gender differences as well as the power hierarchies within any
organization. Then he also talks about the thermal and the olfaction codes; thermal code
is related with the amount of body heat which people perceive in each other and it can
function only when we are very closely positioned with each other.
Olfactory codes are basically related with the interpretation as well as the messages
which we want to convey with the help of our odor, the smell which we wear on our
body etcetera. Again we shall discuss how in certain cultures it is preferable and how in
certain cultures it is to be avoided. The last dimension he has talked about is related with
the loudness of voice which is conditioned by the distance, the relationship, the subject
under discussion as well as the culture and several other factors.
These systems and dimensions are bio-basic and they are rooted in physiology of the
organism. It is not necessary that in our understanding of the proxemic behavior all these
eight factors are equally important. And at the same time not all these factors share the
same label of complexity. For example, our understanding of the vision is much more
complex in comparison to our understanding of thermal and olfaction inputs.
After having discussed these dimensions, he also says that there is what can be termed as
a cultural universal understanding of the four basic zones of distances; however, specific
behavior responses to these zones are defined according to our culturally specific
conventions. So, again we find that Hall has repeatedly highlighted the significance of
cultural understanding of proximity.
Another aspect which is deeply related with our understanding of proxemics is how we
create and use the built-space around us which is also a reflection of our subconscious
understanding of proxemics. Many of us may not be aware that the norms of proxemic
behavior govern our cultural understanding, but we become acutely conscious of these
norms whenever there is a suggested violation or when we visit a foreign land where the
arrangement of a space is very different from what we had been used to perceive up till
Cultural space tells us a lot “about the nature of a relationship” and here I would like to
quote Kathryn Sorrell who has commented “so, if someone comes more into a personal
space, then you are used to you can often feel like, ‘what is happening here?”’ So, we
can also see very easily that as our cultural lenses are different misconceptions can also
easily occur, if we are not attentive to the cultural differences in our understanding of
In our understanding of proximity, the way we arrange our space which is available to us
in a formal or an informal setting is also important. Though in our understanding of the
space arrangements as a part of our studies of proxemics, the understanding of cultural
variation is important. Still roughly we can say that the understanding of space is
governed by our understanding of three basic types. It is true that cultural understanding
of space does exist, for example, a very small room which is very barely furnished can
sound to be cozy to a person On the other hand to a person who is born in an effusive
culture the same room may look rather oppressive and bare. But despite it we find that
the three different types of space which researchers have pointed out are the fixed feature
space, the semi fixed feature space and the non fixed feature space.
The semi fixed feature space is the one in which we find the maximum impact of
different types of understanding of proxemics and culture. For example, the sociofugal
and sociopetal understanding of space arrangement is same maximum in our
arrangement of the semi fixed feature space.
The fixed feature space is characterized by those constants which are given to us, those
immobile aspects which we normally cannot change, for example, wall, the territorial
boundaries etcetera. And the fixed feature space is significant in the way we construct
office buildings or a schools or the shopping malls the religious places, places of public
So, the way we perceive the features of our fixed space are internalized at a very early
stage in our life. The world which Hall has used for it is the Skinnerian reinforcement
procedure. Now, what exactly is this reinforcement procedure which has been suggested
by Skinnerian? B. F. Skinner a famous behavioral scientist had put forward this theory of
motivation and he had said that it is on the basis of the punishment and reinforcement
that people learn certain behaviors almost in a permanent fashion. An appropriate
behavior is awarded where, as an inappropriate behavior is punished severely. So, it is
through this Skinnerian reinforcement procedure to which as young children all of us are
exposed to our understanding of the significance of fixed feature space is internalized.
The second is the semi fixed feature space. The semi fixed feature space is created by an
arrangement of those elements which are mobile. For example, the way we arrange
curtains, screens, the partitions which we create with the help of furniture etcetera and at
the same time the way we use colors. So, these are the boundary markers and they enable
us to understand how a system is to be interpreted.
If you walk into any room, we get certain impressions on the basis of how furniture
etcetera has been arranged in this room. So, simply by looking at the furniture
arrangement we find that we can develop a way in which messages are been
communicated to us, whether it is a friendly environment or not, how much severity is
there in the office space designing etcetera are immediately clear to us when we look at a
particular office space.
For example, if you look at this particular photograph which is there on the right hand
top corner. We can find that it gives us the interpretation or the impression of being an
open and friendly space. In comparison to others we find that a different office space can
also make us feel rather clingy.
A non-fixed feature space is informal and dynamic when a person varies the spatial
features of setting or inter personal distances. It is a space which is maintained between
interactants without being aware of it. Also the position someone prefers individually
and the things he or she does to appropriate the space around him saying something
about that person.
So, you might have also noticed that when we interact with each other and particularly
when we occupy a seating space, we not only occupy the place which is allowed to us by
the invisible bubble around us, but at the same time we also want to occupy certain space
around us. We want to put certain artifacts there, we want to put certain objects there and
if somebody pushes a file or a cup of tea suddenly across the table towards us we feel
So, we find that whenever there is an unwelcome sound or even a stare or a scent we find
that we are being violated in a space which is accursing to us. So, that is why we find
that our understanding of non fixed feature space is related with our own psyche and this
is also the space which is perhaps the most significant way to impact our work
performance in any situation.
This is also an understanding of the non fixed feature space, so which is a space which is
immediately surrounding our body and each of us perceive this space to be our own.
Proxemics also very closely related with the way architectural designs are put across.
We have seen it in our discussion of the fixed space also that a particular architectural
design passes on a particular message and therefore, we find that it is also considered as
a silent language through which people put across their attitudes feelings and even
judgments about other people. The latest example of it is the concept of new urbanism
which has started to emphasis the context appropriate architecture. The design of a social
space the interface between social structure, built environment and human behaviour is
one of the most challenging concepts of architectural and planning.
The ways in which we respond to it are also very interesting to note. For example,
researchers have found that German business people visiting the US often look at the
open doors in offices and business houses as an indication of a relaxed attitude which is
even almost unbusiness like. They do not like the openness which has been introduced in
On the other hand when Americans visit a traditional German office they find that the
closed door are rather secretive they may even conceal something which is almost
conspiratorial. So, you would find that these understandings are developed on the basis
of our cultural understanding of how proxemics is to be unfolded in our architectural
It is also equally important in the way we look at the space design of the interior. So,
social and cultural distances which people maintain are interrelated with interior designs.
So, we find that with changing cultural norms the interior space designs also change. In
our offices we also see that now there is a shift from the individual work culture to a
culture of group or team work. So, if in the past the office was arranged with a relatively
more fixed and individual desks, now with the beginning of the smart office trend the
workstations become more and more flexible where different teams can be arranged for
So, the space is no more fixed and the workstations may also change on the basis of the
activities. But a person who has been used to a fixed office space may not feel the same
level of work enthusiasm in a non fixed space. Companies also require suitable offices
for sharing activities, but at the same time they have to allow the respect for distances
which should exist between people.
In the open spaces therefore, it becomes necessary for us to create areas for acoustic
isolation and also for the space which should be known as the individual territory. Our
understanding of territory is also pretty much linked with our understanding of the four
zones of proxemic distance, there is what is known primarily as the body territory which
is the bubble which we carry around us. Then there is a primary territory which
obviously, belongs to us only for example, our own home, our car also.
Then there is a secondary territory where we develop certain association because we go
and do some work over there, it may be our office space, it may be our school etcetera
and then lastly this is the public territory which is the open space. So, the space also
imparts a sense of identity and if we have a well defined space around us we find that it
also gives us a certain sense of identity control and permanence.
We have referred to the use of markers which some people use around us and we find
that it is a very interesting way to understand how the relationships, the status, and power
dynamics are displayed around us. You might have also noticed that in close offices
spaces also, where a good number of people have to sit and work for long hours. There
may be small glass partitions the glass partitions may be very low in terms of height, but
at the same time they are able to designate a particular space which is one’s own space.
So, it helps us to understand our own territorial rights.
In the table setting of restaurants also you might be also noticed that if it is a table setting
for the two, the restaurant owners normally put a small objects in the centre of t
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