Why should it feel uncomfortable, even irritating, to have a stranger stand or sit really close to you even when there is no obvious threat being held out, and even when there are no potentially icky factors at work such as non-deodorated underarms or yesterday’s hair-oil? Ever wondered why we generally avoid eye contact in public? Feel spatially violated in crowded buses or trains?
Also read: Heal Thy Self | Hearing Voices?
The answer is simple – it’s science. In fact, it’s called the ‘science of proxemics’ (the word being a combination of two words – ‘proximity’, and ‘phonemics’ which is the study of the sound systems in a particular language). You, and every other person, have an individual space bubble that you sit, stand and move around in; and this bubble expands or contracts, depending on the social situation you’re in, on your personality, and of course on the cultural setting. For instance, if you’re at a party, you would feel comfortable standing and talking with a close friend at a distance of, say, 1.5 feet, but you would feel distinctly uncomfortable if someone you had just been introduced to positioned himself or herself less than an arm’s length away while engaging you in conversation.
Culture is another important variable that determines people’s comfort zones. Thus, in the gregarious Latin cultures, people are comfortable with closer proximity than in Nordic cultures. In India, by and large, people of the same gender seem to not only be comfortable, but even to want to stand close enough to “feel the other’s breath”.
The size of the space bubble you like to keep around yourself also seems to be linked to basic personality traits. Research has found, for instance, that in interactions with others, introverts choose to sit farther away from the other person(s) than extroverts. Unconsciously, introverts may also put in place certain “barrier gestures” such as crossing their arms in a self-hugging, defensive posture that increases the psychological space between themselves and others.
Also check: Heal Thy Self | How to prevent a suicide
The origins of this “comfortable separation zone” as one American psychologist calls it, appear to be hard-wired into our ancient brain circuitry: Neanderthal man had to be wary enough and wiry enough not to get so close to a potential attacker that the aggressor might be in an advantageous position to lunge forward, gouge out his eye, and then drag off his woman by the hair. This caution and the resulting discomfort seem to have been programmed into the human brain by evolution, specifically into one of the oldest structures in the brain – the amygdala, which controls fear and the processing of emotion.
How we say 'keep away'
People’s territorial responses are primitive, deep-seated and powerful. When someone violates that “keep safe distance” barrier, it triggers a physiological reaction in the other person, including an increase in heart rate and galvanic skin response (a change in the electrical resistance of the skin, which is one of the most sensitive markers of emotional arousal). The other person then tries to restore the “proper” distance by making instinctive self-protection moves. Nearly all of these are non-verbal.. Here are three kinds of action we take to preserve our space bubble:
» Create a visual boundary: This is an action that most people take quite unconsciously, using their personal belongings or other objects that might be handy. For instance, when you take a seat on a bus or train, you might put your handbag, briefcase or other item on the seat next to you. This creates a visual boundary between you and other people, showing very clearly that you don’t want anyone else sitting next to you.
» Avoid eye contact: You’ve probably done this thousands of times; someone is looking for space to occupy, there is some available next to you, so you avoid making eye contact with that other person. Why? Because eye contact acts like an invitation of sorts, indicating you might be friendly and open to sharing the space around you. Avoiding eye contact, on the other hand, allows you to ignore the other person, appear unfriendly, and avoid sending out any unintended invitation about your willingness to share space.
» Location and position ourselves: Your choice of location and body position also send out messages about your personal space boundaries. For instance, if you’re dining alone in a café, you will probably seek out a table next to the wall or some other physical boundary. A table in the corner of the eating area is especially good for defining your boundaries because you have at least two walls to help send out the message (however unconsciously you’re doing it). Even sitting hunched over your coffee, head down, or in a generally closed body position sends the world a message about your personal space.
The psychology of space
Interestingly, however, your sense of personal space is not just a matter of physical proximity; many other psychological factors influence it. In general, your sense of proximity with someone increases when they are:
» Facing you directly (as opposed to standing side-by-side, looking into the crowd)
» Making direct eye contact with you
» Touching you (e.g., rubbing elbows in a crowd, patting your back, touching your arm or shoulder)
» Raising their voice
» Talking about you (as opposed to speaking on a neutral subject)
If a stranger starts doing too many of these at once, your personal space begins to feel violated, and you start having that icky 'Eww, get away from me!' feeling we’ve all experienced with unwelcome social encounters.
On the other hand, if you learn to modulate these five factors in your own interactions, and to combine them in different ways, you can make your social partners feel safe and comfortable. Thus, for instance, when you increase eye contact, try leaning back or standing back a little to maintain the other person’s comfort zone. If you happen to be physically close because it’s a crowded room, try lowering your voice. When you pat someone on the back or touch their arm as you talk, try standing at an angle, not facing them directly.
By playing with these different factors, cranking up some of the dials as you turn others down, you can actually enhance the feeling of closeness without triggering the 'red alert! get away!' response in your conversation partner.
Proxemics can be deliberately manipulated in the workplace or in the social arena to send out specific signals, even to signify the nature of the relationship between the interacting people. Thus, for instance, the dominant person in a workplace relationship has the privilege of entering the less dominant person’s space without his permission, but not so the other way around. So, the CEO might walk up to the work space of a junior staff member and lean against the doorway or even come and sit on the edge of his desk; the junior person would not presume to do these things in the CEO’s cabin.
With deliberate intent
There are some professions and some situations where personal space is very deliberately manipulated to achieve certain ends. With a new potential client, a salesperson is likely to be quite respectful of personal space, avoiding even the appearance of encroachment. As trust develops between client and salesperson, however, those boundaries tend to shrink. The salesperson will move in closer to the client, assuming a more familiar body position as a way to influence the client’s buying decision.
In other professions or situations, a person may deliberately sit or stand too close in order to make the other person feel self-conscious or insecure. Police interrogators often use the strategy of sitting close and crowding a suspect. This approach to interrogation assumes that invasion of the suspect’s personal space (with no chance for defense or escape) will give the officer a psychological advantage. A US manual on criminal interrogation and confession, in fact, directs officers to deliberately use spatial invasion to send out a particular sub-text. It asks interrogators to sit close to the subject without a table or desk between them, since the desk would offer a sort of barrier protection, and doing away with it leaves the subject more vulnerable. The police officer is also directed, once interrogation begins, to move his chair in closer, doing it subtly until one of his knees is between the subject’s. This intense spatial invasion can be so upsetting that the subject will often break down and tell the officer just what he wants to know.
Corporate predators also use the science of proxemics to win points and to solidify their Big Kahuna image. When two predators match wits, the duel of egos can be interesting, even amusing, as typified in this real-life incident from the life of M, a canny CEO trying to engineer a takeover of a rival company. The other company was headed by H, who was confident that he knew a lot about the sub-text of power. He decided to show M who was the boss from the word ‘go’. He told his staff to arrive at the meeting 15 minutes after it was scheduled to start. “Time is a powerful weapon,” he told his assistant. “Being fifteen minutes late will keep them guessing. It’ll make M anxious, and I’ll be able to exploit that anxiety and throw him off base from the very start.”
It was a clever ploy, but M was cleverer. He arrived at the meeting room a few minutes early, and surveyed the battle arena -- a long, oval conference table. Like any good general, M took advantage of the absence of his ‘enemy’ to place himself in the most strategic seat at the end of the table facing the door. He knew that this would remain the dominant position only if he could prevent H from taking the seat at the other end of the table. So he placed J, his executive VP, at the other end of the table and flanked her with two of his staff. He then placed two more of his associates on either side of his chair. By the time H came in, his delayed-arrival ploy (often an effective one) had back-fired because of M’s territorial triumph. M notched up another victory when he stood up and held his hand out as H entered, forcing his rival to walk all the way around the table in order to shake his hand. Confused by the turn of events, H was flustered and, in his disoriented state, quickly took one of the only seats open to him, a relatively subordinate and compliant one. Had he kept a cool head (despite his initial faux-pas) and stayed sharp-witted, he would have simply requested J to move and then sat in her power place, just a rung below the top dog’s, making it a more equal face-off. By not doing this, he lost control of the situation. M became the one projecting the sub-text of power and status from his clever use of the space around the conference table.
Putting it to work
Understanding and respecting the territorial parameters that people like to have around themselves is an important skill which some people just seem to have, but everyone can acquire. You can put it to work not only in one-on-one encounters, but also in group settings. For instance, while overseeing the proxemics for an upcoming conference or workshop, do not place chairs so close together that personal space will be invaded. Conversely, seating people too far apart will prevent building feelings of trust, and undermine interpersonal discussion.
It is also easier to establish rapport with groups seated in a semi-circle, or in a V- or U-arrangement, than with groups seated in a classroom / theater- style arrangement.
Once the proceedings are underway, you can use space to change the environment as needed. When you walk towards the group and close the space, you create a more personal and, psychologically, a more intimate relationship. Dividing groups of four or five from a larger group allows you to approach the smaller group on a more personal basis. Very often, merely moving a flip chart a little closer during a presentation will change the spatial relationship and increase attention.
Overcoming – or removing – barriers is also a must in a presentation setting. The lectern (known as the “security blanket of the podium”) is not only a physical barrier, but also a psychological barrier that causes disconnect.
Successful people know where to position themselves in relation to other people. They know that if they stand too close they can be perceived as overwhelming or threatening. They know that if they stand too far away they can be perceived as distant. And they work at getting those comfort zones just right.
(The author, a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, now works as a counseling therapist)