How do we create and make use of space? Before reading on, take half a minute to think about how you handle space. What kind of distance do you prefer when talking to someone? Do you think it's natural to take a seat next to a stranger on the bus if there is a free double-seat available? Think of how you behave in a crowded elevator. Now, do you think this is strictly personal or might there be a bigger picture?
The theory of proxemics was developed by anthropologist Edward T. Hall, introduced in The Hidden Dimension (1966).
Hall argued that our perceptions of space are connected to our culture, internalized so that we are unaware of the different cultural frameworks we have for defining and organizing space. From his own experiences of intercultural communication, he saw that the question of space could lead to difficulties in cross-cultural communication and understanding.
Most famously, the theory of proxemics include the four spaces that surround us, according to Hall:
Culturally, these spaces differ widely. A French
friend of mine, to whom I consider myself quite close, used to get totally overwhelmed by my Norwegian-style hugs (in place of the more polite and careful little kisses on the cheeks) and stiffen up - and after a couple of these incidents he followed it up by muttering: "Tu es rentrée dans ma bulle!" ("you stepped into my bubble"). We worked it out, as friends do.
With strangers, it can be a lot more difficult. What is considered the appropriate distance between two people engaging in normal conversation, varies greatly. Northern Americans are said to feel most comfortable with the social-consultative space and prefer a bigger distance than would many Europeans, leading the American to feel like leaping backwards when the conversational partner gets too close.
The ways we organize cities, buildings and interiors are also part of Hall's theory - he calls this "fixed and semi-fixed feature space". His ideas have had great impact on both anthropology and communication theory. They have also introduced relative and relational space as important factors in geography.
These differences are not only relevant between cultures. Research has shown that the perceptions of intimate and personal space, for instance, can also be gender-related. One example:
Regardless of the sex of an "invader", men seated at an otherwise unoccupied library table will view opposites most negatively, while women already seated will view an adjacent most negatively. (Study conducted by Fisher&Byrne 1975)
Me, I go for the backbench if that looks spacious, I like to have a free seat next to me on the bus or the train, and I easily get edgy when rooms are crowded. At the library, I prefer a desk of my own. Not unlike most other Norwegians I know, I guess I like my space, and I try to let others have theirs, whatever theirs might be, although occasionally, I might overwhelm a Frenchman with a hug.