Social Norms and Personal Space
When people think of communication, they usually think in terms of spoken conversations and words. However, a significant amount of communication occurs on a non-verbal level. The tones and inflections of speech, a person’s body language and the proximity between two conversing people are all rife with meaning and messages.
Because of these meanings, non-verbal communication is also governed by unspoken social norms. This paper examines the norms of proximity during interpersonal communication and the effects of breaking these norms.
Norms of proximity
In his seminal work The Silent Language, anthropologist Edward T. Hall (1959) explored how body language and other forms of non-verbal behavior regulate much of interpersonal communication. Among the norms he studied were proxemics, the typical distances people maintained during face-to-face interactions.
Though the concept of proxemics varied across and within various cultures, Hall found four general distance categories people used during interpersonal communication.
The first is “personal distance.” In the United States, this distance ranges from 1.5 to 4 feet. This distance places two people in very close proximity, allowing them to touch. The closer people get within this “personal distance” is often an indicator of their closeness as friends.
It should be noted that getting closer than 1.5 feet places two people in an intimate sphere, a distance that allows for lovemaking, kissing, comforting one another and other forms of affection. Thus, the 1.5-foot distance is a social norm defining the minimum distance acceptable for face-to-face conversations between two people in the United States (Hall 1971).
The next sphere is called “social distance.” This distance measures from 4 to 12 feet. In the United States, this range defines the distance used in social gatherings as well as impersonal business transactions. Also, people who have greater differences in social status or rank will tend to maintain greater distances while communicating (Hall 1971).
Thus, two people who are both secretaries will generally stand closer to each other while they talk, even if they are not friends. A secretary and his boss, on the other hand, will take care to stand farther from each other.
Face-to-face communications that occur beyond the 12-foot radius fall into the area of “public distance.” This encompasses formal speeches, lectures and large business meetings (Hall 1971).
Hall additionally noted that Americans generally require more “personal space” than any culture in the world. People from Mexico, Latin American and the Mediterranean countries typically position themselves closer to each other than Americans. As an example, Hall narrates a conversation between an American and a Frenchman. The former strived to maintain a 4-foot distance during conversation, a distance the Frenchman found too far. This prompted the Frenchman to move closer, while the American unconsciously moved away (Hall 1971).
Furthermore, the norms of acceptable personal space are also mitigated by factors like gender and socioeconomic status. In the United States, women and people from lower socioeconomic groups tend to come closer together. People who are introverted or anxious in their personal relationships will also understandably use greater distances (Hall 1971).
To test this theory, I will break the norms of personal distance by engaging several people into conversation while maintaining a distance of 4 feet. I will then walk or lean in progressively closer, while maintaining a neutral or friendly conversational tone. As I do this, observe how different people will perceive or react to this encroachment into their personal space.
To do this, I choose four test subjects, ranging from strangers to acquaintances, good friends and family. The tests will also be conducted in various surroundings, from a public park to a private living room. These subjects were purposely chosen to cover a variety of social situations, involving people who have varying levels of familiarity with me.
Breaking the norms
The first subject is Jane, a female classmate who is an acquaintance but not a close friend. As we were waiting along a corridor outside a classroom for the previous class to finish, I engaged her in a conversation regarding the readings for our class. As she spoke, I stepped progressively closer to her while watching her reaction. My hypothesis is that the close proximity will make Jane uncomfortable. However, this discomfort will be mitigated by the fact that she knows me and that we are in a school corridor, a place she most likely considers “safe.”
The next subject is Billy, a close personal friend as well as my running partner. I attempted to break into Billy’s personal space during two separate occasions. The first time was during our regular run in the park. After engaging him into a conversation regarding the NBA play-offs, I closed the distance maintained between us as we jogged along the trail.
During the second occasion, I engaged Billy in another conversation regarding the play-offs as we were watching the game in a noisy and crowded sports bar. Both of us had been drinking alcohol, although we were not drunk. My hypothesis was that the social situation of the bar, in addition to the alcohol, will be more conducive to closer proximity than the park setting.
Annette is the salesperson who I approached for help at the Borders Bookstore. She appears to be in her early 20s and is a person I have never met before. Responding to my request for assistance in finding a book, Annette accompanied me to the shelves, knelt down and began leafing through the various titles on the bottom row. While pretending to look for the book title, I planned to lean near her to scan the row of books above her head. Because she did not know me, my hypothesis is that Annette would be very uncomfortable with my behavior and would either move away herself or tell me to get out of her way.
Finally, I violated the personal space of someone I know very well, my younger sister Karen. This was done several times during a family gathering. Because Karen is my sister, I hypothesized that she would have no problem telling me to move away. If I refuse, she would most likely push me away herself.
Effects of norm-breaking
Even though this was an experiment, I found it difficult to knowingly break the norms regarding proximity during conversations. The only time this was not difficult was with Karen, largely because we were related. It was also less awkward with Billy when we were at the bar, because the noise gave me an excuse to come closer. However, I was also uncomfortable closing the distance between us while we were running.
The experiment made me feel awkward with Jane. I found myself very conscious that I was invading her space. I was also worried that she might construe my behavior as an unwelcome sexual advance. I thus cut the experiment short and hurriedly explained to her the nature of the experiment. In addition, I felt very relieved when she told me that she understood my behavior.
Largely because of my experience with Jane, I had to modify the experiment I planned with the salesperson from Borders Bookstore. Since Annette did not know me, I decided that leaning over her while she crouched to scan the bottom shelf might be seen as threatening or sexual. The mere thought of this experiment already made me feel very uncomfortable.
A therefore opted for a more neutral option of crouching beside her and inching closer until our shoulders touched.
In summary, while I expected that the subjects of these experiments would experience various levels of discomfort, I was surprised at how much discomfort breaking into the 4-foot distance level caused me. This made feel like an invader. There was also an added gender dimension, as I was worried that Jane and Annette would perceive my actions as sexual advances.
Report the behaviors or reactions of individual subjects
When we began to talk about the class reading, Jane was leaning against the wall, holding her binder in her right hand by her side. She looked calm and relaxed. However, as I edged closer to her, she began to show signs of discomfort. She took longer pauses while talking and started to look around for other classmates.
When I was at around the 1.5-foot distance, Jane stopped leaning on the wall and took a small step back. She also maintained distance in other ways. She averted her eyes and no longer maintained eye contact as we conversed. She also brought her binder to her chest and hugged it with both hands, as if she was creating a barrier between us. When another classmate arrived, she looked relieved and motioned him over to join the conversation. When our classmate walked up, she stepped farther back, placing the newcomer between the two of us.
The experiment with Billy took place over two encounters. One occurred during our regular late-afternoon run along the four-mile trail in the park. During one lull while we walked, I asked Billy about the NBA play-offs. As he commented on last weekend’s game, I walked closer.
The first time I broke the 1.5-foot barrier, Billy looked confused but said nothing. Instead, he broke into another brisk run. The next time it happened, however, he gave me a friendly shove and said “Scoot over, man. You stink.” The remark was phrased as a friendly joke, although Bill was clearly uncomfortable with the proximity.
A few nights later, I tried the same experiment again. This time, we were at a sports bar, watching the play-offs. This time, Billy showed no obvious discomfort and we remained focused on the game. However, I attribute the lack of discomfort to the fact that the place was crowded and noisy. Most patrons thus had to lean close to each other simply to be heard.
As we were walking to the shelves, I asked Annette about the book. She replied that she had not read it yet, but she had read the author’s previous work. Her tone was friendly and she seemed to be at ease.
However, as she knelt on the floor to scan the bottom shelves, my discomfort at being perceived as a predator kept me from getting too close. Instead, I opted for a less intrusive approach of kneeling beside her and leaning closer as we looked for the book. At first, she simply moved away. When I leaned close enough to bump her shoulder, she stood up and said that she was going to look for the book “in the back.”
At this time, her tone was clipped and curt, a marked difference from her tone earlier. She additionally added that I could pick the book up at the cashier’s counter, an action I ascribed at least partly to the fact that she did not want to deal with me any longer.
During a weekend visit home, I literally got into Karen’s face on several occasions. As I expected, Karen let me know immediately that she found my actions unpleasant. In contrast to Billy, who framed his “go away” message as a joke, Karen simply told me to move away. At first, she explained that my behavior was “distracting.” As she got more annoyed, her language grew less friendly. The last warning was a threat, saying she would kick me if I did not stop bothering her.
Of all respondents, however, Karen tolerated the greatest incursion into her personal distance. She did not react until I was inches away from her. Even then, she found my behavior annoying and a “bother,” rather than threatening.
Synthesis of results
In these various instances, the subjects experienced various levels of discomfort with my close proximity. In addition to the subjects, knowingly breaking the norms of proximity proved difficult for me as well.
The biggest factor in determining this discomfort was my relationship with the subject. Because of this, the experiment caused me the least discomfort with my sister Karen. The importance of this relationship held true for Karen as well, as it took much more proximity to invade her personal distance. For example, she did not react when we were sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on the couch.
However, when I bumped shoulders with Annette at Borders, she was clearly uncomfortable with my behavior. She assumed a curt tone and made an excuse to get away. Similarly, Jane took great pains to erect a barrier between us, first using her binder and later, our classmate.
Personal distance is also largely determined by the social context. Thus, Billy found the close proximity discomfiting while we were running on the trail, where there was a lot of open space. However, in the bar, the close distance was explainable by the noise and the crowd. Billy was therefore not disturbed by this proximity.
Another major factor that affected the subjects’ perceptions regarding personal distance was gender. This worked to cause discomfort both for myself and for Jane and Annette. With Karen, there was no danger of my behavior being labeled as sexual in nature. Because of this, I found it easier to break the 1.5-foot barrier with her.
However, with Jane and Annette, I was very worried that my behavior might be labeled as harassment. I therefore felt a strong need to explain my actions to Jane, largely because I was going to see her again throughout the school year. I also hoped for a chance to explain my behavior to Annette, although I never saw her again. However, I resolved to avoid going to Borders for at least the next few weeks.
In summary, breaking the norm regarding personal distance caused varying degrees of discomfort, for myself as well as the subjects of my experiments. This discomfort was mitigated by the social context, my relationship with the subject and by the subject’s gender.
In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Erving Goffman (1959) likens society to a stage. People are all actors who play several roles – father, son, friend. The way people interact or “present” themselves are governed by social rules that regulate acceptable behavior.
Because much of communication is non-verbal, it therefore becomes essential to recognize the meaning of these norms. As illustrated by the case with Annette and Jane, some of these norms evolved to govern more than simple interpersonal communication. In this case, the prescribed distance also dictates norms relating to acceptable behavior between the sexes.
In conclusion, the way people follow social norms such as personal distances during face-to-face communications serve as signals regarding one’s values, characteristics and intentions. In this way, norms serve an important cohesive value that bridge people together. The act itself of breaking these norms sends a powerful message, a message whose interpretation varies according to the prevailing social context.
Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Penguin Books, 1959.
Hall, Edward. 1959. The Silent Language. New York: Doubleday.
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