What is proxemics?

Want to know a secret about communication, something that can transform your interactions across cultures and is unknown by most yet lying in plain sight? This is the concept of proxemics.

Proxemics is the study of the cultural use of space in social interaction and communication. The term ‘Proxemics’ was coined by the anthropologist Edward T. Hall in the 1960s.

Hall did most of his work during the Cold War at a time when not everything verbal could be understood between people in different cultures. He was tasked with coming up with a system that could decipher communication through non-verbal elements rather than sheer reliance on what was being said.

The result of Hall’s work is a comprehensive overview of all types of non-verbal communication of which proxemics is one component.

At its core, proxemics is about the comfortable interaction distance between people which varies from culture to culture.

Space is fundamental to our wellbeing. This means proxemics is not only useful for daily interactions with people but as a tool that can inform how we organise our workspaces, build our streets and plan our towns. Chances are before reading this and hearing of the term proxemics, you never thought much about space in day-to-day life. In one sense, proxemics is an open secret aspect of our lives—pervading everything yet unobserved. This is why Edward T. Hall called his book ‘The Hidden Dimension’.

Proxemics is reflexive. When we interact with someone in person, we don’t calculate exact distances for appropriate space while talking. However we do perform an indirect calculation of sorts—our brains estimate appropriate distances instinctively.

Proxemics Reflexive

As cultural background is one of the most influential factors to a person’s sense of space, understanding space in social interactions can enhance your communication with others in a foreign country. By understanding this hidden aspect of communication, you’ll smooth the dynamic you have with foreigners and ease integration into their culture. You’ll demonstrate that you ‘get it’ while other travellers and expats are left scratching their heads at differences and struggle to integrate.

Proxemics will make you a master of space. Unfortunately, you won’t be conquering any galaxies but you will become adept at positioning yourself and becoming a smooth operator.

Proxemic zones

There are four zones of interpersonal distance: Intimate space, Personal space, Social space and Public space.

Proxemics Zones

Horizontal interpersonal distance

Intimate distance: 0 – 18 inches (0 – 46 cm)

This distance is used in situations such as embracing, touching or whispering to another person. Since this is the nearest possible distance, it’s a zone only reserved for people who we’re very close with such as partners, family and close friends.

The intimate distance can create the most emotional impact in a positive or negative way. Depending on the relationship and context between people, it’s a zone that can create intense physical and emotional attachment but also a zone that you’ll find people at their most defensive due to intrusion.

Due to the heightened emotions this zone can create, most interactions don’t take place at an intimate distance. Even handshakes aren’t usually made within the intimate distance, people extend their arms from further out to touch hands.

To quote Hall: “Each organism, no matter how simple or complex, has around it a sacred bubble of space, a bit of mobile territoriality which only a few other organisms are allowed to penetrate and then only for short periods of time.”

Personal distance: 1.5 – 4 feet (46 – 122 cm)

This is the distance in which family and friends tend to interact with each other.

For the most part, the personal distance signals connection and trustworthiness among the people interacting within it. The reverse is also true. Research has shown that the greater the conversational distance between a husband and wife, the more dissatisfied the husband is in the relationship.

There are other exceptions. In most cities, commuters aren’t afforded lots of personal space on transport due to crowds and it’s common for complete strangers to be in the personal distance or closer for extended periods of time. However, most commuters don’t interact with each other during this time showing how the interaction itself is an important part in determining zonal distance.

Social distance: 4 – 12 feet (1.2 – 3.7 m)

This is the distance where we interact with acquaintances, colleagues and new people at social gatherings.

Strangers tend to start off talking to each other at this distance before moving in closer once they become familiar with each other. The social distance is a ‘safe’ distance to talk with brand new people but it can also make it more difficult to establish rapport than the personal distance can.

Public distance: 12 to 25 feet+ (3.7 – 7.6 m+)

The furthest distance from ourselves is used for public speaking and strangers in large open spaces.

At this length, you’re unlikely to establish a meaningful connection with anyone. It’s a distance that’s used more when speaking to groups due to the limitations of speaking with multiple people at the same distance.

Vertical interpersonal distance

Remember, proxemics covers the entirety of social interactive space between people. The concept isn’t only restricted to horizontal space but applies to vertical space as well.

For example, if you’re speaking to someone sitting down while you’re standing, you might create an ‘unequal’ dynamic even if the horizontal interpersonal distance is appropriate. The vertical plane needs to be factored in as well. In this situation, joining the other person by sitting down would smooth the interaction in most cases.

Factors influencing proxemics

Several different factors form our sense of proxemics.

Age has a role to play. Children often use the least personal space around others, particularly other children. Developmental psychology has shown that at such a young age, children favour exploration of their sensory world which aids in cognitive development. Any parent will know their children’s penchant for touching new things and their ease at interacting with other children without concern for space. As we get older, our desire for personal space increases. In most countries, elderly people need more personal space than younger people due to a range of factors such as prudence of physical health and sociocultural expectations based on respect.

Gender is another significant factor. Males usually require more personal space when interacting with other males whereas females tend to use less personal space with other females. Studies show that interpersonal distance in mixed gender interactions tends to fall somewhere in between.

Even wealth and status can influence proxemics. Wealthier individuals with a higher standing in society often have larger personal space. Former American President John F. Kennedy was known to have up to a 30ft bubble around him not since he required that large an amount personal space but because other people were nervous to get closer due to his position.

There’s also a link between density and personal space. In Hall’s book ‘The Hidden Dimension’, he notes how residents in India have lower expectations of personal space compared to those in Mongolia. Both countries are part of Asia yet differ in their sense of interpersonal distance due to population density.

These are some of the contributing reasons behind our sense of interpersonal space but one of the most powerful is our cultural environment.

Proxemics worldwide

So how does the concept of interpersonal distance apply across different countries and cultural environments?

As an anthropologist working on cross-cultural communication, Hall was fascinated with how different cultures had different standards of personal space. His research created a distinction between contact cultures and noncontact cultures.

Contact cultures are countries where natives tend to have lower personal space expectations and use touch more in communication. Regions that are contact cultures include Southern Europe, the Middle East and Central and South America.

Noncontact cultures are countries where natives require more personal space and touch less in interactions. Such cultures include the countries of Northern Europe, North America and East and Southeast Asia.

Other countries fall somewhere in between their norms for personal space and touch.

Proxemics Map

How does this help us when communicating in person abroad?

Recognising the cultural differences in proxemics helps reduce misunderstanding around inappropriate positioning during conversations. It cultivates an awareness about whether you or the person you’re interacting with can appear as intrusive (interpersonal distance is too small) or disengaged (interpersonal distance is too large) and calibrate by finding a position somewhere between. You’ll know that an Italian standing close is probably not being aggressive or forward but is interacting within a social zone comfortable for them as someone from a contact culture. Likewise, you’ll know not to get too close if you’re speaking to a person you’ve just met from a noncontact culture such as Japan.

Awareness of cultural differences in interpersonal space allows you to harmonise your positioning whether you’re the active or passive communicator in a conversation. The active communicator is the person approaching and starting the conversation whereas the passive communicator is the one being approached and spoken to.

Here are some practical tips in using proxemics when abroad. These tips mostly apply to interactions with new people, acquaintances and business stakeholders than family and friends (who have different expectations of personal space with you):

If you’re the active communicator:

– Assess whether the country you’re in is a contact or noncontact culture and if you’re speaking to a native from there. If you’re from a contact culture, you probably only need to change your normal distance if you’re now in a noncontact culture. Keep more personal space between you and the person.

– Pay attention to other nonverbal cues the person gives you such as whether the rest of their body language is open or closed. If the person steps back or adjusts their positioning, don’t move closer to restore the previous distance, it’s likely a sign that the person moved to a space more comfortable for them.

If you’re the passive communicator:

– Assess whether the person you’re speaking to is from a contact or noncontact culture regardless of where you are in the world. Remember most people don’t know what proxemics is and their intuitive sense of personal space isn’t culturally calibrated (you’re more than welcome to share this article with others for that reason). 

– If they’re from a contact culture and you’re not, don’t immediately assume less personal space is intrusive on their part until you learn more from the conversation. 

– If they’re from a noncontact culture and you sense a further distance between you, don’t immediately move closer until there’s at least some rapport between both of you.

As a general rule of thumb:

– Interacting within the personal distance zone instead of the social distance zone leads to a better interaction. Several psychology studies have found that people who interact in closer proximity to others are perceived as friendlier and more empathetic. Where possible, have conversations within 4 feet or so of the other person but don’t be intrusive—if the person shows signs of discomfort through body language or by stepping back, always respect that.


Proxemics is an open secret. Our sense of personal space in conversations is plain to see yet most people don’t understand why we position ourselves the way we do and how we can smooth our interactions with others by mastering this concept. This includes easing our social interactions in new cultures by calibrating our space.

There are four zones of interpersonal distance. The two most important to enhancing your non-verbal communication are personal distance and social distance since these are the distances at which we interact with most people. Along with horizontal zones, awareness of vertical space can create more comfort between you and your interlocutor also.

Many factors influence proxemics such as age, gender, status and population density. Cultural background is one factor among the most impactful. Certain countries tend to be contact cultures, preferring closer interaction distances and more touch in conversations. Others are noncontact cultures, preferring more space and less touch. Knowing the differences between each will help you fit in when in these countries or when communicating with natives from those countries.

Understanding how to use personal space as an active and passive communicator will transform your use of proxemics into real life application. You’ll know how to calibrate your positioning no matter where a person is from to create the best interaction possible.

Most important of all is the reward you get from making an effort to understand different cultures, even if this is only from proxemics. Having an open-mindedness and willingness to understand different cultures was at the heart of Edward T. Hall’s thinking more than any single non-verbal communication concept. He stated: “One of the most effective ways to learn about oneself is by taking seriously the cultures of others. It forces you to pay attention to those details of life which differentiate them from you.”

To a master of space, no location can be unwelcoming.