Have you ever backed away when someone was talking too close to you? Have you ever felt uncomfortable speaking on a raised stage where your audience was several feet below you? Have you ever struggled to focus during a presentation when your seat wasn’t directly aimed at the speaker? That, my friends, is proxemics at work. Proxemics is, quite simply, how we use space in communication. Anthropologist Edward Hall introduced his theory in the latter part of the 20th Century with his book, The Silent Language.
Proxemics reminds us that the world of communication is so much larger than the words we have written on our notecards or the slideshow we’ve created to share with our audience. Every time that we speak and move and look and interact, we are communicating. Therefore, it’s important to understand the role that space plays in creating meaning.
Understanding Space Zones
Hall posited that there are four distance categories people generally keep: intimate (0-18 inches), personal (19 inches to 3 feet), social (4 to 11 feet), and public (12 feet or more). Depending on the size of the room, most speakers will usually fall into the social and public categories. This is the proxemics norm for public speaking in America. In other words, the audience generally assumes that the speaker will stay on the “stage.” Movement side to side on the stage is fine, but if the speaker moves into the audience’s “territory,” reducing space to less than 4 feet, the norm is broken and new things are communicated.
One of my students intentionally used proxemics to establish intimacy and urgency with her classmates. Having been recently diagnosed with lung cancer, she wanted to persuade her classmates to see the true danger in cigarettes and to avoid them at all costs. As a visual, she brought a picture of her most recent chest x-ray. It would have been fine to upload the image into a PowerPoint presentation, put it up on the big screen, and tell her audience about it. But instead, she chose to hold the x-ray in her hands and walk out and among the audience while she talked about her diagnosis and disease. She moved into the personal space category, and because she decreased the space between herself and her audience, she increased the power of her persuasion.
Identifying Cultural Differences
Beyond the zones of space Hall identified, it’s important to understand that each culture uses proxemics differently. Because proxemics is most often learned through observation, people adapt to the proxemics used in their culture. Researchers studied groups of students from different countries conversing with strangers of their same nationality. The study found that, on average, Japanese students stood 3.31 feet apart, Americans stood 2.92 feet apart, and Venezuelans stood 2.66 feet apart. If you speak to culturally diverse audiences, it would benefit you to do some quick research on the proxemics of different cultures. You might wonder why it would matter for your presentation. Well, imagine you are an American speaker meeting some of your audience members prior to your presentation. If you stand too close to a Japanese audience member, you may come off as rude or aggressive. If you stand too far away from a Venezuelan audience member, you may seem cold or aloof. Those audience members then carry their first impressions of you into your presentation. And you can bet they filter everything you say through their perceptions of that initial meeting.
Remember, however, that culture doesn’t just mean country. A family has its own culture, and a business office has its own culture. Arrangement of offices and office furniture sends messages. (Is anyone else picturing Toby from The Office in the annex as far away from Michael as the office set up allows?) So, when you come into a new culture as a speaker, you should spend a few moments observing the proxemics. How are the people in the room using space? How are the chairs in the audience arranged? What is the distance between the speaking area and the audience? What is the arrangement of the furniture in this environment? What type of space is provided for the presentation? And then ask the two most important questions: What does all this mean? and How can I adapt both my style of communication and my presentation to the proxemics of this culture?
Space communicates things—from how much distance is between communicators, to the shape of table we sit at during a meeting. Proxemics is one small part of a large communication system. Giving thoughtful attention to proxemics will increase your ability to be an effective communicator.
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