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Card Index: Spatial Behaviour

Where does our personal comfort zone end?

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Individual distance, comfort zone—these terms refer to how close we are prepared to let other people into our personal space. Scientists compare the space around a person to a bubble that can change in size. Card Index looks at the work of RAS and HSE University researchers Valentina Burkova and Julia Fedenok to find out why this is the case, what size this ‘bubble’ can be, and what determines its size.

What are the origins of the study of spatial behaviour?

This field of study originates in the work of the American psychologist and anthropologist Edward Hall. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, while describing how people interact in different cultures and situations, he coined the term ‘proxemics’ (from ‘proximity’). The term now refers to the branch of science dedicated to the study of spatial (or ‘proxemic’) behaviour in humans—how they interact with their environment and regulate these interactions using ‘individual distance’ (the distance at which the presence of another individual incites aggression or avoidance).

How big is a person’s individual distance?

There is no single answer—it depends on who we’re interacting with. Edward Hall outlined four ‘zones’ of interpersonal distance:

intimate distance (0–46 cm): for very close contacts such as spouses, parents, children, etc;

personal (46–122 cm): for distant relatives, close friends and acquaintances;

social (122–210 cm): for professional contacts;

public (more than 210 cm): for public contact between presenters (such as actors or speakers) and audiences.

What influences individual distance in communication?

In general, it is influenced by factors such as environment, culture, sex, age, personality, and psychological health. People keep a closer distance with children, while teenagers keep a greater distance than adults. It also matters whether a person is in a free space or one that is already occupied by someone, as well as what they are doing—such as writing a message, reading, or simply standing. People try to keep further away from people whose faces are displaying negative emotions. People are the most wary of tall men, as they can be seen as aggressors, but the distance can decrease if the person is both tall and has a high social status.

Are there differences between men and women?

The distance during communication with men is always bigger, and men communicate at a greater distance than women. Observations of pedestrian flows in various countries and cities show that men walk beside each other less frequently, but that groups of men move faster.

Is country a factor?

Edward Hall outlined two types of cultures: contact cultures, in which people communicate at a closer distance and with a large amount of touching (‘southern’ countries such as Italy, Spain, and countries in Latin America), and non-contact cultures, in which people prefer to keep a larger distance and touching is minimal (‘northern’ countries such as Scandinavian countries, Japan).

Modern research (including one of the biggest studies, with a sample of approximately 9,000 people from 42 countries) shows that comfortable distances vary widely by country.

Has the ‘two-culture’ theory been proved?

Not categorically. Russia, for example, does not fall strictly under one category. Russian data shows that in terms of the distance they keep, Russians fall under the ‘non-contact’ category. However, in terms of eye contact, tactile communication, and body orientation, they belong to the ‘contact’ category.

How is comfortable interpersonal distance measured?

It is most often measured using laboratory methods, the most common of which is ‘stop distance’. This involves an experiment in which a subject stands in the middle of a room while another person approaches them. When the subject starts to feel uncomfortable, they can stop the other person by saying ‘stop’. The distance at which the subject feels that their personal space has been intruded upon is measured 5–10 times to an accuracy of 0.5 cm, after which an average measurement is taken.

Are laboratory methods the only way to measure spatial behaviour?

Projective and field methods are also used. Under projective methods, proxemic behaviour is modelled and its conditions are monitored by a researcher. Under field methods, researchers study real communication and record natural reactions either at a distance without interfering (known as ‘non-participant observation’) or by intervening at the required moment (known as ‘intrusive observation’).

Which methods are the most common?

Projective methods are the most common. They make it easy to collect information, allow researchers to control all the variables, and utilise large samples. The most commonly used is the Comfortable Interpersonal Distance (CID) scale. With a piece of paper, a board, or another surface representing a room or open space, a subject is asked to draw or use paper figures, dolls, etc to show how they would behave in a certain situation. The layout of the figures and the subject’s reactions help researchers draw conclusions about the comfortable distance and the type of interaction between the subject and the people around them.

Are such methods still effective in the digital age?

Other methods are also used. Subjects can also be immersed in a digital environment to communicate with graphical avatars instead of real people. Another approach utilises magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to show how a subject’s brain reacts when a stranger approaches them. In this case, researchers recreate an intrusion into the subject’s personal space using a large photo of a face with various expressions (rage, disgust, lack of emotion).

What kind of results can be obtained from non-participant observation in the field?

In the late 1970s, David R Maines conducted an early field study into the behaviour of passengers in the New York subway. He found that people try to avoid tactile contact with people of another sex or race. In a 1977 article, Joseph Newman and Clark McCauley showed that reduced eye contact between strangers on public transport is a form of adaptation to an ‘overload of interpersonal contacts’ in overcrowded situations. Russian researchers observing pre-school children established that ‘the structure of spatial behaviour in children reflects the sociometric structure of the group, whereby children of a higher status—regardless of gender—communicate at a smaller individual distance than those of a lower status.’

When is intrusive observation—when the researcher gets involved—effective?

This method has been used to better understand the development of personal space in children and teenagers. It has also been used to determine that the distance of communication increases with age and is linked to region (people in rural environments communicate at a greater distance than those in cities), and that people’s proxemic behaviours become more similar after living together for a long period of time.

Do projective, laboratory and field methods get similar results?

Not always. Communication distance as measured under laboratory and real-world conditions differs by a factor of at least two: the average distance for a Russian adult being between 70–74 cm and 1.2 metres in the former case, and 41–42 centimetres in the latter. The feasibility of using projective and laboratory methods was even called into question by a study comparing all three groups of methods. However, opinions vary, particularly regarding experiments conducted in virtual environments, which make it possible to obtain large quantities of data that would be unattainable in a field setting.



Authors of the study:
Valentina Burkova, Candidate of Sciences in History; Associate Professor of the School of History; Senior Research Fellow of the International Centre of Anthropology, HSE University Faculty of Humanities; Senior Research Fellow of the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, Russian Academy of Sciences
Julia Fedenok, Candidate of Sciences in History; Senior Research Fellow of the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, Russian Academy of Sciences
Author: Svetlana Saltanova, April 04, 2022