Understanding Proxemics in Different Cultures

Proxemics is the interrelated observations and theories of man’s use of space as a specialized elaboration of culture.
Proxemics is a subset of non-verbal communication that refers to the distance between two people that are interacting with each other. This space between two communicating individuals can be an indicator of the relationship between them, the age difference, the difference in social and monetary status, etc. Depending on the type of relationship between the two individuals, spatial boundaries are maintained. There exist 4 types of spatial boundaries, which can be described as concentric circles with increasing radii, and the person at the center. If one examined them in an increasing order, they would be as follows:

Intimate Distance: less than 1.5ft; for lovers, partners, etc.
Personal Space: 4ft; for friends and family
Social Space: 12ft; Acquaintances, colleagues, etc.
Public Distance: 25 ft; interacting with strangers or public speaking

However, these distances are not strictly defined, and may change due to the population density of a region as well as the cultural norms observed there. It is difficult to offer generalizations on the concept of personal space due to these constraints. For example, Japanese people stand 4-5 ft apart from each other when in a meeting or when carrying out a discussion, while Europeans and North Americans stand quite closer in the same scenario. On the other hand, when using public transport, the Japanese will show a reduced personal space due to high population density, whereas the Europeans and North Americans will have greater personal space as the population density is comparatively low in those regions. Hence, cultural norms play a huge role in determining the dynamics of personal space between two individuals. To fully understand the subtle differences in the proxemics around the world, one must understand the dynamics of personal space across various cultures.

Proxemics in Different Cultures

To understand the scope of variation in proxemics across various cultures and countries, Edward Hall classified cultures into two main categories, namely contact and non-contact culture. These categories refer to the amount of physical touching permitted socially between any two individuals in any given culture. Some cultures have a high propensity for physical touching (contact) between people having a conversation, while some cultures lack this inclination (non-contact). In contact cultures, physical touching is not only permitted but also necessary for establishing and maintaining interpersonal relationships. Examples of this type of culture include the Arab, Italian, French, Latin American, and Middle Eastern cultures. On the other hand, in case of non-contact cultures, physical touching is not prevalent, and occurs only in case of intimate friends and family. Such type of cultures include the North American, Norwegian, Japanese, and most other Asian cultures.

Based on Hall’s categorization of cultures, Richard Lewis further expanded the types of cultures based on the communication styles adopted by each culture type. This cultural classification is called the “The Lewis Model”. It also includes a test that individuals can take to determine their own cultural style of communication. In the model, Lewis outlined three categories, of which one represented the contact culture, whereas the other two were a bifurcation of the non-contact cultures. They are as follows.

Linear-active: It is a subset of non-contact cultures, and is characterized by cool, logical, and decisive actions of the individuals. People of this type of culture tend to be direct and to the point, and are often perceived as being impatient. Their general demeanor is reserved, and they mostly deal with facts rather than speculations. They include cultures like the North American, and Northern European cultures.
Reactive: It is the other subset of non-contact cultures. The people belonging to it are accommodating and non-confrontational. They are mostly calm and collected and do not instigate or encourage an aggressive behavior. They value decorum and diplomacy over facts and emotions in order to conduct everyday activities in a harmonious fashion. They are very patient listeners, and exhibit neutral body language and expressions. This type includes cultures of Vietnam, China, and Japan.
Multi-active: This subtype represents the contact cultures, where the people are warm and impulsive. Individuals are enthusiastic and readily express emotion in an extravagant display. They prefer personal stories and emotional accounts over cold hard facts. Their enthusiasm is evident in the way they interrupt each others flow of conversation. These type of people are impulsive and openly impatient. Examples of these cultures are those of Brazil, Mexico, and Greece.

Despite the usefulness of the study of proxemics, the theory suffers from extensive criticism on account of it offering sweeping generalizations and cultural stereotypes. While these claims may be partially true, the fact that these studies help in enhancing cross-cultural communication and non-verbal behavior cannot be overlooked.

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