Environmental Process – Human Spatial Behaviour

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Current Social Issues
Environmental Process – Human Spatial Behaviour
-by Smita Ramachandran-

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall (1966) argues that a "hidden dimension" shapes much of our behaviour. What is this hidden dimension? Space. How do people use the space around them to regulate their social interactions? This is one of the questions asked by environmental researchers, who use the term proxemics to refer to the study of human spatial behaviour (Hall, 1959). A key idea is that individuals try to achieve an optimal degree of involvement and physical closeness with other people, depending on the specific situation. In other words, people use space to influence their interaction with other people (Richmond, McCroskey & Payne, 1991). Two important aspects of spatial behaviour are personal space and territoriality.

Personal Space
Suppose you are standing by yourself in a physician's waiting room, and the nurse walks up to you. How close does the nurse actually come? Three inches? Ten inches? Two feet? Suppose you are sitting on a park bench, and a well-dressed man sits down immediately next to you. How does that make you feel? Would you feel differently if he sat five feet away? How close to other people do you usually stand? Does it make any difference if they are friends, strangers, or members of your family? Does it make any difference if you are in an elevator, standing at a party, or in line at the post office? As these examples suggest, people have various preferred distances for social interaction, depending on whom they are with and the activity. People treat the physical space immediately around them as though it were a part of them; this zone has been called personal space. According to Sommer (1969), "Personal space refers to an area with an invisible boundary surrounding the person's body into which intruders may not come. Like [porcupines], people like to be close enough to obtain warmth and comradeship but far enough away to avoid pricking one another". In social interactions, people try to maintain an acceptable balance between being too close for comfort and being awkwardly distant. People prefer to keep some space between themselves and others. This personal space provides a boundary that limits the amount of physical contact between people. This boundary extends farther in the front of the person than behind, but the individual is always near the centre of this invisible buffer. Personal space is portable, but actively maintained and defended. When someone violates our personal space, we tend to take steps to correct this problem (Aiello, 1987). The term personal space is something of a misnomer, since the process actually refers to distances that people maintain between one another. Hence, it is an interpersonal space (Patterson, 1975). Some people seem to require more space than others, but as we will see, our spatial processes operate across a broad range of people and situations. The physical distance a person maintains from others often measures personal space. However, personal space involves much more than physical distance. At very close distances, we can touch and smell another person, talk in hushed whispers, and see their features very clearly. At far distances, we may need to talk loudly, and we have quite different possibilities for social contact.

Interpersonal Zones
Different group activities require different amounts of personal space. Hall, in describing these variations, proposes four interpersonal zones. The intimate zone is appropriate for only the most involving and personal behaviours, such as arm wrestling and whispering. The personal zone, in contrast, is reserved for a wide range of small-group experiences, such as discussions with friends, interaction with acquaintances, and conversation. More routine transactions are conducted in the social zone. Meetings held over large desks, formal dining, and professional presentations to small groups generally take place in this...
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