On Day 22 of this communication series, we will discuss stepping on others’ toes. Literally. Well… almost.

We will talk about maintaining an appropriate personal distance. Did you know that there is an entire field of study dedicated to studying this? It’s called “proxemics”. It is the study of how humans use space when we are communicating (source: google), or how much space people feel it necessary to put between themselves and others  (source: study.com).

According to study.com, there are several different kinds of spaces:

  • Public space is how close we sit or stand next to someone. If we are listening to a lecture, we are probably 12-25 feet away.
  • If we are talking to a customer or colleague, then we are probably about 4-12 feet away, in what is called social space.
  • Personal space is about 1-4 feet away, and it is more likely when we are talking to friends or family.
  • Intimate space is for people we are very close to, less than a foot away.

These standards apply to those in the United States, but in other cultures, these distances vary. In some countries, people greet one another with a kiss on the cheek. In other cultures, a touch on the arm could be considered rude.

According to change.org, differences also apply to those who live in cities and those who live far away from others. People in large cities are used to living with many others around them, so their social distances may be smaller than someone who is used to living in a more rural area.

How can we maintain appropriate social distances? We seem to know this naturally. Indeed, it has been suggested (Baxter 1970) that we imitate others in our culture. Most of us were not “taught” these distances or rules; we learn as we grow and watch and interact with others in our culture.

Also, casual-personal distance can vary with nationality. Consider the following distances (source: changingminds.org):

North America: 18 inches
Western Europe: 14-16 inches
Japan: 36 inches
Middle East: 8-12 inches

As a communicator, it is important to know and respect these distances. If we are too far away, we could appear stand-offish or even insulting. If we are too close, we could make others uncomfortable.

If you are delivering a lecture to a group of 30 people, for example, and you discern you are too far away, you can make an adjustment. If you are talking to a smaller group and the discussion is informal, you can bring the group closer in together.

If you know you will be speaking to a different ethnic group or culture, it would be wise to learn their particular leanings on public, social, and personal space.

In conclusion, take some lessons on fancy footwork from Fred Astaire… be smooth and mindful of where you are, so you do not step on anyone’s toes. 🙂