The unwritten rules of proxemics

A fascinating article in NYT talks about role of personal space and its implications;

“Communications scholars began studying personal space and people’s perception of it decades ago, in a field known as proxemics. But with the population in the United States climbing above 300 million, urban corridors becoming denser and people with wealth searching for new ways to separate themselves from the masses, interest in the issue of personal space — that invisible force field around your body — is intensifying….

But whether people have become more protective of their personal space is difficult to say. Studies show people tend to adapt, even in cities, which are likely to grow ever more crowded based on population projections.

Yet studies involving airlines show the desire to have some space to oneself is among the top passenger requests. In a survey in April from TripAdvisor, a travel Web site, travelers said that if they had to pay for certain amenities, they would rather have larger seats and more legroom than massages and premium food. And a current advertisement for Eos Airlines, which flies between New York and London, is promoting the fact that it offers passengers “21 square feet of personal space.”

While people may crave space, they rarely realize how entrenched proxemics are. Scholars can predict which areas of an elevator are likely to fill up first and which urinal a man will choose. They know people will stare at the lighted floor numbers in elevators, not one another...

They know commuters will hold newspapers in front of them to read, yes, but also to shield themselves from strangers. And they know college students will unconsciously choose to sit in the same row, if not the same seat, each class.

If you videotape people at a library table, it’s very clear what seat somebody will take,” Dr. Archer said, adding that one of the corner seats will go first, followed by the chair diagonally opposite because that is farthest away. “If you break those rules, it’s fascinating,” he said. “People will pile up books as if to make a wall — glare.”

Edward T. Hall, an anthropologist and the father of proxemics, even put numbers to the unspoken rules. He defined the invisible zones around us and attributed a range of distance to each one: intimate distance (6 to 18 inches); personal distance (18 inches to 4 feet); social distance (4 to 12 feet); and public distance (about 12 feet or more). …

“In the U.S., it’s very closely linked to ideals of individuals,” said Kathryn Sorrells, an associate professor of communication studies at California State University, Northridge, who is writing a book, “Globalizing Intercultural Communications.” “There’s an idea that you have the right to this space,” she said, noting that it was born of a culture that prizes independence, privacy and capitalism. …

Paco Underhill, the author of “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping” and the chief executive of Envirosell, a research and consulting company whose client list includes Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Starbucks and McDonald’s, discovered that most consumers will walk away from whatever they are looking at in a store if a customer inadvertently brushes against their backside, disturbing his or her personal space.

And so, what may seem like a minor behavioral tic can help department stores determine how far apart to place racks of clothes, bistro owners figure out how to configure the bar area and college campuses to design residence halls."


Some of researchers cited in the article; Robert Krauss, David B. Givens, Kathryn Sorrells, Nick Yee, Paco Underhill

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"Another recent study on the power of social influence indicates that sales could, indeed, be boosted in this way. Matthew Salganik of Columbia University in New York and his colleagues have described creating an artificial music market in which some 14,000 people downloaded previously unknown songs. The researchers found that when people could see the songs ranked by how many times they had been downloaded, they followed the crowd. When the songs were not ordered by rank, but the number of times they had been downloaded was displayed, the effect of social influence was still there but was less pronounced. People thus follow the herd when it is easy for them to do so."

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This page contains a single entry by Paul published on November 17, 2006 3:31 AM.

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