1.6.2 - Public and Private Space


Public and Private Space


Although US-Americans exhibit enormous cultural variation, historically the norms for proxemic space were described for middle-class white US-Americans. Although your "personal space" might vary if you are Hispanic or African-American, the general dimensions of US-American proxemic spaces are fairly consistent and contrast substantially with those of other cultures. 

We, like everybody in the world, learn very early what is acceptable regarding space in our social circles and situations. We rarely ever talk overtly about what is "proper" or "improper" we just know! Overseas you will not know -nor will people generally tell you- the local custom regarding personal space. So it is good to reflect briefly upon your own US-American patterns and to recognize that those of people overseas will likely be different. You will want to be prepared to observe the varieties of body language and behavior early in your overseas stay so you can practice fitting in (or at least not standing out negatively) and being comfortable with local concepts of  "personal space."


US-American Proxemic Zones:


PUBLIC = Ten feet or more. Public spaces provide areas for assemblies, worship, classrooms, graduation exercises, and all such communal/ritual events. Generally, the greater the status of a speaker, the larger the distance from the audience in a public-address situation. Gatherings for sporting events, rallies, outdoor concerts, and other large-scale meetings may involve many thousands of individuals, but interaction within the crowd is likely to be limited to a few surrounding individuals. Public here refers to the use of space in large-scale events.

SOCIAL = Four to twelve feet. Social spaces may vary from a cozy four to seven feet for close workers in an office or when attending a cocktail party or reception, to seven to twelve feet in somewhat more formal gatherings or office arrangements in which a desired “professional” distance is being maintained. Social space is often divided further by gender, age, status, and other considerations, but for US-Americans the emphasis is often on informality and egalitarianism.

PERSONAL = Eighteen inches to four feet. Personal space begins around eighteen inches from another person and may extend out to about four feet. There is a well-defined “inner” zone of 18-24 inches where mostly close friends, spouses, and well-known other US-Americans comfortably interact, and an “outer” zone between two to four feet where most friendly conversation and easy social interaction takes place.


For US-Americans, the optimal distance for normal social conversation can roughly by measured by standing face-to-face with an individual, extending your arm, and sticking your thumb into the person’s ear (Yeah, really, try it and see! But tell them what you are doing first!). For the British, the preferred distance is slightly further away (approximated by putting the palm of your hand on the forehead), and for Latin America, Arabs, and many Mediterranean peoples, the distance will be closer (approximated by putting the palm of your hand against the back of their head). While there will always be some inter- and intra-group variation, “preferred” social distance is remarkably stable even simple casual observation will reveal what is the local norm at your study abroad site.


INTIMATE = Zero to Eighteen inches. This is a space US-Americans reserve for their closest friends, lovers, and immediate family members. This is the zone of tactile interaction where one can sense body heat, smell breath, touch skin, and hear the sounds of breathing. This is a zone of significant trust and requires overt or tacit permission to enter. A stranger entering this zone is likely to be considered by US-Americans as an unwanted intruder at best and, at worst, a threat.

However, in some cultures, what is an “intimate” distance to US-Americans is the “preferred” zone for one-on-one conversation and is considered merely “personal” distance. This can result in some very awkward and nervous conversations and, when combined with touching, make US-Americans very uncomfortable until they get used to the local norms (or at least tolerate them). Obviously, you will want to gain some idea of the “zones” and practices of the cultures in your host country either before you go or shortly after arrival. 


US-American patterns can be contrasted with other culture's sense of space, such as the German who might consider an entire large room “personal space” if two people are involved in a private conversation and a stranger walks through a door even thirty or forty feet away. Or take the case of Anglo-British reserve, which permits little public touching, as compared with the almost constant tactile contact by Brazilians and other Latin Americans during conversations. More information can be found on specific cultures around the world and their use of space and gestures in the books listed in Module 3.


Adapted from R. W. Nolan, Communicating and Adapting Across Culture; Living and Working in the Global Village. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, 1999.


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