Bodies in Space

I have learned to depend more on what people do than what they say in response to a direct question, to pay close attention to that which cannot be consciously manipulated, and to look for patterns rather than content. --Edward T. Hall (1968:83)

Space. According to its founder, Edward T. Hall, proxemics is the study of humankind's "perception and use of space" (Hall 1968:83).

Usage: Like facial expressions, gestures, and postures, space "speaks." The prime directive of proxemic space is that we may not come and go, everywhere, as we please. There are cultural rules and biological boundaries--implicit and subtle limits to observe--everywhere.

Body space I. Scientific research on how we communicate in private and public spaces began with studies of animal behavior (ethology) and territoriality in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1959, the anthropologist Edward T. Hall popularized spatial research on human beings--calling it proxemics--in his classic book, The Silent Language.

Body space II. Hall identified, e.g., four body distances--intimate (0 to 18 inches), personal-casual (1.5 to 4 feet), social-consultive (4 to 10 feet), and public (10 feet and beyond)--as key points in our spacing behavior. Hall noted, too, that different cultures set different norms for closeness in speaking, business, and courting, and that standing too close or too far away may lead to misunderstandings and culture shock.

Office space. Office workers spend the day in a 260 square-foot (down from 1986's 275 square-foot), usually rectangular space. Corporate downsizing and belt-tightening meant that many find themselves working in even smaller, modular, 80-square-foot cubicles. (N.B.: For prehistoric context, consider that our hunter-gatherer ancestors spent their workdays on an estimated 440-square-mile expanse of open savanna.) Cubicles replaced exposed "pool" desks which had earlier lined the floors of cavernous group-workrooms. Though maligned in Dilbert cartoons, cubicles at least provide more privacy than the 1950s open workrooms, offering needed respite from visual monitoring.

Home space. Americans, e.g., spend an estimated 70 years indoors, mostly in the secure habitat of average-sized, 2,000-square-foot residences called homes (from the Indo-European root, tkei-, "settle," "site"). (N.B.: Because there is no counterpart in human or primate evolution for lives lived entirely indoors, we bring the outdoors in. Thus, better homes (and gardens) include obvious replicas, as well as subtle reminders, of the original savanna-grassland, including its warmth, lighting, colors, vistas, textures, and plants.)

Neighborhood space. The prime directive of neighborhood space is, "Stay in your own yard." That we are terribly territorial is reflected in fences and the barriers they define. According to the American Fencing Association, 38,880 miles of chain link, 31,680 miles of wooden, and 1,440 miles of ornamental fencing are bought annually in the U.S. (N.B.: Each year Americans buy enough residential fencing to encircle the earth nearly three times.)

City space. Biologists call the space in which primates live a home range. The home range of human hunter-gatherers (e.g., the Kalahari Bushmen) spreads outward ca. 15-to-20 miles in all directions from a central home base. The home range of today's city dwelling human includes a home base (an apartment or house) as well, along with favored foraging territories (e.g., a shopping mall and supermarket), a juvenile nursery (i.e., a school), a sporting area (e.g., a golf course), a work space (an office building, e.g.)--and from two-to-five nocturnal drinking-and-dining spots. We spend most of our lives occupying these select spaces, and orbiting among them on habitually traveled pathways, roads, and sidewalks.

National space. We live in one of 160 sovereign nations, which together claim 54% of earth's surface, including almost all its land, and much of its oceans, waterways, and airspace. Over ninety percent of all nations, including the U.S., have unresolved border disputes.

Outer space. No national sovereignty rules in outer space. Those who venture there go as envoys of the entire human race. Their quest, therefore, must be for all mankind, and what they find should belong to all mankind. --Lyndon Baines Johnson


Copyright 1999 (David B. Givens/Center for Nonverbal Studies)
Photo by Sanford Roth (copyright Rapho Guillumette)