Proxemics in Small Groups Communication
Proxemics is an idea that the average person has most likely given very little attention to, so little that a definition may be in order. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines proxemics as “the study of the nature, degree, and effect of the spatial separation individuals naturally maintain (as in various social and interpersonal situations) and of how this separation relates to environmental and cultural factors” (“proxemics”). That is a great definition if one is the academic type, but what do all of those big words mean to the average person? In layman’s terms proxemics is “how where I stand affects my communication with you”. One might ask, “what does where I stand have to do with how I communicate?” Perhaps this can be clarified with an example.
Suppose Chou Lyn was among a group of friends and wanted to share some very personal information with Xavier. Would she maintain average distance between herself and Xavier, or would she lean in and whisper in his ear? Either of these actions would produce differing responses among the group of friends, Chou Lyn the message sender, and Xavier the message receiver.
Given this example and a little time to imagine, one can see the myriad of ways in which body positioning can affect the way a message is perceived. Proxemics can be used to intimidate, infuriate, humiliate or infatuate. Body positioning can produce emotions ranging from anger and angst, or comfort and warmth.
With this information in hand, it can be seen that a more in depth look into proxemics might be beneficial to one participating in a small group. Throughout the remainder of this paper, a variety of resources will be reviewed for relevant information, so that the newcomer to communications studies might be able to gain an overview of the science of proxemics.
One of the first people to put forth the idea of proxemics was anthropologist Edward T. Hall. In his book The Hidden Dimension , Hall put forth the ideas summarized here by Em Griffin in his book A First Look at Communication Theory . Griffin states that Hall defined four personal zones. These zones consist of concentric circles surrounding each individual. The first zone is called “intimate distance”, and extends from contact to eighteen inches. The next zone is called “personal distance”, and extends from eighteen inches to four feet. The social zone is next, and lies between four and ten feet away from the individual. Public distance takes the final spot, and extends from ten feet on into infinity (85). These zones can be better understood by viewing the following illustrations taken from almostsavvy.com and wikepedia.com:
The first image is a three dimensional view of the first three zones and the second image a top down view of all four zones.
In the article Proxemics in the ESL Classroom , Ivannia Jimenez Arias states that Hall not only suggests that these zones exist; he also tells us that the zones are dependent on the culture of the one who holds them. According to Arias, this presents a problem to teachers who are trying to teach English as a second language. As Arias states:
“The relevance of proxemics in foreign language teaching is enormous. Mastering the verbal system of a foreign language does not guarantee effective communication because mastering the non-verbal systems of that foreign language is also essential. These verbal and nonverbal systems are connected, and the use of one without the other might cause a disequilibrium” (Arias).
How can this knowledge about personal distance and proxemics be used to improve communication within a small group? In their book Small Group and Team Communication Thomas E. Harris and John C. Sherblom suggest to us some ways in which seating arrangements can be used to facilitate communication and cooperation between members:
“Individuals sitting across a table from each other maximize their interpersonal distance, increase their potential for sending and receiving both verbal and nonverbal messages and thus perhaps conflicting messages, and increase the likelihood of becoming competitive. Sitting with a corner of the table between participants reduces interpersonal distance, focuses attention on the project and materials rather than on the individuals’ non verbal’s, and may help enhance the cooperativeness of the participants. Sitting side by side reduces the interpersonal distance still farther and, unless that interpersonal distance is too intimate to feel comfortable, may also be a cooperative seating arrangement” (118).
These types of seating arrangements are displayed in the following diagram illustrated in figure 6.1 in Harris and Sherblom’s book Small Group and Team Communication :
A good example of Proxemics within small groups can be found in an old and popular legend. Perhaps one of the first people to understand the idea of how seating affects communication, King Arthur arranged his knights around a round table so that each would be as equals and so that communication and discussion would be better facilitated. According to Knights of the Round Table :
“The significance of the Round Table was that no one person, not even King Arthur, would be able to sit at the head of such a table. A round table enforced the concept of equality amongst the Knights of the Round Table. The legend states that King Arthur ordered the Round Table to be built in order to resolve a conflict among his knights concerning who should have precedence. The Round Table was therefore built to ensure that all the Knights of the Round Table were deemed equal and every one of the seats at the Round Table were all seen as highly favoured places” (“Medieval Life and Times”).
Clearly King Arthur already knew a lot about the ideas that form the core of proxemics!
Another aspect to proxemics that we have not yet considered is Judee Burgoon’s nonverbal expectancy violations model which was published in the journal Human Communication Research . According to A First Look at Communication Theory Burgoon postulated that each “violating expectations” using proxemics, changes the communication situation:
“But contrary to popular go-along-to-get-along wisdom, Burgoon suggested that there are times when it’s best to break the rules. She believed that under some circumstances, violating social norms and personal expectations is “a superior strategy to conformity” (86).
In other words, Burgoon was theorizing that it is not always bad to invade someone’s personal space and that this can sometimes help a person better accomplish their communication goal.
This information has been collected from a selection of easily obtainable resources and, taken together, represents what the average person can find through some research on the topic of Proxemics and it is useful as a good introduction to proxemics in small group communication. A future topic of research might be information on the topic of scientific experiments done to verify proxemics.
Arias, Ivannia. "Proxemics in the ESL Classroom." Forum, 1996. Web. 31 Oct 2010.
Griffin, Em. A First Look at Communication Theory. 7th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill,
2009. 85. Print.
Harris, Thomas, and John Sherblom. Small Group and Team Communication. 4th ed. Pearson
Education Inc, 2008. 118. Print.
"Knights of the Round Table ." Medieval Life and Times. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Oct 2010.
"personal-space1." almostsavvy. Web. 29 Oct 2010.
"personal-space2." wikipedia. Web. 29 Oct 2010. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_space>.
"Proxemics." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Merriam-Webster Online, 2010. Web.