Whether or not we consciously recognize them, we maintain four zones of space in our communications with others: Public, Social, Personal, and Intimate, and this space is important to the success of our relationships. Artists are well aware of the importance of what they call negative space, referring to the area where there are no people or objects. Negative space exists in relationships too, and, just as in art, it carries messages. In an article entitled An Update on Proxemics, Nick Morgan explains why the term and the concept, created by Edward T. Hall, still has relevance. The space we maintain from others reflects the zone of our interactions and our connection.
In Public Space, we are twelve feet or more from the speaker. It includes listening to a lecture or other situation where someone is usually addressing an audience of a number of people. We are not always mindful of what is being said in public space. You probably have noticed how many people check their cell phones – or check out completely – during a lecture of any sort. Ask the kids who sit in the back of the room.
For the person doing the speaking, the challenge in this zone is to keep the listeners engaged. If you are the one who is making the presentation, it’s important to recognize this reality and know how to draw your audience in. Telling stories about your experience as it relates to the topic is one way. It makes it personal. Moving away from the podium, if you can, temporarily alters the distance and can build a connection.
Social Space varies from four to twelve feet. It is what exists, for example, when we dine in a restaurant. As with Public Space, there is a mental space between us and the other diners in the room. Unless they become loud, we are aware of then only in the most superficial way. You might overhear a conversation that is interesting, but it is hard to concentrate on it so you tend to shift your focus.
In the education setting, you are most likely to deal with it in the teacher’s lunchroom. Each group has its own conversation taking place. If you are alert, you might discover what unit a teacher is working on or planning. Then you can speak to the teacher to supply the right information to make the project more successful. It can be the beginning of developing a collaborative relationship. And it’s an excellent reason to make it a practice to get out of your library for lunch.
The distance in Personal Space ranges from four feet to eighteen inches, and we are always aware of who is in this space. It’s bred into us as a matter of survival. We also need to be extra mindful here because subtle differences in how we define Personal Space can cause problems. Over time you can fine-tune your senses to be aware of how the person you are speaking with is reacting your distance. In general, they will instinctively define it for you, taking a step back if you are too close or stepping forward if they sense you are too far.
When having a conversation in Personal Space, always be sure to accept the other person’s boundaries. Don’t move forward if they have moved back. It will feel to them as though you are encroaching. Accept the negative space. If you are uncomfortable with how close someone is, you can move back, but know they may read it as you trying to distance yourself from them.
Intimate Space is from eighteen inches to zero. Again, there are cultural differences as well as gender ones which make this acceptable or uncomfortable. Unsurprisingly, women tend to prefer more distance in these situations than men, particularly in conversations with the opposite gender. If you are a man, it is wise to be aware that moving too close here or in Personal Space may make a woman feel anxious or concerned, which can ultimately block effective communication.
As I’ve mentioned in the past, most of our communication is nonverbal. The fours zones of space are another form of non-verbal communication. Most of our conversations, particularly the important ones, occur in the Personal and Intimate Spaces. Being aware of what the other person(s) is communicating in the negative space of body language can make the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful attempt at building a relationship. And we must never forget that we are in the relationship business.