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On any given day, throngs of people converge, converse and coexist in the sidewalks of Midtown Manhattan, one of the most crowded transit hubs in New York City today. People elbow for coffee, rattle hastily away with friends, or browse through shops with overstuffed bags all invading interpersonal spaces. These proxemic behaviors (use of space) affect how people respond to others. When put into context, Manhattan streets need not be as ruthlessly crowded as it seems.
A team of academics from Anglia Ruskin University, University College London, Universidad Carlos III de Madrid and the Instituto Italiano di Tecnologia in Genoa collaborated on a pioneering proxemics study. It showcased the finding-- changes in conversational tone and content in the environment affect the interpersonal space of a person.
The research illustrated a realistic setting when the size of interpersonal space of the person either increase or decrease when conversations change from neutral to hostile, respectively. The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.
Dr. Flavia Cardini, senior lecturer in Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University and co-author of the study said, "Interpersonal space is the space we maintain between ourselves and others to feel comfortable. In this study, we showed for the first time that the tone of social interactions influences the size of this space, even when we are not directly involved in the interaction.
"We found that the average size of someone's interpersonal space becomes larger after listening to an aggressive conversation taking place nearby. This is likely to be an attempt to maintain a safety zone around ourselves and avoid any interaction or confrontation with those involved in the aggressive conversation," she further explained.
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The Science of Proxemics
Proxemics was coined in 1963 by a cultural anthropologist, Edward Hall, who defined it as the “interrelated observations and theories of humans use of space as a specialized elaboration of culture.”
In his work, The Hidden Dimension, Hall explained that the study of proxemics is valuable in the way people interact with others in daily life, in the organization of space in their houses and buildings, and in the layout of their towns. He pointed out the importance of proxemic behavior on interpersonal communication.
Meanwhile, Tony Alessandra, PH. D, author of "Charisma: Seven Keys to Developing the Magnetism that Leads to Success," explained that interpersonal space involved four zones and can be useful in human relations.
The intimate zone can be described as within touching distance, occupying a space of about two feet. The space is seen in people who love and care about each other. Parents who hug their children protectively is an example of this zone. Women tend to use this zone more frequent than men when they reach out and touch people often. Famous advocate celebrities, in fact, are often seen in this zone to send powerful messages on their advocacies.
Another interesting zone within the interpersonal space landscape, is personal zone. This zone is generally described as private and occupy two to four feet of space. An example of this zone is networking meetings or office parties. People around a person engaged in this zone would not want to break this space. Businessmen caught in this situation could try moving a foot away to break free from boring situation. This way, the space is open for someone else to occupy.
The social zone is a very public and social space about four to twelve feet apart. People conversing in this group move in and out of the group to give space for new people. While the public zone is seen more than twelve feet of space. Demanding more space means imposing power or leadership. Thus, public figures use this space to emphasize his influence or power to the audience.
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The IP Space Experiment
In the conduct of the experiment, participants listened to two sets of conversations in a recorder. These conversations involved hostile, aggressive recorded conversation and the other is neutral.
The participants were given instruction to listen first to a neutral conversation. Then followed by a set of recorded footsteps which grew louder as the footsteps drew near.
The other instruction involved listening to an aggressive conversation. Then they were also asked to listen to a set of recorded footsteps which grew louder as the footsteps drew near.
Participants were asked to stop the recording as soon as the recorded footsteps got too uncomfortably close to them.
The researchers called this methodology “stop-distance’ technique in which they measure the comfortable level of that person’s interpersonal space. The use of sound of footsteps rather than real-life footsteps of people walking towards them increased the reliability of their data from visual biases on appearance.
In a neutral conversation, the researchers observed that participants stopped the sound of footsteps away from their body about 4.5 seconds away.
On the other hand, after listening to the aggressive conversation, participants stopped the sound of approaching footsteps about an average of 7 seconds away from their body. This showed that people want to establish distance as soon as possible from others engaged in ill-tempered, hostile conversations.