Office Proxemics [March 15 2017]

Your personal space and territory, your behavior related to these areas and the influence of your behavior can be observed, analyzed and studied. It is called Proxemics. When we do it in the office, it can be called as Office Proxemics. Check this picture:


Who do you think the boss is in the picture? Why? How do we decide how close we can go to a colleague in the office? How fast should we approach them? What signals can tell us that it is okay to approach them now or it is not okay now? In 1966 Edward T. Hall asked similar questions. In his book, The Hidden Dimension (Anchor Books, Doubleday, New York, 1966), he wrote about the impact of proxemic behavior.

Hall divided the interpersonal distances into four zones. Below you can read about these zones.

Have a look at this short scene:


The man from the right is approaching quickly the two man standing on the left. He is going through all four zones. He is coming from the PUBLIC SPACE that is between 3.7 - 7.6 m. Then he enters the SOCIAL SPACE that is between 1.2 - 3.7 m. Then he steps into the PERSONAL SPACE that is between 46 - 122 cm. This is where they shake hands. Finally he stops right next to the guy in the middle and touches his back. This happens in the INTIMATE SPACE that is less than 46 cm. Below you can see the visual representation of the four zones.


Check this:


When someone in the office is coming into our INTIMATE space, that we usually keep only for whispering and embracing, and violates unwritten proxemic rules, we can suddenly feel vulnerable, insecure, unsafe, embarrassed, attacked, victimized or irritable and we might find ourselves in the ancient fight or flight mode and start to defend ourselves - as you see above.

Before reading further, answer the 4 questions to yourself here: (1) Who could come into your intimate zone during the last 2 days? (2) What are your typical reactions when you have "uninvited guests" here? (3) What was your most terrible experience in your life when someone was in this zone? (4) What mistakes did you ever make when going into others' intimate zone?

We smell each other's body here, we feel their body heat or we can spot little things on their skins like scars or birthmarks. We are here when we make love, wrestle or comfort others. With its 45 cm, the INTIMATE SPACE holds a high probability of touching. When going into different interpersonal situations during the day, we expect people to respect our personal space (especially the intimate space) and when they don't do it, we can even react with hostility. Or when we walk too close to others, we can see them to be irritable.

This "accident" can easily start Games where people find themselves in the roles of the Victim and Persecutor on the Drama Triangle, to use this classic TA model. To read more about the tool, click here.

Imagine the following situation. The female employee is sitting at her desk and working on her laptop. Her boss arrives, stands behind her chair and puts his hands on her shoulders. From the woman's point of view we can see the boss as a Persecutor (invading into her intimate space) and the employee as a Victim (whose intimate space is not being respected). The question is how will she react? From the Victim position? If so, it might hold an incongruent communication by saying "Oh, I am fine, thanks" while feeling irritated inside. Or she can decide to be Voicing and asking the man to "Please take your hands off me". The latter one is focusing on the solution and expressing the need in the situation.

How can we step off the Drama Triangle here? From the Persecutor role we can move to the Assertive/Proactive mode. Instead of taking what we want, we first express it, share it with the other person and we can ask for their opinion, agreement or persmission. If getting a reinforcing feedback, we can move forward based on this. From the Victim role we can move to the Vulnerable/Voicing mode. Instead of seeing ourselves as someone who cannot do anything, we can start expressing and sharing what we don't like, what makes us uncomfortable. We can then ask the other person to stop or alter what they are doing, and we can give an explanation for it. With this we step on the road to problem-solving.

Due to the abovementioned expectation (also called Expectation Violation Theory) we can find ourselves into trouble when travelling to different cultures (or being visited by their members), as they might have different ideas about the border between the intimate and personal space. Now let us have a look at the PERSONAL SPACE. We are still able to touch each other in here. We leave it open for friends and family members. When with strangers, sometimes it is also appropriate to let them in here. Think of the places where you need to stand in line or squeeze with others (cinema, metro, elevator, check in desk etc.). It can be uncomfortable to share it with perfect strangers or our rivals because our "reptalian brain" makes us super vigil in order to detect every little piece of information of the potential risk and danger that can kill us (as we have become close enough to be hurt or killed if the other person has a weapon). But not only weapons can be threatening here. Watch this:


We usually discuss topics here in which we are personally involved. We can still recognize spots on the other person. We might still be able to smell the other person. Lots of rituals take place in this space. We shake hands, give high fives, raise our glasses or pat the other person's shoulder expressing we are proud of them.



Before reading further, please stop and think of your previous two days. Who did you share your personal space with? Where did you stand in line? Who did you shake hands with?

The SOCIAL SPACE is what surrounds us when working with others, going to meetings, eating in the canteen (if it is not a crowded one). This space separates us when we go to the beach and try to find a spot so settle down among the people lying on their own blankets. It is longer than our arm's reach. No direct physical contact is possible here. Business negotiations normally happen here. This is where keeping eye contact with our partner becomes criticas, as when we lose it, it can be difficult to get it back. When we have a conversation here, chances are that we are heard from the other room too. If someone steps into this space, we tend to look at them and greet them. But here we still have a choice to start a conversation or not. If they step into our personal space, we cannot ignore that person any more due to biological and social tendencies. Here is one question: where do you (or others) sit down in the evening when your family members come together after the daily routines? Or when people can decide where to stand or sit at a company event, who are closer to you?


Here is one more example of the SOCIAL SPACE:


Now let us see the last zone, the PUBLIC SPACE. This is the distance you can find between the band on the stage and the audience at the rows. Here is an example:


When we see someoe in this space we lose the personal features the person can pick up in the other zones. If we detect the person dangerous, we can escape with higher chance. We speak louder to that person and our words become more formal. We can't see the spots on the other person any more in there. If there are others with that person, we can perceive them together. We can often see this distance kept between very important people and their audience. They don't go closer even if they could. Many times people don't sit on the chairs in the first couple of rows when their leader is presenting at an all hands meeting. As a speaker, we must emphasize our gestures and speak louder to convey our message in this space.

Here is one more example:


Proxemics can tell you a lot about the status, confidence and power of the people around you in the office environment. Ask these questions to yourself: (1) Where is my desk in the space of the office? (2) Who has the biggest office, chair, desk? (3) Who commands significant space while walking on the corridor? You will see that people who possess the most power and authority command a greater amount of personal space that they can call their own. They will often distance themselves from others by sitting where they can be approached harder. You will find them in their own corner separated from the rest of the workers who might be scrunched together in cubicles.

How can proxemics facilitate cooperation in the office? It helps us decide where to sit, for example, at an importat meeting. The best place for you to sit is by the leader's side (to their right or left). Why? By sitting to their side, you enhance cooperative behavior. It suggests the "We are not competing against each other" attitude. It also points both of you towards the direction of the problem that exists, such as a report on the table, or an approaching event that needs organizing.

On the other hand, sitting on opposite sides fosters competition. It gives the perception of "we and they". Sitting directly across from someone tends to foster a competing-type attitude. Avoid it.

So how should you position yourself? Sit at 90 degree for good conversation. It might sound strange but sit at the corner of the table. One person takes one side of the corner and the other person takes the other side. What are the benefits? It allows for both parties to enter into each other's personal space, creating a stronger bond than if they remained distant from each other. It breaks up the stuffy formalness of the situation by moving you closer to them. The corner of the table adds security for both parties by having a bit of a barrier between them. If you arrive at a meeting but you need to leave the room for a little while, leave a personal item at your place to keep it occupied, if necessary. It can be a bottle of water (with a little water missing from it), a pack of paper tissue, your notebook with some information (being personalized) or a pack of chewing gum (with some missing pieces). These signals show that this is your territory, so others will not invade into your space, even if you are absent. And finally if you are the one who is late and you don't know who has the most influence on the decision, just follow the participants' body language. They will seek and probably copy their leader's nonverbal signals.


If you have any questions, comments or stories, share them with me via email. We can publish them here.



by Bali Polyanki

(c) All Rights Reserved 2017