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Reading Body Language - Proxemics

During Golden Globe Award Ceremony of 2016, an unusual incident happened. After her name being as a receiver of award, Lady Gaga started walking towards stage. While making her way through audience, she briefly brushed off behind chair on which Leonardo DiCaprio was sitting. While reacting to same quite unconsciously, the unique facial expression he gave away made headlines. Why he would have done it after all? Let's find out very reason behind same.

In last two articles, we have seen that how clustering and congruence are crucial for reading body language. Now let's  move on towards understanding the importance of interpersonal distance. The science of interpersonal distance is called as PROXEMICS. Most of us don’t realize that interpersonal distance plays a great role in and also affects on communication, rapport, comfort level and relationship. So let's take an example from real life so it would make sense clearly.

It's an usual day in company and you start working on routine tasks. Suddenly, team leader informs you that few newly recruited members are joining your team. You are asked to gather at some place for getting formally introduced with them face to face. Until this moment both parties might not have seen each other so little amount of nervousness coupled with excitement lurks inside everyone's mind. While looking at each other, both parties smile nervously but avoid prolong eye contact except those who develop feelings of attraction instantaneously. Formal hand shake, mutual introduction and exchange few words take place by keeping socially accepted distance from each other.

At the beginning, getting face to face is filled with uneasiness and anxiety. Glancing at either side of own body, looking down, hovering gaze, putting hands in pocket, giving nervous look or smile, grabbing things in palms, moving torso away or crossing arms over chest can be observed being done unconsciously by both parties. They don't come close or interact voluntarily like seniors or experienced colleague. Accidental touch is regretted. New joiners form their own group.

Some days pass and regular interactions start taking place between you and new joiners. Apart of work, everybody starts taking, sharing and complementing with each other. It gives opportunity for judging and knowing each other consciously or unconsciously. We naturally tend to figure out mutual strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes. Also, it's not necessary that every member of team become close companion of every other senior. Some personal reservations, threats or complexes motivate us to form bond with more like minded persons.

Initial awkwardness, shyness and disorientation slowly fades. Interactions happen at close distance as compared to earlier days. Touching, eating together, seating or standing closer, whispering, handling personal stuff or prolonging eye contact becomes normal. Everybody starts looking at each others faces quite comfortably. Strong rapport establishes among new joiners and senior team members over time. Meeting and greeting each other brings excitement and freshness at workspace.

Doesn't it appear like a miracle? Gradual shrinking of interpersonal space and development of new relationship! Why we tend to stay away from new people in the beginning and get closer gradually (or in worst case - drift away)? Certainly, it's worth interesting to know.

Too close?
Interpersonal space or distance is crucial factor for judging that if other person or object is favorable in our survival interests. It's a core mechanism of subconscious mind of gathering visual clues and letting us to decide whether to move towards it, let it to move towards you or step back and run away from it. When space required to watch (hear and smell also) and decide the strategy is invaded or trespassed without unknown intentions, we feel very uncomfortable or stressed. Limbic system starts sending flight or fight signals to body.

Dr. Albert Meharabian, the leading proxemist has defined four different zones around our body. Each zone is a circular area in which we let other to enter or stay depending upon kind of relationship we're seeking or have with them.
Different zones of proxemics (Interpersonal Distance)
1) Intimate Zone (from 6 to 18 inches): This is the zone a person guards as individual property. Only romantic partner, close friends and relatives are allowed to enter in it.

2) Personal Zone (from 18 to 48 inches): This is the distance we keep from others during friendly interactions, social gatherings or parties.

Social Zone (from 4 to 12 feet): This is the distance we keep from strangers or persons with little acquaintance.
Public Zone (above 12 feet): This is the comfortable distance we maintain while  interacting or addressing to large group of people.

Above are approximate distances with which Dr. Meharabian put up his theory but radius of each zone may vary culture, society or geography wise.

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  1. Beware of the typos in the first paragraph. Also, the 3rd and 4th should be the social and public zones respectively.

    Thank you anyway for the introduction on Proxemics with a few examples.

  2. Racial dynamics and messages in the “Too close?” image need to be addressed.


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