Proxemics Is the Science of Why You Shouldn't Stand So Close to Me

Ever notice how space in a car fills up? How about space in a bus? How about space at a bar? Then you need to know about proxemics. It's the study of how, precisely, humans like their space arranged — especially when it comes to other humans.

After years of taking the bus, I have, without thinking about it, an understanding of how a bus slowly fills up. The first person on will take any available seat. Almost from that point on, the seating will no longer be random. As more people get on, they'll be careful to take seats at least one row away from each other. It's only when no completely isolated seating options are available anymore that anyone will sit directly in front or behind someone else.

When absolutely no new rows of seats are available, people will first head to the back to make sure, then the pattern will repeat itself Passengers will take the second seat in each row, but they'll still try to space themselves out as much as possible, so if one row of seats is completely filled, they'll try to skip a row before sitting down.

This seating pattern is not declared. It's probably almost unconscious for most of the people doing the sitting. It's also so entirely ingrained in the culture. I can't even imagine what the reaction would be if there were one person sitting on a bus - and the second passenger to board the bus chose to sit down right next to them. I'd try it, but I worry that the first person would either clobber me or run.

Proxemics Is the Science of Why You Shouldn't Stand So Close to Me

That would be an interesting (if expensive) experiment in proxemics. Proxemics is the study of how people organize their social space. Without knowing it, we have very strict rules for who goes where in our culture. Although we don't always think about them, we know when someone's violating them. In the 1960s, a scientist called Edward Hall studied how close we let strangers come to us (no closer than twelve feet), social partners come to us (no closer than four feet), and how close we let close personal friends and relatives come to us (no closer than 1.5 feet). Get any closer than that and you're in intimate space - where you should either be kissing us at the end of a wonderful date or quietly advising us that we can plead the fifth at a congressional hearing.

Hall noted, however, that these rules only applied to the proxemics of North Americans, and that not all cultures shared the same established distances when it came to personal space. His study contrasting North American personal space with the space of other cultures led to papers with lines like, "North Americans will find themselves barricaded behind desks, using chairs and typewriters to keep the Latino at what is to us a comfortable distance." More modern authors note that his study contrasting personal spaces did not note down the nationality of the Latinos or North Americans that Hall studied, and so lacks specificity.

Fortunately, specificity isn't lacking on the internet. We are all experts on proxemics - if only in extremely provincial proxemics. I know how a bus fills up. You may know how your office fills up, or how crowds of people arrange themselves at a movie theater. You might know how it feels to go to another country and either be backing away from people or notice that other people are backing off from you. Or you might have seen a spectacular example of what happens when someone violates other people's undeclared set of spaces. Here's the post to share what you know about your local, or situational, proxemics. Let us know what you've noticed about the way people herd together, and keep themselves apart.

Top Image: National Archives and Records Administration

[Via Proxemics, Proxemics and Tactility in Latin America.]