Interpersonal Distance
People surround themselves with a "bubble" of personal space that they claim as their own, and they tend to become stressed when other people invade their "bubble." Our personal space protects us from too much arousal and helps us feel comfortable when we communicate with other people. Hall (1966) called the study of interpersonal distance proxemics. From observing Americans, Hall concluded that four interpersonal distances were important in our social interactions: intimate, personal, social, and public. Intimate distance is from 0 to 1.5 feet. What can be done at this close range? Vision is minimal, and we rely on our senses of smell and touch. Making love or comforting someone are intimate activities, usually restricted to private encounters, which can be performed comfortably at intimate distances. We tend not to get this close to people we are not intimate with, and usually try to escape if we do. Personal distance is from about 1.5 feet to around 4 feet. At this distance, touch is minimal (except perhaps when shaking hands), and vision and hearing become important. This is the distance we use to interact with friends. Within this range, normal conversations can take place easily. We might allow strangers into the outer limits, but reserve the inner limits strictly for friends. Social distance extends from approximately 4 to 12 feet, and includes the space required for more formal social interactions. Hearing and vision are the primary senses involved. The social distance is often utilized in business, for example, in interviewing new applicants for employment or negotiating for a raise. Public distance includes distances greater than 12 feet. Hall suggested that after 25 feet, interpersonal interaction is not possible. At this distance there is little detail involved in communication. A public speaker (actor or politician) communicates only one way with an audience. Research suggests that we feel uncomfortable when we are too close or too distant from another person (Scott, 1984). How do we learn appropriate social distances? Baxter (1970) suggested that we imitate others in our culture. He reported differences in three cultures in interpersonal spacing, with Mexicans moving closest, White Americans next, and African Americans staying farthest apart. Sex differences have been reported in personal spacing, as well, with women usually feeling more comfortable at closer distances than men (Ashton & colleagues, 1980). Still other research suggests that interpersonal distance is influenced by social relationships. Women prefer more distance between themselves and an opposite-sex stranger than do men. Ashton and colleagues found that when they asked pairs of friends and strangers to stand at various distances from each other, both men and women felt more comfortable when an opposite-sex friend stood close (about 1@fr{1/2} feet) than when a stranger of either sex stood at that distance. In general, women tend to stand closer when talking with friends than do men. Understanding these sex differences can help us behave appropriately in social situations with both men and women.