Proxemics – how space is used in human interactions

Have you ever wondered why small talk can feel awkward in an elevator, or why you rarely see more than two people sharing a bench together? The answer may lie in a theory known as proxemics, described by Edward T. Hall in the USA in the 1960s. After studying human interaction closely, he discovered that we maintain different distances from those around us, depending on how well we know them and the situation we are in. The non-verbal aspect of communication plays a key role in our social interactions.

By Allan Hagerup

Four categories of social zones

According to the proxemics theory, the distances can be grouped into four main categories. We can imagine these zones as invisible bubbles around a person, and they vary in size depending on the relationship between the people concerned. The innermost zone is intimate distance, reserved for those closest to us, such as a partner, immediate family or close friends. In this case, the distance is so small that it is possible to whisper things to each other or give each other a hug. Personal distance is used for relaxed and friendly conversations with friends or during an evening meal with family. Social distance is ideal for conversations with acquaintances, such as colleagues at work. The tone in this case is polite and professional, and it is a natural distance for informal small talk. The fourth category to be defined is public distance, typically used for one-way communication to a gathering of people, such as a teacher talking to pupils in a classroom.

Every day, we navigate between these zones and try to maintain our social boundaries, while at the same time avoiding invading those of others. The examples at the start of this article illustrate this principle. In a confined space such as an elevator, you will inevitably end up within the personal or intimate distance, zones which are normally reserved for those closest to us. In situations like this, it is not possible to use non-verbal signals, like moving out of the zone in order to bring a conversation to an end. This can lead to feelings such as stress and discomfort. On a long bench, two people who do not know each other can sit at either end without encroaching on each other’s personal zones. If a third person sits down between them, all three will find themselves within each other’s personal zones, which can be perceived as invasive.

The role of the senses in social interaction

Our senses play a decisive role in how we perceive the world around us. Our sight is the dominant sense and enables us to identify individuals and interpret body language and movements at distances of up to a hundred meters. It is a fact that we humans like to observe other people, but it is only when the social distance is reduced that we really allow ourselves to become engaged. We start to perceive facial expressions at a distance of around 20–25 meters. If we move even closer, we can gradually start to strike up conversations. Senses such as smell and touch are activated when we come within the personal and intimate distance.

By using proxemics in the design of public spaces, we take account of people's personal space and not just the physical dimensions. In a more insightful way, it is possible to create varied and engaging social spaces which appeal to the senses and personal preferences of users. Such places give visitors a sense of being cared for, and they perceive it to be both pleasant and safe to be sociable on their own terms there.

From theory to practice

Below are some pointers which can help to incorporate the theory of proxemics into the development of good social outdoor spaces:

  • Give people the opportunity to “negotiate” their personal space with other people around them. Offer open and spacious benches which give users the opportunity to adjust the distance to each other, and ideally choose the direction in which they face. Movable furniture can also be a good alternative.
  • Vary the distances between different items of furniture. Groups of furniture placed varying distances apart will create a social landscape which can range from challenging the personal zone to offering people sufficient space in which they can be themselves.
  • Avoid limiting use of the area by specifying too many social settings. Choose flexible furniture configurations and generous furniture which can be adapted to suit different social situations.
  • Create space for corner conversations. Break up a row of benches by placing a few benches at 90-degree angles. This creates ideal circumstances for conversations with eye contact.
  • Enable people to watch the world go by. Place furniture with views to where things are happening, and on the same level, so that people have social contact with what is happening around them.
  • Scale down to the sensory space. Wide open places with large distances between buildings and people offer little for our senses to work with. Reduce these distances by including elements such as lush trees, greenery, interactive water installations or large islands of seating.
  • Make sure there are sufficient seats. Studies have shown that popular public places should have at least 10 percent of their area dedicated to seating.
  • Encourage people to linger. By creating a sensory environment and slowing the tempo, it is possible to inspire people to explore the urban environment through varied activities, shops and cafés at street level, and the like.

Design with dialog in mind

My interest in proxemics was stirred during my time as a student, when I explored the design of benches for public urban spaces. I noticed that people who were sat on benches often stayed about an arm’s length away from people they did not know. It became clear that our senses play an important role in how people perceive sitting together on a bench. You can see people sitting back-to-back on a two-sided bench with people they do not know, but they will still maintain an appropriate social distance when they are in each other’s field of vision.

The shape of the bench seat influences how people perceive the distance to people around them. On a curved or circular bench, a social zone is created on the inside of the curve, where people naturally sit facing each other. On the outside, the curve ensures that people face away from each other and avoid conflict with the social zones of those sitting next to them. The classic, rectangular urban bench represents a compromise. People can sit side-by-side and be at the periphery of each other’s field of vision, yet they can also turn towards someone sitting next to them and strike up a conversation.

This inspired me to design a bench where such observations of social use formed the primary driver behind the design. I decided to work with a classic rectangular seat and try to encourage dialog and interaction to an even greater degree. The solution was an organic sidecut into the seat, designed to create a natural and inviting position for turning to the side, thereby encouraging dialog. This design could give the impression that conversations taking place between people over a period of many years had caused certain parts of the seat to wear away. The idea was both a visual and a practical invitation for people to come together and strike up a conversation.

The bench, which was given the name DIALOG, was made from solid wood, a material that is ideal for organic designs and comfortable to sit on in both hot and cold weather. DIALOG is manufactured by Vestre.