Have you ever felt awkward in a crowded elevator or plane? Have you wondered what’s wrong when a loved one hasn’t been close enough for a hug all day? Do you avoid sitting in the front row in a classroom or auditorium? You’re certainly not alone. Distance communicates. This matter of personal space and how it affects our behavior is called proxemics. Edward T. Hall, who led the study in proxemics, defined four zones of personal space. Now, these probably won’t surprise you. They are fairly inherent in our culture. But after a brief look at Hall’s findings, we’ll discuss how we can apply this understanding to communicate even more powerfully on stage.
- Public Distance (12-25 ft apart) is what we expect of a public speaker, or people walking around the mall or a museum. We don’t plan on having a conversation with them, or even seeing them again.
- Social Distance (4-12 ft apart) is where we position ourselves with casual friends and acquaintances.
- Personal Distance (1.5-4 ft apart) is where we find only close friends and family.
- Intimate Distance (0-1.5 ft apart) is for the select few with whom we are comfortable embracing, whispering, and
You’ll notice that if anyone invades a zone from an outer zone, it causes a very visceral, uncomfortable
For example, the “close talker” guy in the office belongs in the social space, but he’s operating in your personal space.
The more zones invaded, or the more sudden the invasion, the more drastic the reaction. Sometimes, a situation forces people from the public circle to mingle in our personal or even intimate space. That’s why we are so uncomfortable, and some people are even violent, in crowded airplanes or elevators.
Likewise, if someone who belongs in our intimate or personal space retreats to a further zone, we wonder if we offended them.
On stage, the blocking defines where the actors stand, and where and how they move. As you explore your blocking, consider what you’d like to communicate, and invade or retreat from zones to cause a desired reaction.
Below are some invasions and retreats, along with what they might communicate:
Public Space → Social Space = “I’d like to get to know you”
Social Space → Personal Space = “I want to be your friend” / “I want to be in your inner circle” / “I want to intimidate you” / “I want you to listen to me” / “I want your attention”
Personal Space → Intimate Space = “I will protect you” / “I want you to protect me” / “I want to kiss you” / “I want you to love me”
Intimate Space → Personal Space or Social Space = “You offended me” (level of offense determines level of retreat)
Personal Space → Social Space = “I just need some time to think” / “I need to process what you just said” / “That’s really bad news” / “You offended me”
Social Space → Public Space = “This conversation is over”
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, it is our job as actors to be students of human behavior. Since proxemics is such a fundamental aspect of our behavior and social interaction, we need to graduate it from subconscious understanding to conscious application. Next time, we’ll take it a step further as we talk about emotional distance. Physical and emotional proxemics will work in tandem to create a nuanced, dynamic performance.