I studied communication in college and I was most fascinated with nonverbal communication. Most nonverbal communication is culturally learned, and one of the areas I found most interenting was the study of how different cultures use space. This area of study is called proxemics.
This came up becuae I wrote a poem, How Tall Is the Boy? published in THE POETRY FRIDAY ANTHOLOGY FOR MIDDLE SCHOOL compiled by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong at I recorded the poem and it can be found at in Renee LaTulippe’s children’s poetry library. It is also posted on In the poem I talk about differences in how height is measured. In the US when someone asks, “How tall?” the gesture we use in response is with a hand horizontal, palm down to show the height. In South American cultures this gesture is used for animals and inanimate objects. To show the height of people in Latin America, the hand is turned verticle, palm out and the top of the fingers shows the height. Can you imagine how uncomfortable someone in South America would be if they were measured the way a dog is measured?
Often we enter into communication with people from other cultures and don’t realize we have different cultural communication styles. The way we use space is one of those areas where cultural differences are readily evident. The United States is probably one of the countries where people need the most space. And you will even find differences between folks from cities and from rural areas. Put someone from a rural area in a crowded city and they may feel physically sick if not uncomfortable with having people so close. If you’ve ever had to line up for an event in say Italy, France or China, you might be surprised to have other bodies touching yours. Of course, the communication event makes a difference. In intimate conversation between 2 people, they are often less than 2 feet apart. Touching is quite acceptable. But in communicating with strangers more space is needed. Look at a large lecture hall. How much space is there between the podium and the first row of seats? Frequently that first row isn’t filled because people feel uncomfortable being that close.
I can remember once as a graduate student observing a conversation between a professor and a student on the sidewalk outside my window. The student kept stepping in closer to the professor and the professor needing more space kept stepping back. I could tell through my window that the student was trying to engage the professor in a conversation and the professor wanted to get on with other things. They waltzed along the sidewalk like this for several minutes. The student stepping in and the professor stepping away. Finally the professor just walked away and the student turned and walked away too, in the opposite directionh. I don’t believe either party was satisfied with their conversation.
I belong to a gym. Every Tuesday and Thursday morning I take a water aerobics class. The class is getting crowded, so I try to get to the pool early to claim my space. Lately, it hasn’t been working too well because more people come and we are constantly moving ourselves about the pool trying to find the space we need to not hit or kick another participant. Recently I observed two women in the class who discovered they were both from New York. One was from Manhattan and the other from Brooklyn. The woman from Brooklyn wanted to be friends with the woman from Manhattan. The Brooklyn woman placed her hand on the Manhattanite’s arm and said something. The woman from Manhattan wasn’t comfortable being so close so she took a step away. All through class these two women moved around the pool. The Brooklyn woman moving in and the Manhattan woman moving away. The problem for me was they kept moving into what I had defined as my space. I didn’t want to kick them in my exercise movements, so I was having to adjust and move to give them more space. I had never thought about how proxemics works in water too.
I kept thinking that the woman from Brooklyn probably came from a large family with several sisters. I wondered if they shared a bed growing up, which might explain her need for closer relationships to other people.
So, this is all to say, you can tell a lot about a relationship by how much space is between the people. Watch to see if the person you are communicating with moves in, leans forward, or are they moving back. Does the other person want to be closer, or do they need more breathing room? And think about the nonverbal signals you are sending. Usually these signals are not intentional and you can learn a lot about youself by just by being aware of your nonverbal gestures.


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