Too close for comfort
Post written by Paragon Interiors   September 7, 2016

 

We have all experienced that moment at work where we are meeting a new client or colleague for the first time. The firm handshake, the nod, the smile, the awkward forehead gaze trying to establish eye contact, yet at the same time, being careful not to have a stare down competition akin to two WWE wrestlers before a match.

You have probably also experienced that awkward moment where you are travelling to a meeting with your Senior and graze their leg whilst trying to change gears, prompting a particularly forced and uncomfortable exchange about the weather… I’m sure you are well-versed with ‘the personal space invader’… Not to mention the feared ‘birthday dance’ at work… like two parakeets on a tight rope. Is a hug appropriate? A peck on the cheek?

The question is: with the increase in reported instances of sexual harassment at work, what type of distance and touch is appropriate in the work context? We know what the obvious ‘no-no’s’ are, but sometimes the gray areas are difficult to navigate.

The answer lies somewhat in a neat little model created by Dr Edward T Hall, American Anthropologist and cross cultural researcher, in 1963 (Figure 1):

https://lecturonauta.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/personal_spaces_in_proxemics-svg_.png?w=636&h=484

Figure 1: Model illustrating Dr Edward T Hall’s theory of interpersonal space

Dr Hall devoted much of his attention to the study of proxemics, the theory of how people utilize space and how this relates to interpersonal communication. According to Hall, different cultures may have alternate understandings of what an appropriate amount of personal space is and may feel more or less comfortable standing in close proximity to strangers. In general, however, Dr Hall identified the following guidelines:

  • Public space (between 3.7 and 7.6 meters) – appropriate space between a speaker and an audience; addressing a crowd of people.
  • Social space (between 1.2 and 3.7 meters) – appropriate space for day-to-day interactions with colleagues, clients and strangers in a social setting.
  • Personal space (45cm to 1.2 meters) – reserved mainly for close family and friends. In a work context, someone meeting you for the first time may step into your personal space to initiate a handshake and will then move back. Because your personal space is typically reserved for those who are trusted and known to you, this initial contact with a stranger may be uncomfortable. The same feeling you get when you step into a crowded elevator.
  • Intimate space (less than 45cm) – for embracing, touching and whispering. Infrequent in the workplace – may only be appropriate and comfortable between colleagues who have become close friends. But for all intents and purposes let’s call this the danger zone.

Social space (between 1.2 and 3.7 meters apart) is the most appropriate and comfortable distance to interact with colleagues and clients in a business context. Naturally, however, as associates become more familiar with one another and trust and friendship develops over time, the distance that is deemed comfortable and appropriate may lessen.

When in doubt – social space is the safest bet. As a general rule of thumb too, pay attention to how people respond when you do move into their personal space for a handshake, if they step back immediately after making contact with you, they may be instinctively uncomfortable. You will notice that once trust has been established, they may linger for a moment or two before moving back. A good sign that they find you trustworthy and unthreatening!

As for the awkward birthday dance – that’s up to you to figure out .

Written by: Natalie Jones

Industrial Psychologist (HPCSA Reg No: PS 0128180)

References

New Life Office (2016, Feb 27). Proxemics in the office. Retrieved from http://www.newlifeoffice.com/proxemics-in-the-office/

Scientific Portal on Body Language, Kinesics and Nonverbal Communication (n.d.). Reading body language – proxemics. Retrieved from http://www.nonverbal-world.com/2011/11/reading-body-language-proxemics.html.