Proxemics and U.S. Culture

Proxemics and U.S. Culture

by Judie Haynes

Have you ever heard anyone say "They're in the U.S. now, let them do it our way." This activity demonstrates how deeply ingrained our cultural behavior is and how difficult it would be to change it.

Rules for Personal Space in the U.S.

Proxemics is the study of the rules in a culture about space. How far away to people stand during different types of conversations? Have you ever heard of the American "bubble?" Most Americans feel most comfortable when people keep an arms-length away during conversations. Personal distance, which is the space between colleagues during a normal conversation, is usually about 20 to 36 inches. If the person is not well known to us,we will stand from 2 to 4 feet away during a conversation.

The rules of space proxemics are well defined in all cultures. These attitudes about space are very hard to change. They also offer an opportunity to demonstrate how culture affects our behavoir.

Take the Elevator!

Imagine that you are in an elevator in a hotel in the United States. All of the other occupants are unknown to you. Read and answer the questions and discuss them in your groups.

Responses to "Take the Elevator!"

Elevator behavior in the United States is very rigid. Compare your responses with those below.

1. If there are only two or three people on an elevator, each person usually leans against the walls. If a fourth person boards the elevator, the four corners are normally occupied.

2. This would be a breach of our personal “space.” We would feel very uncomfortable and move or get off the elevator at the next stop.

3. When there are more than four people on an elevator, the occupants begin to follow a complex set of rules for behavior. Everyone turns to face the door. Hands, purses, and briefcases hang down in front of the body. People usually scrunch up, rounding their shoulders, so that they take up as little space as possible.

4. People don’t touch each other in any way unless the elevator becomes very crowded, and then they only touch at the shoulders or upper arms. If you see an overcrowded elevator, you will probably choose to wait for the next one.

5. Everyone usually looks at the floor indicator located above the door.

6. It is unusual for people (who are strangers) to speak to each other in an elevator unless they are sharing some kind of similar experience. (Such as a conference) People who do know each other will usually speak softly. When a group of people enter the elevator and do not follow these rules, other occupants usually feel very uncomfortable.

If you think this behavior is exaggerated, the next time you are on an elevator, don’t face the door. Turn around and face toward the other occupants. See what their reaction is. If you really want to upset everyone, give them a big grin.