The concept of proxemics refers to different perceptions people have regarding physical space. The space between people or where things are positioned in a room have different meanings to people from different cultures and can affect international business and communication.
Edward T. Hall, one of the founding fathers of intercultural communication, categorised the space surrounding people into personal space, social space and public space. Personal space refers to the ‘bubble’ surrounding a person which can only be entered by friends or close family members. In contrast, a person’s public space is usually reserved for more impersonal and anonymous interactions. The layer of space between an individual’s personal and public space is often called social space. This is the physical space where everyday contact takes place such as on a crowded train or bus.
Every culture has a set of hidden cultural rules concerning the physical space – or proxemics – between people when communicating. Breaking any of these rules could be interpreted as impolite or even threatening.
Cross-cultural training programmes such as Doing Business in Spain will give you a better understanding of the concept of proxemics and of the reasons why someone from Spain might perceive their North American counterparts as being rude when they recoil from close physical proximity.
Understanding concepts such as proxemics through participating in cross-cultural training will help to avoid cultural faux-pas based on different perceptions of space.