Post 590 by Gautam Shah (12 of 16 Behaviour in Spaces)


Spatial Distance means:

  1. Size of intervening space, (between people-people and people-objects),
  2. Perceptive extent of space
  3. Reach in space.

Distance is also formatted by environmental factors, social requirements, psychological make-up, nature of communication, expression, scale and use of spatial objects, and time duration of the affectation. Spatial distance affecting the behaviour is perceived to be in touching, threatening, disturbing or overwhelming. Such interpretations vary with culture.


Spatial Distancing > Wikipedia image by Diliff

 Four distinct zones within which interpersonal transactions normally take place:

■ Intimate distance is used in intimate relationships such as for embracing, kissing, touching or whispering, and ranges from 0 to 450mm. This is an Intimate area close to the body, within which it is possible to have physical touch, non verbal communication and emotional interactions. To gain such an intimate position one needs to be familiar with the other person or coerce. One has to ensure that by being in this zone, no harm occurs to the other person. Even in the intimate space close to the body, the nature and level of intimacy is affected by the attitudes of the persons involved. Here due to the intimate closeness one senses the texture, temperature, moisture, vibrations, energy, etc.

A handshake or hug nominally has no sexual meaning in many cultures. In some cultures privacy achieved by a veil is considered retardant of intimacy. Intimacy could be a display or an expression with physical touch but with no apparent mental feelings.


Falling in Love by Albert Schroder (1854-1939)

■ Personal distance is useful for interactions between good friends, and family members and ranges 450mm to 1200mm. The area immediate to the body marks the Personal Area. It is a zone of regulated and selective participation. Here one can reach out through projection (expression), channels of communication, physically (through body limbs) or stretch out with gadgets (walking stick, stethoscope, etc.). The intimacy is regulated, but not a private affair. One may create screens to achieve it. One can dwell in a culture or state formed of metaphysical elements (beliefs, customs, etc.), to achieve the same.

In case of relationship with objects, declaration of ownership creates such personal space. The strong association to a person is imprinted on the object’s form or position. Chief guests chair, head chair at the end of a dining table are such personal entities.

Flight Delay

Flight Delays > Flickr image by TheeErin

■ Social distance is for interactions between social acquaintances, and its range is from 1200mm to 3.5mt. This defines a zone of Nearness, where position and duration of the eye contact, sound pitch and olfactory sensation become important. This can be a non-committal area where personal involvement can be avoided.

As per the protocol, leaders of the two nations never share a seat, but rather occupy separate seats distanced with a small table or flower vase. Similarly deputies accompanying their leaders, are made to sit at some distance, from where they get a sense of participation but have no chance of intervention. On public platforms one intentionally uses lower sound pitch to draw attention. On very large dining table one can effectively hold conversation with members sitting on the two sides, but not across the table. In gatherings one uses differing sound pitch to reach desired distance.


■ Public distance is mainly for public spaces or non-personal interactions, and is above 3.5mt. These are Reach Zones beyond the anthropometric ambit. One may reach-out with additional reach tools, such as PA system, projection TV, surveillance camera, high pitch sound, extra ordinary (attention catching) movement, gaudy or unusual gesture, posture or dressing. Such zones constitute very specific spaces.

Temples have marked sanctimonious areas. Performance stages have podiums. In such zones intimacy or privacy of personal nature, are not available, yet one can announce it through metaphoric presentations.

Two persons or members of a group can talk in whispers and give out an impression of intimacy in spite of the apparent distance between them. Conversely talk-discussions in high pitch could be used to present bonhomie and thereby a close-knit entity. Politicians and celebrities talk in whispers to state things that need to be made public and talk loudly things that need not be public, both ways they draw the attention. A public orator changes the pitch from normal to very low or high to draw the attention of the audience and thereby register a point.


A Sunday on La Grande Jatte 1884 by Georges Seurat


Hall (1959) has stipulated that spatial separation also serves expansive function. He made a study of the spatial relations that seem appropriate to various kinds of interactions. They vary with intimacy, culture, and depend on the possibility of eye contact.


Picnic Kaivopuisto Helsinki > Wikipedia image by JIP at en Wikipedia

‘One can easily distinguish strangers from friends in an airport lounge. Strangers will keep a distance, taking alternate seats wherever possible. Friends tend to form clots, and families even pile one on the top of another. Total strangers will comfortably seat themselves only inches apart if the seats are back to back, but friends and the members of the family never arrange themselves in this way. Eye contact invites interaction and so is sought to the degree that intimacy already exists.’ (Hall E. T. 1959 The silent language).


Revelry at an Inn by Havicksz Steen 1674

There are spatial zones appropriate to various types of interactions. Distances in virtual communication technology mediated interactions are likely to be different. Hall has also shown the cultural variations that South American needs much closer distance for impersonal information than a North American desire or is accustomed to.

Very close (75 to 150mm) Soft whisper, top secret sharing (lovers, mother and infant).


Very close – love – Pixabay image by Adina Voicu

● Close (200 to 300mm) Audible whispers, very confidential talk (related persons).

● Near (300 to 500mm) Soft voice, confidential interaction (public spaces like elevators, coffeehouse, confession).


Sharing personal details with a Doctor > Wikipedia image by Rhoda Baer

● Neutral (500 to 900mm) Soft voice, low volume, personal subject matter (bars, small restaurants, home dining, breakfast table, fast food counters, consulting rooms, reception table).


Luncheon of the Boating party Pierre by Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) Wikipedia image

● Normal (1300 to 1500mm) Full voice, impersonal information, interaction with known persons (Home drawing rooms, public dining table, Government officials, meetings of heads of states).


Holyrood Palace Scotland Dining table with non-committal distance (Attr: W. Lloyd MacKenzie via Flickr @

 ● Public (1700 to 2500mm) Slightly over-loud, information for others to hear, public address, seminars, teaching.

● Across room (2500 to 6000mm) Loud voice, talking to a group (Boisterous gatherings, public lounges).

● Hailing privately (6000 to 7500 mm) Indoors, Loud voice departures (neighbourhoods, across the road, noisy workplaces).


Waving off > Wikipedia image

● Hailing public (30.00 mts) Outdoors, Declaratory, Loud voice shouting, departures and calls (Airports, Railway stations).


The receding edge of the table allows Larry King – in Live show to adjust the distance > Wikipedia image by Billyshearso

Impersonal discussion, takes place at 1200 to 1500 mm, encroach the inner distance of this zone, and you or interlocutor will retreat. Move back from the outer distance and you can state what you wish to say by reducing the power of the interlocutor. One can move from impersonal discussion to a focussed or personal matter by reducing the distance. Alternatively change to a non committal mode by increasing the distance. TV anchors do these distance tricks on their show. For an intimate question the anchor pushes forward own body (Larry King of CNN ), but as soon as the question sinks in with the guest, the anchor withdraws not just to the nominal position, but little further backward. These distancing movements allow the guest to deliver the answer more objectively and the camera frames the guest alone for such a ‘heroic effort’. A host may intimidate the guest by doing exactly opposite of this. Smart elders and senior executives are (subconsciously) adapt to this.


Tonight show with Jay Leno -varies the eye level contact  > Wikipedia image by Tina Hager (PD-LAYOUT; PD-USGOV-POTUS; PD-USGOV-WH.)


This post forms 12 th of the Sixteen part of Lecture series on Behaviour in Space that I will be offering for the spring semester starting Jan 2016 (to mid April2016) at School of Interior Design, Faculty of Design, CEPT University, Ahmedabad, India.


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