Proxemics: How Interpersonal Distance Communicates Intimacy

Reading the body language of proximity for dating and relating.

Posted Mar 02, 2021

The study of what people communicate by standing closer, or farther away, is called Proxemics. Combined with the study of body language (known as Kinesics) and touch (called Haptics), it is an essential component of nonverbal communication for successful dating and relating.

In previous posts, I have already covered Kinesics as part of reading body language and using body language to get a partner's attention. We have also explored the basics of Haptics while discussing the general effects of touch on attraction. Furthermore, we have previously combined those Kinesic and Haptic skills to help you find your preferred style of flirting overall as well.

Nevertheless, what happens when you want to move beyond just getting attention and casually flirting? How can you tell when a partner feels truly comfortable and intimate with you? Fortunately, the third aspect of nonverbal communication, Proxemics, can answer those questions.

Proxemics, Proximity, and Interpersonal Distance

Initial studies in proxemics were conducted by Hall (1966), who theorized that people manage their social distance from one another as a way of regulating how much sensation or stimulation they received from other people.

Put simply, if an individual wants to be able to touch and smell a potential partner, then they have to get close enough to do so. If they do not want to touch or smell (or want to avoid being touched and smelled), then they remain farther away instead—and keep the interaction to less-intimate sensations of seeing and hearing only.

With that initial theory, Hall (1966) further categorized social distances into four general types. Those four distances have served as the general categories for subsequent proxemics evaluations as well (Hans & Hans, 2015). Thus, in the US, research generally supports the following four social distances and meanings:

  • Public Distance (Over 12 Feet): The least intimate distance, usually reserved for public speaking, to show power, or to feel secure and safe. This distance mostly limits individuals to seeing one another and speaking loudly.
  • Social Distance (4 to 12 Feet): Used for more formal interactions, while still keeping others at a safe distance. This spacing allows individuals to see and hear each other better but still prevents them from being able to touch.
  • Personal Distance (1.5 to 4 Feet): This is the personal space or "bubble" that is generally reserved for significant others and friends. At this distance, individuals can speak quietly without being overheard and observe each other's nonverbal communication clearly. Furthermore, individuals are also close enough to reach out and touch each other socially too (e.g. a pat on the hand, handshake, touch on the elbow, etc.).
  • Intimate Distance (Less than 1.5 Feet): This space is kept for romantic partners, family, and close friends. Primarily, this is used for more intimate touching, either of a friendly nature (e.g. hugging) or for romance (e.g. kissing). Also, at this distance, individuals are likely to be able to smell each other too.

Global comparison research by Sorokowska et al. (2017) supports these general categories. Nevertheless, the researchers note that the spacing distances in the categories can change depending on an individual's gender, age, or country. Specifically, their results indicated that women tend to prefer larger social and personal distances than men. Also, older individuals tend to prefer larger personal and intimate distances too. Furthermore, the temperature of a country or location plays a role as well, with people in colder climates keeping farther away from strangers, while people in warmer climates tend to keep farther away from intimate partners.

Dating and Distance

Considering the above results, we can begin to see how physical closeness relates to psychological and emotional "closeness" and comfort too. When individuals are not comfortable with one another or are just getting to know each other, they keep their distance. As they become more intimately acquainted, however, they share space more intimately as well. This is why body language tends to change during an interaction too—with partners initially being standoffish and closed, but opening up and leaning in as a conversation progresses.

Beyond that, as Hall (1966) originally noted, distance is used to manage interpersonal stimulation. On one hand then, individuals often get closer together in a romantic interaction to begin a progression of more intimate touching. Or, on the other hand, they maintain their distance to stay out of touching range and keep the relationship as just friends. Thus, if your date is staying too far away to touch, then they are communicating that they are not comfortable with that level of physical intimacy—at least, not yet. If they are well within a personal or intimate distance (by choice, not being forced in an elevator), however, then they may want to be touched more too.

Of course, there are other reasons why a date might maintain their distance, even though they want to get close. For example, dating and relating in a pandemic makes everyone more motivated to stay "socially distanced" from one another. Beyond that, individuals who are shy, or use a traditional/polite flirting style may also stay farther away from a partner, even when they are romantically interested.

Given all that, it is important to consider interpersonal distance as just one piece of information in conjunction with the rest of the verbal and nonverbal communication. For example, a shy individual who seems standoffish and uninterested may still be expressing interest in a date indirectly. Similarly, someone with traditional values, or who is conscientious of social distancing, might still be building rapport and developing attraction through conversation. Beyond that, some women may not be comfortable approaching men in general, but send signals to get a man to approach them instead. Thus, by looking at communication on various levels, you can get a better idea of a partner's overall interest. If you are still confused or unsure though, rather than assuming, it can be effective to directly ask for what you want—especially if that is asking for more romantic or sexual interaction too.

© 2021 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.

References

Hall, E. T. (1966). The Hidden Dimension. New York: Doubleday.

Hans, A., & Hans, E. (2015). Kinesics, haptics, and proxemics: Aspects of non-verbal communication. IOSR Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, 20(2), 47-52.

Sorokowska, A., Sorokowski, P., Hilpert, P., Cantarero, K., Frackowiak, T., Ahmadi, K., Alghraibeh, A. M., Aryeetey, R., Bertoni, A., Bettache, K., Blumen, S., Błażejewska, M., Bortolini, T., Butovskaya, M., Castro, F. N., Cetinkaya, H., Cunha, D., David, D., David, O. A., … Pierce, J. D. (2017). Preferred Interpersonal Distances: A Global Comparison. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 48(4), 577–592.