Body Language – Territories and Zones

Thousands of books and articles have been written about the staking out and guarding of territories by animals, birds, fish and primates, but only in recent years has it been discovered that man also has territories. When this is learned and the implications understood, not only can enormous insights into one’s own behaviour and that of others be gained but the face-to-face reactions of others can be predicted. American anthropologist Edward T. Hall was one of the pioneers in the study of man’s spatial needs and in the early 1960s he coined the word ‘proxemics’ (from ‘proximity’ or nearness). His research into this field has led to new understanding about our relationships with our fellow humans.

Every country is a territory staked out by clearly defined boundaries and sometimes protected by armed guards. Within each country are usually smaller territories in the form of states and counties. Within these are even smaller territories called cities, within which are suburbs, containing many streets that, in themselves, represent a closed territory to those who live there. The inhabitants of each territory share an intangible allegiance to it and have been known to turn to savagery and killing in order to protect it.

A territory is also an area or space that a person claims as his own, as if it were an extension of his body. Each person has his own personal territory which includes the area that exists around his possessions, such as his home which is bounded by fences, the inside of his motor vehicle, his own bedroom or personal chair and, as Dr Hall discovered, a defined air space around his body.

This chapter will deal mainly with the implications of this air space and how people react when it is invaded.

PERSONAL SPACE

Most animals have a certain air space around their bodies that they claim as their personal space. How far the space extends is mainly dependent on how crowded were the conditions in which the animal was raised. A lion raised in the remote regions of Africa may have a territorial air space with a radius of fifty kilometres or more, depending on the density of the lion population in that area, and it marks its territorial boundaries by urinating or defecating around them. On the other hand, a lion raised in captivity with other lions may have a personal space of only several metres, the direct result of crowded conditions.

Like the other animals, man has his own personal portable ‘air bubble’ that he carries around with him and its size is dependent on the density of the population in the place where he grew up. This personal zone distance is therefore culturally determined. Where some cultures, such as the Japanese, are accustomed to crowding, others prefer the ‘wide open spaces’ and like to keep their distance. However, we are mainly concerned with the territorial behaviour of people raised in Western cultures.

Status can also have an effect on the distance at which a person stands in relation to others and this will be discussed in a later chapter.

Zone Distances

The radius of the air bubble around suburban middle class white people living in Australia, New Zealand, England, North America and Canada is generally the same. It can be broken down into four distinct zone distances.

1. Intimate Zone (between 15 and 45 centimetres or 6 to 18 inches)

Of all the zone distances, this is by far the most important as it is this zone that a person guards as if it were his own property. Only those who are emotionally close to that person are permitted to enter it. This includes lovers, parents, spouse, children, close friends and relatives. There is a sub-zone that extends up to 15 centimetres (6 inches) from the body that can be entered only during physical contact. This is the close intimate zone.

2. Personal Zone (between 46 centimetres and 1.22 metres or 18 to 48 inches) This is the distance that we stand from others at cocktail parties, office parties,

social functions and friendly gatherings.

3. Social Zone (between 1.22 and 3.6 metres or 4 to 12 feet)

We stand at this distance from strangers, the plumber or carpenter doing repairs around our home, the postman, the local shopkeeper, the new employee at work and people whom we do not know very well.

4. Public Zone (over 3.6 metres or 12 feet)
Whenever we address a large group of people, this is the comfortable distance at which we choose to stand.

Practical Applications of Zone Distances

Our intimate zone is normally entered by another person for one of two reasons. First, the intruder is a close relative or friend, or he or she may be making sexual advances. Second, the intruder is hostile and may be about to attack. While we will tolerate strangers moving within our personal and social zones, the intrusion of a stranger into our intimate zone causes physiological changes to take place within our bodies. The heart pumps faster, adrenalin pours into the bloodstream and blood is pumped to the brain and the muscles as physical preparations for a possible fight or flight situation are made.

This means that putting your arm in a friendly way on or around someone you have just met may result in that person’s feeling negative towards you, even though he or she may smile and appear to enjoy it so as not to offend you. If you want people to feel comfortable in your company, the golden rule is ‘keep your distance’. The more intimate our relationship is with other people, the closer we are permitted to move within their zones. For example, a new employee may initially feel that the other staff members are cold towards him, but they are only keeping him at the social zone distance until they know him better. As he becomes better known to the other employees, the territorial distance between him and them decreases until eventually he is permitted to move within their personal zones and, in some cases, their intimate zones.

The distance that two people who are kissing keep their hips apart can tell you something about the relationship that exists between them. Lovers press their torsos hard against each other and move within each other’s close intimate zones. This differs from the kiss received from a stranger on New Year’s Eve or from your best friend’s spouse, both of whom keep their pelvic area at least 15 centimetres away from yours.

One of the exceptions to the distance/ intimacy rule occurs where the spatial distance is based on the person’s social standing. For example, the managing director of a company may be the weekend fishing buddy of one of his subordinates and when they go fishing each may move within the other’s personal or intimate zone. At the office, however, the managing director keeps his fishing buddy at the social distance to maintain the unwritten social strata rules.

Crowding at concerts, cinemas, in elevators, trains or buses results in unavoidable intrusion into other people’s intimate zones, and reactions to this invasion are interesting to observe. There is a list of unwritten rules that people in Western cultures follow rigidly when faced with a crowded situation such as a packed lift or public transport. These rules include:

1. You are not permitted to speak to anyone, including a person you know.
2. You must avoid eye contact with others at all times.
3. You are to maintain a ‘poker face’ – no emotion is permitted to be displayed.
4. If you have a book or newspaper, you must appear to be deeply engrossed in it.

5. The bigger the crowd, the less the body movement you are permitted to make.

6. In elevators, you are compelled to watch the floor numbers above your head.

We often hear words like ‘miserable’, ‘unhappy’ and ‘despondent’ used to describe people who travel to work in the rush hour on public transport. These labels are used because of the blank, expressionless look on the faces of the travellers, but they are mis- judgments on the part of the observer. What the observer sees, in fact, is a group of people adhering to the rules that apply to the unavoidable invasion of their intimate zones in a crowded public place.

If you doubt this, notice how you behave next time you go alone to a crowded cinema. As the usher directs you to your seat which is surrounded by a sea of unknown faces, notice how you will, like a pre-programmed robot, begin to obey the unwritten rules of behaviour in crowded public places. As you begin to compete for territorial rights to the armrest with the unknown person beside you, you will begin to realise why those who go to a crowded cinema alone often do not take their seats until the cinema lights are extinguished and the movie actually begins. Whether we are in a crowded elevator, cinema or bus, people around us become non-persons – that is, they do not exist, as far as we are concerned and so we do not respond as if we were being attacked should someone inadvertently encroach upon our intimate territory.

An angry mob or group of protesters fighting for a mutual purpose does not react in the same way as do individuals when their territory is invaded; in fact, something quite different occurs. As the density of the crowd increases, each individual has less personal space and takes a hostile stand, which is why, as the size of the mob increases, it becomes angrier and uglier and fighting may begin to take place. This information is used by the police, who will try to break up the crowd so that each person can regain his own personal space and so become calmer.

Only in recent years have governments and town planners given any credence to the effect that high-density housing projects have in depriving individuals of their personal territory. The consequences of high-density living and overcrowding were seen in a recent study of the deer population on James Island, an island about two kilometres off the coast of Maryland in Chesapeake Bay in the United States. Many of the deer were dying in large numbers, despite the fact that at the time there was plenty of food, predators were not in evidence and infection was not present. Similar studies in earlier years with rats and rabbits revealed the same trend and further investigation showed that the deer had died as a result of overactive adrenal glands, resulting from the stress caused by the deprivation of each deer’s personal territory as the population increased. The adrenal glands play an important part in the regulation of growth, reproduction and the level of the body’s defences. Thus overpopulation caused a physiological reaction to the stress; not other factors such as starvation, infection or aggression from others.

In view of this it is easy to see why areas that have the highest density of human population also have the highest crime and violence rates.

Police interrogators use territorial invasion techniques to break down the resistance of criminals being questioned. They seat the criminal on an armless, fixed chair in an open area of the room and encroach into his intimate and close intimate zones when asking questions, remaining there until he answers. It often takes only a short while for this territorial harassment to break down the criminal’s resistance.

Management people can use this same approach to extract information from sub- ordinates who may be withholding it, but a sales person would be foolish to use this type of approach when dealing with customers.

Spacing Rituals

When a person claims a space or an area among strangers, such as a seat at the cinema, a place at the conference table or a towel hook at the squash court, he does it in a very predictable manner. He usually looks for the widest space available between two others and claims the area in the centre. At the cinema he will choose a seat that is halfway between the end of a row and where the nearest person is sitting. At the squash courts, he chooses the towel hook that is in the largest available space, midway between two other towels or midway between the nearest towel and the end of the towel rack. The purpose of this ritual is not to offend the other people by being either too close or too far away from them.

At the cinema, if you choose a seat more than halfway between the end of the row and the nearest other person, that other person may feel offended if you are too far away from him or he may feel intimidated if you sit too close, so the main purpose of this spacing ritual is to maintain harmony.

An exception to this rule is the spacing that occurs in public toilet blocks. Research shows that people choose the end toilets about 90 per cent of the time and, if they are occupied, the midway principle is used.

Cultural Factors Affecting Zone Distances

A young couple who recently migrated from Denmark to live in Sydney were invited to join the local branch of the Jaycees. Some weeks after their admission to the club, several female members complained that the Danish man was making advances towards them, so that they felt uncomfortable in his presence and the male members of the club felt that the Danish woman had been indicating non-verbally that she would be sexually available to them.

This situation illustrates the fact that many Europeans have an intimate distance of only 20 to 30 centimetres (9 or 10 inches) and in some cultures it is even less. The Danish couple felt quite at ease and relaxed when standing at a distance of 25 centimetres from the Australians, being totally unaware of their intrusion into the 46-centimetre intimate zone. The Danes also used eye gaze more frequently than the Australians, which gave rise to further misjudgments against them.

Moving into the intimate territory of someone of the opposite sex is a method that people use to show interest in that person and is commonly called an ‘advance’. If the advance into the intimate zone is rejected, the other person will step backwards to maintain the zone distance. If the advance is accepted, the other person holds his or her ground and allows the intruder to remain within the intimate zone. What seemed to the Danish couple to be a normal social encounter was being interpreted by the Australians as a sexual advance. The Danes thought the Australians were cold and unfriendly because they kept moving away to maintain the distance at which they felt comfortable.

At a recent conference in the USA, I noticed that when the American attendees met and conversed, they stood at an acceptable 46 to 122 centimetres from each other and remained standing in the same place while talking. However, when a Japanese attendee spoke with an American, the two slowly began to move around the room, the American moving backwards away from the Japanese and the Japanese gradually moving towards the American. This was an attempt by both the American and Japanese to adjust to a culturally comfortable distance from each other. The Japanese, with his smaller 25- centimetre intimate zone, continually stepped forward to adjust to his spatial need, but by doing so he invaded the American’s intimate space; causing him to step backwards to make his own spatial adjustment. Video recordings of this phenomenon replayed at high speed give the impression that both men are dancing around the conference room with the Japanese leading. It is therefore obvious why, when negotiating business, Asians and Europeans or Americans look upon each other with some suspicion, the Europeans or Americans referring to the Asians as ‘pushy’ and ‘familiar’ and Asians referring to the Europeans or Americans as ‘cold’, ‘stand-offish’ and ‘cool’. The lack of awareness of the distance variation of the intimate zones in different cultures can easily lead to misconceptions and inaccurate assumptions about one culture by another.

Country v City Spatial Zones

As previously mentioned, the amount of personal space required by an individual is related to the population density of the area in which he was brought up. Those who were brought up in sparsely populated rural areas require more personal space than those raised in densely populated capital cities. Watching how fax a person extends his arm to shake hands can give a clue to whether he is from a major city or from a remote country area. City dwellers have their private 46-centimetre bubble’; this is also the measured distance between wrist and torso when they reach to shake hands (Figure 12). This allows the hand to meet the other person’s on neutral territory. People brought up in a country town, where the population is far less dense, may have a territorial ‘bubble’ of up to 100 centimetres or more and this is the average measured distance from the wrist to the body when the person from the country is shaking hands (Figure 13).

Country people have a tendency to stand with their feet firmly planted on the ground and to lean forward as far as they can to meet your handshake, whereas a city dweller will step forward to greet you. People raised in remote or sparsely populated areas usually have a large personal space requirement which may be as wide as 6 metres. These people prefer not to shake hands but would rather stand at a distance and wave (Figure 14).

City sales people find this sort of information particularly useful for calling on farmers in sparse rural areas to sell farming equipment. Considering that the farmer may have a ‘bubble’ of 100 to 200 centimetres or more, a handshake could be a territorial intrusion, causing the farmer to react negatively and be on the defensive. Successful country sales people state almost unanimously that the best negotiating conditions exist when they greet the country town dweller with an extended handshake and the farmer in an isolated area with a distant wave.

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