Keeping Your Distance: American Proxemics

Edward T. Hall, anthropologist and author of The Hidden Dimension (1966), first coined the term, “proxemics” in the early 1960s. The concept deals mainly with how people set up personal and social spaces and interpersonal distances. One of the interesting assumptions, of which humans have been well aware of for centuries, is that different cultures have different rules of keeping distances, that is, the distance between two or more individuals is culturally set. The violation of these spatial rules will put one in trouble. Thus, one can say that the American expression of stepping on one’s toes is probably connected more to distancing than to corporal punishment. In fact breaking established social norms for distancing could be interpreted as something far more serious.

Americans have been said to have closer distancing than, let’s say Germans, and yet, Latin Americans will consider Americans as people who maintain considerable more distance from each other. Apparently, it is this sense of cultural relativity that has attracted and intrigued anthropologists and psychologists to the study of proxemics.

It is most stimulating to observe Americans, and also the various strains of newly arrived Hispanics from Mexico, Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico, in these space related close encounters. I, being Puerto Rican, was perturbed one day, after having recently arrived in the States from living in Puerto Rico. I was back again in the “land of the free” after thirteen years on the Island. I asked some fellow in a gasoline station for directions. I had lost my bearing in the drive from Orlando International Airport to Gainesville, Florida. When I posed my question, the person became quite startled and backed off a little. But I just moved towards him making no thought of why he acted the way he did.

His face became perplexed and he again quickly moved back, this time giving me a painful expression. I then finally realized I was too close to him and so continued talking to him from his code of distance. Being away for some thirteen years, I had almost forgotten the normal distance that anyone in the States is permitted when talking to each other. Yet, it is a strange thing in America, and I am still not able to understand the breaking of this rule between umpires and coaches on the baseball field when they get so close to each other that they can exchange their chewing gum or wads of tobacco.

Back in Puerto Rico paisanos keep a close distance when talking to each other. And one is sometimes caught off guard, especially when one has been away from the Island for some time. That was the case with me a few times. I usually backed off until I was used to it. There is always something electrifying when a stranger creeps up very close, someone that doesn’t even know you! For courtesy’s sake I would have to sweat it out many times with someone’s face next to mine, feeling his or her stale warm breath. When people talk to each other on the Islands they are usually cramped up, packed like sardines in a can. To be rude is to not follow the rules of distancing. One has to abide by them even if it means the raunchy smell, the hot breath, the sweet rotten aroma of intoxication that the sweaty body exudes.

It is perhaps the warm tropical climate, the population density, the food, and the pervasive poverty that make Caribbean people stick together in a most cohesive manner, in a kind of callaloo. I was talking the other day to a friend who comes from Indonesia. We were discussing questions of proxemics. “Ah, yes! In Indonesia people talk to each other very closely,” he said in heavily accented English. “They are very friendly to each other, unlike Americans here.” I told him that many Latin Americans also get very close when they interact with each other. A discussion ensued on the possible affinities between Hispanics and Indonesians, and even Arab people. When he departed he almost threw himself on me and hugged me. I kept my distance and smiled back.

Proxemics in America probably gets quite complicated at times. This is mainly due to the variety of ethnic and racial groups that interact in this country. Some are first generation immigrants, others are second and third generation and have almost completely been assimilated. And so different kinds of distancing are exhibited. The monolithic and homogenous concept of “one America” does not represent the social reality. There are regional and local variations within the United States. Joel Garreau’s argument in The Nine Nations of North America (1981) of breaking up the States, along with Canada and Mexico into nine cultural regions is quite ingenious. Perhaps, adding the concept of “proxemics” to this scheme would make it even more interesting.

I once met a fellow a few years ago while working in a college in Indiana. When we would have departmental “get togethers” I would see foreign faculty talking to him, trying to negotiate territorial imperatives of space. The Italians and Spanish were chasing him around the floor, and he was trying furtively to keep his distance and maintain three feet of space between them while conversing. The Italians would always manage to creep up closer to him, but he would react quickly by moving back. Yet, he was losing the battle. People in the room were looking from the corners of their eyes and smiling at this unusual scene, which resembled more a dance than a conversation.

There will always be humorous varieties of distancing behavior in the States, and comic situations will never cease to occur. An average citizen will find it difficult to understand why people will set up distances the way they do. I can remember being introduced to good old Army proxemics in Fort Jackson, South Carolina thirty-two years ago. During basic training they would pack us together real good at times. On a certain day we were packed all tight in a small bus without seats. Our drill sergeant ordered us to get closer to each other.

“Okay, boys, don’t act like sissies. You’re all men now and in the U.S. Army. So, move yourself up closer to your buddy and hug his ass!”

The strong psychological impact of making us breach our notions of distancing created a feeling of embarrassment in us, as if we were doing something immoral. But the sergeant was correct. Soldiers had to be trained to work closely together, especially under combat situations. The sergeant was creating an awareness of the raw reality of the conditions of war and fatigue and what was needed to survive. The boys, no doubt, would remember their old sergeant when huddled tightly together in some bunker far away in the outskirts of the world.

July 1st, 2005 by