Intimate distances are used between people in a private setting. These are considered to be encounters of 0-18 inches and are confidential in nature. The people that are generally granted access to one's intimate space are significant others and family. Intimate distance is such a smaller distance because it is invited and earned. We allow these people into this small zone because we trust them and acknowledge them as a significant person in our lives. It is the same reason we are uncomfortable when a person we are not familiar with gives an unexpected hug or kiss.
Personal space is considered to be an area of about 1.5 to 3 feet. This space is reserved for friends and even co-workers. These are people that you are comfortable around and have a good relationship with. In many ways we use personal distance to create a professional atmosphere. In a work setting it is often necessary to be in a close distance with a coworker. This is accepted because it is necessary, so even if the coworker would typically be considered to be a stranger or someone that you would not let into such a close distance zone, it is acceptable. Clearly, no matter the culture, the distance zones that we choose for different groups and people can communicate our feelings towards them in very powerful ways.
The next, and most common distance, is social space. Social space occurs within 4 to 12 feet of another person. This distance is reserved for strangers and new acquaintances. These are typically the people that you pass in the hall at school or see walking in the street. If a situation presents itself that requires you to speak to these people, you will more than likely keep them at a bit of a distance.
Lastly, public distance applies to areas of 12 feet or more. This is the distance that you share with a person giving a speech or for example, a professor lecturing to a class. We attribute this public distance to these settings because of the implications that go along with breaking these boundaries. For example, you would not go up and give President Obama a hug during his address of the union. Obviously this is an extreme example, but the principle is the same. When a person is teaching a class or giving a speech, the implied distance zone is much greater than any of the others because the attention is intended to be focused on them.
There are many different reasons why people choose to establish distance to different situations and groups of people. Distance is such a natural thing to us that most of us do it without even thinking about it. It can involve everything from choosing to sit on the other side of the library from a group of people you do not know, to kissing your girlfriend when she comes to the door. Each one of these distances have different meanings and are communicated in a special way. One of the most outstanding reasons for using distance zones is safety. Keeping strangers at a public distance prevents you from being surprised from a threatening action and allows you to anticipate danger. This is why you generally stay away from people while walking down ally ways. On the other hand, distance zones can also be used to show threat and even inform another person that they are in danger. By invading space, one can communicate their intentions to do harm to another person. Communication is an obvious yet important aspect of distance as well. The distance zones we choose with the people around us can communicate very different things. For example, lets say a man meets a woman for the first time and the distance zone they use at the beginning of the night is social. Towards the end of the night, however, if the woman begins to use more of a personal zone she is probably communicating an interest in the man.
Interestingly enough, distance zones are not a universally uniform. For example, in America we consider our personal distance zones to be much closer at 18 inches, where in places like Japan, personal distance zones are typically considered to be closer to 36 inches. The difference in casual distance zones is an interesting way to discover how different cultures experience communication and intimacy. One could infer that because the Japanese are have larger distance zones, they are less comfortable with physical touch.
1) Burgoon, Judee K., Laura K. Guerrero, and Kory Floyd. Nonverbal Communication. New York: Pearson Publishing, 1996. Print.
2) Changingminds.org. Changing Minds, 10 Apr. 2011. Web. 6 Dec. 2011
3) Hall, Edward. The Hidden Dimensions. New York: Ancor Books, 1969. Print.