Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Intercultural communication of proxemics

Intercultural communication and its relation with proxemics is an ongoing and in some instances changing element of communication that all cultures must acknowledge to have better intercultural relationships.  We must all strive to understand each others' cultural emphasis and rules that are placed on space to have positive and successful communication and nonverbal dialogue.  When engaging in communication with other cultures in relevance to proxemics, whether it be pertaining to business, personal or with their military, we sometimes have problems developing trust and understanding meanings.  Often times there are misunderstandings from one another because we are too familiar with our own cultural norms and do not immediately relate to others and their use of space.  Proxemics is defined as: The study of the cultural, behavioral, and sociological aspects of spatial distances between individuals (1).  In correlation, communication has been defined in several ways (2). defined communication as "a symbolic process in which people create shared meanings."  There are four distinct levels of personal space.  Intimate, which covers direct contact with individuals to 18 inches.  This space used for sharing lovemaking, kissing and emotional ideas.  Personal space is personal distance which covers 18 inches to 4 feet and is usually reserved for the conversation of close friends.  Social distance is next which covers a distance from 4 to 12 feet and is used during business transactions and casual social interactions among acquaintances.  Finally, public distance is the largest amount of public space usually over 25 feet but sometimes as little separation as 12 feet and is used by teachers in lecture halls and by public speakers that distance themselves from an audience.  It is important to be familiar with all levels of personal space as they relate to intercultural communication so that we can communicate effectively while respecting each other’s cultural differences/similarities in proxemics.  When defining the differences in cultural proxemics we categories them in two groups, contact and non-contact cultures.   Although we as Americans are very aware of the boundaries that we live by when we communicate with one another, "the norms for personal space seem to vary considerably from culture to culture" (3).

Contact Cultures & Non-Contact Cultures
"A contact culture is when there are Cultural groups in which people tend to stand close together and touch frequently when they interact together. A noncontact culture is when Cultural groups tend to maintain more space and often less touch than contact cultures." (3).  Some examples of contact cultures would include South America, the Middle East and Southern Europe with the Middle East being the highest contact.  Some examples of noncontact cultures would include Great Britain, the Far East, Japan and the United States with the Far East being the most noncontact.  Some scholars believe the United States is more in the middle of the noncontact culture. 


                     Understanding and becoming aware of cross-cultural Proxemics

Even though these cultures are categorized by their level of contact, there are some examples of situations where cultures exhibit certain communication opposite of their norm.  A good example would have to do with the Arabic countries in the Middle East.  Although they are very high on contact and interaction while communicating, there is little tolerance for this type of interaction with separate genders.  Women are not allowed to have contact with males because of their religious beliefs.  In fact there are disciplinary actions that are pursued if this type of communication occurs between men and women in the Arab world.  Whereas in the United States (considered a noncontact culture) there are often displays of public affection while communicating between men and women.  In contrast, in China (a noncontact culture) you will often see young school boys interacting and holding hands while walking and having conversation.  In some Western Cultures this may be seen as homosexual behavior where it is not seen this way in China (4).  Something to think about when studying intercultural communication and its relationship to proxemics is the way certain cultures percieve other cultures actions within a certain space.  "Pushing and shoving in public areas is characteristics of Middle Eastern culture.  Yet it is not entirely what Americans think it is (being pushy and rude) but stems from a different set of assumptions concerning not only the relations between people but how one experiences the body as well.  Paradoxically, Arabs consider northern Europeans and Americans pushy, too." (5).  A great example of this is when Hall shares his story of how he is silently "fighting" over personal space with an Arab man at an airport.  Hall explains that in America, as most Americans know, there is a "Fixed bubble" of personal space that ranges in size depending on gender, age, and crowd size that Americans commonly respect and acknowledge.  The setting is in an airport where the American man wants privacy so he chooses a seat that is away from traffic and people. The Arab man comes and stands so close to him that the American can hear him breathing over him as well as see his shadow right next to him.  As a nonverbal way of communicating to the Arab man that he wants to be left alone, he turns his body away from the Arab man.  In response, the Arab man moves closer to him further annoying the American man.  Hall later shared this story with an Arab friend and the Friend said to him, "it is a public place isn’t it?" (5).  It was explained to Hall that the Arab man was seeking the same seat and in their culture when there is a public setting it is everyone’s free game to a seat.  In America, in that same situation with an American Man that would be considered rude.  With that being said, there was an understanding of the differences in nonverbal communication in a cross-cultural setting.   In Arabic cultures people will often breathe on other people when talking to them.  "To the Arab good smells are pleasing and a way being involved with each other." (5). In the opening blog, this is an example of cultural differences within proxemics and a positive example where there was an understanding of another person’s cultural norms.  As Hall states, people in the Arabic culture will often breathe on one another so that they can smell their own odors, it is said to be polite and desirable to do so while communicating.  In American culture this is thought to be rude.   As mentioned throughout this section there are obvious differences between intercultural communications in relation to proxemics.  With an understanding of these differences and an empathetic attitude, intercultural communications as Hall explained, can be more successful and better respected.

Personal experience in relation to Intercultural Proxemics

In the summer of 2000 I had the opportunity to travel abroad to Egypt for educational purposes.  I had the pleasure of staying with another student I had met while in junior college at Oklahoma City junior college.  His name was Tarek Abduhala Samara and was from Cairo, Egypt.  While getting to know him in Oklahoma I had the chance to invite him in to my family’s home for study sessions and family gatherings.  He would constantly ask me how to act in certain situations where my American family members were present.  I found it funny at the time because of his reluctance to talk around them.  In his culture he would tell me that while eating dinner the families would sit around for hours talking about their day and future plans.  Where in my family we would have small talk and eat, then everyone would move to an area of the home where they felt comfortable. One instance when we all had dinner, Tarek remained seated at our dinner table after everyone had finished eating.  My grandparents asked him if he was still hungry and he replied no. When I got him alone after finding him still sitting at the dinner table he said that he didn’t want to be rude by leaving the dinner table.  In his culture, the families eat, talk, and eat up top two more times before leaving the dinner table.  Later after the semester was over and I traveled to his country with him, I encountered some of the same situations that Tarek had encountered while communicating with people from my culture.  Once when I had dinner with his family, I had gotten up to wash my dishes and put them away.  Everyone from his family scolded Tarek and spoke to him and told him to get my plates from me.  After dinner, the great grandfather had me come over to a long chase and sit on his lap while Tarek translated his questions to me.  I found this very odd that a man in his 70’s would want a man in his 20’s to sit on his lap.  We just don’t see that in American culture.  I sat on his lap for over an hour.  I wasn’t used to this in my cultural.  Because of my experiences and my willingness to have an open mind, it allowed me to understand other cultural communication patterns in relation to their proxemics behaviors.


  1. "Proxemics - Definition of Proxemics by the Free Online Dictionary, Thesaurus and Encyclopedia." Dictionary, Encyclopedia and Thesaurus - The Free Dictionary. Web. 08 Dec. 2011.
  2. Lustig, M. W. and Koester, J. 1996. Intercultural Competence: Interpersonal Communication Across Cultures. HarperCollins College Publishers. NY, USA
  3. Martin, Judith N., and Thomas K. Nakayama. "Nonverbal Codes and Cultural Space." Intercultural Communication in Contexts. Mountain View, Calif. [u.a.: Mayfield Publ., 2000. Print.
  4. Carnes, David. "Nonverbal Communication In Cultures | LIVESTRONG.COM." LIVESTRONG.COM - Lose Weight & Get Fit with Diet, Nutrition & Fitness Tools | LIVESTRONG.COM. 15 May 2010. Web. 08 Dec. 2011.
  5. Hall, Edward Twitchell. The Hidden Dimension. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966. Print.

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