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Proxemics. The Semiotics of Space. Edward T. Hall. Hall coined the term in 1963 Proxemics is the study of the codes that define space and territory in human social relations

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The Semiotics of Space

Edward t hall
Edward T. Hall

  • Hall coined the term in 1963

  • Proxemics is the study of the codes that define space and territory in human social relations

  • Distance between individuals, territoriality, intimacy gradients, public versus private spaces, sacred places, and so on come under the rubric of proxemics


  • Intimate: 0 - 18 inches

    • Emotionally charged bubble reserved for family, friends, lovers

  • Personal: 1.5 - 4 feet

    • Minimum comfort zone between non-touching individuals; within reach for handshakes; informal distance between friends

  • Social: 4 – 12 feet

    • Non-threatening, non-involving; for formal discourse and business; minimum distance within which one can go about their business without seeming rude to others

  • Public: 12 feet and beyond

    • Evasive or defensive action possible at this distance; communication at this distance highly structured, e.g., lecture, performance

Proxemics and culture
Proxemics and Culture

  • Of course, these codes depend on culture and history.

  • In North American culture over the last hundred years, there has been both a decrease in the size of the intimate and personal proxeme and an expansion in the social and personal proxeme.

  • In other words, in many cases people demand much more space between themselves and non-intimates while simultaneously requiring less distance between friends, family members, and other intimates.


Botticelli, Sandro

The Cestello Annunciationc. 1489

Tempera on panel 150 x 156 cm Uffizi, Florence


Van Eyck, JanThe Annunciation c. 1435

Oil on canvas93 x 37 cmNational Gallery of Art, Washington


John Singleton Copley Colonel William Fitch and His Sisters Sarah and Ann Fitch, 1800/1801


  • Touch is another feature of proxemic analysis.

  • In Western culture touch is kept at a minimum in public places.

  • Mothers tend to touch their sons more on their chest and shoulders, their daughters on the arms and head.

  • In Japanese culture there is a great deal of tactile communication in childhood but little after adolescence.

William eggleston sumner mississippi cassidy bayou in the background 1969 70
William Eggleston. Sumner, Mississippi, Cassidy Bayou in the background. 1969-70.

You be the expert
You be the expert!

What proxemic codes govern:

  • A handshake between a man and a woman?

  • Between a man and a man?

  • A party at an undergraduate’s apartment?

  • A party at your grandparent’s?

  • A first meeting with a prospective employer?

  • A solitary study session at a big table in the library?

The gaze
The Gaze

  • Related to proxemics in that the gaze also has implications for emotional distance and intimacy.

  • Frequency, duration, and direction of gaze has social consequences.

  • Phatic function: for initiation and maintenance of communication.

    • Looking away signals a desire to keep speaking.

    • Staring indicates a desire for the other to take a turn.

The gaze con t
The Gaze con’t

  • Expressive function: the eyes (more correctly, the muscles and tissue around the eyes) can signal emotion.

  • Conative function: When the message is focused on the receiver, the gaze of the sender can indicate levels of intimacy, hostility, and so on, e.g., “if looks could kill” .

  • Can also register disdain, aloofness, or low solidarity towards the receiver if the gaze is withdrawn.