Proxemics is the study of the relationships and communication that we humans establish through space and through the distances that we put between ourselves and towards the things that surround us.

Next we will see what proxemics is , what this theory has contributed to communication sciences and how it differs from other forms of non-verbal communication, such as kinesthesia.

What is proxemic?

Proxemics is a theory that emerged in the 1960s and was developed by American anthropologist Edward T. Hall , who studied how we perceive space in different cultures and how we use it to establish different relationships.

In other words, proxemics is the study of proximity , and how proximity allows us to communicate with each other and even build relationships and a particular worldview.

Also known as proxemia, it is considered a part of semiotics (which is the study of the signs we use to communicate), because it pays attention to the way in which the physical distances that are established in different cultures make us communicate in different ways and not necessarily verbally.

That is, proxemics include not only individual communicative competencies but also the way in which social and cultural norms about space limit or condition these competencies. This is why it is considered one of the most complex branches of human communication systems.

Communication systems and some types

To explain in more detail what proxemia is, let’s remember that human communication is a very complex system . In basic terms it consists of understanding and using a set of signs and symbols to convey certain information (for example, ideas, feelings, opinions, emotions, moods, etc).

In other words, the process and capacity to communicate is not reduced to linguistic skills (such as being able to speak or understand a language), but involves a much more complex set of actions in which our body always participates.

The standard and most basic scheme of communication includes two main characters: a sender and a receiver; who are the ones who emit, code and receive a message.

This message can include both linguistic signs, such as words, phrases or sentences, and body movements that also convey information. In turn, this information, and how it is organized and transmitted, depends on the social, geographical and cultural situation in which the sender and receiver find themselves; as well as on their own grammatical, discursive, strategic and sociolinguistic skills .

Generally, two main types of communication are recognized: verbal and non-verbal, which are not really separated from each other, but are manifested together in every relationship we establish with other people.

Non-verbal communication and the difference between proxemics and kinesics

Verbal communication is that which is established from linguistic signs and symbols transmitted through the spoken word. On the other hand, non-verbal communication is that which is established by means of non-verbal signs that generally transmit information on character, personality or state of mind .

These latter signs may include, for example, crying, laughing, screaming (which are the paralinguistic signs); or they may involve gestures, signs or mimicry (which are the kinaesthetic signs). Both types of signs, paralinguistic and kinesthetic, are elements of basic non-verbal communication. But, there is also another type of non-verbal communication that is more complex because it involves the cultural and social elements that define how we use the body and space, and even time, to transmit information in different contexts and situations.

The latter are the proxemic system (whose signs are basically the habits related to the use of space , for example, the distances we keep between us depending on whether we are at home with our partner, or at the office with our colleagues); and the chronemic system (where the perception and use of time in different cultures is mainly studied).

In other words, the difference between proxemics and kinesics is that the former refers to non-verbal communication established by means of the physical distances we put in relation to each other; and kinesics is non-verbal communication established by means of body movements such as gestures and also by means of proprioception.

Its importance in communication and social studies

According to Hall, the physical distances that we establish are determined by cultural norms that tell us, for example, what the limits are in public space and what they are in private space, or what the word inside and the word outside means with respect to furniture or individual spaces within the home; spaces that are also influenced by age or gender or by one’s social rank.

Proxemic norms, moreover, are those that reaffirm a group of human beings as a “group” and not as another, that is, they delimit the characteristics that some people have in common, reinforcing intragroup identity, and sometimes making inter-group identity difficult.

This is why it has important effects on the communication we establish both with our group and with similar groups, and allows us to understand how we build a particular image of the world, as well as the rules of living together in different contexts.

Bibliographic references:

  • Cestero, A. (2014). Non-verbal communication and effective communication. ELUA Magazine, 28: 125-150
  • Schmidt, S. (2013). Proxemics and intercultural communication: non-verbal communication in the teaching of e-learning. Doctoral thesis to obtain the degree of Doctor in Spanish Philology, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.
  • Losada, F. (2001). The lived space. A semiotic approach. Cuadernos de la Facultad de Humanidades y Ciencias Sociales de la Universidad Nacional de Jujuy. 17: 271-294.