Proxemics – the Psychology of Positioning: Use this for Interview Success!

Proxemics – the Psychology of Positioning and Personal Space

Proxemics, is a somewhat obscure topic usually relegated to dusty textbooks about Environmental Psychology. However, understanding more about Proxemics, can greatly increase your chances of acceptance and success in the business, in the interview process and in interpersonal relationships.
Edward T. Hall first coined the term Proxemics in 1963 to describe the social distance between people and its correlation with physical distance between people. When I was in University, studying Psychology, this concept really caught my attention and I began thinking about its practical implications. The stories I will share below, are my personal experiences and case-study observations and not based on clinical trials or rigorously validated scientific research.

Hall identified four types of human-to-human distance: (for North Americans)
 intimate distance for embracing, touching or whispering (15-45 cm, 6-18 inches)
 personal distance for interactions among good friends (45-120 cm, 1.5-4 feet)
 social distance for interactions among acquaintances (1.2-3.5 m, 4-12 ft)
 public distance used for public speaking (over 3.5 m, 12 ft)

In 1971, US Educational Psychologist, Albert Mehrabian published his famous 7%-38%-55% Rule on non-verbal communication. He found that only 7 percent of communication comes from spoken words, 38 percent is from the tone of the voice, and 55 percent comes from body language. An understanding of Proxemics and non-verbal communication can greatly increase your success in any interpersonal endeavor.

Real world application #1
When I was in University, I supported myself by working as a part time, Sales Clerk in the Electronics department of a Canadian store – London Drugs. I wondered if I could use Proxemics to increase my sales and therefore my commissions. Researching this topic in my spare time was an interest of mine and I began thinking of practical applications for its use. At first, my use of Proxemics was limited to carefully observing my position and stance in relation to my customers. Over time, I began incorporating Proxemics theory to the positioning, gender, age and culture of my customers. In particular, attention was paid to how my body language related to my customers body language. I experimented with how I angled my body behind the counter and the angle of how I slid the sales contract across the counter. My goal was to create a collaborative sales environment, really listen to what the customer wanted and then support my sales with positive body language. It absolutely worked! Though I was only working part time, 15-20 hours a week, I alternated between the highest and second highest sales in the department. This included the sales statistics for the full-time staff! I attribute this to my study of Proxemics.

Real world application #2
Years later, I was working as a Geriatric Addictions Counselor and wanted to develop, and implement an Educational Day Program for clients recovering from addiction. I thought that this would be a much more efficient use of counseling hours, if we implemented this one day a week. Note: developing curriculum and running a Day Treatment and Educational program was not part of my job description. Additionally, the government, non-profit where I worked didn’t have any large class-room space, only individual offices. I convinced a coworker to join me and pitch my idea to a local Recreational and Community Center which had a lot of classroom space. The caveat, our government, non-profit, agency didn’t have any money to rent space. My goal was to form a community partnership and get the space donated for free for a year. Everyone said it couldn’t be done. After putting together our sales pitch, we arrived at the Recreation Center.

I prepared my coworker in advance and hoped that the hosts would allow us to sit where we wanted, in the board room. They graciously allowed us to sit where we wanted. Instead of positioning ourselves in the traditional “hot seat” with the host agency in a group facing us, we changed things around. We positioned ourselves in between the 4 host staff; getting psychological buy-in, before the presentation even began. Instead of setting up an “Us vs Them” dynamic, we created a collaborative team dynamic, from the start. We were able to negotiate use of the lower level of the facility for free, for one year! In exchange we developed the curriculum, managed all the marketing, logistics and teaching and offered these free workshops for the local community. The enrollment was double what we expected and the host agency received a lot of community recognition, for implementing the first Drop in Seniors Addictions program. Win–win for everyone.

I would encourage you to think about the effect of Proxemics in your own life. How do you respond to crowding? Gender dyads? Multicultural situations? See if you have preferences with regards to Proxemics, personal space and determine the size of your “personal bubble.” I would encourage you to also conduct your own “experiments,” as I have. I would love to hear about your results.

Author: © 2009 - present. All Rights Reserved - Sharon Cohen, MA Counseling Psychology. Executive Career Coach.

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