How close to someone do you stand?

(This article was originally posted on 13 June 2019 just over 9 months before our first pandemic lockdown here in the UK.

I’m reposting it here because, in the light of the past two years, the ideas about social distancing seem so dated. Almost quaint, in fact.

Oh, and I’m also reposting it because the English government has just decided that it will soon scrap the legal requirement to main social distance or to wear masks. This may or may not be the end of the masks and social distancing story.)

How are your ‘proxemics’?

Edward T Hall coined the term ‘proxemics’ to describe our use of the space around us. He determined that we had 4 ‘space zones’:

  • Intimate: 1-18 inches (1-46 cm)
  • Personal: 1.5-4 feet (46-122 cm)
  • Social: 4-12 feet (1.2 – 3.7 m)
  • Public: 12-25 feet (3.7 – 7.6 m)

So, you could use his table to figure out how close or how far to stand, or sit, when communicating with someone.

Although it might vary from culture to culture. And from person to person. And wouldn’t apply on London’s Tube (or Tokyo’s trains) in rush hour.

You could use the table. Or you could instead use NLP.

True or useful?

And one thing that I have always loved about NLP is that it aims to identify ‘What works’ rather than ‘What is true’!

NLP is pragmatic rather than theoretical: rather than theorise how many angels can stand of the head of a pin, we wait till we’ve got a few angels together, get them to stand on the pin, and then count them.  And in the meantime, there are more practical questions to consider.

So it is with body space. Rather than carry an imaginary ruler to calculate the number of millimetres distance we can figure out the proxemics thing through observation of how the other person is responding.

Rep Systems

Visual specialists, people who do a lot of their thinking in images, like lots of body space. Because they like to be able to see all of you. Head to toe. In one glance.

Kinaesthetic specialists are the opposite. They want to be so close they can almost smell you. They like to almost sit on your lap – at least, that’s how it can feel with some K specialists.

(And, yes, you’ve guessed rightly – high visual specialists can often perceive those quite innocent, ‘doing what comes naturally’, touchy-feely kinaesthetic specialists as a bit creepy.)

Soft Eyes

There’s another tool, too, to gauge how a person feels about your proxemics.

Use Soft Eyes. Relax – and use your Soft Eyes’ skill to gauge the subtle non-verbal reaction of the other person to your use of body space.

It’s easy! No need to carry a ruler with you. https://nlp-now.co.uk/the-great-soft-eyes-technique/

(This was written in June 2019. The idea of having to gauge distances in millimetres seemed funny, back then. Little did we realise that soon, and throughout the world, public spaces would be marked out with signs warning us not to stand too close to one another.)

(First published 13 June 2019, edited 8 July 2021)

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