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Author: marlene johnson

At the end of this tutorial, the learner will understand that different cultures may attribute very different meanings to positioning, closeness, and use of space in communication.

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We've been talking about how greatly culture will impact the way we communicate, both verbally and nonverbally. Well, I'm Marlene, and today, I'd like to talk with you about a particular form of nonverbal communication. It's called proxemics.

Now, proxemics is a communication style that uses space and positioning as a symbol for communicating. And we all use space and positioning to send messages. And typically, we don't even think about it because within our culture, it's just normal the way we use space and position ourselves.

Let's take a polite conversational distance as an example. Here, in the United States, we like our personal space. And so typically, when we're talking to someone, unless it's someone that we're very close to, a family member that we might have a closer spatial distance, but in general, we want to stand a little bit more distant from somebody. That's what seems correct. It's what feels right.

There are cultures where just that polite conversational distance, even with strangers, is a lot closer. So if you're talking to someone from a culture that wants to stand closer because that feels normal to them and you feel like your space is being impinged upon, you might find yourself doing this little dance of moving away. Now, your actions may be interpreted as being very impolite and cold, disinterested, whereas you may be perceiving the other person as being aggressive, moving into your personal space. Neither one of you are correct in your interpretations, because we react instantaneously to these signals with space and positioning because the way we do things in our culture feels so normal to us. And so, instantly, we'll have an impression of the other person.

Now, this can go beyond polite conversational distance, this whole idea of space and positioning. Even something like how we use space in an office-- doors open or doors closed. Here in the United States, managers oftentimes will have their office door open. It's considered the open door policy. So when you walk by, you might peek your head and ask if you could come in and say something.

In fact, even the phrase "behind closed doors" sends something here. They did that behind closed doors. It was the opposite of this openness and more relaxed environment.

Now, in other cultures, the doors are kept closed. And that is a sign that you're serious and you're really focused on your business. You would always have the door closed as opposed to open. So that's just another cultural difference in the way we use space. And in this case, it happens to be office space.

We can see that even with the way people might sit and speak in a meeting. We have certain concepts here in the United States, where a speaker will stand, perhaps in the front of the room. And that's more of a formal way of presenting.

But we might also have speakers sitting around a table, maybe in the middle, seated, speaking. And they still may have a sense of authority, depending upon the context, whereas in other cultures, the position of where and the standing up or sitting down for a speaker has more significance. And perhaps there would not be such a relaxed approach taken.

So just the way we use space and positioning-- now in cultures also where the sense of personal space is not quite as strong as it is here in the United States, where people maybe more are accustomed to being closer together, even bumping into somebody is considered natural. And the idea that we would say, oh, excuse me is a little odd, because you wouldn't need to say that in this particular culture where close contact is considered the norm. Perhaps touching somebody accidentally is-- bumping up against them is not something to be apologized for.

So proxemics-- the style of communicating that comes simply through the way we use space, the way we position ourselves, polite conversational distance. So it's important, of course, to be aware of this because it could lead to miscommunication. And of course, it could escalate conflict to send a signal that you did not intend or to interpret one in a way that was not intended. So I've enjoyed being part of this tutorial, and I look forward to next time.

Terms to Know
Polite Conversational Distance

The amount of space between individuals a culture perceives as "correct" in a variety of relational contexts.


The communication style which uses space and positioning as a symbol.