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Feet and Inches

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Have you ever known someone that always stands waaaaaay to close to you when talking?  OR chooses a chair on the opposite side of the boardroom?

We always take these behaviors personally. But why?

Like everything, we must first analyze the influencer behind the action.  Learned behaviors dominate our day-to-day lives.  Our culture -in great part- influences our socially accepted personality traits and mannerisms.  From a young age we learn what is and is not “normal behavior” by our own cultural standards. We just don’t ever stop to think about it.

Cultural Dilemma

The world is changing.  Facebook and Twitter accounts help topple the Egyptian government.  Globalization is real, people! It’s here and we have to stop assuming that Western culture is accepted by the rest of the planet.  As companies move their business into ever expanding overseas markets we are faced with the dilemma of conducting operations in a multi-cultural corporate setting.  Problem? The risk for cultural confusion, unintentional insults, and inappropriate behavior can cripple lucrative relationships.

Anthropologist Edward Hall was a pioneer in the study of man’s spatial needs. In the 1960’s, he coined the word “proxemics” into common scientific community jargon.  His research led to new cognitive developments in our own relationships with other humans.  The research also came at a beneficial time, just as our desire to expand in business became insatiable (and not to mention, unviable without it).

The Space Between

As children, we learn culturally appropriate space by around age 12.  The Western model is as follows:

1) The Intimate Zone: Space between 6-18 inches. This is a zone where a person guards as if it were property.  The only ones let in this space are commonly parents, close friends, spouses, relatives, and pets.

2) The Personal Zone:  Space between 18-48 inches.  This is the distance we stand at cocktail parties, social functions and friendly gatherings.

3) The Social Zone:  Space between 4-12 feet. This is the distance we keep from strangers, new employees, etc.

4) The Public Zone:  Space between is 12+ feet.  This is the distance we keep when addressing a large group of people, our most comfortable distance when standing in a room.

So right about now I bet you are thinking about your most recent social outing and your proximity to others.

Did you know that on average, there is a cross-cultural trend finding that the distance between two women decreases, while the distance between two men increases!  It’s true, this cultural conundrum affects women less than men.  But can ya blame the guys for holding their ground?  7 million+ years of evolutionary psychology has served them, and the rest of humanity, very well in the past.

Like all living creatures, humans also have our own personal territory or “space bubble”… if you will. For example, the Japanese culture is accustomed to crowding, so much so that they have a smaller 10-inch Intimate Zone.  A Westerner will always move away from this impressed intrusion and appear “cold’ or “standoffish” to the Japanese. This lack of cultural awareness can easily lead to misconceptions and inaccurate assumptions, including being “deceptive” or  “not to be trusted”.

Wide Open Spaces

America is the greatest country on the planet. Period.  We have so much room to roam, while the majority of our population lives on the coasts; the US provides an over-abundance of open territory for its nation.  And it turns out, we need it!

An upward trend in airline passenger violence occurred in the 1960’s directly following a shift in air travel accommodations.  The profitable operation of the airlines dipped as a result of price discounting, so seats were added to planes, bringing people a little too close.  The unconscious need to protect ones on personal territory was set a blaze as passengers were forced to battle for hours over an armrest, in cramped conditions (with nasty food too, I’m sure of it).

The Golden Rule

When establishing a new relationship the golden rule is “keep your distance”. The average arms length would have you stand 18 inches away from someone.  This is arguably the most non-intrusive distance to position yourself.  Don’t over think it, but remember that we all carry around our own cultural norms.  And the next time you are in a social setting, continue your hobby of people-watching (a personal fave and btw… near Olympic sport level) and take note. See if you can identify the 4 zones.

Optimizing AND maximizing your “Best Business Practices” will serve you well in the coming fiscal quarters.  Your ability to make friends and influence people if your greatest asset. At the end of the day, we are all just people.  We make mistakes, but the greatest business players of all time will learn from those mistakes, no matter how humbling.

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