May 162015


Today is the birthday (1914) of Edward Twitchell Hall, Jr., an American anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher. He is remembered for developing the analysis of how people behave and react in different types of culturally defined personal space, for which Hall coined the term “proxemics.” Proxemic theory is used extensively and effectively in anthropology and other fields, such as psychology and cinematography, even though the name Edward Hall is hardly known outside of cultural anthropology.

Hall was born in Webster Groves, Missouri, and taught at the University of Denver, Colorado, Bennington College in Vermont, Harvard Business School, Illinois Institute of Technology, Northwestern University in Illinois and others. The foundation for his lifelong research on cultural perceptions of space was laid during World War II, when he served in the U.S. Army in Europe and the Philippines.

From 1933 through 1937, Hall lived and worked with the Navajo and the Hopi on native American reservations in northwestern Arizona, the subject of his autobiographical West of the Thirties. He received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1942 and continued with field work and direct experience throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. During the 1950s he worked for the United States State Department, at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), teaching inter-cultural communications skills to foreign service personnel, developed the concept of “high context culture” and “low context culture”, and wrote several popular practical books on dealing with cross-cultural issues. He is considered a founding father of intercultural communication as an academic area of study.

Throughout his career, Hall introduced a number of new concepts, including proxemics, polychronic and monochronic time, and high and low context culture. In his second book, The Hidden Dimension, he describes the culturally specific temporal and spatial dimensions that surround each of us, such as the physical distances people maintain in different contexts. In The Silent Language (1959), Hall coined the term polychronic to describe the ability to attend to multiple events simultaneously, as opposed to “monochronic” individuals and cultures who tend to handle events sequentially.


In 1976, he published his third book, Beyond Culture, which is notable for having developed the idea of extension transference; that is, that humanity’s rate of evolution has and does increase as a consequence of its creations, that we evolve as much through our “extensions” as through our biology. However, with extensions such as the wheel, cultural values, and warfare which has evolved rapidly because it is technology based. They are capable of much faster adaptation than genetics.

He died at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico on July 20, 2009.

Proxemics is one of several subcategories of the study of nonverbal communication. Other prominent subcategories include haptics (touch), kinesics (body movement), vocalics (paralanguage), and chronemics (structure of time). Proxemics can be defined as “the interrelated observations and theories of man’s use of space as a specialized elaboration of culture.” Hall emphasized the impact of proxemic behavior (the use of space) on interpersonal communication. Hall believed that the value in studying proxemics comes from its applicability in evaluating not only the way people interact with others in daily life, but also “the organization of space in [their] houses and buildings, and ultimately the layout of [their] towns.”

In his work on proxemics, Hall separated his theory into two overarching categories: personal space and territory. Personal space describes the immediate space surrounding a person, while territory refers to the area which a person may “lay claim to” and defend against others. His theory on territoriality has been applied to animal behaviors as well; defending territory is regarded as a means of “propagation of the species by regulating density.”

The most portable types of space. People carry their personal space with them everywhere they go. It is the most inviolate form of territory. Body spacing and posture, according to Hall, are unintentional reactions to sensory fluctuations or shifts, such as subtle changes in the sound and pitch of a person’s voice. Social distance between people is reliably correlated with physical distance, as are intimate and personal distance, according to the delineations below. Hall did not mean for these measurements to be strict guidelines that translate precisely to human behavior, but rather a system for gauging the effect of distance on communication and how the effect varies between cultures and other environmental factors.


Intimate distance for embracing, touching or whispering

Close phase – less than 6 inches (15 cm)

Far phase – 6 to 18 inches (15 to 46 cm)

Personal distance for interactions among good friends or family members

Close phase – 1.5 to 2.5 feet (46 to 76 cm)

Far phase – 2.5 to 4 feet (76 to 122 cm)

Social distance for interactions among acquaintances

Close phase – 4 to 7 feet (1.2 to 2.1 m)

Far phase – 7 to 12 feet (2.1 to 3.7 m)

Public distance used for public speaking

Close phase – 12 to 25 feet (3.7 to 7.6 m)

Far phase – 25 feet (7.6 m) or more.

In addition to physical distance, the level of intimacy between conversants can be determined by “socio-petal socio-fugal axis”, or the “angle formed by the axis of the conversants’ shoulders”. Hall has also studied combinations of postures between dyads (two people) including lying prone, sitting, or standing. These variations in positioning are impacted by a variety of nonverbal communicative factors, listed below.

kinesthetic factors

This category deals with how closely the participants are to touching, from being completely outside of body-contact distance to being in physical contact, which parts of the body are in contact, and body part positioning.

touching code

This behavioral category concerns how participants are touching one another, such as caressing, holding, feeling, prolonged holding, spot touching, pressing against, accidental brushing, or not touching at all.

visual code

This category denotes the amount of eye contact between participants. Four sub-categories are defined, ranging from eye-to-eye contact to no eye contact at all.

thermal code

This category denotes the amount of body heat that each participant perceives from another. Four sub-categories are defined: conducted heat detected, radiant heat detected, heat probably detected, and no detection of heat.

olfactory code

This category deals in the kind and degree of odor detected by each participant from the other.

voice loudness

This category deals in the vocal effort used in speech. Seven sub-categories are defined: silent, very soft, soft, normal, normal+, loud, and very loud.


Hall notes that different cultures maintain different standards of personal space. The Francavilla Model of Cultural Types indicates the variations in personal interactive qualities, indicating three poles: “linear-active” cultures, which are characterized as cool and decisive (Germany, Norway, USA), “reactive” cultures, characterized as accommodating and non-confrontational (Vietnam, China, Japan), and “multi-active” cultures, characterized as warm and impulsive (Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Italy). Realizing and recognizing these cultural differences improves cross-cultural understanding, and helps eliminate discomfort people may feel if the interpersonal distance is too large (“stand-offish”) or too small (intrusive).

There are four forms of human territory in proxemic theory. They are:

public territory

a place where one may freely enter. This type of territory is rarely in the constant control of just one person. However, people might come to temporarily own areas of public territory.

interactional territory

a place where people congregate informally

home territory

a place where people continuously have control over their individual territory

body territory

the space immediately surrounding us

These different levels of territory, in addition to factors involving personal space, suggest ways for us to communicate and produce expectations of appropriate behavior.

The simplest example I can give of some of these categories is to compare living in Argentina with living in China. In Argentina it is usual to greet a friend with a hug, and a kiss on the right cheek. This applies to women with women, men with women, and men with men. Shaking hands as a greeting is considered cold and formal. In China, even intimate friends rarely touch; shaking hands is rare. I had to curb all kinds of behaviors when I was first in China. I hugged a friend when I first met her and she recoiled in horror. Lack of touch here still disturbs me. Argentinos moderate their voices in conversation whereas Chinese people are accustomed to speaking extremely loudly to one another in social situations – also something that disturbs me. A group of friends having a drink or playing cards is deafening. Argentinos have no problem with physical contact with strangers in public situations such as on a subway or on the street, and will quite naturally jostle people out of their way without apology; Chinese people generally (not always) will avoid contact in these situations and may apologize for bumping into one another. All of this (and more) continues to make me very uncomfortable here although I am adjusting.

Much research in the fields of Communication, Psychology, and Sociology, especially under the category of Organizational Behavior, has shown that physical proximity enhances peoples’ ability to work together. Face-to-face interaction is often used as a tool to maintain the culture, authority, and norms of an organization or workplace. An extensive body of research has been published about how proximity is affected by the use of new communication technologies. The importance of physical proximity in co-workers is often emphasized.

In developing new communication technologies, the theory of proxemics is often considered. While physical proximity cannot be achieved when people are connected virtually, perceived proximity can be attempted, and several studies have shown that it is a crucial indicator in the effectiveness of virtual communication technologies. These studies suggest that various individual and situational factors influence how close we feel to another person, regardless of distance. The mere-exposure effect originally referred to the tendency of a person to positively favor those who they have been physically exposed to most often. However, recent research has extended this effect to virtual communication. This work suggests that the more people communicates virtually with others, the more they are able to envision each other’s appearance and workspace, therefore fostering a sense of personal connexion. Increased communication has also been seen to foster common ground, or the feeling of identification with another, which leads to positive attributions about that person. Some studies emphasize the importance of shared physical territory in achieving common ground, while others find that common ground can be achieved virtually, by communicating often.

Proxemics is an essential component of cinematic mise-en-scène, the placement of characters, props and scenery within a frame, creating visual weight and movement. There are two aspects to the consideration of proxemics in this context, the first being character proxemics, which addresses such questions as: How much space is there between the characters? What is suggested by characters who are close to or far away from each other? Do distances change as the film progresses? and, Do distances depend on the film’s other content? The other consideration is camera proxemics, how far away is the camera from the characters/action? Analysis of camera proxemics typically relates Hall’s system of proxemic patterns to the camera angle used to create a specific shot, with the long shot or extreme long shot becoming the public proxemic, a full shot (sometimes called a figure shot, complete view, or medium long shot) becoming the social proxemic, the medium shot becoming the personal proxemic, and the close up or extreme close up becoming the intimate proxemic.

Film analyst Louis Giannetti has maintained that, in general, the greater the distance between the camera and the subject (in other words, the public proxemic), the more emotionally neutral the audience remains, whereas the closer the camera is to a character, the greater the audience’s emotional attachment to that character. Or, as actor/director Charlie Chaplin put it: “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long shot.”

Since Hall did some of his earliest work with the Navajo I thought it suitable to include a recipe for frybread which is commonly associated with the Navajo nation. According to Navajo tradition, frybread was created in 1864 using the flour, sugar, salt and lard that was given to them by the United States government when the Navajo, who were living in Arizona, were forced to make the 300-mile journey known as the “Long Walk” and relocate to Bosque Redondo, New Mexico on to land that could not easily support their traditional staples of vegetables and beans.

For many Native Americans, “frybread links generation with generation and also connects the present to the painful narrative of Native American history. It is often served both at home and at gatherings. The way it is served varies from region to region and different groups have different recipes. It can be found in its many ways at state fairs and pow-wows, but what is served to the paying public may be different from what is served in private homes and in the context of Navajo-only events.

Frybread can be served plain to accompany stews, filled somewhat like a taco, or spread with honey as a dessert.


Navajo Frybread


4 cups flour (high gluten flour is best)
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup warm water (or more)
1 -2 cup shortening or 1 -2 cup cooking oil


Mix the flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Gradually stir in the water and work it in, adding more water a little at a time, if needed.

Knead by hand until soft but not sticky. Form the dough into a round ball, cover and let stand for about 30 minutes. Shape into 2″ balls.

Heat shortening or cooking oil in a 1 ½ ” deep frying pan until hot.

Flatten each ball of dough by patting and stretching into a thin, flat circle. Carefully place the dough into the hot oil.

Fry until the edges of the bread are golden and turn to cook the other side.