Space Planning: a Cultural Matter

Maria Antonietta Marino Date: 2019-08-07

According to anthropologist E.T. Hall, proxemics is "the spatial dimension of non verbal behavior",the study of man's perception and use of space [1]: social research suggests that people fromdifferent cultural backgrounds do not share the same preferences in relation to spacemanagement, and that what may appear as "normal" behaviour to some of us may represent aviolation of a social norm for another individual. Hall theorized that our sense of space relates to four different zones, defined by both physicaldistance and level of discomfort: Intimate Space, Personal Space, Social Space, Public Space [2].

  • Public space requires no physical- or directeye-contact. Shopping malls, stations, airports,stages, sidewalks are designed to keep thistype of distance
  • Social space is the preferred distance forbusiness dealings and interactions with peoplewe are not very close to
  • Personal space is reserved to interactionsamong family members and close friends. Physical contact is possible
  • Intimate space surrounds our body and it'smeant for interactions with our loved ones thatinvolve physical contact (hugging, whispering,touching,etc)

Around the same time Hall developed his theories on proxemics, researchers Lyman and Scott [3]defined territoriality as "the need of individuals and groups to claim some geographical area astheir own" and sustained that we can distinguish four different types of territories (the differencebetween territory and personal space - at times referred to as "portable territory" - is that the latteris something individuals "carry around" with them):

  • PUBLIC TERRITORIES: most people have freedom of access, but not necessarily of action. Appropriate behaviour is expected and occasionally enforced by law
  • HOME TERRITORIES: people have relative freedom of behaviour and experience a sense ofcontrol over the area (note: in some occasions public and home territories may overlap, when apublic space is used as a home territory by a specific sub-group of people)
  • INTERACTIONAL TERRITORIES: all the areas where social interactions may occur (eg,parties), characterized by both mobility and fragility: conversations may move from a place toanother, interrupt and resume at a later stage. Access to these territories is granted to those whounderstand the implicit rules put in place by the existing members of the group involved in theinteraction
  • BODY TERRITORIES: the most private territory belonging to an individual

How do the concepts of "space" and "territoriality" fit into today's global workplace then, considering both the traditional territorial modification (with conversations nowadays often happening between peoplebased in different countries, or between members of different cultures interacting for thefirst time in business related scenarios without any prior cross-cultural briefing) and the timeneeded for the parties involved to assimilate and adapt to change?

Space management affects the relationships among co-workers, between suppliers and clients,it's strictly correlated with power dynamics ("power holders" are usually afforded a larger personal space and a more desirable territory in comparison with subordinates) [4]: what cancompanies do toensure that space in the workplace is managed correctly, to ensure the best possible outcomes inrelation to employee satisfaction and increased productivity and quality levels?

Cultural awareness can help organisations planning shared spaces according to their employees background. For instance:

  • What cultures are most likely to behighly territorial and to display a strongproprietary attachment to specific organizationalareas or tools?
  • Members of what cultures tend to reactdefensively to what they perceive as a"territorial invasion"?
  • In relation to privacy and security concerns, members of which cultures tend to requiresmaller personal spaces in comparison toothers?

According to Hall's theory, cultures fall into two basic groups: contact (physical touching is a way to establish interpersonal relationships) and no-contact (physical touching between acquaintances is frowned upon).

Contact Cultures:

On average - and to varying extents - physical contact during conversations is considered "normal behaviour for cultures based in the Middle East, in Latin America, in Africa, in Southern Europe. In these areas the physical distance between individuals is relatively small in comparison to the distance maintained between members no-contact cultures

No-contact Cultures

On average - and to varying extents - in Northern and Eastern Europe, in Northern America and in most Asian countries physical contact in social situations is usually considered inappropriate. In these areas physical distance between individuals tends to be greater in comparison to the distance maintained between members of contact cultures

It's worth noting that while belonging to either a group of the other gives no indication about territoriality tendencies (for instance, the Japanese are both no-contact and low-territoriality, cultures characterized by high territoriality are usually low-context and vice-versa. People with low territoriality tendencies have less ownership of both space material belongings and are usually more ready and willing to share with others, while boundaries are more important to people with high territoriality tendencies, who display a greater concern for "ownership" and do not respond particularly well to personal closeness.



[1] Hall, Edward T. 1963. "A System for the Notation of Proxemic Behavior." American Anthropologist(Blackwell Publishing Ltd) 65 (1548-1433): 1003--1026

[2] Hall, E.T. (1959). "The Silent Language", New York: Doubleday

[3] Lyman, S. M., & Scott, M. B. (1967). "Territoriality: A neglected sociological dimension". SocialProblems, 15(2), 236-249 -

[4] Burgoon, J. K., Stacks, D. W., & Burch, S. A. (1982). "The role of rewards and violations of distancingexpectations in achieving influence in small groups". Communication, 11, 114-128