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How to Use Proxemics in the Corporate Classroom

Posted by Jeff Welch on 10/15/12 4:00 AM
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Skilled classroom facilitators always make an extra effort to effectively practice both their verbal and non-verbal communication skills. Verbally, it’s important that we use proper grammar, minimize speech fillers, and clearly articulate our words and syllables. Non-verbally, it’s critical that we incorporate gestures, facial expressions, and movement to help convey our message. There’s another aspect of non-verbal communication that we, as facilitators, need to be mindful of; it’s an aspect called proxemics.
Proxemics is the theory of using measurable distance and space to make people feel comfortable or more relaxed while interacting with them. The term was coined by the late anthropologist, Edward T. Hall, Jr. during the late 1950s/early 1960s. Proxemics is usually categorized by personal territory and physical territory.

Personal territory proxemics is that safe distance of space that we keep between us and the person we’re standing behind while waiting in line at a ticket counter. Another example of personal territory proxemics is the space or area that we comfortably settle into when we enter an elevator with other people.

Proxemics as it relates to physical territory involves the use of furniture and seating arrangements. Think about how the seats in movie theaters and on public transit usually consist of individual chairs, often with an arm rest or divider, as opposed to a long, singular bench. Designers of these public spaces often consider proxemics.

As classroom facilitators the awareness and practice of proxemics can be used to our advantage. Let’s first explore personal territory proxemics. Dr. Hall separated personal territory proxemics into four distinct zones: intimate, personal, social, and public. There have been countless studies conducted to determine what is considered a comfortable distance in each zone. In North America, the “comfort zones” between individuals are usually as follows:

Intimate – Ranges from one foot or less of space, and usually involves some sort or touching, such as whispering or embracing.

Personal – Ranges from 2-4 feet of space, and is usually practiced among friends and family members.

Social – Ranges from 4-10 feet of space and is typically exercised when business associates and strangers communicate with each other.

Public – Ranges from 12-25 feet of space and is often the distance between a public speaker and his/her audience.

In the classroom, practicing social distance or proximity is usually most advantageous when interacting with your learners. It’s not necessary to actually consult a tape measure to determine the suggested 4-10 feet of space; however, I feel it’s important to be mindful of a learner’s personal space. I try to practice this habit when I’m conversing with a learner and giving feedback.

I often have flashbacks of a time where I was made to feel very uncomfortable by an instructor who didn’t practice this proximity guideline. I was being trained for a job in a call center which required heavy usage of a desktop computer. During training, if I had difficulty using my computer or entering data, the trainer would assist by hovering over me and invading my personal space. I’m not even sure she realized how uneasy I felt as we were both virtually cheek to cheek while looking at the computer screen. I never want to make my learners feel uncomfortable like this in any of my training classes.

Public distance or proximity should be considered as you set up your classroom
. The 12-25-foot range gives you a safe distance from your learners when you present in front of your audience. It also creates an ample and unobstructed area, which is good for movement during your presentation.

You may have noticed I made specific reference to North America when explaining the “comfort zone” proximities. Not all cultures practice the same protocol as it relates to personal space. I have read that certain Middle Eastern, Latin American, and African cultures are considered “high contact” cultures because close proximity is the cultural norm for them.

I experienced this first hand on a trip to South Africa. While waiting in line at a South African fast food chain, the person standing behind me was so close, I actually felt him breathing on my neck. Feeling uncomfortable, I immediately got out of line and went to the restroom. As I waited “in queue” (as they say in South Africa) for a second time, I realized the next person who came behind me stood just as close. I remember looking around to see if a large crowd of people had suddenly arrived at the restaurant. Because the restaurant was not crowded, I was left to assume that standing in such close proximity was simply a cultural difference; however, as an American, it made me feel a bit uneasy.

In regard to training, if your audience is comprised mostly of North Americans or other members of “low contact” cultures, it’s probably best to practice personal territory proxemics and keep what’s considered a safe or appropriate distance.

I also recommend practicing physical territory proxemics in the corporate classroom. As mentioned earlier, physical territory proxemics involves the use of furniture and seating arrangements.

As you arrange your classroom tables and chairs, be mindful of the learners’ personal space. Typically they will be seated for extended periods of time next to other individuals during a course. At Langevin, we recommend 30-35 square feet of space per person while seated. If your learners are required to write, we recommend providing tables with 4-6 square feet of table space per person so they have adequate “elbow room.”

On the flip side, research shows that too much distance between learners can actually reduce interaction and participation. Still keeping the “elbow room” concept in mind, I recommend using seating arrangements such as the “Bistro” style at round tables. Or, you might consider using the “U” or “Horseshoe” style set-up. These seating arrangements have a tendency to promote comfortable interaction and participation, rather than limit it.

Perhaps proxemics are already part of your presentation skills toolkit; if not, I encourage you to incorporate this powerful tool to help you better connect with your learners by making them feel comfortable and relaxed in your classroom.

How else might you incorporate proxemics in the classroom?

Jeff has been a course leader with Langevin since 2000. He completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in both Speech Communications and Broadcasting from Western Kentucky University. Before pursuing his passion for training, Jeff worked as a television reporter, flight attendant, fitness instructor, and tour guide. Jeff started his career in training at the daily newspaper in Atlanta. Training seemed to be a natural fit for him since he’s always been a bit of a performer. When at home, you’ll catch Jeff watching a cooking show, recreating a dish he’s eaten abroad, or exploring one of the many great restaurants in the Chicago area. During the summer months, he hits the road to follow the talented drum corps of Drum Corp International—something he’s done since high school!

Topics: facilitation, instructional techniques, presentation skills

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