Yujun Liu 

‘Where’, the word we use to question position, is interpreted differently by different people based on their background and experiences. We ask ourselves ‘Am I too close?’ or ‘Should I come closer?’ when we are not so confident about whether we are in the ‘right’ position. The feeling and judgement of appropriateness directs our movement as we seek to find our place in relation to a foreign body. There is a tension in the space between individuals. The measure of such proximiities is personal and dynamic. 

Proxemics is the theory firstly coined by Edward T Hall in his publication, “The Hidden Dimension” in 1966. It is the study of man’s perception and use of space, which is developed from observation of animal behaviours and how they react to foreign species.

It has long been believed that what all men share, is an ability to bypass language and culture and to refer back to experience in order to reach another human being. This implicit, and often explicit belief, concerning man’s relation to experience was based on the assumption that, when two human beings are subject to the same “experience,” virtually the same data are being fed to the two central nervous systems and that the two brains record similarly. 1

However, Edward Hall was convinced that most spatial interpretation is outside of our awareness. He believed that the difference in cultural contents has created barriers for communication and group activities. Selective screening of sensory data admits some things while filtering out others; so that experience as it is perceived through one set of culturally patterned sensory screens is quite different from experience perceived through another. 2

The architectural and urban environments that people create are expressions of this filtering-screening process. The feeling of one’s proximity to others will vary upon how different people use their senses. Also, experiences are activities existed in man-altered environment. Therefore, experience cannot be counted on as a stable point of reference, because it occurs in a setting that has been moulded by man. And the title of his book, “The Hidden Dimension” is to describe the theory of proxemics, which is an invisible measure in mankind.

Hall thought there was a great need to revise and broaden our view of the human situation, a need to be both more comprehensive and more realistic about both others and us. He believed it was essential that we should learn to read the silent communications as easily as the printed and spoken ones. Only by doing so can we also reach other people, both inside and outside our national boundaries, as we are increasingly required to do so.3 Hall aso believed all cultures are rooted in a common biology, and that is why he uses studies of animal behaviour to discover how humans will act. For instance, it is the nature of animals, including human, to exhibit behaviour, which we called territoriality. H. Hediger, Zurich’s famous animal psychologist, described the most important aspects of territoriality and explained succinctly the mechanisms by which it operates. Territoriality, he says, insures the propagation of the species by regulation density. It provides a frame in which things are done-places to learn, places to play, safe places to hide. Thus, it co-ordinates the activities of the group and holds the group together. 4

Nevertheless, the psychologist C.T. Carpenter, who pioneered the observation of monkeys in a native setting, was trying to list all functions of territoriality, including important ones relating to the protection and evolution of the species. The list indicated the crucial nature of territoriality as a behavioural system, a system that evolved in very much the same way as anatomical systems evolved. 

Studies of territoriality show that animals are often imprisoned in their own territories. Some mark their space with urine to stake a claim for privacy. Hall says people has territoriality and he has invented may ways of defending what he considers his own land, turf, or spread, by using furniture, walls, and fences to accomplish the same purpose.

By starting with comparative studies of animals, Hall was convinced each animal would be surrounded by a series of bubble-shaped balloons, and defined them as intimate, personal, social and public distances.

Visitors vs Invaders

Proxemics is a set of rules to translate human’s knowledge of spatial relationships along with emotional feeling into measurement. But these measures are doubted by some. Hall’s research doesn’t take into account different cultural background and life experience which is a critical component of today’s diverse society. Proxemics changes our view from being described as groups of people sharing ethical similarities, to individuals with unique characters to form groups. To adapt to this condition spatially, some of us have to give up his notion of absolute personal comfort and negotiate with others to maximised both parties’ best-fit proximity. We normally see that people waiting for trains tend to spread out along the platform. Starting from one, two, three then more until it reaches its acceptable capacity, it constantly alters one’s understanding of intimacy.

However, to be separate from strangers is not always the case in positioning yourself in shared space. In a home match of your favourite team, the radar for ‘keeping the distance’ to an unknown person will be suddenly deactivated. Sitting by a stranger may not be an issue anymore. It brings up the terminology of common ground, which is described as opinion or interests shared by each of two or more parties, and certainly brings people closer in the crowd on stands, where you will be cheering or even hugging each other that you will only do to your closest ones as described by Hall, no matter what background people are from. It emphasises the local distinctiveness, or simply as the spirit of space, where people can actually share their understanding of being together as a group but also apart as individuals.

The Dark Place or Utopia?

No man’s land, where the territorial occupancy is undefined, is a testing ground for how extreme the spatial relationships between two bodies can be, either extremely far apart or extremely close. It questions ourselves, and the measure of proxemics.


1.    The Hidden Dimension, 1966 cover
2.    Johnson Treatment, 1965
3.    The Battle for Fish, Phil Lanoue
4.    International Fair of Tripoli, Lebanon
5.    Franklin D. Roosevelt Platform during the Strike, 2007
6.    Icelandic Viking Clapping in Euro 2016, Evening Standard
7.    Arms Folded by Mick Maltas


1.    Edward T Hall, The Hidden Dimension (New York: Anchor Books, 1966)
2.     Em Griffin, A First Look at Communication Theory (Boston: McGraw-Hill Inc.,US, 1990), pg. 60
3.    Edward T Hall (1966)
4.    Edward T Hall (1966)
5.    Edward T Hall (1966)