A question of clearance

by David Week on 28 April 2011


Social distance

Every culture has its own sense of space. This was elucidated most clearly by the anthropologist Edward T. Hall in his book The Hidden Dimension. He also coined the term “proxemics”.

According to Hall, we each have a sense of how much distance is comfortable between ourselves and another person. If the other persons get closer than that distance, we become uncomfortable, and retreat, or otherwise react. Typical distances for Europeans are:

  • Intimate distance for embracing, touching or whispering: 0–0.5m
  • Personal distance for interactions among good friends or family members: 0.5–1.2m
  • Social distance for interactions among acquaintances: 1.2m–3.0m
  • Public distance used for public speaking: 3.0m or more.

Many factors influence where within these ranges is “okay”. For instance:

  • Typically, children can come closer than adults
  • Men react more strongly to incursions than do women
  • Women can come closer to men, than can other men
  • People can approach from the side, or the back, than they can from the front.

Social distances vary across in cultures.

  • In Indonesia, it’s quite common to see men walking together hand in hand, or with their arms around each other, which would (at the time) have been very unusual in Europe.
  • In Asia, people tolerate close contact in public transport, in a way that would be difficult for Europeans or North Americans
  • In Europe, Northern Europeans (like Norwegians) require more space than Southern Europeans (like Italians.)

Hall was later called upon to train US diplomats, and described being at a cocktail party in which he watched an Italian “chase” a Swede round the room, as the Italian tried to reduce the space between them, and the Swede tried to increase it.

Understanding all this is helpful in operating cross-culturally, and in designing spaces in which people are going to be together.

Engineering clearance

A much more technical sense of the space between things is the engineering term “clearance”. Clearance is what you need to have above your head when you walk through a door, or on either side of your car as your drive through a tunnel.

Now, I knew that social distances had a cultural component to them. But it never struck me that engineering clearances could also have a cultural dimension… until today, when my friend and colleague Howard Davis sent me the following video, which asks the question:

How close to a train track can you set up a vegetable market?

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