The Power of “Proxemics”: Creating 4 Zones for Connection at Church
In 1963, Edward T. Hall coined the term “proxemics” to describe the perception of the physical space around us. When social scientists examine this perception of connecting space, they generally speak of four zones:
- Intimate (<2’)
- Personal (2-4’)
- Social (4-12’)
- Public (>12’)
Learn how to create Third Place spaces in your church where people can connect and deepen their relationships with God and each other.
Intimate distances are those reserved for close, trusting relationships. People hugging, standing side-by-side, or engaging in close conversation are examples of intimate space.
We only let the closest people touch us. Anyone allowed to experience this zone that we are not comfortable with will result in considerable social discomfort. Think about being in an elevator or packed in a lobby. This type of discomfort can affect our capacity for relations.
Our family and close friends usually engage us within our personal space, a two-to-four foot bubble around our person. There is a slight degree of intimacy, but usually this is casual, close conversation that gives us slightly more space than the intimate space. When we are seated in a crowded airplane, the tight quarters are uncomfortable for most strangers next to us, yet close friends are welcomed into this physical space.
This is why we feel uneasy if others come too close or not close enough. Personal space involves not only the invisible bubble around the body, but many of our senses as well. People may feel shaken when they experience an unwelcome smell or even someone leering in their direction.
Most of our relationships fall into the social space, allowing a little extra distance between them and us. Casual conversations, business discussion, or polite social behavior happens in this space.
This is a critical area to design for with churches, as the built environment can directly influence the number of connections in this realm. Acquaintances and colleagues are most comfortable having conversation in the social space.
Public space provides the greatest distance between people. This is a safe space where we are free to decide who enters the next spaces, or who doesn’t. Our neighbors, other shoppers, or fellow concertgoers are examples of how we interact in public spaces.
The most important aspect of public space is that it gives us a way to share experiences. Doing life together with other people satisfies a basic need for belonging and community.
Leveraging the Power of Proxemics
Examples of proxemics are all around us: The armrest that separates us from the person sitting next to us at the theater; park benches that face the same direction and let us sit like birds on a wire; coffee shops with furniture arranged in intimate settings. The list goes on.
Many businesses are aware of proxemics and the science of space, and they use this knowledge to create spaces that sell product. Similarly, by understanding how people perceive physical space and the way it makes them feel, churches can intentionally create spaces that address these various needs for intimacy, personal connection, socializing, and gathering.
For practical solutions for creating these four zones of connection, check out our free downloadable resource, Creating Third Place Space at Church.
Derek DeGroot serves as director of design and integrated services at Aspen Group.