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Proxemics: the study of personal space

Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

Imagine if you could not only understand but diagram all the awkward little moments that make up a typical day. Edward T. Hall did just that.

He created proxemics, the study of personal space. An anthropologist by training, he believed his new field could aid everything from intercultural communication to office design, and his books, like The Hidden Dimension and The Silent Language, introduced a new way of thinking about the world.

As the above video shows, that study included a fascinating system for noting every nuance of nonverbal communication (you can read Hall’s full paper here). Thanks to his work, it was possible to record the discomfort of close talkers, quiet talkers, people with bad breath, personal space invaders, and every other personal interaction that had previously slipped into the anthropological cracks.

Hall wasn’t trying to produce sitcom fodder — he taught foreign service professionals how to connect with people from other cultures, and he even consulted with architects about the best ways to make us of space. Those high minded goals persist as 21st-century researchers use proxemics in a smattering of disciplines that include everything from robot design to theater.

But it’s the relatability of proxemics, as well as its unique notation, that makes it stand out today. We all know what it’s like to have our personal space invaded. Now you know there’s a name — and a system — to understand it.

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