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The language of distances, also known as proxemics, is part of our non-verbal communication and relates to how we occupy, use and perceive space as well as how we behave within that space, both in relation to ourselves and others.
I recently revisited this topic while cleaning up my bookshelf and came across a book from my student days: “The Hidden Dimension” by Edward T. Hall. In this book, Hall explores interpersonal spatial behavior (proxemics) and the significance of distance in human interaction.
He examines how people in different cultures and contexts perceive their environment and how cultural differences and use of space influence their body language, gestures, and interactions. These differences have an impact on interpersonal communication and interaction.
Hall’s theories on proxemic zones and the significance of distance are helpful for our everyday interactions and find application in martial arts practice.
The way we occupy space, grant space to others, the distance we consider appropriate between ourselves and others, and how we assert ourselves, stand our ground, and even defend ourselves depend largely on the significance we attach to distances, thereby regulating our relationships with others.
Understanding this language enables us to improve the way we interact with others.
Understanding how people handle space is crucial for establishing the right level of relationship. Those who develop a keen sense of themselves, their environment, and their counterpart in space can ✅ communicate more effectively ✅ react more appropriately ✅ set boundaries ✅ respect and be aware of others' invisible barriers.
Our bodies represent a territorial zone. We determine who can approach us and how close.
If someone intrudes and jeopardizes our safety zone, we should react and reclaim our space. This safety zone can vary depending on cultural differences and individual preferences, but on average, it is about an arm’s length.
4 Distance zones
To describe different distances, Hall speaks of 4 proxemic zones that people perceive around them as “intimate,” “personal,” “social,” and “public.”
- In the intimate zone, which is about 45 cm or less around a person, we usually only allow very close friends or family members; anyone else would be perceived as intrusive or threatening.
- In the personal zone, which is about 45 cm to 1.20 m around a person, friends and acquaintances can move in an informal manner.
- In the social zone, which is about 1.20 m to 3.70 m around a person, we encounter business partners or acquaintances.
- In the public zone, which is more than 3.70 m around a person, anyone can freely enter and exit.
Interpreting distances for self-protection
In martial arts and self-defense, we learn to quickly assess these areas. For example, kicking distance falls within the intimate zone, while clinching or grappling distance is within the personal zone.
When determining the distance between two people, body language and nonverbal communication are crucial. For instance, withdrawing the body can signal rejection and keep the aggressor at a distance, while raising the hands can help de-escalating a situation.
In the world of martial arts and self-defence, the choice of space in a room can play a crucial role in determining the distance between attacker and defender. Skilled defenders can plan their position and movements to maintain control over the distance and space, effectively fighting off the attacker. Similarly, an attacker may try to exploit the choice of space and spatial configuration to surprise or overwhelm the defender.
Assertiveness and self-defence however, begin long before a potential confrontation—by avoiding unpleasant situations through clear body language, confident demeanour, and a clear posture. Boundaries which are not respected affect both your physical and mental well-being. It's about defining your own needs and standing up for your own "safety zone" and "well-being" so that they are respected, with clear words and unmistakable body signals.
Taking space, giving space, and setting boundaries
What can be draw from this, and what helps in everyday life to better set boundaries and bring up the courage to claim your own space?
👉 Becoming aware of your own safety zone
In which situations do you let yourself be taken by surprise, intimidated, or fall into role conflicts?
- When do you limit yourself?
- When is your red line crossed?
- When and with whom do you feel uncomfortable?
Asking yourself these questions is the first step toward self-determination and self-protection.
You need the space you deserve, to be always clear and present, also in your professional life.
Often, we try to meet external demands, fulfill the expectations of others, seek recognition, and shy away for fear of rejection.
For example, Martina, a hospital department head, realised during our coaching sessions that she often gives in when a colleague, who is also a close friend, brings her personal situation into play to get schedule changes. Because of their friendship, Martina already had filled in for her several time, even when she actually felt she had to refuse which caused an internal conflict and mixed feelings towards her friend and colleague.
She understood that, due to the friendship, she had allowed her more closeness than other employees and felt constrained, uncomfortable, and insecure when dealing with her matters.
👉 Taking a clear stance
Martina successfully tried not to get involved immediately but to distance herself from the situation. She first created spatial distance by going behind her desk and then suggested another solution in a very matter-of-fact manner. Thus, she acted in her role as a supervisor and in the interest of her department. At the end of the day, she even had a very good feeling because her friend apologised for the unintentional boundary crossing.
👉 Paying attention to body language
Posture and movement patterns must correlate with your words if you want to clearly speak up on boundary violations: only in absence of ambiguity, you the other party can openly discuss and reflect on individual expectations. Through your own body language, you send clear signals: be aware of how your body posture, facial expression, and vocal tone affect communication.
Don’t let others suppress your personality or even restrict your space.
👉 Communicating your own boundaries clearly
Formulate your demands and enforce them; take your needs seriously and communicate them. Asserting yourself decisively does not mean being rude and loud. If you prepare well and clearly present your standpoint, it will become easier for you to position yourself clearly, respectfully and without being cornered.
👉 Defending your territorial zone or safety zone without ambiguity
Your body represents a territorial zone. People you trust are allowed closer than strangers. In case of disrespect, step back and restore the necessary distance, for example, by simply moving about an arm’s length away. This way, the boundary crossing should be clarified and understood – if not, say it! State that the person, whether intentionally or not, has come too close.
You can apply proxemics in team trainings, but also for personal development measures to strengthen social competencies and self-care, when it comes to improve the ability of setting boundaries. In our courses (Self assertion course for women/ Leadership training), we apply techniques and principles from martial arts. Participants improve their understanding of distance and communication in human interactions. At the same time, they train mental and physical strategies to assert their STANDPOINT confidently and clearly. As the word implies – standing up for your own opinion, defending your own standpoint, and claiming your own space. This is part of the everyday norm: it is everyone's right.