Proxemics and personal space

From Self Defence – Proxemics aka Personal space

More than a feeling it’s an evolution mechanism that is hard-wired into your brain.
A basic “feral” defence mechanism that is telling you.
Distance is king in dangerous situations.

Only why?
When people are distanced, they can’t attack you by surprise.  (The combat bit)
Let them get too close and they could contaminate you.  (The survivalist CBRN bit)
Let them get too close and they may not miss you.  (The weapons bit)

Yet in modern Western society that’s largely been forgotten and invasion into your personal space through ignorance is often a trigger for anger, and reaction.

The science of personal space is called Proxemics and it’s mighty useful when dealing with different cultures let alone the local population. It can be complex though and has been made worse by the UK’s multicultural society policies.

It can also be a nightmare in security especially if your SOP calls for personal search.
Different nationalities, their gender and age, may affect a persons reaction towards you.
Add the complication of drink and drugs, transgenders, and the mentally ill.
Personal search on its own can become a battlefield in an instant.

I strongly advise everyone to do a recognised course in conflict management.
Conflict management is a set of techniques to identify, control, and defuse potential conflict. Courses vary in content but basically:-

  • You’ll learn the importance of good communication ,body language, and eye contact.
    For example, this is how one Chinese course sees the British and eye contact:-
    People try to avoid staring, but at the same time avoid ignoring the person when passing a stranger in the street. (The usual habit is to glance in the direction of the person until they are about 8 feet away, then you adjust where you’re walking if necessary and also change your glance.) —the closer the proximity (nearness) the greater the tendency to avoid eye contact with a stranger.
    Yet communicating with another requires proper eye contact, though it doesn’t have to be constant. Not looking at the other person could imply fear, contempt, uneasiness, guilt or indifference.
  • How to prepare for self-defence without outwardly showing you are primed for combat.
  • How to maintain that all important distance and angle between you and them without obviously giving space which some will think is weakness.
    Of course there are times when you just can’t compromise yet there are techniques for achieving that without invoking a reaction. Subtly influencing an aggressors judgement to make them think that taking you on IS A REALLY BAD IDEA.
  • How to communicate with the agitated, drugged, and mentally unstable.
  • Dealing with cultural and language difficulties.
  • What to look for!
    Those sometimes subtle signs that things are going to turn physical.
  • How to use the correct moderator to defuse the situation i.e. friendly non aggressive facial expression and body language, open gesture, empathy, the offer of options, and explanation of orders.
  • Finally a set of immediate actions if conflict ensues which may include control and restraint techniques.

It may sound a bit ‘airy fairy’ to some (especially to Mr. Macho and Sgt. Rock) but it’s not and although some forces training push the technique of dominance by manner, that causes resentment and anger in some which ultimately could make your life difficult, especially if you have to “look for favours”, later down the line.

Bear in mind that ignorant force is also contrary to most ‘hearts and minds’ policies.
Harshness, overly strong, and inappropriate behaviour has a habit of returning to bite you in the arse.

Yet we are talking about a survivalist world, TEOTWAWKI, post global conflict.
A time where (according to some) marauders and evil will stomp you in a second.
Where day-to-day you live in fear and the rule of law is no more.

That might eventually be the case for some only there are more good than bad in the world (governments excepted) and correct “management” of interactions could lead to opportunity, alliances, and more importantly trade in the future (in whatever form that will take).

Practical Proxemics.
In Western society the distances between you and someone else can be simplified into only four zones..

Designation    Distance            Activity                        Angle                Security Activity
Intimate          6″- 18″       Think hugs                          Face on <30º Search
Personal        1.5′- 4′          Family and close friends  30 to 45º        Interrogation
Social                4′- 12′        Co-workers, tradesmen    40 to 60º        Commands
Public              12′-25′        Passing by, day-to-day       60º plus         Demonstrating Presence

Angle? Facing a person can be taken as more confrontational (or intrusive) than when you are at an angle. Seeing that a personal search is WAY inside the intimate zone, you can probably see why it is sometimes a lit match to a flammable situation.
Looking at how someone stands and acts is also a dead give away to their personal space issues and “state of mind”.

Haptics (Touching).
American culture is classified as low contact because there’s less touching than in Arabian cultures which are recognised as high contact cultures.
Chinese people use more touching between family and close friends with whom they have an intimate or very personal relationship, than people in Northern European cultures.

In other words guys and girls, there are different cultural rules of touching in the world.

Whoops, this is beginning to evolve into a body language article BUT as emergencies have a habit of throwing different people together, it’s important to be a bit streetwise to body language and flash point behaviour.

For example.
A person exhibiting fear, worry, nervousness or stress nearly always exhibit a closed posture which can include ANY of the following:-
Crossed limbs, hugging themselves. Lip chewing or licking, eye aversion and restlessness.
Furtive glances, sweating, shaking. Sitting bolt upright, standing ‘tense’ or in a “combat stance”. Legs and ankles crossed i.e. locked. Shallow “controlled” breathing.

Plus most of the list of suspect bomber indicators.
See article on Suicide Bomber.

A nervous person “could” be OK to “handle” BUT extremely scared people often lose the ability to think things through clearly and can react aggressively or erratically.

Anger which is not defused quickly can invoke the “Do unto others before they do you” response.

Visual clues for aggression:-
Sweat, clenching teeth and jaws, involuntary shaking as muscles are tensioned , rapid breathing, flushed or sudden paling of the face.
Staring, restless, piercing look, infrequent blink rates.
All indicative of the fight or flight response.
The voice. Tone rises, gets louder, swearing, abusive, spitting words.
They may invade your personal space and lesser their angle to you (face to face).
They enter a combat ready stance and lean towards you.

Dealing with anger is a whole article within it’s own right BUT simply re-establishing your personal space can often defuse aggression.

My SOP on this?
Listen. Not speaking is sometimes best.
Understand and think about what is being said.
Keep your cool even if the person is pushing for a reaction.
Re-establish personal space by gesture and firm orders.
NEVER meet their emotion with the same. i.e. anger with anger, insult with insult.

A security guru I worked with had a much simpler approach to an angry person.

Ask once, but if they won’t comply,
Explain why, giving that person a chance to comply,
Tell once, accepting no argument,
ACT, as they have had plenty of opportunity to comply.


A disaster on the other hand can be complex where people may WANT personal contact.
That can lead to misunderstandings.
To counter that, NEVER get boxed in.
Your best place is on the outside of a huddle looking in.
Remember your training i.e. Say something ‘generic’ like “I’d appreciate a bit of space”.
That’s acceptable to ask for if not demand space.
Back that up holding your hands out as a barrier
Then if they move back, YOU move too. Double the distance “given”.
Some cultures will see that as a negative action, rude, or disrespectful.
It’s also tactically dangerous as you might have been conned by “a show of fear” or compliance.

This was just a gentle introduction and why I advise doing a proper conflict MANAGEMENT course. It will pay for itself in the end.

(Sources are many and include the course I went on.)

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7 Responses to Proxemics and personal space

  1. When I worked at the hospital, It was a requirement of any staff member to have to take a “non-violent crisis intervention” course. Reading body language, using strategic wording to diffuse people, and some techniques to secure a person into a pose that would allow them to be removed from threat status were some life skills that I am very happy to have. I learned that you can be physical without being violent, and that was pretty amazing.

    Thanks for another great post, Paul.

  2. yokel. says:

    I think practising Situational Awareness and “people watching” are relevant here.
    luckily the way I look most people keep away from me and many go in the opposite direction, I even had one middle aged lady try to throw herself through a shop window just to avoid me when I was walking down the street (in Dorset this was) minding my own business!!

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