Practical Applications of Zone Distances

Our intimate zone is normally entered by another person for one of two reasons. First, the intruder is a close relative or friend, or he or she may be making sexual advances. Second, the intruder is hostile and may be about to attack. While we will tolerate strangers moving within our personal and social zones, the intrusion of a stranger into our intimate zone causes physiological changes to take place within our bodies. The heart pumps faster, adrenalin pours into the bloodstream and blood is pumped to the brain and the muscles as physical preparations for a possible fight or flight situation are made.

This means that putting your arm in a friendly way on or around someone you have just met may result in that person's feeling negative towards you, even though he or she may smile and appear to enjoy it so as not to offend you. If you want people to feel comfortable in your company, the golden rule is 'keep your distance'. The more intimate our relationship is with other people, the closer we are permitted to move within their zones. For example, a new employee may initially feel that the other staff members are cold towards him, but they are only keeping him at the social zone distance until they know him better. As he becomes better known to the other employees, the territorial distance between him and them decreases until eventually he is permitted to move within their personal zones and, in some cases, their intimate zones.

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The distance that two people who are kissing keep their hips apart can tell you something about the relationship that exists between them. Lovers press their torsos hard against each other and move within each other's close intimate zones. This differs from the kiss received from a stranger on New Year's Eve or from your best friend's spouse, both of whom keep their pelvic area at least 15 centimetres away from yours.

One of the exceptions to the distance/ intimacy rule occurs where the spatial distance is based on the person's social standing. For example, the managing director of a company may be the weekend fishing buddy of one of his subordinates and when they go fishing each may move within the other's personal or intimate zone. At the office, however, the managing director keeps his fishing buddy at the social distance to maintain the unwritten social strata rules.

Crowding at concerts, cinemas, in elevators, trains or buses results in unavoidable intrusion into other people's intimate zones, and reactions to this invasion are interesting to observe. There is a list of unwritten rules that people in Western cultures follow rigidly when faced with a crowded situation such as a packed lift or public transport. These rules include:

1. You are not permitted to speak to anyone, including a person you know.

2. You must avoid eye contact with others at all times.

3. You are to maintain a 'poker face' - no emotion is permitted to be displayed.

4. If you have a book or newspaper, you must appear to be deeply engrossed in it.

5. The bigger the crowd, the less the body movement you are permitted to make.

6. In elevators, you are compelled to watch the floor numbers above your head.

We often hear words like 'miserable', 'unhappy' and 'despondent' used to describe people who travel to work in the rush hour on public transport. These labels are used because of the blank, expressionless look on the faces of the travellers, but they are mis-judgments on the part of the observer. What the observer sees, in fact, is a group of people adhering to the rules that apply to the unavoidable invasion of their intimate zones in a crowded public place.

If you doubt this, notice how you behave next time you go alone to a crowded cinema. As the usher directs you to your seat which is surrounded by a sea of unknown faces, notice how you will, like a pre-programmed robot, begin to obey the unwritten rules of behaviour in crowded public places. As you begin to compete for territorial rights to the armrest with the unknown person beside you, you will begin to realise why those who go to a crowded cinema alone often do not take their seats until the cinema lights are extinguished and the movie actually begins. Whether we are in a crowded elevator, cinema or bus, people around us become non-persons - that is, they do not exist, as far as we are concerned and so we do not respond as if we were being attacked should someone inadvertently encroach upon our intimate territory.

An angry mob or group of protesters fighting for a mutual purpose does not react in the same way as do individuals when their territory is invaded; in fact, something quite different occurs. As the density of the crowd increases, each individual has less personal space and takes a hostile stand, which is why, as the size of the mob increases, it becomes angrier and uglier and fighting may begin to take place. This information is used by the police, who will try to break up the crowd so that each person can regain his own personal space and so become calmer.

Only in recent years have governments and town planners given any credence to the effect that high-density housing projects have in depriving individuals of their personal territory. The consequences of high-density living and overcrowding were seen in a recent study of the deer population on James Island, an island about two kilometres off the coast of Maryland in Chesapeake Bay in the United States. Many of the deer were dying in large numbers, despite the fact that at the time there was plenty of food, predators were not in evidence and infection was not present. Similar studies in earlier years with rats and rabbits revealed the same trend and further investigation showed that the deer had died as a result of overactive adrenal glands, resulting from the stress caused by the deprivation of each deer's personal territory as the population increased. The adrenal glands play an important part in the regulation of growth, reproduction and the level of the body's defences. Thus overpopulation caused a physiological reaction to the stress; not other factors such as starvation, infection or aggression from others.

In view of this it is easy to see why areas that have the highest density of human population also have the highest crime and violence rates.

Police interrogators use territorial invasion techniques to break down the resistance of criminals being questioned. They seat the criminal on an armless, fixed chair in an open area of the room and encroach into his intimate and close intimate zones when asking questions, remaining there until he answers. It often takes only a short while for this territorial harassment to break down the criminal's resistance.

Management people can use this same approach to extract information from subordinates who may be withholding it, but a sales person would be foolish to use this type of approach when dealing with customers.

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