Distance Norms – Feeling the Breach

March 20, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Public life has suddenly become an exercise in “breaching”*  — the breaking of norms.

What makes norms so powerful is that we usually don’t realize that they are there, constraining our behavior. A norm doesn’t become visible until someone breaks it.

In the lecture on norms, I always included Edward T. Hall’s observations about interpersonal distance. If we do not follow the norms, distance may be more important than the actual words we speak.
The flow and shift of distance between people as they interact with each other is part and parcel of the conversation process. The normal conversational distance between strangers illustrates how important are the dynamics of space interaction. If a person gets too close, the reaction is instantaneous and automatic – the other person backs up. And if he gets too close again, back we go again. I have observed an American backing up the entire length of a corridor while a foreigner whom he considers pushy tries to catch up with him.

It’s commonplace now, but in 1959, when Hall published The Silent Language, it was one of those facts that had been hiding in plain sight. But even now that we know, we usually remain unaware how these norms are an unseen and unheard theater director telling us actors to hit our marks. I’m not following rules, I think; I’m just acting naturally.

Lately, I’ve gotten a more visceral understanding of conversational distance.  It’s one thing to read about it and understand in an intellectual, cognitive way. Or even to have students in class stand up, face one another, and move closer and farther apart to see what feels comfortable and uncomfortable.  It’s quite another thing, and the understanding of the norm gets much more meaningful, when you run into people you know and have a brief conversation standing five or six feet away from them. You can hear each other, but it just feels, well, distant.

* Some instructors assign students to do a breaching exercise. I am skeptical of these assignments for reasons outlined here and here.

1 comment:

Nithya said...

Jay thanks for the informative blog posted above. It helped me to understand the importance of framing norms for lectures.