Proxemics – the Psychology of Positioning: Use this for Interview Success!

Proxemics, is a somewhat obscure topic usually relegated to dusty textbooks about Environmental Psychology. However, understanding more about Proxemics, can greatly increase your chances of acceptance and success in business, in the interview process and in interpersonal relationships. Edward T. Hall first coined the term Proxemics in 1963 to describe the social distance between people and its correlation with physical distance between people.

When I was in University, studying Psychology, this concept really caught my attention and I began thinking about its practical implications. The stories I will share below, are my personal experiences and case-study observations and not based on clinical trials or rigorously validated scientific research.

Edward T. Hall identified four types of human-to-human distance: (for North Americans)

  • intimate distance for embracing, touching or whispering
    (15-45 cm, 6-18 inches)
  • personal distance for interactions among good friends
    (45-120 cm, 1.5-4 feet)
  • social distance for interactions among acquaintances
    (1.2-3.5 m, 4-12 ft)
  • public distance used for public speaking
    (over 3.5 m, 12 ft)

In 1971, US Educational Psychologist, Albert Mehrabian published his famous 7%-38%-55% Rule on non-verbal communication. He found that only 7 percent of communication comes from spoken words, 38 percent is from the tone of the voice, and 55 percent comes from body language. An understanding of Proxemics and non-verbal communication can greatly increase your success in any interpersonal endeavor.

How does this relate to real life?

During University, I supported myself by working as a part time, Sales Clerk in the Electronics department of a Canadian store – London Drugs. I wondered if I could use Proxemics to increase my sales and therefore my commissions. Researching this topic in my spare time was an interest of mine and I began thinking of practical applications for its use. At first, my use of Proxemics was limited to carefully observing my position and stance in relation to my customers. Over time, I began incorporating Proxemics theory to the positioning, gender, age and culture of my customers. In particular, attention was paid to how my body language related to or “mirrored” my customers body language. I experimented with how I angled my body behind the counter and the angle of how I slid the sales contract across the counter.

My goal was to create a collaborative sales environment, really listen to what the customer wanted and then support my sales pitch with positive, body language. It absolutely worked! Though I was only working part time, 15-20 hours a week, I alternated between the highest and second highest sales in the department. This included the sales statistics for the full-time staff! I attribute this to all to Proxemics.

Another example of Proxemics in Business….

Years later, I was working as a Geriatric Addictions Counselor and wanted to develop, and implement an Educational Day Program for recovering Addicts. I thought that this would be a much more efficient use of counseling hours, if we implemented this one day a week. Note: developing curriculum and running a Day Treatment and Educational program was not part of my job description. Additionally, the government, non-profit where I worked didn’t have any large class-room space, only individual offices. I convinced a coworker to join me and pitch my idea to a local Recreational and Community Center which had a lot of classroom space. The caveat, our government, non-profit, agency didn’t have any money to rent space.

My goal was to form a community partnership and get the space donated for free for a year. Everyone said it couldn’t be done. After putting together our sales pitch, we arrived at the Recreation Center. I prepared my coworker in advance and hoped that the hosts would allow us to sit where we wanted, in the board room. They graciously allowed us to sit where we wanted. Instead of positioning ourselves in the traditional “hot seat” with the host agency in a group facing us, we changed things around. We positioned ourselves in between the 4 host staff; getting psychological buy-in, before the presentation even began. Instead of setting up an “Us vs Them” dynamic, we created a collaborative team dynamic, from the start. We were able to negotiate use of the entire basement level of the facility for free, for one year. In exchange we developed the curriculum, managed all the marketing, logistics and teaching and offered these free workshops for the local community. The enrollment was double what we expected and the host agency received a lot of community recognition, for implementing the first Drop in Seniors Addictions program. Win–win for everyone.

Proxemics can also be applied to interviews, which traditionally involve an “Us vs Them dichotomy.” In a nutshell, if you are able to determine your seating arrangement, you can greatly increase your chances of getting hired. Though, you will also have to do a lot of research and ensure that you are truly the best candidate.

Proxemics tips, which I teach my MBA students, at Georgia State University.

How to position yourself during interviews. Traditionally an interview is a dyad and includes 2 people (i.e.: 1 interviewer, 1 interviewee)

1. If you are a female interviewee and have a female interviewer: you can sit either across from them or adjacent *(either position is viewed as favorable)

2. If you are a male interviewee and have a female interviewer, chose the position directly across from the interviewer. An adjacent position will make the female interviewer ill at ease, with an applicant of the opposite sex.

3. If you are a male interviewee and have a male interviewer: try to sit adjacent to them, not across from them. Research has found that male to male competition and aggression can be triggered by being directly across from each other, in a confrontational position.

4. If you are a female interviewee and have a male interviewer: it is preferable to sit across from them. Otherwise, this could be construed as flirtatious, if you do not know the interviewer. Though, neither adjacent positioning, nor facing the person directly – in a female/male dyad is considered aggressive.

Note: if it is a group interview, and you can choose a seat in the boardroom – don’t sit at the end of the table. This sets up a confrontational, interrogation style interview. Try to use the gender rules of Proxemics and integrate within the group. Sometimes, you will not have a choice of seat and are forced into the “hot seat” If this is the case, then angle your body to appear more – adjacent to the interviewers, rather than head on. Pass your resume at a 45 degree angle, which is much more subtle and more likely to get buy in, than sliding your resume directly across head on. Note: when I worked in sales, I would present the sales contract at a 45 degree angle. If the customer touched the contract, then there was a 90% chance of a sale. If they wouldn’t touch the document, then they were not convinced and no amount of talking would change their mind. Again, this is based on my personal experience. My observations are simply observations – though it would be interesting to conduct empirical research on this topic.

Some additional considerations and demographic t

There are widely divergent, cultural mores and norms related to Proxemics and in particular personal space. In the next ten years, more and more job applicants will be women and minorities. Thus, cross-cultural sensitivity will be an essential skill for interviewers to develop. One last story, as Canadian, I have one of the largest needs for a personal bubble of space. Canadians even have a larger “personal bubble of space than Americans.” We are in the top 5 percentile, internationally, for personal space needs. Based on population density, Canada has the one of the least populated and largest landmasses. This luxury of space may be why we crave personal space so much. Though I am multi-cultural, I have been raised in Canada and acculturated as a Canadian.

Since I am also Israeli by birth, I frequently travel to Israel, to visit family. This when I notice personal space, positioning and cultural differences most acutely. I find my Israeli friends and family members moving closer to me when talking, using more hand gestures and using more physical contact. I have observed myself, moving away, to adjust my personal space and comfort zone. At the same time, my Israeli friends and family, bewildered, move closer. It is like a dance with my moving away, and them moving closer. I feel crowded and anxious and they probably feel rejected. They are adjusting their comfort zone, as am I.

I would encourage you to think about the effect of Proxemics in your own life. How do you respond to crowding? Gender dyads? Multicultural situations? Job Interviews? What are your preferences and how can you take into account the preferences of others? How much personal space do you need and what is the size of your “personal bubble.” I would encourage you to conduct your own “experiments,” as I have. I’d love to hear the results.


© 2009 – All Rights Reserved – Sharon Cohen, MA,CPRP, Global MBA
Career Advisor, Robinson College of Business at Georgia State

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