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Room for Misunderstanding: Proxemics and the Platinum Rule

Last week, I facilitated a day-long workshop for a delightful group of dedicated social service folks who work with people who are homeless or are about to be homeless.  It was the second of three workshops I have done with for this organization – three workshops in three different regions of Massachusetts.

Image The topic is strengths-based approaches to work.  Not deficit-based.  Not looking for the pathology.  Not looking for limitations.  Not looking for what is wrong.  Strengths-based: focusing on what is going well and using that to address areas of concern or need for growth.  That’s the secular version.  If I were to use spiritual language, it would be compassion-inspired engagement.

The content of the workshop is a mix of basic principles and then a lot of experiential exercises to integrate the knowledge and attitude deeply.  This session started and ended with laughter, and in the middle contained sparking off each other, with engagement even after lunch, which is a semi-heroic feat as any workshop facilitator (or attendee) will tell you.

In one of the first exercises early, I ask everyone to pair up, ideally with someone they know least well.  We all stand in an open space at least five feet apart. I direct one half of the pair to approach the other half as if they are asking for directions to the food court from a stranger.  Yes, it is a bit rigged; but it does not kill the point.  Once they have made their approach and begun talking, they are given a measuring tape to gauge the distance chin to the chin.  I record this number.   This is repeated, with the other partner approaching and establishing their preferred distance for engaging a conversation with a “stranger,” measuring it, and then I record it next to the previous number.

Proxemics is a term coined by Edward T. Hall, an American anthropologist who died in 2009.  He developed this concept in the mid-1960s as a way of observing, describing and analyzing how personal space is enacted within cultural contexts and with cultural signifiers.  Hall suggests there are four zones: public, social, personal, and intimate.  The distances for each – how far away is acceptable to be social but not personal – differs based on a variety of factors.  In the aggregate, we can see cultural patterns about where these zones are, but other factors include cross-cultural relationships (across genders, across ages, across authority roles) and individual personality and experience play into as well.

In my workshops, the numbers are too small in number to be able to actually establish cultural patterns.  Though important, it’s less about finding out which cultures sanction “close” quarters and which cultures require “elbow room.”  When I ask folks to take part in this exercise, I do it so we can talk about the Platinum Rule.

You’ve heard of the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Supposedly there is some version of this in every major world faith tradition.  Yet when it comes to strengths-based approaches to most anything, including increasing one’s cultural and cross-cultural competence, then the Platinum Rule is better:


Don’t treat them like you want to be treated – your intentions are good, but you remain the center of the universe and the default, normative point of view.  Instead, treat them as they would like to be treated.

How is this related to proxemics?   Well, we often assume that the proper distance for having a conversation is the distance with which we feel comfortable.  We assume our comfort zone is the comfort zone.  Not so.

Just think about your last several experiences in line at the grocery store.  There have probably been times when you felt that the person behind you needed to back off or you might have experienced the person in front of you glaring at you when you started to put your items on the conveyor belt before they had moved forward to the payment machine.  I have certainly noticed that the accepted personal space in line at the Savers (a large-scale second hand clothing store one step up from Goodwill) in West Springfield, with its variety of languages (Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, Somali) is quite different than at Star Market in Wellesley.

Often, we can work out differences in personal distance comfort zones without much bother and perhaps even without much awareness.  But what happens when what you think is a respectful distance might be considered aloof or even a sign of judgmental attitude?  Or what you think is intrusive, leaving you feeling hemmed in, might be experienced by someone else as friendly or accessible?


ImageThis photo shows the comfortable distances for the pairs in the workshop.  It turned out that it is a bit like a bell curve.  As you can see, there are a couple of pairs who are matched perfectly.  Then there is the majority where there is some difference in the preferred distances, but it is a matter of several inches, which allows for relatively easy adaptation.  And there are two (out of ten — 20% ) where the preferred distances could be at odds.

In our little staged exercise there was good humor about this.  In real life, this where some of the hard work of connection across difference – not just cultural difference, though that may well play into it; connection across human difference – can get messy and not necessarily offer up easy rewards. This is where there is nearly literally room for misunderstanding.

And this is where we get to choose: the Platinum Rule, strengths-based approach, culturally-competent practice, honoring the worth and dignity of every person, compassionate engagement.  Whatever you want to call it.  We must choose.

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