Most of us don’t lift up our legs to pee at specific intervals when we sniff the scent of a foreigner.

But we all have closed doors, “man caves”, home offices, retreating, vegging out, 30-minute showers, repeating, rinsing, cracking knuckles to make people step backward, withdrawing again, again, and again.

We all have our safe territories, the ones we mark with the indentations of our rounding spines, or with curtain separators or Parisian dividers. They help us identify and re-identify with ourselves and others.

Yes, it’s our primal nature to claim things, as the more you touch something the more you believe it’s yours. We aren’t exempt from participating in instinctual behavior.

Sorry, Charlie, you pee to keep people away. Cue The Police, Don’t Stand So Close to Me.

Last week we mentioned Edward Hall’s concept of proxemics in our discussion about seating. Through that research, I began to go deeper into the ideology of people, our bodies, and how that is explored within design.

Proxemics at their simplest, are how we use space and how that can affect our disposition. First, proxemics begin with ways to measure distance. Everything, unfortunately, starts with math. I’m sorry if this is rehashing multiplication table failures of elementary school.

There are measurements of personal territory that deal with the body, which includes:

Intimate (0 to 18 inches): Reserved for friends and family
Personal (18 inches to 4 feet): Acquaintances
Social (4 to 10 feet): Formal/Business Transactions
Public (over 10 feet): Groups of People

Those are pretty digestible but can vary with culture or personal preference.

Geographic territory comes next and deals with space separate from the body:

Body Territory: The personal bubble that surrounds you. As much as the term personal bubble is universal, the distance is very different for every person. This is a permission-based location.

Primary Territory: A place that is owned by an individual but that isn’t bodily. It is most usually designated as the location of “home”. This could be a house, a car, a boat, a person, any place that enables ourselves to be natural and relaxed. This is an ownership-based location.

Secondary Territory: You know when you were in high school and you saw a teacher at the grocery store… and it was a multidimensional tabloid incident? That’s because she occupied a secondary territory. She was a part of a select group of people who are always expected to be in the same location at the same time. A school is an example of this territory, specific hobby groups or special events are as well. This is a conditionally based location.

Public Territory: This is the easiest and most self-explanatory of the bunch. It’s the space open to everyone. No violent inclinations towards territoriality or secondary territory surprises tend to occur here.

Now, what happens when proxemics go out the window? A dramatic and often sudden increase in anxiety.

When someone changes your proxemic distance without your choice, the animal in you is on high alert.

To avoid the installments of fight clubs, researchers have found that humans can police this intrusion for themselves and avoid the anxiety triggers, as long as they don’t make eye contact. This is why when you’re on the subway and someone is standing close to you it doesn’t always bother you. But when you catch their eye, you’re uncomfortable.

But how can we use this knowledge practically?

It could be something as small as encouraging the right amount of space between tables in a restaurant. It’s making sure that we design bedrooms with the encouragement of intimate space. It’s creating a kitchen layout to have an island, plenty of seating, and the choice for people to be close or far from each other.

The simplest aspects of design are the ones you have to think about. Even the acoustics of a ceiling can make a large meeting space seem audibly crowded and unbearable.

An element that is also factored into the study of proxemics is color.

For example, bright colors (think McDonalds or a 10-year-old’s bedroom) increase anxiety and disturbance for an onlooker. The individual wishes to go in and out of the location as efficiently and quickly as possible.This works for the fast-food industry as the food is meant to be bought and left with, quickly.

As places like McDonalds attempt to battle fast-casual, wanting people to sit down to inhale their shamrock shakes, they may be fighting a losing battle due to their design. Proxemics offers us the same information as color theory but uses social science to confirm them. We know that muted tones calm and while brighter tones elicit joy, but they even affect spatial decisions.

The photos in this piece are from Ames Street Deli, a cafe and cocktail bar in Cambridge that sections off space crisply and well. The acoustics are private and they use passionfruit juice with their bourbon. We adore them.

Proxemics remind us that beauty is not universal, and neither is space. I guess for Hall, Sartre, and most of us, hell really is other people.

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