The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues


I have learned to depend more on what people do than what they say in response to a direct question, to pay close attention to that which cannot be consciously manipulated, and to look for patterns rather than content. --Edward T. Hall (1968:83)

. . . Every cubic inch of space is a miracle. --Walt Whitman (Leaves of Grass, "Miracles")

The desire for personal mobility seems to be unstoppable--it is, perhaps, the Irresistible Force. --Charles Lave (1992)

Spatial signs, signals and cues. According to its founder, Edward T. Hall, proxemics is the study of humankind's "perception and use of space" (Hall 1968:83).

Usage: Like facial expressionsgestures, and postures, space "speaks." The prime directive of proxemic space is that we may not come and go everywhere as we please. There are cultural rules and biological boundaries--explicit as well as implicit and subtle limits to observe--everywhere.

Body space I. Scientific research on how we communicate in private and public spaces began with studies of animal behavior (ethology) and territoriality in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1959, the anthropologist Edward Hall popularized spatial research on human beings--calling it proxemics--in his classic book, The Silent Language.

Body space II. Hall identified four bodily distances--intimate (0 to 18 inches), personal-casual (1.5 to 4 feet), social-consultive (4 to 10 feet), and public (10 feet and beyond)--as key points in human spacing behavior. Hall noted, too, that different cultures set distinctive norms for closeness in, e.g., speaking, business, and courting, and that standing too close or too far away can lead to misunderstandings and even to culture shock.

Body space III. Summarizing diverse studies, Vrugt and Kerkstra (1984:5) concluded that, "In interaction between strangers the interpersonal distance between women is smaller than between men and women."

Crowded space I. "A persistent and popular view holds that high population density inevitably leads to violence. This myth, which is based on rat research, applies neither to us nor to other primates" (Waal et al. 2000:77).

Crowded space II. "This pathological togetherness [resulting from a rat population explosion which led to killing, sexual assaults, and cannibalism], as Calhoun [1962] described it, as well as the attendant chaos and behavioral deviancy, led him to coin the phrase 'behavioral sink'" (Waal et al. 2000:77).

Crowded space III. "In some of the short-term crowding experiments conducted by others and ourselves, monkeys were literally packed together, without much room to avoid body contact, in a cramped space for periods of up to a few hours. No dramatic aggression increases were measured. In fact, in my last conversation with the late John Calhoun, he mentioned having created layers of rats on top of each other and having been surprised at how passively they reacted" (Waal 2000:10).

Culture. In Japan, one may hand prow (i.e., face the palm-edge of one hand vertically forward in front of the nose), and bow the head slightly, to aplogize for crossing between two people, or intruding into another's space to move through a crowded room. "The hand acts like the prow of a ship cutting through water" (Morris 1994:115).

Elevator space1. "In choosing to approach someone in order to push the [button on the control] panel, men and women reacted to different signals (Hughes and Goldman 1978); men preferred to approach people who stood with eyes averted to people who looked at them and smiled; women, however, preferred to approach someone who looked and smiled" (Vrugt and Kerkstra 1984:9). 2. "Chimpanzees take this withdrawal tactic one step further: they are actually less aggressive when briefly crowded. Again, this reflects greater [primate] emotional restraint. Their reaction is reminiscent of people on an elevator, who reduce frictions by minimizing large body movements,eye contact and loud vocalizations" (Waal et al. 2000:81).

Escalator space. "Men reacted more to the person standing [immediately, i.e., just one step behind, with the hands reaching forward on the rail so as to be visible to the person ahead] behind them than did women" (Vrugt and Kerkstra 1984:9). "Women seem to prefer to act as if they do not notice anything, so that unwanted contact can be avoided. Men make it clear in their reactions that they do not appreciate such a rapprochement" (Vrugt and Kerkstra 1984:10).

Library space. Regardless of an "invader's" sex, men already seated at an otherwise unoccupied table view opposites most negatively, while already seated women view adjacents most negatively (Fisher and Byrne 1975).

Parking space. "A study of more than 400 drivers at an Atlanta-area mall parking lot found that motorists defend their spots instinctively" (AP, May 13, 1997; from research published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, May 1997). "It's not your paranoid imagination after all: People exiting parking spaces really do leave more slowly when you're waiting for the spot . . . . It's called territorial behavior . . ." (AP, May 13, 1997).

Office space I. Office workers spend the day in an average 260 square-foot (down from 1986's 275 square-foot), usually rectangular space. Corporate downsizing and belt-tightening mean that many staffers now find themselves working in even smaller, modular, 80-square-foot cubicles. (N.B.: For some prehistoric context, consider that our hunter-gatherer ancestors spent their workdays on an estimated 440-square-mile expanse of open savannah.) Cubicles replaced the more exposed, "pool" desks which had earlier lined the floors of cavernous group-occupied workrooms. Though maligned in Dilbert cartoons, cubicles at least provide more privacy than the 1950s open workrooms, and offer needed respite from visual monitoring (which is known to be stressful to human primates).

Office space II. "German business personnel visiting the United States see our open doors in offices and businesses as indicative of an unusually relaxed and unbusinesslike attitude. Americans get the feeling that the German's [sic] closed doors conceal a secretive or conspiratorial operation" (Vargas 1986:98). 

Restaurant space. Corner and wall tables are occupied first (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1970).

Home space I. Americans spend an estimated 70 years indoors, mostly in the secure habitat of an average-sized, 2,000-square-foot residences called a home (from the Indo-European root, tkei-, "settle" or "site"). (N.B.: Because there is no counterpart in primate evolution for a life lived entirely indoors, we bring the outdoors in. Thus, better homes and gardens include obvious replicas, as well as subtle reminders, of the original savanna-grassland territory, including its warmth, lighting, colors, vistas, textures, and plants.)

Home space II. Upon re-entering our home (after several hours of absence), we feel a peculiar need to wander about the space to "check" for intruders. In mammals, this behavior is known as reconnaissance: ". . . in which the animal moves round its range in a fully alerted manner so that all its sense organs are used as much as possible, resulting in maximal exposure to stimuli from the environment. It thus 'refreshes its memory' and keeps a check on everything in its area" [this is "a regular activity in an already familiar environment," which does "not require the stimulus of a strange object"] (Ewer 1968:66).

Neighborhood space. The prime directive of neighborhood space is, "Stay in your own yard." That we are terribly territorial is reflected in fences by the barriers they define. According to the American Fencing Association, 38,880 miles of chain link, 31,680 miles of wooden, and 1,440 miles of ornamental fencing are bought annually in the U.S. (N.B.: Each year Americans buy enough residential fencing to encircle the earth nearly three times.)

City space I. Biologists call the space in which primates live their home range. The home range of human hunter-gatherers (e.g., of the Kalahari Bushmen in southern Africa) spreads outward ca. 15-to-20 miles in all directions from a central home base. The home range of today's city dwelling humans includes a home base (an apartment or a house) as well, along with favored foraging territories (e.g., a shopping mall and supermarket), a juvenile nursery (i.e., a school), a sporting area (e.g., a golf course), a work space (an office building, e.g.)--and from two-to-five nocturnal drinking-and-dining spots. We spend most of our lives a. occupying these favorite spaces, and b.orbiting among them on habitually traveled pathways, sidewalks, and roads.

City space II. "Fixing Broken Windows, a book by [Rutgers criminologist George] Kelling and co-author Catherine Coles, became a bible for New York City's 'zero-tolerance' policy toward abandoned cars, abandoned buildings and even graffiti. [new paragraph] "Kelling and Coles argue that even small signs of crime and decay in a neighborhood, such as broken windows, encourage crime by signaling that such behavior is tolerated" (Bayles 2000: 3A). 

National space. We live in one of ca. 160 sovereign nations which together claim 54% of earth's surface, including almost all of its land and much of its oceans, waterways, and airspace. Over ninety percent of all nations, including the U.S., have unresolved border disputes (see WWW.Army.mil).

Outer spaceNo national sovereignty rules in outer space. Those who venture there go as envoys of the entire human race. Their quest, therefore, must be for all mankind, and what they find should belong to all mankind. --Lyndon Baines Johnson

U.S. politics. "Distance between two shakers who are still connected at the hand signifies either distrust, aloofness, or reserve. Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, often criticized in the media for his lack of passion in his campaign style, tends to shake hands by planting his feet and extending his right arm out to meet the oncoming hand of the other shaker" (Blum 1988:7-4). 

Neuro-notes I1. In imaging studies of our brain, the neural basis of spatial location and navigation shows activation of the right hippocampus. Travel to a place activates the right caudate nucleus of the basal ganglia (Maguire et al. 1998). 2. "The navigation system includes special 'place cells' and 'direction cells' [in the hippocampus] that flicker visibly in MRI images when a research subject tries to find his or her way through a simulated urban environment" (Boyd 2000). 3. "A section of the [London taxi] cabbies' brains, called the hippocampus, became enlarged during the two years they spent learning their way around the vast, complicated metropolis" (Boyd 2000; see PRIMATE BRAIN, Climbing cues). 

Neuro-notes II. Damage to the right parietal lobe's angular gyrus and supra-marginal gyrus may cause problems in our ability to use space (such as, e.g., a difficulty in dressing, problems orienting in space, trouble drawing figures in 3D, and neglect of the body's entire left side). Lesions in the right hemisphere's parietal lobe may affect our spatial comprehension.

News photo of U.S. Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama at a debate in 2008; their angular distance bespeaks the acknowledged disliking they felt as the campaign dragged on (picture credit: unknown).