Not So Frequently Asked Questions (2)

What is “Proxemics” ?

If you are selected as a recruitment target by an intelligence service, the officer who is sent to you will have been trained in a number of persuasion and manipulation techniques. One of these is the use of proxemics.

Although the term was first coined by a psychologist in the 1960s, proxemics first became popular in the 1970s as part of the wave of management technique studies that originated in America. Proxemics was seen as a way to improve employer-employee relations and also as part of the technique to seal a deal with clients.

Essentially, proxemics is an understanding of the use of space and objects to influence relationships with other people. Edward Hall, who first examined the issue of proxemics, divided a person’s immediate environment into four zones:

1)         Intimate (less than one foot)

2)         Personal (2 to 4 feet)

3)         Social (4 to 10 feet)

4)         Public (over 12 feet)

People raised in different cultures are comfortable at different distances. Certain Semitic cultures in North Africa are comfortable are quite intimate distances and body touching is often seen as a sign of reassurance or bonding. In certain Asian cultures, distance tends to be managed much more formally and unwanted touching, such as a hand on an arm or even a handshake, tends to produce a negative effect. Of course within those groups, individuals will vary and what is comfortable for one person might not be so for another. There are also issues of status to be considered, a more senior person will expect to control the distance while interacting with a person of lesser status. But overall, management of distance will be something that the officer has considered before the meeting has even begun – almost certainly based on the intelligence service’s psychological profile of the target. What is slightly more interesting is that experience has shown that some officers just tend to have a natural feeling for the management of space with a potential recruit and they tend to be more successful as a result. There is also some evidence that female officers are naturally more talented in this regard.

Consideration of proxemics also has other uses. In management terms it can be something as crude as whether an officer should sit behind a desk when talking to someone (which creates a barrier) or whether they should come from behind that desk and sit alongside the person they are talking to. In surveillance training, proxemics also has its uses. Surveillance officers know that people are naturally attuned to be wary of possible threats in the “public” zone. This is some sort of hangover from our mammalian evolution. However, once a person gets inside that zone (in a public space) we appear to be naturally less attentive. The best surveillance officers often get very close to a target and studies have shown that the target rarely takes notice of them. Rookie surveillance officers often hang well back in the public zone, thinking that they are less noticeable, but they tend to get picked up by the target as a result. It is counter intuitive, but it tends to be true.

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