There was a time when job interviews tended to be mainly general knowledge tests. The selection committee asked you questions on history, geography, arithmetic and so on. You had to remember that Mount Everest is 29,029ft high, 1215 was the year of the Magna Carta, and the Indian National Congress was founded by A.O. Hume in 1885.
Today, interviews are often called personality tests. One of the interviews that I took had its own lessons for me. The interview took place in a large classroom. As I walked past the door into the room, I found that the selectors were seated at the far end of the room. I had to walk nearly 20ft to reach my table. It seemed like walking the ramp at a fashion show and I was very conscious of my gait. Then I greeted the committee and sat down. My chair was at one end of a very long table, and the experts sat 15ft away.
It was then that I realized the link between space and communication. I had expected, from what I had read about interviews, to get away with a kind of tête-à-tête, a friendly conversation. But the actual experience was different. I could not persuade myself to shout loud enough to reach the members. Overall, it was a fiasco. When the chairman said: “Now tell us something about yourself,” I finished my answer in less than a minute.
I have experienced the opposite predicament, too. There was an assistant registrar in the college who constantly encroached into your personal space and nudged you on the elbow repeatedly as he spoke to you. The best you could do was to seek another partner or merge into another group.
The subject that deals with people’s use of space in communication is called proxemics, a word related in meaning to proximity. Research in this area has shown that different cultures have different standards of conversational behaviour. The pioneer of such studies, Edward Hall, divides distance between people in conversation into intimate, personal, social and public zones. Social space, covering up to 12ft, is ideal for business interactions. At 3ft the partners are close enough to shake hands; when you have to bow to your companion, you move back a little. The choice of space is also related to the degree of formality of the interaction.
When people from the Middle East visit a Westernized society that follows different norms, they are likely to create the impression that they are pushy. They intrude upon the listener’s private space. Students of proxemics have found it useful to speak about high-contact cultures and low-contact cultures. Latin American countries and the Middle East belong to the former group. Speakers tend to stay close to the intimate and personal space of their partners.
Studies of people in an elevator have given interesting results. They generally remain taciturn and uncommunicative. Almost everyone stands facing the door, and there is little eye contact and little body movement. They even try to make sure that their clothes do not brush against the body of the next person. As more people join, the spatial arrangement alters.
Space considerations are in play even when people are driving their cars. Many car owners believe that a good stretch of the road in front of them is their personal territory; if another car flashes past them and takes the same lane in front, they are annoyed, and this can lead to what is called road rage.
What you gather from your study of proxemics is that you have to respect the proxemic preferences of the group you are visiting. Note that there are people who can be allowed into your intimate or personal space; also remember that some people have to be kept at what our members of Parliament last week called “arm’s length distance”.
V.R. Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column
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