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Steven J. Madden


Proxemics and Gender:
Where's the Spatial Gap?

This study observed the interaction of 506 people to examine gender effects on distance and approach (proxemics) between males and females (strangers in a public setting). Statistically significant results from the study were not as predicted. More wide ranging revelations found that regardless of gender choice, females predominately chose to approach a male research assistant more often and at a closer range than a female assistant. In this observational setting (a hospital) approach and distance by gender seems to be encouraged by variables other than those cited in numerous accounts of proxemic research with different samples from other situations.


Twenty plus years ago Henley (1977) stated that in interactions between people, proper distance, control of physical space, and mobility are ostensibly under the control of the person viewed as the most powerful. More specifically, proxemics and status, as it equates to gender, finds that males in a male/female dyad are typically accorded higher status because of apparent control over territory, desirable territory, and being accorded the privilege of dominating and violating norms. This finding is historically substantiated in the accounts of many scholars of nonverbal communication (e.g. Baxter 1970; Hall 1959,1966, 1968; Lott & Sommer 1967; Strodtbeck & Hook 1982).

According to Leffler, Gillespie & Conaty (1982) "status organizing theory," explains the use of "personal space" around the body and reasons that a person of higher status may have more and better space for their use than do persons of lower status. Consequently, persons of high status are "invaded" less frequently when interacting with persons of low status. To this end, the theory infers that males are afforded more space and are approached less frequently than the lower "status" female. The corollary to this concept is that female involvement in male domains is limited (Leffler et al. 1982).

Similarly, Henley (1977) argues how proxemics work to establish male dominance and female submission. As Henley shows: 1) pronounced gender differences exist in the nonverbal behaviors of males and females; 2) males have more and better territory; 3) males encroach frequently on a female's space; 4) males maintain boundaries that prohibit female participation; 5) males enjoy differentiated access to social and economic resources based on ascription, as opposed to achievement; and 6) this phenomenon is manifested in a wide range of nonverbal behaviors.

Henley writes: "Not only women's territory and personal space, but their very bodily demeanor must be restrained and restricted spatially. Their femininity is gauged, in fact, by how little space they take up, while men's masculinity is judged by their expansiveness and the strength of their flamboyant gestures" (1977, p. 38).

This unequal power distribution is reflected in the distances males and females maintain when they approach one another. Knapp and Hall state, "The research shows convincingly that people approach females closer than they approach males, and that this remains true no matter what type of methodology is used" (1992, p.161). Men invade and violate women's space as a matter of course (Henley 1977).

Henley contends that spatial displacement reflects human power relationships, with the man being dominant over the woman. This contention is based on the assumption that males "invade" females' personal space at a closer distance than females approach males. A year earlier, Buchanan, Juhnke and Goldman (1976) found that males, when forced to intrude upon the space of either a male or a female in an elevator, more often intruded upon the female's space. This phenomenon is not limited to adult male and female interaction. Even at very young ages it has been demonstrated that adolescent males are taught to control spaces more than adolescent females (Harper & Sanders 1975).

In 1992, two scholars, Daphney Spain and Leslie Weisman, indicated how the use of space designates less status for females in the United States. They further contend that this inchoation begins at an early age and continues through adulthood. Part of the inchoation process begins with early socialization where females are taught to stay closer to a defined space such as home and males, by contrast, are encouraged to find their own space (Harper & Sander 1975; Lewis 1972). Furthermore, academic nonverbal texts used over the last two decades (e.g., Knapp & Hall 1972, 1978, 1992; Leathers 1992, 1997; Malandro & Barker 1983; Malandro, Barker & Barker 1983, 1989) continue to cite this notion of status, space, distance, and invasion as a component in male/female proxemics.

Clearly, the nonverbal behaviors of males and females have been examined from numerous perspectives crossing years of research. To date, studies on gender proxemics has yet to substantially refute neither the original contentions of Hall nor the parameters stated by Henley. However, the intent of this study is not to refute, replicate or methodologically analyze other nonverbal research. The current study takes a more exploratory perspective, one that examines similarities or differences in female and male (nonverbal) communication in comparison to theoretical positions cited in this review.

Based on the previous findings and expectations involving male and female proxemics, the current study set out to identify how gender proxemic activities are currently utilized in a public setting. Specifically, the purpose of this study is (a) to identify gender differences as they relate to spatial usage (e.g. Hall 1959, 1969; Knapp & Hall 1992) and (b) to test Henley's (1977) assertion that females' space is "violated" more often than males.'

The following hypotheses regarding gender proxemics are advanced:

H1: More male and female participants will approach a female assistant when given a choice between a female and male assistant.

H2: More male and female participants will approach a female assistant at a closer distance than a male assistant.



Procedure and Participants

This study constructed a field experiment to test the validity of hypotheses H1 and H2. To test these hypotheses it was necessary to create a situation in which male and female confederates would be in a position from which other males and females would have a natural rationale for approaching. To create this scenario, careful consideration was given to make the opportunity for participant manipulation as unobtrusive as possible. To this end, an active health care facility in a medium-size southeastern city was selected for the field experiment. This organization was considered to be a representative health care provider in the region regarding products/services offered, size, and industry. Top administrators in the organization were preparing to conduct a general survey on (physical) building appearance and gave permission to have students from a local university hand out questionnaires. Administrators also granted permission for the observations in the current study to be conducted since it in no way interfered with visitors or the health care survey. Surveys were distributed during a four-hour period of time covering three consecutive days.

The experiment enlisted the aid of a team consisting of two male and two female confederates. Physically, these confederates were chosen for their similarities in terms of height, weight, age, and race. Additionally, each person wore the same color top and bottom (i.e. white shirts and beige pants). Each of the confederates where instructed to: (1) hand out the surveys without any additional interaction with survey respondents (surveys were self explanatory and no additional instructions were required for participants); (2) not to engage in any overt facial expressions (e.g. more than a friendly smile) or verbal expressions (e.g. more than a simple greeting of hello); and finally (3) always have a survey readily available.

Upon moving through the main entrance of the hospital potential survey respondents were approached by a hospital employee asking them if they would mind filling out a survey on the physical aspects of the building. Those who agreed to participate were directed through a door to an adjoining room close to the main hospital entrance. Upon entering the room participants were directed by another hospital employee to the front of the room, where four research assistants (two males, two females) were positioned (equal distance from the entrance) to hand out the surveys. Research assistants were lined up in a female/male, female/male configuration.

During a three day period 506 people filled out surveys (343 females and 163 males). Participants were free to choose which assistant to approach; no directions or suggestions were employed. Participants did not have to make a hasty decision based on time constraints, convenience, or availability of a research assistant. Research assistants were positioned side by side, affording equal access.



A measurement grid was laid out in front of both research assistants. Participants were unaware of the grid, which measured distance from the research assistant to the participant at intervals of 6 inches, 12 inches, 18 inches, and 24 inches (24 inches being the maximum distance one could stand away from an assistant and comfortably receive a questionnaire). Two trained recorder/observers were stationed ten feet to the side of each assistant and were positioned so that they looked like someone taking the survey.

Based on previous literature, it was expected that more participants would approach the female assistant closer and more often than the male assistant. This study, in fact, found the opposite.



Each of the two hypotheses predicted that the space surrounding a female would be invaded more often and at a closer distance than that of a male. A Chi Square method of analysis was used to test each hypothesis.


Approach by Gender

H1: It is hypothesized that more male and female participants will approach a female assistant when given a choice between a female and male assistant.

The first hypothesis predicted that when given the choice of accepting a survey instrument from either a male or a female assistant all participants (regardless of gender) will approach the female assistant more often than the male assistant. This hypothesis was soundly rejected X2 = 5.14, df=1, N=506, p > .025.

Two hundred and ninety two (292) of the participants approached the male research assistants and 214 participants approached the female assistants. Contradictory to reported research findings, the females chose to approach the male research assistants more often than the female research assistants. Two hundred and six (206) female participants approached the male assistants while 137 females approached the female assistants. Males, however, did not display a preference. Seventy seven (77) males approached the female assistants and 86 males approached the male assistants (see Table 1).


Distance by Gender

H2: It is hypothesized that more male and female participants will approach a female assistant at a closer distance than a male assistant.

The second hypothesis predicted that given the choice of accepting a survey instrument from either a male or a female assistant all respondents (regardless of gender) will approach the female assistant at a closer distance than the male assistant. This hypothesis was also rejected X2 = 53.51, df=9, N=506, p >.005.

The most surprising finding was the use of distance. Females approached the male assistant much closer than they approached the female. Ninety six (96) females stood within six inches of the male assistants and 71 females approached within 12 inches of the male assistants. Females waited in line 12 times to go to the male assistants rather than the go to the female assistants, who were not occupied at the time. Additionally, the females chose to stand farther from the female than the male--almost twice as many stood at least 18 inches or more from the female than the male (see Table One).


Discussion and Conclusion

While the results of this study are mixed, they do provide insights that dispel the notion of the dominant male spatial status and female vulnerability (invasion). This study began with the assertion (i.e., Knapp & Hall 1992) that persons of high status (males) have more and better space for their use than do persons of lower status (females), and consequently that persons of high status are "invaded" less frequently when interacting with persons of lower status (Henley 1977). Instead of the prediction that the female assistants would be approached more often than the male assistants (despite gender) this study found a difference in the opposite direction (H1). The males were approached significantly more often than the females.

Additionally, Henley argued that men encroach frequently on a female's space, while the "submissive" female is reluctant to "violate" a male's personal space. It was maintained that the unequal power distribution among men and women would manifest itself in their proxemic behaviors such as the use of distance. This was further supported by Knapp and Hall's assertion that people approach females closer than they approach males, regardless of the methodology used to measure distance. Therefore, there was a high confidence level that women would be spatially invaded more frequently than men. Again, the opposite was found, and in fact females approached the male assistants significantly closer than they approached the female assistants (H2).

Overall, the findings of this study are important because the results do not support the original contentions that people will approach a female more often than a male, and furthermore that they will approach a female at a closer distance than a male. If anything the findings support the notion that some variables other than gender are perhaps more reliable predictors of interpersonal distance. Females do not appear to be "violated" more than males simply because of gender. The findings lend credence to those studies which insist that a wide range of variables other than gender account for the distances men and women establish when they approach one another. Other situational dimensions such as environment, communication content, and task, for example, may have a clearer, more consistent effect on interpersonal distance.

In the case of this study several situational factors may have influenced the outcomes. First, by their very nature hospitals are institutions where care and healing are prominent. People entering (for care) and working for (employees) a hospital may expect a higher level of tactile communication and closeness (physical and spiritual) between strangers and health care personnel. Second, since the interaction time was so short issues such as length of gaze, level of voice, closeness, physical contact, communication content, and responsiveness may have all been relegated to low levels of attention/concern by the participant. Finally, since the intent of the study was to collect data in the least obtrusive manner, there were no pre- or post-subject interviews concerning their notion of distance or gender approach which may have provided a more complete interpretation.

Clearly, further research is necessary in interpersonal distance and gender. The findings reflect a small but worthy addition to theory-building concerning this topic. While this study did not find interpersonal distance strongly linked to gender, past studies concede that observable gender differences certainly exist in interpersonal relationships, and that measures of distance are invaluable in helping us understand the essential nature of communication between women and men in contemporary society. These results encourage a more penetrating and thorough analysis of gender roles and distance.



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