U.S. Attitudes on Gender and Proxemic Space See Dramatic Shift

Carmen Merritt

1370928The study of gender and proxemics is still relatively new in the field of nonverbal communication and continues to need more in depth analysis as theories become obsolete and new ways of approaching the subject matter are necessary.  This was made particularly evident in a 1999 study on gender differences in female and male approaches to other female and male strangers.

In the article Proxemics and Gender: Where’s the Spatial Gap?, by Steven J. Madden, the author related several bits of information that led to the hypotheses eventually posed.  A researcher named Henley stated in the late 1970s that “interactions between people, proper distance, control of physical space, and mobility are ostensibly under the control of the person viewed as the most powerful” (Madden, 1999).  Madden connected this to Leffler, Gillespie & Conaty’s “status organizing theory” which says that people who have a high status have less occurrence with other lower status individuals invading their space.  This theory assumes that males have a higher status automatically and therefore not approached as often.  According to Henley, “men invade and violate women’s space as a matter of course” (Madden, 1999).

Based on this knowledge, Madden went on to hypothesize that, when given the choice, both females and males would be more likely to approach a female assistant than a male assistant.  Further, he suggests they will both approach the female assistant at a closer distance than her male counterpart.  The observation took place in a hospital located in a medium-sized southeastern city.  This hospital happened to be giving out surveys and agreed to let this study take place concurrently.  Two female and two male assistants in matching clothes, and of similar height, age, weight, and race were chosen to sit evenly apart and at equal distance from the entrance.  In front of each of the assistants and, unbeknownst to the participant, was a measurement grid.

Madden noted that “contradictory to reported research findings, the females chose to approach the male research assistants more often than the female research assistants…


Males however, did not display a preference” (Madden, 1999).  Subsequently, the females approach to the males was much closer with 96 of the females standing just six inches away.  Surprisingly, females also stood farther away from other females.

Madden concluded that the results disproved status organizing theory and the notion that males dominate interaction with females due to spatial invasion.  Although this was contradictory to his previous research, modern findings would indicate that women usually need less space than men (Burgoon, Guerrero & Floyd, 2010).rokpersonalspaceweb

Elements he thought may also have an impact on interpersonal distance are situational dimensions such as environment, communication content, and task.  Also noted was the hospital setting in general, interaction time, and a lack of pre- or post- subject interviews.

I believe the research is significant in that it exposed the changes happening over time in gender attitudes to approach and proxemics, but that it is lacking important questions and does not account for all variables.  Influential factors he did not note include changing sociocultural attitudes, age, and sexual orientation.  Although the United States has typically been a low contact culture, we have been moving toward a higher contact society in the last several decades (Burgoon, Guerrero & Floyd, 2010).  “In fact, younger people in North America and northern Europe may be more contact-oriented than older people” (Burgoon, Guerrero & Floyd, 2010).  This could explain for the dramatic shift in the results from earlier studies versus more recent revelations.  Obviously, new studies need to be done in order to fully understand nonverbal approach and the influence of gender on those actions.


Burgoon, J. K., Guerrero, L. K., & Floyd, K. (2010). Nonverbal communication. Allyn & Bacon.

Madden, S. J. (1999). Proxemics and gender: Where’s the spatial gap?. North Dakota Journal of Speech & Theatre, 12, 41-46.

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