Nobody sees it, yet, every single person demands for it. Some ask for a lot of it. Some require minimum amount of it. I’m talking about space – personal space, in particular. Judee Burgoon, the proponent of the Expectancy Violations Theory, defines personal space as “the invisible, variable volume of space surrounding an individual that defines that individual’s distance from others” (McClish and Langan, 2005, p. 69). Imagine using the elevator.
If you’re the only one inside the four-walled moving cubicle and someone unfamiliar comes in and stands close to you -- say, just three inches away from you -- how would you feel? Perhaps you would feel uncomfortable standing very close to someone strange. This is the normal reaction to the scenario, according to Edward Hall, an expert who studied Proxemics, which deals with how people use space. Hall identifies four proxemic zones: intimate distance (0-8 inches), personal distance (18 inches – 4 feet), social distance (4-10 feet) and public distance (10 feet and farther)(McClish and Langan, 2005, p. 69).
In the given scenario, no stranger is expected to maintain an intimate distance with someone despite the wide space in the elevator. To stay too close with a stranger is a violation of our expectation. However, Burgoon believes that an unexpected behaviour or violation of expectation does not always yield a negative result. Sometimes, we even find unexpected behaviour as a good act that must be rewarded. The bases of expectancy are the communicator’s characteristics, their relationship, and the context in which the communication takes place.
With this idea, Burgoon said that regardless of who the actor is, we react according to the violation valence that we assign to the person (McClish and Langan, 2005, p. 70). For instance, a Korean friend told me that students in their country, as much as possible, maintain a “professional distance” from their professors. He claims that Koreans give high regard to professors that they are not even allowed to literally step on the shadow of their professors. To step on the shadow, he claims, means to get closer. Being too close with professors is a sign of disrespect.
In other countries though, there is actually no big deal on how close or how far the student should stand with their professors, as long as the students show respect in some other conventional ways. In these instances, cultural context is essential in understanding space between students and professors. In another instance, a lady friend told me that she does not just invite any friend in her house. She claims that so far, she only allowed a couple of friends to get in her house. Those were the closest to her.
In this case, relationship is important. Only the closest are welcome to her house. This, I believe, is because of the trust and openness between and among close friends. It must also be noted that Burgoon made a distinction between expectation and desire. The former as “what we think will really happen” and the latter as “what we personally would like to see happen”( McClish and Langan, 2005, p. 70). At times, even if a person violates our expectation but if the violation that happens is according to our desire, we give positive valence to the act.
For example, once, a friend unexpectedly gave me a gift wrapped in an elegant and special paper. That was unexpected because I was sure it wasn’t my birthday and as far as I remember, there was no reason for me to celebrate and receive a gift from a friend. But of course, I have to admit that I immediately liked the gift. Although unexpected, the gift-giving incident made our friendship stronger. My friend later admitted that it was her way of remembering our good friendship. In short, my space can also be your space, depending on who you are to me and what I am to you.