My Space: Reactions to Proxemic Violations in an Interview Setting

Robert Bitting, Luke Brenneman, Brianne Jewett, Ryan Schnurr
Huntington University

Key words: proxemics, interview, adaptor, nonverbal communication, gender, withdrawal, insulator


This study explored the reactions of interviewees to proxemic violations of an interviewer. Participants were interviewed on an innocuous topic by a male interviewer who progressively positioned himself closer to them. Reactions of interviewees were recorded and analyzed according to gender differences and concepts from literary research.


Proxemics is the study of how people use space in communication and how space and comfort levels are correlated in interactions (Richmond & McCroskey, 2000). Proxemic violations, or invasions of socially or personally appropriate interactional space, often result in several unique nonverbal behaviors that have much to reveal about how people, and people of each gender, react to unwritten rules of how to use space in communication.

Literature Review

This section of the study explains several concepts relevant to proxemics and proxemic violations, and it cites previous research performed about proxemic violations in interviews. It also discusses gender’s role in the use of space in communication.

The appropriate use of space is socially learned, and how well an individual respects another’s personal space conveys the individual’s social, emotional, and physical needs. When an individual’s personal space, a zone surrounding him reserved only for his physical presence, is invaded by others, he feels discomfort. Size of personal space differs from person to person and is dependant upon an individual’s personal experience, personality, culture, and the nature of the situation. How people use their space or that of someone else sends many nonverbal messages. Previous research indicated that individuals are expected to react to invasions of their space defensively with adaptors to put themselves more at ease with uncomfortable feelings they experience due to encroachment of personal space (Richmond & McCroskey, 2000).

In a research study conducted by Eaves (1990), forty-nine undergraduate students participated in a voluntary interview in which they were required to formulate arguments on various topics. An empty chair for those being interviewed was placed against a wall. The interviewer was already seated in an adjacent chair when each subject sat down, and as the interviewer read from a script, he frequently invaded the subject’s space by inching his chair closer to the subject. He moved close enough to invade what is typically expected as an appropriate distance for interviews. Eaves’ discovery in conducting this research was that the people interviewed could not focus on their arguments due to proxemic distractions. Additionally, individuals in the manipulated group, with the violating interviewer, produced answers that were less thoughtful and thorough, and the individuals were generally noted as being more anxious and fidgety than the control group, which was not manipulated.

Adaptors and blocking behaviors are also relevant to this type of study. According to Richmond and McCroskey (2000), adaptors are reactions we have to stress, boredom, or adverse feelings toward other people that are performed unconsciously. Adaptors are learned early in life and are thought to be coping behaviors used to expel negative feelings held toward a situation. Self-adaptors are coping mechanisms people perform on themselves such as scratching, playing with hair, or jiggling a leg. Alter-directed adaptors are blocking behaviors used to separate us from causes of discomfort. Crossing legs and arms or angling the body away from others is seen as alter-directed behavior.

Concerning gender differences, Richmond and McCroskey (2000) stated that interactions between same or different genders have varying characteristics. In interpersonal exchanges, it is typical of females to feel a need for inclusion that can be expressed through their nonverbal communication. Females tend to gaze more or angle their bodies toward fellow interactants to express interest and responsiveness. Males, however, tend to angle their bodies away from conversation participants and have trouble holding a gaze during a prolonged interaction. Gender differences also affect the distance of interaction between people. Females tend to interact with others at closer distances than males, and male-female interactions tend to be closer than male-male or female-female interactions. Considering only gender-associated body language, posture exemplifies how women and men differ in all settings, including interactions. Men typically sit in wide positions, meaning that their legs are spread apart and their arms are positioned away from the torso. Contrarily, women primarily sit in closed positions with their upper legs together and their arms close to their bodies (Vrugt & Luyerink, 2000; Cashdan, 1998).

It is therefore hypothesized that proxemic violation of interviewees’ space by an interviewer will result in blocking techniques, adaptors, and anxious behaviors by interviewees, and that females will display less discomfort than males in interactions with a male at close distances.


This section explains how participants were selected and elements of their interviewee experience. It then outlines how interviews were conducted and specific details about the intentionally violating behaviors of the interviewer.


Six male and six female interviewees were selected by members of the research team. Selection was based on having a Facebook account, not personally knowing the researcher who conducted the interviews, and willingness to participate. An equal number of each gender was chosen so that any comparisons and contrasts in gendered behavior would have an equal chance of being displayed. All participants were undergraduate students at a small Midwestern university.

Before entering the interview room, participants were given an informed consent form that explained any risks, confidentiality, identity of the research team and supervising professor, and potential for presentation of results. The interviewees then signed and dated the form.


Interviews were recorded on a video camera and conducted by one male member of the research team. Interviewees were asked nine questions about Facebook that mostly required answers of complete or multiple sentences. Questions included, “What is your least favorite thing about Facebook?” and “How do you feel about older generations, like parents and grandparents of college students, being on Facebook?”

Two swiveling office chairs were positioned so the edges of their seats were twenty inches apart. The interviewer was seated in one of the chairs when the participants entered the room, and if needed, he instructed them to sit in the chair facing him. Following introductions, the interviewer started the interview. For the first four questions, he leaned back slightly in the chair and sat with an open, upright posture. As he asked the fifth question, he leaned toward the interviewee approximately one foot, separating his back from the seat’s backrest. After the seventh question, he leaned forward much farther, placing his elbows and forearms on his thighs. In this position, his face was slightly below those of interviewees and only approximately eighteen inches away, and the question sheet he was holding hovered above their knees and lower thighs.

After the ninth question was answered, the interviewer resumed an upright posture, explained the real purpose of the study, and asked a few debriefing questions about the participants’ thoughts and feelings during their interviews. Interviewees were then dismissed, and a supervising researcher sent the following participants into the room after the interviewer took notes and readjusted seating. Upon completion of all interviews, the research team analyzed the video recordings of the interviews for nonverbal behaviors relevant to the study.


This section contains a description of research results and the presence, absence, or change in nonverbal behaviors during the course of the interviews. The behaviors have been grouped into the categories of insulators, withdrawal, and adaptors.


Insulators are used to create space between individuals in an interaction. They are often identified by the presence of markers, but can include blocking behaviors through body gestures and movements. Blocking behaviors were employed by a majority of the participants in this study.

Female participants #1, 2, 3, and 5 all crossed their legs at some point during the course of the study. The first three crossed them initially, while the fifth female participant did not cross them until the interviewer reached the third position, but did so immediately at that point. Male #5 was the only male to cross his legs at any time, and he did so immediately upon sitting down, after pulling his chair back approximately ten inches.

Many of the interviewees began to move their hands more as the interviewer reached the second, and eventually third position. Female #5, for example, initially left her hands on the chair’s armrests, but as the interviewer reached the second two positions, she lifted them up and began to move them extensively throughout the rest of the interview. Male #5 did the same thing. Hands were also used to cover the crotch region by several participants. At the beginning of the interview, Male #6 had his hands together in his lap. He then separated them for a bit and instantly brought them back together and clasped them there as the interviewer reached the third position. Female interviewee #3 held both of her hands unclasped in this area beginning about halfway through the process, while Female #2 did so for the first half, after which they migrated to her face, where they stayed for the remainder of the interview.


Some of the participants used withdrawal either alongside or instead of blocking behaviors. Male #5, upon entering the room, tried to sit in one of the extra chairs on the other side of the table from where the interview space was set. After being prompted by the interviewer to sit in the provided chair, he pulled the chair backward, adding approximately ten inches to the interactional space before sitting down. To a lesser degree, Female #4 utilized this same technique. Upon sitting down, she sat in an upright position, almost leaning forward toward the interviewer. As he reached his second position, however, she leaned back in her seat, maintaining the space between them.


Perhaps the most common nonverbal behaviors exhibited throughout the course of this research were adaptors. Adaptors, which take many forms, are usually responses to stress or boredom associated with negative feelings, and they can give insight into the emotional state of an individual. Self-adaptors are the primary form present in this study.

Many individuals used self-adaptors pertaining to the face. After the interviewer reached the third position, Female #2 brought her hand to her mouth and kept it there for the rest of the time. Male #6 rubbed his chin during the last third of the interview, as did Males #1 and 2. Female #1 began rubbing the back of her neck as soon as the third position was reached. Male #5 also started touching his neck and picking at his shoe about halfway through the interview, and Male #4 began to curl the brim of his hat. Male #2 continually fidgeted with his face and wiped his forehead as if to eliminate sweat as soon as the interviewer looked down at a piece of paper in his hand.

Other Notes

A number of the participants turned their chairs to the side early in the interview, which was potentially a blocking behavior. This occurred in the instances of Males #3 and 4 and Females #3, 4, 5, and 6. Another common theme was the tendency to swing back and forth or rock early in the interview, and then slow down or stop completely when the interviewer leaned closer. Female participant #5 did this to the greatest extent, while Females #2 and 4 did to a lesser degree. Male #2 rocked back and forth the entire time, as did Male #4.

Males #2 and 3 avoided eye contact with the interviewer until the last, closest position, when they kept their eyes continually on the interviewer. Male #1 did this to some extent, and so did Female #5. The others exhibited no discernable pattern to their eye behavior, but Female #1 started to turn red, almost a blush, over her entire face as the interviewer reached the third and closest position.

Upon debriefing, two female participants, #2 and #6, reported not noticing that the interviewer was closer to them by the end than at the beginning, while only one male, #3, reported barely noticing. All others said that they had noticed a change and had some sort of inner discourse concerning it. Three participants, Female #4 and Males #1 and 4, said that they had noticed enough that they suspected it to be an experiment. Of these three, only one, Female #4, reported a bearing on her discomfort, stating that it put her at ease to realize that it was intentional. Eight of the nine participants who had noticed a change said that they had experienced some degree of physical or emotional discomfort from the experience.


This section integrates all previous parts of the study to explore implications of blocking and adapter behaviors observed and gender differences. It also relates these implications to the hypothesis.

As stated in the literature review, blocking behaviors and adaptors occur as a reaction to stress, boredom, or adverse feelings toward other people. The majority of reactions elicited by the participants in this study tend to fall within the realm of blocking behaviors or adaptors. These occurred in a variety of ways amongst the participants and generally were consistent within genders. It is important to note the severity of the reactions in comparison with the baseline nonverbal behaviors and the severity of reactions in accordance with the proximity of the interviewer. 
The most common behaviors were: crossing of the legs, hand gestures, hands covering the crotch or playing with the face, turning the chair away from the interviewer, swiveling the chair back and forth, and avoiding eye contact. These all qualify as either adaptors or blocking behaviors and were most likely in reaction to proxemic violation by the interviewer. This suggests that the violation of proxemic norms by the interviewer either causes stress or adverse feelings within the interviewee.

The reactions by the interviewees were first gauged in accordance with the baseline nonverbal behaviors they exhibited. The baseline nonverbal behaviors are essentially the ways that the interviewees acted when the interviewer was in his original, non-leaning position. For instance, some interviewees were extremely nervous at the beginning of the interview, and we took this into account when judging their reactions. Others were extremely calm at first, and their reactions grew over time as the interviewer leaned in closer. 

It is interesting to note the differences within reactant and baseline behaviors between genders. For instance, the women almost all crossed their legs at the beginning or at some point within the interview.  Four women crossed their legs in the interview, while only one male did, and he did so at the very beginning of the interview after pulling his chair away from the interviewer approximately ten inches. Because crossing of the legs was a baseline behavior, it did not seem to be in reaction to the proxemic violation, but it does suggest that the females seemed to begin the interview with blocking behaviors already in use. Because crossed legs are typical of women, as cited in the literature review, questions can be raised regarding this observation about whether crossed legs function as a deeply-entrenched and subconscious blocking behavior for women, or if this leg position is only perceived as a blocker when it is actually a natural, comfortable position for females. In opposition to previous research, four females turned their chairs to the side at the beginning of the interview, whereas only two males turned. Typically, females face fellow interactants more than males.

In general, the males reacted more strongly and showed more discomfort than females by the third position, that of greatest proxemic violation of the interviewer. Two females and one male stated that they did not notice the leaning. Furthermore, three males exhibited lack of eye contact through the first two positions of the interviewer, and only one female had noticeable issues with eye contact. Also, males generally exhibited more adapter behaviors involved with touching the face than did females. Five of the six males were rubbing or picking at their faces or clothes in reaction to the third position. 

The evidence from our study supports the hypothesis by suggesting that there is indeed a difference within genders in reacting to proxemic violations and that both genders react with adaptors or blocking behaviors when presented with a proxemic violation. Although it seems that women in general tend to react less strongly to proxemic violations, they also seem to utilize blocking behaviors as a matter of course. Almost all of the females crossed their legs and turned their chairs away from the interviewer. Most of the males faced the interviewer at the beginning and left their legs open and presented to the interviewer.

Some of these gendered reactions could be attributed to the gender of the interviewer. Because the interviewer was male, females may have felt more comfortable, or possibly even attracted, to the interviewer, and therefore reacted less strongly. If the interviewer was female, the males may have felt more comfortable and reacted less strongly. Regardless, it seems that a proxemic violation does elicit blocking or adapter behaviors, suggesting that it causes stress or adverse feelings toward the violator.


Cashdan, E. (1998). Smiles, speech, and body posture: How women and men display sociometric status and power. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 22(4), 209-228. doi:10.1023/A:1022967721884.

Eaves, M. (1990). The effects of proxemic violations as distractors on persuasive message attempts. Retrieved from Education Resource Information Center database.

Richmond, V. P., & McCroskey. (1999). Nonverbal behavior in interpersonal relations. (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn Bacon.

Vrugt, A., & Luyerink, M. (2000). The contribution of bodily posture to gender stereotypical impressions. Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal, 28(1), 91. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier database.


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