Proxemics and Expectancy Violations Theory

Expectancy Violations Theory  (EVT) is one way of understanding how people create assumptions and use physical space. People interact with space in ways where behaviors are expected. A component of EVT includes the interpersonal behavior subject of proxemics zones. Proxemics is the study of how humans use space. Intimate distance, personal distance, social distance, and territoriality with sub territories are components of proxemics within EVT. Intimate distance is the zone around a person that ranges from zero to 18 inches. In Western culture, this space is often shared with family members and close friends. Personal distances ranges from 18 inches to 4 feet and reserved for interactions with familiar people. An impromptu meeting with a coworker at the water cooler or the exchange of pleasantries with the clerk at the local grocery store is familiar interactions. Social distance ranges from 4 to 12 feet and is the space people use interacting in social environments such as work or parties. Public distance is 12 feet and beyond and is a formal type of space used by public figures, educators, supervisors, and so on.

Claiming Space

How space is used is the subject of territoriality. Defined as a person’s ownership of an object or area (West and Turner, 2004), territoriality is the process that people apply to personal and private property. From placing a book bag on a seat in a crowded subway car to building a fence around a home, Western culture uses territory to signify ownership. Territoriality has three main components of primary territories, secondary territories, and public territories. Primary territory is a person’s, “exclusive domain over an area or object” (West and Turner, 2004, p. 139). An office desk and a warehouse locker are claimed and labeled by workers to indicate ownership of the territory. Secondary territory is a person’s “affiliation with an area or object” (West and Turner, 2004, p. 139). A particular seat at the local coffee house or a library a student visits frequently and thinks of as a second home is how people associate secondary territory with an area or object. Public territory is, “open spaces for everyone” (West and Turner, 2004, p. 139). Beaches, parks, city centers, town squares, and so on are public spaces that are accessible by anyone.

Gendered Space

Sapiro (2003) notes that space is used and manipulated differently by men and women. Men take up more space than women do and that contributes to how Western culture perceives men and women’s roles in shared spaces. Richards and McAlister examined how men and women occupy space in a 1994 study published in the Journal of Psychology

Men sit and stand more expansively than women do much more often spreading their arms and legs outward or sideways or sitting with their heads and trunks leaning backward and their legs spread out in front of them. American men tend to cross their legs in the ankle-over-knee position. Women position themselves as though trying to shrink, with arms and legs closer to the body. The more submissive a woman is, the more controlled her body movements (Sapiro, 2003, p. 337/338).

When behavior deviates from expected interactions communication issues emerge because people will react negatively to space violations. Expectancy Violations Theory provides a foundation for why communication issues materialize in relationship to how people use space. However, EVT does not provide solutions for conflict management so anyone experiencing a violation of expected behavior should also be aware of how to resolve the situation.


Sapiro, V. (2003). Women in American society: An introduction to women’s studies (5th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

West, R., & Turner, L. (2004). Introducing Communication Theory: Analysis and Application. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.



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