Deeper cultural assumptions: Distance and Relative Placement

Space has both a physical and a social meaning (Van Maanen, 1979b). For coordinated social action to occur, an individual must share assumptions about the meaning of the placement of physical objects in an environment and also know how to orient himself or herself spatially in relation to other members of the group. A person’s placement in relation to others sym­bolizes status, social distance, and membership. For example, Hall (1966) points out that in the United States, there is high consensus on four kinds of “normal distance” and that within each of these, there is consensus on what it means to be “ very near ” or “ very far. ”

  • Intimacy distance: Among those who consider themselves to be inti­mate with each other, contact and touching are defined as being very near; six to eighteen inches is the range for being far. This is what soci­ologists call the “ideal sphere” around each of us that defines the space we only allow to be entered by people with whom we feel we have an intimate relationship. If a stranger is that close to us, it makes us uncomfortable or anxious.
  • Personal distance: Eighteen to thirty inches is being near, two to four feet is being far. This is the range within which we have personal con­versations with another individual even if we are in a crowd or at a party. This distance permits a normal or soft tone of voice to be used and is usually accompanied by intense eye contact. The easiest way to appreciate the power of this distance norm is to recall what happens at parties when someone from another culture—in which personal dis­tance is defined as closer than it is in the United States—moves in “too close.” We find ourselves backing up, only to discover that the other person is pursuing us, trying to make the distance seem right to him or her. Eventually we feel cornered, and all kinds of irrelevant motives or personality attributes get called into play, when in fact the only thing operating is the fact that in two different cultures, the norm of what is appropriate personal distance varies. When personal distance is violated one often hears the phrase “You ire in my face,” or “Get out of my face.”
  • Social distance: Four to seven feet is near; seven to twelve feet is far. Social distance defines how we talk to several people at once, as at a dinner party or a seminar; it usually involves some raising of the voice and less personal focus on any given individual. Our eyes will scan the group or be focused on the floor or ceiling. Designers of seminar rooms or tables for committee meetings have to work around these kinds of norms if they are concerned about making the room feel appropriate for the kinds of meetings that are supposed to go on there. The more we want to meet informally and really get to know each other, the more the room has to be scaled down to allow that to happen. If people are to be seated around a table, the size and shape of the table have to be appropriate so that people can feel socially in each other’s presence.
      • Public distance: Twelve to twenty-five feet is near; more than twenty- five feet is far. At this distance the audience is defined as undifferen­tiated, and we raise our voice even more or use a microphone. Our eyes rove systematically or do not focus on anyone, as when we read a speech to an audience.

Feelings about distance have biological roots. Animals have a clearly defined flight distance (the distance that will elicit fleeing if the animal is intruded upon) and critical distance (the distance that will elicit attack­ing behavior if the animal is intruded upon or “cornered”). Conditions of crowding not only elicit pathological behavior in nonhuman species but also elicit aggression in humans. Hence, most cultures have fairly clear rules about how to define personal and intimate space through the use of a variety of cues to permit what Hall calls “sensory screening,” including partitions, walls, sound barriers, and other physical devices. We use eye contact, body position, and other personal devices to signal respect for the privacy of others (Goffman, 1959; Hatch, 1990; Steele, 1973, 1981).

We also learn how to manage what Hall calls intrusion distance; that is, how far away to remain from others who are in personal conversation without interrupting the conversation yet making it known that one wants attention when appropriate. In some cultures, including ours, intrusion occurs only when someone interrupts with speech (someone can stand close by without “interrupting”), whereas in other cultures, even entering the visual field of another person constitutes a bid for attention and hence is seen as an interruption. In these cultural settings, the use of physical bar­riers such as closed offices has an important symbolic meaning—it is the only way to get a feeling of privacy (Hall, 1966).

At the organizational level, we can clearly see that DEC and Ciba- Geigy had different assumptions about space. DEC opted for a completely open office layout, with partitions low enough to permit everyone to see over the tops. At Ciba-Geigy, the offices were arranged along corridors and had heavy doors that were kept shut.

1. The Symbolism of Space

Organizations develop different norms of who should have how much and what kind of space. They also hold different implicit assumptions about the role of space use in getting work accomplished. In most organizations, the best views and locations are reserved for the highest itatus people. Senior executives are typically on the higher floors of buildings and often are allocated special spaces such as private conference rooms and pri­vate bathrooms. Sociologists point out that one important function of private bathrooms is to preserve the image of leaders as “ superhuman” beings who do not have the ordinary needs of those at lower levels (Goffman, 1967). In some organizations, it would not be comfortable for the employee to find himself urinating next to the president of the corporation.

Some organizations use very precise space allocation as a direct status symbol. As was mentioned before, the headquarters building of General Foods was designed with movable walls so that, as product managers were promoted, their office size could be adjusted to reflect their new rank. At the same time, the company had a department that allocated the kind of carpeting, furniture, and wall decorations that went with particular rank levels. In contrast, DEC aggressively tried to reduce status and privileges by not allocating private parking spaces; by reserving the good locations, such as corners, for conference rooms; and by putting higher-status manag­ers in inside offices so that clerical and secretarial employees could work on the outside, next to windows. Whereas in many organizations the way in which the employees can decorate their own workspace is prescribed, DEC employees were left entirely on their own with regard to decoration. In Apple, the norm was even more extreme in that employees were allowed to bring pets or children to work.

Where buildings are located, how they are built, and the kind of archi­tecture involved will vary from one organization to the next and may well reflect deeper values and assumptions held in the larger culture and by the key leaders. Because buildings and the environment around them are highly visible and relatively permanent, organizations attempt to symbolize important values and assumptions through the design. The physical layout not only has this symbolic function but is often used to guide and channel the behavior of members of the organization, thereby becoming a powerful builder and reinforcer of norms (Berg and Kreiner, 1990; Gagliardi, 1990; Steele, 1973, 1981).

For example, DEC reinforced its values of autonomy and empowerment by being highly decentralized geographically but, at the same time, rein­forced its value of communication by employing a fleet of helicopters and shuttle buses to transport people around easily among the decentralized units. The value of frugality was reinforced by opting for inexpensive, unob­trusive, low-rise buildings. The interior open-office layout was designed to stimulate high levels of communication and to symbolize efficiency and cost consciousness. In contrast, Ciba-Geigy, with its greater emphasis on work as a private activity, enclosed areas as much as possible, was com­fortable with private dining rooms for different levels of executives, and enclosed its buildings in an almost fortress-like manner.

2. Body Language

One of the more subtle uses of space is how we use gestures, body posi­tion, and other physical cues to communicate our sense of what is going on in a given situation and how we relate to the other people in it. On the gross level, those we sit next to, physically avoid, touch, bow to, and so on convey our perceptions of relative status and intimacy. As sociolo­gists have observed, however, there are many more subtle cues that convey our deeper sense of what is going on and our assumptions about the right and proper way to behave in any given situation (Goffman, 1967; Van Maanen, 1979b).

Rituals of deference and demeanor that reinforce hierarchical relation­ships are played out in the physical and temporal positioning of behavior, as when a subordinate knows just where to stand at a meeting relative to the boss and how to time his or her questions or comments when disagreeing with the boss. The boss, for her part, knows that she must sit at the head of the table in the boardroom and time her remarks to the group appropri­ately. But only insiders know the full meaning of all these time/space cues, reminding us forcefully that what we observe around spatial arrangements and the behavioral use of time are cultural artifacts, difficult to decipher if we do not have additional data obtained from insiders through interview, observation, and joint inquiry. It would be highly dangerous to use our own cultural lenses to interpret what we observe, as when I misjudged the tone at the British Petroleum meeting mentioned earlier.

Gestures have symbolic meanings in every culture and, therefore, can be easily misunderstood, as was the case of the South African gold mine workers who were viewed as untrustworthy because they did not maintain eye contact with their supervisors. On the other hand, in the United States where eye contact is considered a “good” indicator of attention, I have had difficulty convincing dialogue groups to “talk to the campfire” instead of directly to each other (Schein, 1993a).

3. Time, Space, and Activity Interaction

Becoming oriented in both time and space is fundamental for an individual in any new situation. Thus far, we have analyzed time and space as separate dimensions, but, in reality, they always interact in complex ways around the activity that is supposed to occur. It is easiest to see this in relation to the basic forms of time. Monochronic time assumptions have specific implications for how space is organized. If someone must have individual appointments and privacy, he or she needs areas in which they can be held, thus requiring either desks that are far enough apart, cubicles, or offices with doors. Because monochronic time is linked with efficiency, the indi­vidual also requires a space layout that allows a minimum of wasted time. Thus it must be easy for people to contact each other, distances between important departments must be minimal, and amenities such as toilets and eating areas must be placed in such a way as to save time. In fact, in DEC, the liberal distribution of water coolers, coffee machines, and small kitch­ens around the organization clearly signaled the importance of continuing to work even as one satisfied bodily needs.

Polychronic time, in contrast, requires spatial arrangements that make it easy for simultaneous events to occur, where privacy is achieved by being near someone and whispering rather than by retreating behind closed doors. Thus, large rooms are built more like amphitheaters to permit a senior per­son to hold court, or sets of offices or cubicles are built around a central core that permits easy access to everyone. We might also expect more visually open environments such as the office bullpens that permit supervisors to survey the entire department so that they can easily see who might need help or who is not working.

When buildings and offices are designed in terms of certain intended work patterns, both distance and time are usually considered in the physical layout (Allen, 1977; Steele, 1973, 1981, 1986). These design issues get very complex, however, because information and communication technology is increasingly able to shrink time and space in ways that may not have been considered. For example, a group of people in private offices can communi­cate by telephone, e-mail, fax, and videophone, and even be a virtual team by using conference calls enhanced by various kinds of computer software (Grenier and Metes, 1992; Johansen and others, 1991).

The difficulty of introducing some of these information technologies highlights the interaction of assumptions, in that some managers become conscious of the fact that they need face-to-face interaction to gauge whether or not their message is getting through and how the other person is reacting. At DEC, for example, e-mail was widely used by certain sets of engineers who felt comfortable solving problems with each other by this means even if they did not know each other personally; senior executives, on the other hand, usually insisted on meetings and face-to-face communication.

The introduction of new information technologies such as email or group­ware sometimes forces to the surface assumptions that have been taken for granted, thereby revealing cultural elements that may be incongruent with optimal behavior from the technology point of view. Conference calls, for example, might be resisted because participants cannot read body language and facial expressions. E-mail, on the other hand, can facilitate communi­cation because it does not require the sender to “interrupt” the receiver in the way that a phone call would. New cultural norms about time then arise in terms of the expectations that e-mails will be answered within a certain length of time and that everyone will have e-mail service. Status assumptions come to the fore because senior executives consider it demeaning to have to type and, therefore, resist learning to use a desktop computer. Some of those same executives may be driven to the use of new technologies such as “tex­ting” because it is the only way to communicate with their children!

Source: Schein Edgar H. (2010), Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass; 4th edition.

2 thoughts on “Deeper cultural assumptions: Distance and Relative Placement

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