Friends of the Nonverbal Communication Blog, this week we present the paper “Physical distancing and the perception of interpersonal distance in the Covid-19 crisis” by Welsch, R.; Wessels, M.; Bernhard, C.; Thönes, S. and von Castell, C. (2021), in which authors investigate whether variations in the perception of interpersonal distance due to Covid-19 crisis exist, and, in general, how this matter has affected social proxemic.

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to the implementation of drastic, omnipresent and needed prevention measures in order to stop the infection risk.

As one of the most dangerous situations are face-to-face social interactions, social distancing is one of the main measures proposed by governments.

To talk about this matter, we need to explain the most known and used proxemic measures first.

Intimate space exists for the romantic or sexual partner and for the family, and it’s between 0 and 45 centimeters.

Then, there is personal space, only to be entered by close friends, and it’s between 45 and 120 centimeters.

When it comes about social interaction with strangers, the distance is called social space and it’s between 120 and 365 centimeters.

And last, there is public space, which is between 365 and 762 centimeters and it’s the distance we keep when we are in public, maybe in the street or an open space.

Authors talk about different hypotheses in the paper.

First, they wonder if physical distance requirements change the social norm, and thus increase interpersonal distance even after the Covid-19 pandemic.

Then, there is a second hypothesis, that is whether exposure to social isolation and loneliness, such as the lockdown context, affects to interpersonal distance preferences.

Lastly, they explore if the effects persist after the nation-wide restrictions were lifted.

In order to that, authors carried out a study with a sample of 186 German people, due to Germany has been one of the European countries that has most suffer the effects of the pandemic.

The survey started one week after the first lockdown in Germany. At that time, and interpersonal distance of 150 centimeters to 200 was mandated by the sanitary authorities and the government.

The questions in the survey were focused on the perception of the interpersonal distance before, during and after the pandemic.

Subjects deemed a physical distancing norm of 172 centimeters, which is appropriate during the pandemic.

When it comes about calculating the mean difference between the interpersonal distance before and after the pandemic, and then during it, the results showed only 6 centimeters. Thus, the first hypothesis that authors proposed would be confirmed.

It looks that, at the end of 2020, subjects retrospectively reported that preferred to keep larger distances than the ones before the pandemic. This confirms the authors’ hypotheses, but also manifests how simple and easy is for people to adapt to the new prevention norms when it comes about proxemic.

It is suggested that the perceived individual risk of infection also affects the perceived importance of physical distancing. This would be coherent due to the sanitary situation.

An interesting information obtained is that exists an important discomfort when interpersonal distance is reduced approximately 10 centimeters or more.

Moreover, authors consider that after the pandemic, these customs are being maintained over time, and people prefer to keep the distance recommended by the sanitary authorities in the worst moments of the crisis, even when these have already been left behind.

Therefore, the hypotheses that authors proposed, make sense according to the obtained results.

As any other research, there are some limitations in this study that should be considered. For instance, that the study sample was non-representative of the German population, since two-thirds, which is the majority of the participants, were university students, and the mean age of the sample was around 30.

Future research, point out the authors, should focus on correct this and other limitations that appear in the paper.

Besides, it would be interesting to study why exactly the interpersonal distance recommended at the beginning of this pandemic is still preferred, even when the Covid-19 crisis is not at its peak.


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