Why Socially Distanced Small Groups Don't Work (and… | UMC YoungPeople
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May 2020

Why Socially Distanced Small Groups Don't Work (and How to Fix It)

By Jeremy Steele

Your small groups might not work in a socially distanced setting, and they will definitely be affected. All of that is because of a new word I am going to add to your vocabulary: Proxemics. Proxemics is an area of communication study that looks at the relationship between distance and communication.

It builds on something we all know to be true. There are some things that feel wrong to say at certain distances. For example, it doesn’t feel right for a cashier to snuggle up next to you and whisper “Your total is $46.95” in your ear. Neither does it feel right for your partner to yell at you from fifteen feet away, “I love the way kissing you makes me feel inside.”

The basic idea behind proxemics is that there are roughly four spatial spheres that extend out from an individual that are the boundaries for different levels of communication intimacy. The further you get away from the individual, the less intimate the communication. Let me give you an overview of each of the spheres and then we’ll talk about how this will explain the trouble you are (or will) experience with socially distanced small groups.

Before my skeptical readers dismiss this altogether, know that there are, of course, exceptions to these rules. But, with any exception there has to be a compelling reason, there are often rules that govern the exception (like keeping your eyes forward in an elevator), and sometimes there are even physical barriers that reinforce the fact that this is a violation of the norms.

0-1.5 ft Intimate Space: This is the space where only the closest of relationships belong: parents, close family, best friends, and romantic partners. When an acquaintance or stranger comes in close, we have a visceral “STRANGER DANGER” reaction. But these distance parameters aren’t just about the people, they also govern what is said. At that distance, the only conversations that seem right are the ones that are the most intimate. When your partner wants to ask you what you want to have for dinner, it’s not done in this space, unless that’s your thing, then it is.

1.5-4ft Personal Space: This is where a larger number of people are granted access, and it’s where most personal conversations happen. When a doctor talks to you about a diagnosis, they are often in this space. When a friend comes to hang out and talk about the crazy stuff happening at work, this is where it happens. This realm is where we feel comfortable discussing the more personal things in our life but not the most intimate.

4-12 ft Social Space: This is the realm in which we can be social with acquaintances and those that we may not know at all but have to interact with for another reason. This is where most business transactions occur, and this is where we stand to meet a new person. It comes just close enough to shake hands, but anything closer seems too close.

12-25 ft Public Space: This realm highlights another feature of proxemics: awareness. The closer someone gets to you, the more aware you are of their presence and the more communication can be received through nonverbal channels. When people are more than 25 feet away from you, it is likely that you are completely unaware of their presence other than the fact that there is another human being somewhere around. Almost no interpersonal communication can occur at this distance except to get someone’s attention to move closer.

Did you spot the problem? Most of the conversations in our small groups would classify as personal communication. That is why in most small group settings, you are not more than four feet away from the next participant. In fact, if you’ve ever been in a small group setting and had to sit further away from people you have likely felt left out or like you “were an outsider” a.k.a. didn’t feel comfortable enough to engage in a personal conversation.

You can test this (or you could before we all had to be socially distanced). Set up a room for a small group with easily moving folding chairs. Place a couple in the personal space and most of them spaced more than four feet apart and you will see people move the chairs closer together. If they don’t you will likely see the people who are appropriately spaced invite the others to move closer. It is uncanny to watch.

When you are mandated by the government (or the church council) to stay six feet apart, it will feel wrong to many people to have the kind of personal communication you are used to having in a small group separated by six feet. The the communication will tend to drift into less intimate subjects and responses, or the people will move physically closer. I have noticed this personally in the handful of interactions I have had with friends and coworkers in the last couple weeks. When things got personal I would either instinctively begin to move closer or feel strange because we were so far part.

What can you do? There’s a couple of options as we continue to stay socially distanced.

  1. Don’t drop your online meeting. If you think about it, the device you are using to Zoom is almost always within that personal distance (or closer) which makes it in some ways easier to have personal communication over a video conference than in person six feet apart. So, in order to maintain that communication, make sure to continue meeting via video conference until the 6 foot rule is relaxed.
  2. Make in-person gatherings more social than personal. Enjoy the six foot range for what it is: social. When you are able to come back together, don’t try to have a deep conversation about relationship problems. Talk about what you are watching on Netflix and tell stories of good things that have happened. Keep it light and just enjoy the company of others.
  3. Name the awkwardness. Though it will not completely fix the problem, naming the fact that it is awkward to have your normal, personal conversations six feet apart can help relieve the tension. Whenever you bring up a topic that is more personal, remind people that it may feel weird to talk about this six feet apart, but you are going to try.
  4. Pay attention to moving people. Your people will unconsciously start moving closer. If you are serious about keeping everyone safe, then you need to keep an eye out for people who are moving closer and politely highlight that fact.

Your small groups will not always be six feet apart, but until they do, you will have to weather the awkwardness. Hopefully this helps. If you have your own tips, make sure to leave them for us in the comments!

When he's not playing with his four children with his wonderful wife, Jeremy is the associate pastor at Los Altos UMC in Los Altos, CA. Jeremy has spent over twenty years working in youth and children's ministry and continues to train children and youth workers as well as writing and speaking extensively in that field. His most recent book is the "All the Best Questions." You can find a list of all his books, articles, and resources for churches at JeremyWords.com.