The four spaces

In answer to Sophie's question from my last post, here is a brief explanation of the 'four spaces of relationship' as described by E.T. Hall in the 1960s.

A trap that many people fall into is thinking that only close relationships matter and have value. Their aim is to get more and more close relationships, or take what close relationships they do have to even deeper levels.

But the reality is that there are many ways to be in relationships with others. And all of them have value. Here’s a slightly different framework to help us think about this.

The four spaces of belonging were recently described by Joe Myers in his book 'Search to Belong' as an observation tool to help us think about our relationships.

He says there are four ‘spaces’ of belonging in life – Public, Social, Personal and Intimate.

Public belonging occurs when people connect through an outside influence.
Public belonging might happen if you support a sports team, or if you’re the member of a club or organisation.

Public ‘spaces’ include churches, schools, physical places, jobs, universities, after school groups. Public space relationships are not trivial relationships. To a large extent these define our lives. Our public spaces give us broad brush strokes of identity. They are the things we use when we introduce ourselves. They provide the information other people need to see where we fit in society.

Social space
The people who we know by face or name and who we might greet personally belong in our social space. These could be people we study or work with. We can find social belonging in fellowship groups and family get-togethers, at camps, church or school, or even on the bus! Any place where you make small talk is a social space.

You might call these people ‘acquaintances’ if you’re being old fashioned and polite. You don’t have to like everyone in this space. And to be honest, unless you’re a starry-eyed optimist through and through, you will never like everyone in this space.

But these relationships are still really important. This is the space where ‘neighbour’ relationships come into play. Social space is also a ‘sorting’ space for those people who you want to get to know better and invite into your ‘personal space’. In social space conversations, we tend to present ourselves in the best possible way.

Personal space
‘Friend’ is the word we usually use for people who fit into our personal space. Personal space is where we share much more private (but not super-intimate) experiences, feelings, and thoughts. The people in our personal space know more about us than people in our social space. We are able to be more honest with them, and sometimes show them the sides of ourselves that are not quite so socially presentable. However, we don’t share inappropriately so as to make them (or us) feel uncomfortable.

Intimate space
Intimate space is reserved for the people you are extremely close to, physically and emotionally. In our culture, the physical space of intimacy is from 0 to about 18 inches. If you’re intimate, you get up close in all ways!
Intimate space is where you share your most personal experiences, feelings and thoughts. This is where you become truly vulnerable with another person.

Who fits into this space? It all depends on your circumstances. The most obvious answer is your spouse – if you’re married. Apart from that, intimate space can be filled by parents, children, other relatives, romantic partners or very close friends.

There is often a commitment of some sort involved in intimate space relationships. It might be a spoken commitment, in the case of marriage vows, or an unspoken commitment, in the case of children and parents.