Face-to-face – Distance In Verbal Communication

The language of gestures is a form of non-verbal communication and complements words. Psychologist Marcelo R. Ceberio discusses gestures and their relationship with the different types of distance during face-to-face communication in this article.
Face-to-face - distance in verbal communication

Although technology limits face-to-face dialogue, it is still important to set up a good communication tool. The language of gestures is the great silent communicator. In fact, it’s more between the lines. Moreover, it complements what you say with words.

Non-verbal communication is crucial in conveying a message. So what is the most appropriate distance to establish effective communication?

Face-to-face – a universe of gestures

The world of gestures and movements is part of non-verbal communication. This means that a gesture is the basic unit of this kind of language. The most commonly used term to describe it is body language. This is because people use it to communicate with every other human around.

Gestures are an expressive movement of psychic content. Gestures are muscle movements that seek release. They get it whether they are voluntary and fed with intent or involuntary products of an unconscious dynamic.

A man and a woman talking to each other

A gesture, in general, has a complexity that escapes the possibility of accurate measurement. The synergy of almost imperceptible micro-movements for conscious recording is such that it is extremely difficult to make a comprehensive and complete perception of a universe of gestures.

Face-to-face: gestures

Gestures in human interactions are symbolic movements that express and show something that needs to be deciphered. Gestures are thus a target to interpret and important in face-to-face communication.

Each interlocutor can code the gestures of his communication partner according to his or her beliefs, and according to their values, personal meaning, knowledge of each other and by the context in which their interaction takes place.

The gestures of the face, trunk and limbs, the use of space, and the actions with which the body moves, make non-verbal communication a spontaneous element for the transmission of messages. This is a marginalized resource, pushed into the background compared to verbal language.

Many generations not only listen, but also observe their interlocutor while listening. There is a need to see them as they speak. Yet they are seldom aware of it.

People are therefore not aware that it is actually best to communicate face-to-face. That’s because they need to understand their message in all its dimensions. When people communicate, they usually say ” I hear you ” instead of ” I see you .”

Face-to-face: distances between interlocutors

The gestures, expressions and tone of speech, together with the cadence, rhythm and movements between the volume, more or less prominent of the bodies, all develop within a defined space between the interlocutors. Such a space is an optimal distance to establish communication between two or more people.

Hall (1966) distinguishes between the management of space and its movement in relation to such proximity or relational distance. He classifies these into four types of interpersonal distances, namely the following:

Distance types

  • Intimate distance. This implies a distance from emotional closeness. It is the distance from people who are romantically involved. It is also part of the relationship between parents and children. It is an approach that allows the interlocutors to merge. To some extent, there is a break in the boundaries of personal territoriality. This space invites them to express themselves emotionally, such as hugging or caressing someone else’s body.
  • Personal distance. This is a distance from closeness, but one in which the interlocutors maintain their personal boundaries. These are not lost and are in fact clearly demarcated. So it is the distance of interpersonal relations, tacitly agreed upon between friends, family and colleagues. It is also the distance of two people who have a common goal or interest.
  • Social Distancing. With this form of distance there is no physical contact. The look happens to be the only type of band that predominates. It is not an impersonal relationship, but there is a protective space and also a distance from any invasions or interferences from the interlocutor. It is also the optimal distance in situations of negotiation and sale. In general, there are desks, shop windows, tables and objects that impose the distance between interlocutors. In traditional psychiatric consultations, for example, the classical therapeutic distance takes place by means of a desk or a white coat.
  • Public distance. This is the distance from formal interactions. There is no intimacy and no personal connection. There is also no direct relationship. This is, for example, the typical distance of a teacher or a professor.

About this distance

With the last three types of distances above, the length of the space between the interlocutors varies from 60 to 80 centimeters. This is no more or less than the width of a standard door or certain corridors.

Architecture thus expresses lifestyles and human interaction in a certain way. There is so much in the design of a home that meets the special requirements of a family. The same goes for the impersonal designs in construction. In general, interior doors are less wide than exterior doors.

Modern interior doors, as well as hallways, are about 53 cm wide, while entrances are 58 cm. In the same vein, the constructions from the first half of the twentieth century have wider inner doors than the current outer doors.

Although we live in an age of impersonal relationships, personal, social and public distances have become smaller. But in the early decades of the last century, a formal distance quota was imposed, even though there were closer interactions and more knowledge about neighbors, friends and family.

For example, physical contact was not acceptable and formal treatment was expected. As with doors, the relational distance was much greater then than it is today.

Relational Distance

This distance depends on the socio-cultural context. Each culture imposes the kind of space between interlocutors. Certain contexts have a closer social distance, equivalent to the intimate distance from other cultures.

At a relational level, this often leads to misunderstandings between people who belong to antagonistic contexts. This is all the more true in cases where physical contact is the only way to emphasize something verbally.

Three people talking to each other in a cafe

An example of a relational distance and a socio-cultural context

This example by Paul Watzlawick from 1976 shows such differences. It is about a series of researchers who investigated a phenomenon at the airport of Rio de Janeiro.

The airport had a terrace with a low railing and many people had lost weight there in recent years. However, these accidents only happened to foreigners, mainly Europeans.

This terrace was a meeting center for receptions and farewell gatherings. The researchers found that when the Brazilians talked to the Europeans, the latter began to withdraw from the former.

This is because they were trying to achieve a suitable space for their particular interaction. Ironically, Brazilians’ personal space is small, perhaps as great as Europeans’ intimate distance.

So when the Europeans started to walk backwards to increase their distance, the Brazilians responded by walking towards them, seeking their own social distance. As a result, many Europeans fell over the railing of the airport.

In addition to the interpersonal distances imposed by culture, there is also the personal distance. Everyone loses something in establishing communication with others.

For example, the standard distance of 80 cm allows a person to look at his interlocutor. They can also perceive the rest of their bodies and gestures through their own peripheral field of view.

Face-to-face: conclusion

Gestures are difficult to master. People consciously control what they want to express through verbal language, but that is impossible through gestures.

So you need to be aware of your meta-communication and preferred distance, especially when there is doubt about the meaning you give to the gestures of others. This will help you become a better interlocutor.

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