Body Language, Posture and Proximity
Our page on Non-Verbal Communication explains that non-verbal communication is a vital part of understanding and communication.
Some estimates suggest that speech only makes up about 20 to 30% of communication.
The rest of the information is conveyed non-verbally, by tone of voice, facial expressions, eye-contact, gestures, how we stand, and so on.
There are many different types of non-verbal communication. This page is one of two on this issue, and explains the non-verbal communication associated with the body, including body language or body movements, also known as kinesics, posture, and proxemics, or the message given by how close we stand to someone else.
Body Language or Body Movements (Kinesics)
Body movements include gestures, posture, head and hand movements or whole body movements.
Body movements can be used to reinforce or emphasise what a person is saying and also offer information about the emotions and attitudes of a person. However, it is also possible for body movements to conflict with what is said.
A skilled observer may be able to detect such discrepancies in behaviour and use them as a clue to what someone is really feeling and thinking.
There are several different categories of body movement, these include:
Gestures that serve the same function as a word are called emblems.
For example, the signals that mean 'OK', 'Come here!', or the hand movement used when hitch-hiking. However, be aware that whilst some emblems are internationally recognised, others may need to be interpreted in their cultural context.
For more about this, see our page on Non-Verbal Communication.
Gestures which accompany words to illustrate a verbal message are known as illustrators.
For example, the common circular hand movement which accompanies the phrase 'over and over again', or nodding the head in a particular direction when saying 'over there'.
Gestures used to give feedback when conversing are called regulators.
Examples of 'regulators' include head nods, short sounds such as 'uh-huh', 'mm-mm', and expressions of interest or boredom. Regulators allow the other person to adapt his or her speech to reflect the level of interest or agreement. Without receiving feedback, many people find it difficult to maintain a conversation. Again, however, they may vary in different cultural contexts.
Adaptors are non-verbal behaviours which either satisfy some physical need.
Adaptors include such actions as scratching or adjusting uncomfortable glasses, or represent a psychological need such as biting fingernails when nervous.
Although normally subconscious, adaptors are more likely to be restrained in public places than in the private world of individuals where they are less likely to be noticed. Adaptive behaviours often accompany feelings of anxiety or hostility.
Posture can reflect emotions, attitudes and intentions.
Research has identified a wide range of postural signals and their meanings, such as:
Open and Closed Posture
Two forms of posture have been identified, ‘open’ and ‘closed’, which may reflect an individual's degree of confidence, status or receptivity to another person.
Someone seated in a closed position might have his/her arms folded, legs crossed or be positioned at a slight angle from the person with whom they are interacting. In an open posture, you might expect to see someone directly facing you with hands apart on the arms of the chair. An open posture can be used to communicate openness or interest in someone and a readiness to listen, whereas the closed posture might imply discomfort or disinterest.
Notice the way a loving couple relate to each other. You might like to observe a close relationship in person or on television. You will see that the partners’ postures will match, as if one partner is a mirror reflection of the other. For example, if one partner drapes an arm over the back of a chair this might be replicated in the other person’s position. If one partner frowns, it could be reflected in the other partner’s facial expression. This ‘mirroring’ indicates interest and approval between people.
Further Reading from Skills You Need
Learn more about the key communication skills you need to be a more effective communicator.
Our eBooks are ideal for anyone who wants to learn about or develop their interpersonal skills and are full of easy-to-follow, practical information.
Closeness and Personal Space (Proxemics)
Every culture has different levels of physical closeness appropriate to different types of relationship, and individuals learn these distances from the society in which they grew up.
The study of personal space is called proxemics.
In today's multicultural society, it is important to consider the range of non-verbal codes as expressed in different ethnic groups. When someone violates an ‘appropriate’ distance, people may feel uncomfortable or defensive. Their actions may well be open to misinterpretation.
In Western society, four distances have been defined according to the relationship between the people involved.
The Four Main Categories of Proxemics
- Intimate Distance (touching to 45cm)
- Personal Distance (45cm to 1.2m)
- Social Distance (1.2m to 3.6m)
- Public Distance (3.7m to 4.5m)
These four distances are associated with the four main types of relationship - intimate, personal, social and public.
Each of the distances is divided into two, giving a close phase and a far phase, making eight divisions in all. It is worth noting that these distances are considered the norm in Western society.
Intimate distance ranges from close contact (touching) to the 'far' phase of 15-45cm.
In British society, it tends to be seen as an inappropriate distance for public behaviour and entering the intimate space of another person with whom you do not have a close relationship can be extremely disturbing.
The 'far' phase of personal distance is considered to be the most appropriate for people holding a conversation. At this distance it is easy to see the other person's expressions and eye movements, as well as their overall body language. Handshaking can occur within the bounds of personal distance.
This is the normal distance for impersonal business, for example working together in the same room or during social gatherings.
Seating is also important; communication is far more likely to be considered as a formal relationship if the interaction is carried out across a desk. In addition, if the seating arrangements are such that one person appears to look down on another, an effect of domination may be created. At a social distance, speech needs to be louder and eye contact remains essential to communication, otherwise feedback will be reduced and the interaction may end.
Teachers and public speakers address groups at a public distance. At such distances exaggerated non-verbal communication is necessary for communication to be effective. Subtle facial expressions are lost at this distance, so clear hand gestures are often used as a substitute. Larger head movements are also typical of an experienced public speaker who is aware of changes in the way body language is perceived at longer distances.
A Thought about Public Transport
Anyone who lives in a busy city, especially a capital city, will be familiar with overcrowded public transport.
In London, for example, the Tube is often so crowded during rush hour that complete strangers may be pressed against each other very intimately.
One interesting phenomenon about rush hour travel in London is that almost nobody speaks, or even acknowledges the existence of anyone else with eye contact or other non-verbal cues - except very occasionally to ask them to move further into the carriage.
We might speculate that this could be because acknowledgement of strangers within one’s intimate space is very uncomfortable, and most people therefore prefer to ignore it.
Understanding these distances allows us to approach others in non-threatening and appropriate ways. People can begin to understand how others feel about them, how they view the relationship and, if appropriate, adjust their behaviour accordingly.
Important Clues and Messages
Body language, posture and distance provide important information to supplement words, or verbal communication. They are a crucial addition to the overall message.
The full picture also includes facial expressions, eye contact and voice.