Communication. Beyond words, the distance between people, gestures, the way of speaking and movements provide information
Imagine that at a social gathering the hostess introduces two people who do not know each other. One is Romanian and the other, Argentine. They have common interests and sympathize so they strike up a lively conversation… while moving around the place in a strange way. The Argentine approaches looking for a comfortable distance to talk and the Romanian feels uncomfortable, invaded... so he takes a step back... the Argentine feels that they are too far apart and takes a step forward. If a 'time-lapse' were made of the room where the meeting takes place, it would look as if the Argentine was chasing the Romanian.
This is an extreme example from a study of 9,000 people from 42 countries who were asked how far away they feel comfortable from a stranger, an acquaintance, and a friend. The extremes (on average and without meaning an exact measurement) were those who live in the Romanian culture, who feel comfortable at 1.40 meters from strangers, and the Argentines, who prefer to be at 76 cm, almost half. This is a cultural measure that more or less we all respect in our environment, although there is always someone who gets too close to us and from whom we move away when we feel invaded.
Personal distance, the space that each of us carries around us like a bubble, is the object of study of proxemics, one of the specialties of the study of non-verbal communication. It was Charles Darwin who undertook the serious study of forms of communication that do not use structured language, with his 1872 book 'The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals'. Darwin described his observations of the interactions of different animals and the way they communicated without words, and how this peculiar phenomenon was also present in humans.
Today, some scholars consider that non-verbal communication is responsible for between 60 and 70% of the real communication between human beings. And we can see it in our daily lives, where we not only trust the word of another, but we are attentive to their expressions and gestures, to the tone of their voice, to all the elements that tell us 'he is being sincere' or 'he is lying'. And, of course, professional deceivers, like fraudsters, specialize in pretending to be sincere with all the elements of non-verbal communication. In the words of Groucho Marx: “The secret of life is honesty and equal treatment. If you can fake them, you already did."
In addition to proxemics, the study of non-linguistic communication includes at least four other specialties. There is haptics, which studies human touch and contact. For example, there are cultures in which contact is totally casual and can occur between strangers, while in others, touching another person can be interpreted as a serious infringement of cultural space... and where the effects of contact on different parts of the body: there are friends that we hug warmly, but we would not tolerate contact with certain parts of our body.
Kinesics is the study of body movements and facial gestures, including posture. As an example we have the participants in contact sports, who are aggressive in their pose and gestures and their message reaches us very clearly even if they have no words: 'I'm going to crush my opponent'. At the other extreme are the bodily and facial attitudes of kindness, understanding and closeness.
Paralinguistics studies all the aspects that accompany spoken language: the volume, the tone, the speed with which it is spoken, breathing, laughter, sobs, gasps or throat clearing that also give us large amounts of information that enriches or clarifies what It is said that. Even the silences… like when someone is asked an awkward question and pauses for a long time as if searching for an uncompromising answer.
Finally, we have the chronemic, which studies how societies and people structure their time, for example in terms of punctuality, the duration of our gestures in other specialties, such as the duration of a hug or the time we dedicate to a task. . Chronemics also studies social relations marked by time: who can waste time is usually someone higher in the hierarchy than the people who are expected not to, or who can make whom wait, as a way of establishing their superiority. .
It is clear that none of these disciplines can be conceived in isolation, but rather they are simply approaches to unravel a non-verbal communication that permeates our social relationships. There are elements that seem to be common to all human beings, which could depend on the inheritance of behavioral patterns that have been valuable for survival, such as the close proximity of the mother and her baby, the way they look at each other, the teaching that occurs when the baby does not yet understand the first word. Other elements, such as the interpersonal distance with which we began this article, are clearly cultural and have developed within the specific historical evolution of each society.
In the case of proxemics, the study to which we referred found that the Romanian culture uses a close space, the one with friends, almost as narrow as the Argentine, while those who live in Saudi Arabia are the ones who want the furthest away. be your friends, just 35 cm closer to the 125 they like to put between them and strangers.
Some people have tried, using the knowledge of non-verbal communication, to make extreme inferences, as is the case of those who affirm that there are small, almost hidden indications that appear when someone lies, such as putting their hand to their mouth, looking away or turning around. in the seat. However, after decades of research (one study reviewed more than 1,000 studies on the subject) all we know is that nonverbal cues of lying have not been reliably identified. The search for these indications is as useless as polygraphs, which are as easy to fool as human beings, social animals as we are. Lie detection is not among the many that the study of this hidden communication can bring us.
Proxemics and Covid
The COVID-19 pandemic quickly and radically changed our proxemics, and scholars are already measuring not only how we distance ourselves from others out of fear of contagion, but how we compensate by being closer to our loved ones, to our 'COVID-19 bubble. ', or how those who tend to be spatially closer to others suffer more from change.