Journal of Nonverbal Behavior

, Volume 15, Issue 4, pp 233–259 | Cite as

Relational message interpretations of touch, conversational distance, and posture

  • Judee K. Burgoon


According to a social meaning model of nonverbal communication, many nonverbal behaviors have consensually recognized meanings. Two field experiments examined this presumption by investigating the relational message interpretations assigned to differing levels and types of touch, proximity, and posture. Also examined were the possible moderating effects of the communicator characteristics of gender and attractiveness and relationship characteristics of gender composition and status differentials. Results showed that touching typically conveyed more composure, immediacy, receptivity/trust, affection, similarity/depth/equality, dominance, and informality than its absence. The form of touch also mattered, with handholding and face touching expressing the most intimacy, composure, and informality; handholding and the handshake expressing the least dominance, and the handshake conveying the most formality but also receptivity/trust. Postural openness/relaxation paralleled touch in conveying greater intimacy, composure, informality, and similarity but was also less dominant than a closed/tense posture. Close proximity was also more immediate and similar but dominant. Proximity and postural openness together produced differential interpretations of composure, similarity, and affection. Gender initiator attractiveness was more influential than status in moderating interpretations.


Social Psychology Field Experiment Postural Openness Communicator Characteristic Nonverbal Behavior 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Abele, A. (1986). Functions of gaze in social interaction: Communication and monitoring.Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 10, 83–101.Google Scholar
  2. Baglan, T., & Nelson, D. J. (1982). A comparison of the effects of sex and status on the perceived appropriateness of nonverbal behaviors.Women's Studies in Communication, 5, 29–38.Google Scholar
  3. Breed, G., & Ricci, J. S. (1973). “Touch me, like me”: Artifact?Proceedings of the 81st Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, 8, 153–154.Google Scholar
  4. Burgoon, J. K. (1980). Nonverbal communication research in the 1970s: An overview. In D. Nimmo (Ed.),Communication yearbook 4 (pp. 179–197). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books.Google Scholar
  5. Burgoon, J. K., Buller, D. B., Hale, J. L., & deTurck, M. A. (1984). Relational messages associated with nonverbal behaviors.Human Communication Research, 10, 351–378.Google Scholar
  6. Burgoon, J. K., Buller, D. B., & Woodall, W. G. (1989).Nonverbal communication: The unspoken dialogue. New York: Harper & Row.Google Scholar
  7. Burgoon, J. K., Coker, D. A., & Coker, R. A. (1986). Communicative effects of gaze behavior: A test of two contrasting explanations.Human Communication Research, 12, 495–524.Google Scholar
  8. Burgoon, J. K., & Hale, J. L. (1984). The fundamental topoi of relational communication.Communication Monographs, 51, 193–214.Google Scholar
  9. Burgoon, J. K., & Hale, J. L. (1987). Validation and measurement of the fundamental themes of relational communication.Communication Monographs, 54, 19–41.Google Scholar
  10. Burgoon, J. K., & Hale, J. L. (1988). Nonverbal expectancy violations theory: Model elaboration and application to immediacy behaviors.Communication Monographs, 55, 58–79.Google Scholar
  11. Burgoon, J. K., & Newton, D. A. (1991). Applying a social meaning model to relational message interpretations of conversational involvement: Comparing observer and participant perspectives.Southern Communication Journal, 56, 96–113.Google Scholar
  12. Burgoon, J. K., Newton, D. A., Walther, J. B., & Baesler, E. J. (1989). Nonverbal expectancy violations and conversational involvement.Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 13, 97–120.Google Scholar
  13. Burgoon, J. K., & Walther, J. B. (1990). Nonverbal expectancies and evaluative consequences of violations.Human Communication Research, 17, 232–265.Google Scholar
  14. Derlega, V., Lewis, R. J., Harrison, S., Winstead, B. A., & Costanza, R. (1989). Gender differences in the initiation and attribution of tactile intimacy.Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 13, 83–96.Google Scholar
  15. Ellsworth, P. C., & Ludwig, L. M. (1972). Visual behavior in social interactions.Journal of Communication, 22, 375–403.Google Scholar
  16. Givens, D. B. (1978). The nonverbal basis of attraction: Flirtation, courtship, and seduction.Psychiatry, 41, 346–359.Google Scholar
  17. Henley, N. M., & Harmon, S. (1985). The nonverbal semantics of power and gender: A perceptual study. In S. L. Ellyson & J. F. Dovidio (Eds.),Power, dominance. and nonverbal behavior (pp. 151–164). New York: Springer-Verlag.Google Scholar
  18. Huberty, C. J., & Morris, J. D. (1989). Multivariate analysis versus multiple univariate analyses.Psychological Bulletin, 105, 302–308.Google Scholar
  19. Kleinke, C. L., Meeker, F. B., & LaFong, C. (1974). Effects of gaze, touch, and use of name on evaluation of “engaged” couples.Journal of Research in Personality, 7, 368–373.Google Scholar
  20. Jones, S. E., & Yarbrough, A. E. (1985). A naturalistic study of the meanings of touch.Communication Monographs, 52, 19–56.Google Scholar
  21. Klockars, A. J., & Sax, G. (1986).Multiple comparisons. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  22. Major, B., & Heslin, R. (1982). Perceptions of cross-sex and same-sex nonreciprocal touch: It is better to give than to receive.Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 6, 148–162.Google Scholar
  23. Mehrabian, A. (1967). Orientation behaviors and nonverbal attitude communication.Journal of Communication, 17, 324–332.Google Scholar
  24. Mehrabian, A. (1968a). Inference of attitude from the posture, orientation, and distance of a communicator.Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 32, 296–308.Google Scholar
  25. Mehrabian, A. (1968b). Relationship of attitude to seated posture, orientation, and distance.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 10, 26–30.Google Scholar
  26. Mehrabian, A. (1969). Significance of posture and position in the communication of attitude and status relationships.Psychological Bulletin, 71, 357–372.Google Scholar
  27. Mehrabian, A. (1970). A semantic space for nonverbal behavior.Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 35, 248–257.Google Scholar
  28. Mehrabian, A. (1981).Silent messages: Implicit communication of emotions and attitudes (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.Google Scholar
  29. Mehrabian, A., & Ksionzky, S. (1972). Categories of social behavior.Comparative Group Studies, 3, 425–436.Google Scholar
  30. Mehrabian, A., & Williams, M. (1969) Nonverbal concomitants of perceived and intended persuasiveness.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 13, 37–58.Google Scholar
  31. Sabatelli, R. M., & Rubin, M. (1986). Nonverbal expressiveness and physical attractiveness as mediators of interpersonal perceptions.Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 10, 120–133.Google Scholar
  32. Trout, D. L., & Rosenfeld, H. M. (1980). The effect of postural lean and body congruence on the judgment of psychotherapeutic rapport.Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 4, 176–190.Google Scholar
  33. Watzlawick, P., Beavin, J. H., & Jackson, D. D. (1967).Pragmatics of human communication: A study of interactional patterns, pathologies, and paradoxes. New York: W. W. Norton.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Human Sciences Press, Inc. 1991

Authors and Affiliations

  • Judee K. Burgoon
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of CommunicationUniversity of ArizonaTucson

Personalised recommendations