Relational message interpretations of touch, conversational distance, and posture

Abstract

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.

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Correspondence to Dr. Judee K. Burgoon.

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An earlier version of this paper was presented to the Interpersonal Communication Interest Group, Western States Communication Association convention, Phoenix, Arizona, February 1991. The author wishes to thank Leesa Dillman for her assistance on that version.

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Burgoon, J.K. Relational message interpretations of touch, conversational distance, and posture. J Nonverbal Behav 15, 233–259 (1991). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00986924

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Keywords

  • Social Psychology
  • Field Experiment
  • Postural Openness
  • Communicator Characteristic
  • Nonverbal Behavior