Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Non-Verbal Communication: Personal Space

I woke up this morning able to breathe through my nose, and there was much rejoicing. The pollen count has been astronomical, so I have some allergy symptoms, but the cold appears to be pretty much over. I also woke up hungry, and I haven't been hungry in days. I managed to plan out the rest of the book, so after I catch up on all the other stuff I need to deal with today, I hope to get back to work and finish it this week.

Now, for a writing post, and since I didn't get any questions, I had to come up with something on my own, which seems to have bred a series.

When we develop characters, we generally do a lot of work on their inner lives -- what do they want and why, what has hurt them, what do they fear, what do they love, etc. We also figure out their physical appearance -- eye color, hair color, height, body type, distinguishing features, etc. What sometimes gets forgotten is what I guess you could call their physical existence -- the way they move, stand, sit, etc. I'm grouping all of that into the category of non-verbal communication because all of these things send messages, and over the next few posts I'll address different aspects of non-verbal communication.

As an up-front disclaimer, this is meant only in terms of fictional people. I have studied some of this in real life, but in a fairly cursory manner (a few college courses don't make me an expert). Real people are a lot more complicated than even the most complex fictional characters. According to my professors, most of those articles on body language, the "how to tell what he's thinking" sort of things, are wrong. You can't just take one gesture or posture at face value. You have to take things in context, factoring in other elements of non-verbal communication, the situation and the behaviors of the specific individual, and it takes a lot of study and practice to become accurate in consciously interpreting body language. We're actually quite accurate at interpreting body language on an unconscious level. It's only when we read articles and try to do it consciously that we get it wrong by going against our instincts. But as authors writing fiction, we have an advantage in that we know what our characters are thinking, and we can come up with ways to express that physically. Fictional characters are simpler and more heightened than real people, so we can focus on one or two aspects of non-verbal communication, along with a few hints like precise word choices, so that the reader gets the right interpretation. Using non-verbal communication is a good way to "show" and not "tell." Instead of telling the reader what the character is thinking or feeling, you can demonstrate it by the way the character uses his body.

One area of non-verbal communication that often gets overlooked in fiction is the use of space, an area of study referred to as proxemics. There are some people who seem to take up more space, and it has nothing to do with their physical size. These are people who walk into a room and seem to own it. They stand with their shoulders squared, their heads up, their hands on their hips and their elbows out, and with their feet at least at shoulder-width apart. They're taking up the maximum amount of space, and people unconsciously respond to that, giving the person even more space. This can indicate a kind of hostility -- like the stranger who walks into a bar and silently challenges every man in the bar to take him on if they dare -- in which case the others will give him plenty of space and probably avoid direct eye contact or any other gesture that might challenge him. Or it can indicate power and charisma -- you can practically see that invisible superhero cape flapping behind him -- so that the others will give him space but will face him like he's a performer on stage and they're the audience.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the people who shrink into themselves as a way of taking up as little space as possible. They hunch their shoulders, narrowing their bodies. They keep their arms close to their sides or clutch them against their chests. They keep their heads down and probably stay against the wall or in the corner. Other people may entirely disregard their personal space, invading it while ignoring them, like standing very close but with their backs turned as they talk to someone else without being aware that there's someone within inches of their shoulder.

Speaking of personal space, there are a lot of messages involved in how much personal space there is. It's a cultural thing, to some extent. Americans tend to maintain a larger personal space bubble than other cultures, while Latin cultures and a lot of Asian cultures are more comfortable with closer physical proximity. If you're writing about an interaction between two cultures, this can be a source of discomfort or conflict, if one character unknowingly invades the personal space of another or if one character unknowingly insults another by backing away. There are, of course, individual variations -- some people need or expect more space than others -- and the amount of space needed or expected will depend on the circumstances. Your personal bubble will generally shrink when you're in a crowded environment, or else you'd go nuts having it constantly invaded by strangers. Some people can't shrink their bubbles, so they avoid crowds for this reason.

Personal space also varies according to relationship. The more intimate the relationship, the smaller the amount of personal space. The bubble is widest with strangers and may shrink to almost nothing between lovers, even in public. They may stand with their bodies touching and combine their personal space bubbles into one bubble that creates space around the couple. Two people who are close but who avoid touching may be lovers who are temporarily angry at each other, or possibly people who desire each other but who can't act on that desire or don't want to show that desire and fear that the slightest touch may be more than they can tolerate. You can have a viewpoint character take stock of the relationships among people in the room by observing how close to each other they are physically. Or you could show the comfort level between characters by having them move closer as their relationship progresses or move farther apart as they lose comfort with each other.

You'll get conflict or discomfort when two people have different ideas of appropriate personal space -- someone with an unrequited crush or maybe a different idea of where the relationship is will probably violate the personal space of the other person. That person may back away, sending a message of where he stands with the relationship. Small children tend to have very little sense of personal space and may get close and clingy even with someone sending off very clear "keep out" signals. There are also some power signals at work in who is allowed to violate whose space. Someone with greater power may have a broader personal space that subordinates aren't allowed to violate, but the higher-power person may treat subordinates as though they have smaller personal space boundaries and may get closer to them in some circumstances. If you approach your boss, you probably wouldn't feel comfortable (depending on your relationship with your boss) standing really close, touching him or putting your arm around him, but the boss may approach you and make physical contact -- a hand on your arm or on your shoulder.

I know I said don't use this in real life, but real life is a good way to observe how this works (just don't make a lot of judgments about what you see or act on the basis of my very broad and vague analysis). This is one area where watching TV or movies won't give you something you can use in narrative because shots are framed for a specific effect and the personal space may not be realistic (they have to get both characters in the same shot, regardless of how close they are emotionally, etc.). Watch people and see how close they stand to each other in different situations and in different relationships. You can even test where people's personal space boundaries are by standing really close and seeing how far they back away until they seem comfortable again. They probably won't leap away, but they'll gradually shift their weight in a way that moves their feet backwards.

Next, I'll get into sitting, standing, walking and lying down.


Carradee said...

I've actually been thinking about the folding-up kind of character today, because I'm working on a short story from a shy girl's perspective, and I picture her as hunched and curled up, elbows in and all.

In real life, when I hunch my shoulders and fold down, I'm indicating that I'm cowed. I discovered more recently that my boss reads it as if I'm blowing him off.

So that's also a factor: what means something for one person (character) won't necessarily mean what the viewpoint character thinks it does.

Anonymous said...

What a fascinating post! A lot of what you say "rings true" even if I haven't thought about those aspects of it before, which I suppose means that maybe I've subconsciously noticed a few of those things in real life but not really thought about them consciously.

I like Carradee's point, too, about people giving off signals that others read differently. You sort of mentioned that along the lines of cultural differences (in how close people stand, gestures, and also in how fast they talk), but it's true in sub-cultures as well. One family is made up of people who take up lots of physical room, they talk loud and interrupt each other and talk over each other. The other family is made up of people who take up less space, they wait their turn to talk, they don't speak as loudly or as fast. One family thinks the other family is shy or doesn't like them, the other thinks the family is rude and abrasive.

It's definitely a good idea about putting such things in a book! I have a character who is sort of overlooked in a family of important people, I'll have to make sure I look at his physical tendencies as well as his emotional ones.

Shanna Swendson said...

There's definitely a lot of room for misinterpretation and miscommunication. Then there's the fact that these signals are often sent as unconsciously as they're received. The shy person may not be consciously thinking "please don't notice me!" In fact, she may be thinking, "I wish someone would talk to me." But subconsciously, she may be thinking that she's not worthy of notice, and therefore her body language will be saying, "Don't notice me," so that people will respond by ignoring her, and that will make her feel even more shy.

Then there's the fact that most of those articles and seminars about reading body language are wrong or overly simplified. That may be why the boss is getting the wrong message. For instance, most of those body language seminars talk about the arms being folded across the chest as being a "closed" posture. It's actually a neutral posture that's a comfortable way to deal with your arms. You have to look for the context to see if it's really closed. But it's so widely believed to mean you're closed off that it's dangerous to cross your arms over your chest in a job interview or business setting.