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Reading Body Language - Proxemics

During Golden Globe Award Ceremony of 2016, an unusual incident happened. After her name being announced as a receiver of an award, the famous American singer Lady Gaga started walking towards stage. While making her way through audience, she briefly brushed off behind the chair on which the famous Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio was sitting.
 
While reacting to the same quite spontaneously, viscerally and unconsciously, his unique facial expression and nose touching made the headlines all around the globe and several YouTube clips were published. Why he would have done it after all? Let's find out very reason behind the same.


In last two articles, we have seen that how clustering and congruence are crucial for reading body language. Now let's  move on towards understanding the importance of interpersonal distance which is called as PROXEMICS. It is the study of human use of space and the effects that population density has on behaviour, communication and social interaction.
 
Wars are fought over a piece of land but most of us really don’t realize that the interpersonal distance or physical space between any two individuals plays a great role in and also affects stress level, hostility, aggression, comfort level and overall relationship. Interpersonal distance becomes critically important while encountering or meeting a complete stranger. So let's take an example from the real life so it would make sense very clearly.
 
It's an usual day in the company and you start working on routine tasks. Suddenly, team leader informs you that few newly recruited members are joining your team. You are asked to gather at some place for getting formally introduced with them face to face. Until this moment both parties might not have seen each other so little amount of nervousness coupled with excitement lurks inside everyone's mind.
 
While looking at each other, both parties smile nervously but avoid prolong eye contact except those who develop feelings of physical attraction for each other instantaneously. Formal hand shake, mutual introduction and exchanging a few words take place by keeping socially accepted distance from each other. Even, the team or group leader keeps socially accepted distance from the new joiner.

At the beginning, getting face to face is filled with uneasiness and anxiety. Glancing at either side of own body, looking down, hovering gaze, putting hands in pocket, giving nervous look or smile, grabbing things in palms, moving torso away or crossing arms over chest can be observed being done unconsciously by both parties.
 
They don't come close to each other or interact voluntarily like seniors or more experienced colleagues do among themselves. An accidental touch and trespassing is regretted and felt sorry about. Also, the new joiners form their own group despite of unfamiliarity among themselves.

Some days pass and regular work-related interactions start taking place between you and new joiners. Apart from work, everybody starts talking, sharing and complementing with each others irrespective of tenure in the company. It gives opportunity of judging, profiling and knowing each other consciously or unconsciously.
 
We naturally tend to figure out mutual strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes. Also, it's not at all necessary and obligatory that every member of team become close companion of every other senior. Some subconscious reservations, biases, orientations or complexes motivate us to form a bond with more like minded persons.

Initial awkwardness, shyness and disorientation slowly fades. Interactions start happening at close distance as compared to earlier days. Touching, seating or standing closer, eating together, whispering, handling personal stuff or prolonging eye contact becomes normal.
 
Everybody starts looking at faces and into the eyes of each other quite comfortably. Postures of two interacting persons become quite grounded, firm and relaxed. Strong rapport is established among new joiners and senior team members over the time. Meeting and greeting each other brings excitement and freshness at workspace.

Doesn't it appear like a miracle? Gradual shrinking of interpersonal space and development of new relationship! Why we tend to stay away from new people in the beginning and get closer gradually (or in worst case - drift away)? Certainly, it's really worth interesting and enlightening to know in the first place.

Too close?
Interpersonal space or distance between two individuals is crucial factor for judging that if other person or object is in favor of our survival interests. It's a core mechanism of our  subconscious mind of gathering visual clues and deciding to move towards it, let it to move towards ourselves or step back and run away from it. 
 
When the space required to watch (hear and smell too) others and decide the strategy is intruded, invaded or trespassed with unknown intentions (by strangers), we feel very uncomfortable, challenged, dominated, offended or stressed. Limbic system starts sending flight or fight signals to the body.
 
Until we don't spend enough time in observing and judging the level of hostility, degree of harmfulness, intentions, motives and temperament of the other person, we don't want to allow it to come closer with ourselves. Until we don't judge anything or anybody as harmless, we want to keep a safe distance with the same.
 
Dr. Albert Meharabian, the leading proxemist has defined four different zones around our body. Each zone is a circular area in which we let other to enter or stay depending upon kind of relationship we're seeking or currently have with them.
Different zones of proxemics (Interpersonal Distance)
1) Intimate Zone (from 6 to 18 inches): This is the zone a person guards as individual property. Only romantic partner, close friends and relatives are allowed to enter in it.

2) Personal Zone (from 18 to 48 inches): This is the distance we keep from others during friendly interactions, social gatherings or parties.

3) Social Zone (from 4 to 12 feet): This is the distance we keep from strangers or persons with a little or no acquaintance at all.
 
4)
Public Zone (beyond 12 feet): This is the distance we maintain while interacting or addressing to large group of people.

Basically, there are only reasons to invade or intrude the personal and intimate zones i. e. either to attack and harm somebody or to get intimate with somebody. Hence, lesser the physical distance remains between any two individuals, more both of them expect non-offense, courtesy and carefulness. Otherwise, they try to fight or run away (flight) for their own safety.
 
However, there are a few occasions in which we allow a large no. of (complete) strangers to invade our personal and intimate zones. Those are the only kinds of occasions in which we voluntarily gather with a single goal or target in our minds. The long waiting queues or a crowd gathered on railway platforms or at music shows or sport matches are few examples of same.

Above are approximate distances with which Dr. Albert Meharabian put up his theory but radius of each zone may vary culture, society or geography wise.

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Reading Body Language - Congruence

In last article, we came to know about clustering which is first point to consider while reading body language. Moreover, a cluster is a door step for an interpretation of a nonverbal message more accurately. Yet any cluster has to be analyzed further to check if it conveys a genuine message or not. So let’s move forward to authenticate a massage. Why verification of authenticity is required in the first place at all?

Generally, our brain maintains coordination among facial expression, posture, movement, words and tone of voice. If they remain more synchronized with each other, a message gets across more effectively and correctly. It’s called as CONGRUENCE or compatibility. Bodily clues and moves supporting and reflecting what words are conveying is an truthful massage.

What if someone wants to distract or lie to others with false message? Our deliberate cleverness comes into play for the same. In practical life, we find ourselves in very awkward situations in which passing exact and true message may not be in our best interest. They are a number of reasons for same but all of them cannot be discussed in this article.
 
There are two persons saying, "I'm open to and confident about the new challenges!". One person has crossed arms over chest with false smile on face while the other has opened arms wide and seems ready to embrace. Who would you believe to be ready for challenges?
Who's open and confident?
Anxiety, fear, guilt or distress of being damned, embarrassed and punished by others while saying what others are expecting to hear from an individual starts leaking out through the lack of bodily control and coordination. Ultimately we try to cover up it by verbal crafting but mind doesn't let us to deny the truth. 
 
Various parts of our body and their movements become less compatible with each other or get completely out of synchrony. Thus a cluster appears to be non-congruent with words we speak or even try to convince nonverbally. 
 
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Reading Body Language - Clusters

It’s very amazing to know that we all communicate nonverbally (through body language, facial expressions and voice) by most. Same fact excites many enthusiasts to jump start reading others and why not. Knowing someone’s thoughts and intentions is decisive but also it's more important to interpret them more accurately.

Putting together
Reading or interpreting this very article is quite easy because we all are aware of different words that have been put together in an acceptable sequence (syntax) in different sentences and paragraphs by following certain grammatical rules.

Shifting their positions, dropping them, inserting unrelated words or defying grammar would lead to complete confusion and total loss of the purpose of writing this article in the first place. The same rules apply to interpretation of body language and nonverbal communication.

Interestingly, body language has its own vocabulary, grammar, syntax and sentences. We communicate nonverbally with the help of different clues or signals that are grouped together or given away one after another in a sequence. It's identical to the way different words create a meaningful sentence. Single word may not convey message but a complete sentence can easily make sense.

Combination of different sensory stimulus or inputs, facial expressions, eye contacts, gestures, movements, postures and para linguistic convey a distinct message. Most of us try to interpret each of them in isolation, often leading us to complete misunderstanding. Like composing sentences, we need to put them together. This method is called as CLUSTERING. A cluster clearly makes sense of distinct nonverbal message. Let’s take an example of it.

Most of us know that crossing arms over chest is a self-defensive or controlling action. As it clearly appears, we cover vulnerable parts of upper body (torso). Definitely, it's not a welcoming or open approach at all. But crossing arms isn't a clue to self-defense only when it is put in different clusters.

Look at these pictures and find what each person is likely to express. Keenly observe their facial expressions (especially eyebrows), postures (especially neck) and gazes (how they make or don't make eye contact).

Warning or Criticizing (Left) Helpless, Sad & Fearful (Center) Disagree or Disappointed (Right)
Also, we need take physical environment or specific situation into account while looking at a person with arms crossed on its chest. This old lady wearing a sweater is protecting herself from cold by crossing arms so that maximum body heat would be retained.

Even here, her posture gives an idea about how intensely she would be suffering from cold. Look at hunched back, lowered chin and legs tightly held together.

Interpreting body language by clusters is very crucial to understand overall mood or conditions of person in any given circumstance.

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