The Second Step of Communication: Physical Presence
Originally published by Autism Asperger's Digest Magazine
Column 6: Think Social
Nov-Dec 2008 issue
Written by: Michelle Garcia Winner
In previous columns, we have explored the overall meaning behind the 4 Steps of Communication and learned that communication is not one act, but a symphony of thoughts and related actions synchronized in time. We start by thinking about those around us and in what way we may desire to communicate (or not) with them. In this column we move to Step 2 of communication: establishing physical presence, and the role it plays in connecting emotionally with others during face-to-face interactions.
We use our bodies as active vehicles to establish, maintain and terminate communication, but their role in communication is often overlooked. When we want to engage, we approach to signal our communicative intent, make eye contact, orient our head and body towards the person. Likewise, we quickly turn away or remove our body from the physical space of another when we don't desire initial or continued communication.
When specialists teach students ways to increase their communication skills they often focus on their verbal communication skills, neglecting the fact that virtually all face-to-face communication begins with a physical approach. Consider this: language is used to share knowledge and experience, but our bodies help us relate at an emotional level. In any interaction our physical approach and stance is as important as the words we use! Maybe even more so! It is possible to "hang out" with others by physically maintaining an active presence in the group, even in the absence of verbal communication. But the reverse is not true. Someone who physically turns away or separates himself from the group will be seen as disinterested, bored or aloof, despite continued verbal exchanges.
Furthermore, the nuance of how we physically approach, maintain and exit a group impacts the impressions we form of others, and they of us. When "hanging out", we generally feel more comfortable around people with a relaxed physical presence. We tend to notice those with a more formal or rigid physical presence, and question their motives. In short, we gravitate towards people who make us feel comfortable and avoid people who don't.
The normally developing social mind appears to come equipped with a "social radar system" that effortlessly detects those who approach and simultaneously questions their motives and intent. Are they merely getting in line behind us? Are they just trying to move by us? Or, do they desire to interact with us? The child with impaired social thinking skills struggles in this regard, not noticing subtle communicative clues, nor analyzing the communicative intent of others. We need to teach them about physical presence.
The following bullets summarize some basic ideas we can present to students to help them better understand the role of physical presence in face-to-face social interaction.
- People use physical distance as an indication of whether or not we want to interact with them. This distance varies by country and culture. In the U.S., the "communication zone" is about one arm's length.
- In addition to standing about one arm's length from a person, we also need our shoulders, hips and face turned towards the person to indicate our communicative intent. As you approach the communication zone in this way people start to think about you and why you are near them.
- Even if you are thinking about another person and desire to communicate with him or her, if you do not move into the person's communication zone he will not recognize your communicative intent. If you stand further away and just stare at the person, he may feel he is being "stalked." Emotionally this is uncomfortable and may even result in the other person calling for help from an adult, or reporting your suspicious actions to administrators or even the police!
- If you attempt to enter the group's communication zone but stand just outside it (about 1.5 arms length away), people may think you are unsure about whether you really want to interact with them. That also may make them feel uncomfortable around you.
- On the other hand, if you stand outside the communication zone and don't look at one or more people, or move towards them, they will have no idea you desire to communicate with them. Even if you continue to think about the person, you are not sending any signals for their social radar system to detect. While you may get frustrated they are not coming to talk to you, you also need to understand that you don't appear to want to talk to them!
- Once in the communication zone, subtle turns of our body can send noticeable nonverbal messages. For example: If you enter the group talking or looking directly at someone, they may think you are trying to be too "powerful" and may feel you are not considerate of their thoughts. (We usually enter groups looking directly at people only when we have an urgent message to convey.)
- If your body is standing near others but you continually look down at the ground (even if you are listening to what they are saying), people in the group may feel you are uncomfortable being around them. This makes them feel uncomfortable and they may retaliate by not talking to you as much, in the present or in the future.
- If you are standing near others but you are very stiff in your physical presence (meaning you don't shift your weight from hip to hip, your posture is rigid and/or you keep your hands in your pockets), once again the other person(s) may feel you are not "relating" to them and instead may think you are uptight or uncomfortable.
- Standing too close to others makes people feel you are "invading their space." So does touching people when you don't have a close personal relationship with them. Both actions may make people feel uneasy around you; they think you are not respecting them. Some may even think you are trying to flirt with them! These feelings can lead to a negative interpretation of your intentions if they are not welcomed by your communicative partner.
- People remember how you make them feel while in their presence.
As teachers (parents or educators) of people with social learning challenges, we help our students by becoming better observers of "normal" or "expected" social behaviours in everyday life. As we collect our own "norms" we also want to observe how other people in our physical space alter our own emotions and comfort levels, whether or not verbal communication is involved.
More importantly, we need to move our students away from sitting at desks or around a table when teaching social thinking and related skills and teach these concepts within real-life scenarios, recognizing that some of those will be fabricated for instruction. Give students the chance to explore how other people make them feel when moving in and out of their own physical space.
In the next column we'll share specific ideas for teaching students about physical space. Until then, hold this thought in mind: the social thinking lessons we design for our students teach us just as much about our own communicative expectations and abilities as theirs. Social thinking instruction is a win-win proposition. We all learn more about ourselves as well as how to help others. Enjoy observing and participating in the process!
Find more information and teaching strategies about establishing physical presence in Michelle Garcia Winner's book, Thinking About You Thinking About Me, 2nd Edition (2007).