Face to Face - Distance in Verbal Communication

A gestural language is a form of silenced communication and complements words. Psychologist In this article, Marcelo R. Ceberio discusses it and its relationship with the various types of distance during face to face communication.
Face to Face - Distance in Verbal Communication

Last update: 17 December, 2019

Although technology limits face-to-face dialogue, it’s still important to establish a good means of communication. This is because the language of gestures is the great silent communicator. In fact, it says more between the lines. Also, it completes what you say through words.

Nonverbal communication is decisive in the transmission of a message. So, what’s the most appropriate distance for establishing effective communication?

Face to face – a gestural universe

The universe of gestures and movements is part of nonverbal communication. This means a gesture is the base unit of this type of language. Also, the most common term to define it is body language. This is because humans use it for communicating with any human being nearby.

Gestures are an expressive movement of psychic contents. That is, gestures are muscular movements that seek discharge. And they do get it, whether they’re voluntary and lined with intention or involuntary products of an unconscious dynamic.

Two people talking.

A gesture, in general, has a complexity that escapes the possibility of accurate measuring. The synergy of almost imperceptible micromovements for conscious uptake is such that it’s extremely difficult to do a comprehensive and complete perception of a gestural universe.

Face to face gestures

Gestures in human interactions are symbolic movements that express and demonstrate something to decipher. That is, gestures are a target to interpret. Each interlocutor can encode the gestures of their communication partner according to their beliefs. Also, according to their values, personal meaning, knowledge of one another and by the context where their interaction takes place.

However, the gestures of their face, trunk, and extremities; the use of space; and the actions with which your body moves make the Paraverbal language a spontaneous element for transmitting messages. This is a marginalized resource, relegated to the background in the face of verbal language.

In fact, many generations of listeners don’t only listen but also observe their interlocutor while they listen. There’s a need to see them as they speak. Yet, they’re seldom aware of it. That is, people aren’t aware they need to communicate face to face. This is because they need to understand their message in all of its dimensions. Usually, when people communicate, they say “I hear you” instead of “I see you”.

Distances between communicators

The gestures, expressions, and tone of speech, along with the cadence, rhythm, and movements between volumes – more or less prominent of bodies – all develop within a delimited space between communicators. Such a space is an optimal distance to establish communication between two or more people.

Hall (1966) distinguishes the management of space. And also its movement in relation to such proximity or relational distance. He classifies it in four types of distances.

Types of distance

  • Intimate distance. This implies a distance of emotional closeness. It’s the distance of people who are romantically involved. In addition, it’s a part of a father who strokes his son’s hair. It’s also present in a child-mother relationship. It’s an approach that allows the interlocutors to merge. To some extent, there’s a break in the limits of personal territoriality. This space invites them to express themselves emotionally, such as hugging or caressing another person’s body.
  • Personal distance. This is a distance of closeness but one in which the interlocutors maintain their personal boundaries. These aren’t lost and are, in fact, clearly defined. Thus, it’s the distance of interpersonal relationships, tacitly agreed between friends, family, and co-workers. It’s also the distance of two people who have a common goal or interest.
  • Social distance. There’s no physical contact in this type of distance. The gaze happens to be the only type of link that prevails. It’s not an impersonal relationship, but there’s a protective space and also a distance from eventual invasions or interferences from the interlocutor. Also, it’s the optimal distance in situations of negotiation and sales deals. In general, there are desks, shop windows, tables, and objects that impose the distance between the communicators between interlocutors. Thus, in traditional psychiatric consultations, the classic therapeutic distance happens through a desk or a white coat.
  • Public distance. This is the distance of formal interactions. There’s no intimacy and no personalized link. Also, there’s no direct relationship whatsoever. For instance, this is the typical distance of a lecturer or a professor.

About this distance

In the last three types of distances above, the length of space between interlocutors ranges from 23 to 32 inches. This is no more or less than the width of a standard door or certain hallways.

Thus, architecture expresses lifestyles and human interaction in a certain way. There’s so much in the design of a house according to the particular requirements of a family. The same goes for the impersonal designs in building construction. In general, interior doors are less wide than exterior ones.

Modern interior doors, as well as hallways, are approximately 26 inches wide, while entries are 32. Along the same line, the constructions of the first half of the 20th century have wider interior doors than current exterior French doors.

Despite living in a time of impersonal relationships, there’s been a reduction in personal, social, and public distances. But in the first decades of the last century, a formal distance quota was imposed, even though there were closer interactions and more knowledge about neighbors, friends, and family. For example, physical contact wasn’t acceptable and people expected formal treatment. Just as with doors, the relational distance back then was much farther than it is today.

Relational distance

This distance depends on the socio-cultural context. Each culture imposes the type of space between communicators. Certain contexts have a closer social distance, equivalent to the intimate distance of other cultures. This often leads to misunderstandings between people belonging to antagonistic contexts at a relational level. Even more so in cases where physical contact is the only way to emphasize something verbal.

Three people talking over coffee.

Face to face – example of a relational distance and sociocultural context

This example by Paul Watzlawick in 1976 shows such differences. It’s about a series of researchers who explored a phenomenon at the Rio de Janeiro airport. The airport had a terrace with a low railing and many had fallen off there in recent years. These accidents only happened among foreigners, mainly Europeans.

This terrace was a meeting center for receptions and farewells. Thus, what researchers found was that when the Brazilians talked to the Europeans, the latter began to withdraw from the former. This is because they were trying to reach an appropriate space for their particular interaction. Ironically, Brazilian personal space is small, perhaps equivalent to the intimate distance of the Europeans.

Thus, when the Europeans began to walk backward to extend their distance, the Brazilians responded by moving towards them in search of their own social distance. As a consequence, many of the Europeans fell off the railing onto the ground floor of the airport.

Beyond the interaction distances imposed by someone’s culture, there’s also personal distance. Every person puts some when establishing communication with others. For instance, the standard distance of 32 inches allows a person to be able to look at the face of their interlocutor. Also, so they can observe the rest of their bodies and gestures through their own peripheral vision.


Finally, gestures are hard to master. That is, people have conscious mastery of what they wish to express through verbal language but it’s impossible through gestures.

Thus, you must be aware of your meta-communication and preferred distance. Especially when there’s doubt about the meaning you give to the gestures of others. This will help you become a better communicator.

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