Intruding on Body Language

I could smell his tobacco stained breath wafting through his yellow teeth. Crinkle nose. My spirits were lifted by the scent of her vanilla fragrance. Smile. Two different images based upon your proxemics to your conversational partner. Proxemics is the name given for establishing body distance. We all have certain zones of comfort. These spatial zones are changing in response to our social climate or culture. For example, if you are in a crowded nightclub with heart thumping music, your zone of comfort will be much closer, say six to twelve inches. If you were at a company picnic and stood that close to your boss’s spouse, you could probably cross yourself off the holiday bonus program.

A police officer that I knew had a history of invoking combative behavior in suspects. He had developed good defensive skills as a result. He never worked on his spatial zone awareness. He liked to crowd people. His body language conduct accelerated the tension and instigated combative situations that could have been avoided.

Determine the persons natural comfort zone. After the initial grip and grin, most people will retreat to their normal space. The social zone is between two and four feet. The intimate zone would be less than two feet. If you encroach, they will typically ease back to the normal range in a polarization effect. As they become more comfortable with you, they might inch closer into a more intimate zone. Do not get hung up the measured distances of the various zones. That is not as important as monitoring the self-imposed zones of your partner. Throw away the tape measure and respect their bubble.

It is humorous to watch people who are in one position and then as they like or dislike what is being said, will change their distance from the purveyor of words. This can be seen in reality television shows. Watch The Apprentice, or The First 48.  If they do not like what is being said, they will try to put space between the language they do not like and their body. The pulling back of the body screams, “Let me out of here!”  One thing that stands out, is once the investigator launches the accusation, many times the suspect will recoil from the accuser. This does not mean they are guilty but like anyone, they are uncomfortable with the accusation.

If you want to appear interested in the conversation, just lean in with your upper body just a tad and maintain eye contact. Do not lift your backside up and get close enough to smell the cologne. No one can hold a position forever and will occasionally sit back.

Your torso should be directed at the conversationalist to provide interest. If the person is sitting to your side, you should angle towards them. If a person is turning their chest away from you that is a good indication of disinterest or impatience.

Most football coaches will direct their tacklers to focus on their opponent’s belly button. The ball carrier may give a head bob or throw a leg in one direction, but the true intent of the player is the direction of the belly button. Point the belly button towards your interest. I catch myself on occasion with my torso not pointed directly towards my target. I have to self-regulate and adjust. Remember to monitor the spatial distance and position your body to demonstrate interest.

For more tips on increasing and developing rapport, take a look at FACE 2 FACE :


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10 Responses to Intruding on Body Language

  1. Ryan says:

    Great article Mike!

  2. Andrea says:

    I had an appointment this morning, and the office design left us sitting close enough for our knees to touch. That’s a little closer than I usually sit to a professional to talk! Fortunately, as you say, people move their bubble in with environmental constraints, so no fist fights ensued; it just seemed a little too warm and friendly.

    I wonder how the police officer you mention would have responded to being called “Captain Cuddles”? Clearly he wants to cuddle if he’s standing that close. 🙂

    • mike says:

      Andrea, Yikes! Too close for comfort. Pass the breath mints. It splashes water on the 1st impression and increases the challenge to establishing rapport. I am sure your winning attitude allowed you to overcome and succeed. I love the term Captain Cuddles.

      • Andrea says:

        Hello, Mike!
        Fortunately, we had already met and rapport was established. I’d bet money he does NOT use that particular room with people on the first meeting!

        Now I’m curious, and I’ve never met socially anyone with a background in law enforcement. If you’re just looking for info, say to question a prospective witness, and Captain Cuddles gets in their face and they throw a punch, do assault charges happen, or what? Your world is completely alien to me!

        • mike says:

          Hi Andrea,

          I am glad to hear this was not the first meeting.

          Concerning Cuddles, we are not perfect. Most officers do not engage in crowding. I have only seen a few over 30 years that invaded personal space to elicit a negative response. Most subjects of the interview will also take a step back. When you put two imperfect humans together, bad things happen. I watched two elderly (75+) men, who were in each other’s face, almost come to blows. They broke up before punches were thrown. If someone throws a punch at the officer, you can assume that someone is usually taking a ride to jail. Most judges I have seen, are usually fair and when in doubt will throw it out. Most punches are the result of the act of conducting an arrest and not from crowding someone.

          Cheers, Mike

          • Andrea says:

            Thanks, Mike! 🙂
            Geriatric fisticuffs? That would be comical and sad at the same time!

            It’s funny how one person’s “routine” is completely alien to another. I had to have a 16 year old kid explain the bail/bond system to me, because he knew it personally and I was clueless.
            I bet you have material for a LOT of stories!!

          • mike says:

            We all have stories. You just told one about the 16 year old with a lifetime of experience and another one concerning the crowded office setup. Thanks for sharing. Cheers, Mike

  3. Pedro COMPETENTOBS says:

    Consider yourself hugged Mike, thank you !! Very good article.

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