Posture and position—how we hold, carry, and orient our bodies—convey myriad nonverbal messages. Psychiatry professor Albert Scheflin organizes our sense of personal space with the concept of “frames.” He believes that when people carry out reciprocal activities, such as conversing, they frame those activities in space and time by the way they place their bodies when sitting or standing together.
Here are his categories of frames:
Scheflin’s categories have to do with what we in communication call shoulder orientation. Interestingly, men and women differ in this area—they have completely different shoulder orientations when conversing. When women talk with other women, as well as men, they orient themselves toward the other and tend to use the vis-à-vis frame, maintaining eye contact. According to Deborah Tannen, women also display more general immediacy behaviors than men, such as leaning forward, nodding the head, smiling, and touching.
Why do women stand face-to-face? There are many possible reasons:
In contrast, men are more apt to stand side-by-side when they speak. They don’t look at each other, use more signals of power, and are less immediate in conversations with other men.
Why do men favor the side-by-side approach? Again, there are several possible explanations:
Sociologist Harry Brod surmises that the side-by-side shoulder orientation is a way for men to seek intimacy. “Numerous studies have established that men are more likely to define emotional closeness as working or playing side-by-side, while women often view it as talking face-to-face. Men, for example, derive intimacy from playing and watching sports.”
However, the side-by-side position can have negative consequences on communication. It makes it difficult for one to scrutinize the other person’s face for emotion-laden micro-behaviors. This is true for women as well as for men.
Imagine this scenario: Three friends are out for lunch. Mary, seated next to Jenny, can’t see her face. Sherry faces both of them. After lunch, Sherry pulls Mary aside. “Boy, Jenny was pretty upset about what’s happening with her parents,” she says.
“I didn’t get that,” Mary replies.
“Well you should have seen her face!”
Whose style is adopted when men and women talk to each other? Anthropologist Helen Fisher suggests a bit of gender-bending androgyny. In Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage and Why We Stray, she writes, “A woman should probably adopt at least one nonverbal, side-by-side leisure activity that her spouse enjoys, whereas men could improve their home lives if they took time out to sit face-to-face with their mates to engage in talk and active listening.”