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Why You Stand Side-by-Side or Face-to-Face

The secret science of posture and position.

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:

  • The Vis-à-Vis Frame. When two people come together, they greet and address each other in a face-to-face position. They will adjust the distance between themselves according to their cultural traditions, their level of intimacy, their prior relationship, their business together, and the available physical space and circumstance. The vis-à-vis frame is a prerequisite for making eye contact.
  • The Side-by-Side Frame. Often, this is a communication choice, especially among men. It precludes eye contact. However, sometimes unrelated people assume a side-by-side position by accident or because of the physical nature of their circumstances. They happen to be walking in the same direction or they sit down on the same bench or the same seat on a bus. In this case, they may have no other relation to each other.
  • The Terminal Marker. People indicate that they have finished their activity in a group by discontinuing their postural frame. They step back, look down and away, turn out from each other and then go on to other things. (In communication, we also call this “leave-taking behavior.”)

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:

  • The vis-à-vis frame allows women to get a fix on the face, and because they have a full view, they get more information.
  • It enhances and encourages more eye contact, which creates more bonding and connection. It keeps people focused on each other.
  • It creates a gate-keeping function: When someone is standing directly in front of you, it is easier to keep him or her engaged. You are more connected in the interaction. (The side-by-side position opens the door to outside stimuli and people, allowing for interruptions.)
  • It signals that they are listening.
  • It helps women read emotions, convey their own feelings more directly, and maintain the social connection.

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:

  • Direct eye contact can be construed as challenging among men; a face-to-face frame is a more competitive posture and stance.
  • The side-by-side frame increases men’s comfort level and eliminates the feeling of “competition.”
  • Men are not as interested in looking at the face or maintaining eye contact. It is not always a high priority for them to be able to read the other person; therefore they do not take a direct body posture.
  • A person in a dominant position—a male, in this scenario—usually makes less eye contact than a subordinate.

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.”

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