THE PSYCHOLOGY OF CONVERSATION
Toward Democratic and Compassionate Conversations
Professor Emeritus University of Florida
How we address people, what we self-disclose, where
we sit, how we make eye contact, where and when we touch – are the five vital signs of conversation communicating how we
feel about each other. And, most important from the standpoint of Conversation Psychology,no matter what we are talking about in a conversation we are always broadcasting our attitudes and emotions about friendship and social status.
Good-friends are people who exchange accurate and
intimate information. Acquaintances are people who have some contact
with each other but do not disclose intimacies.
Status is the rank that an individual
occupies in a social system. Status differences are connected to age orworkplace.
Workplace status may be permanent, like between an officer and an enlisted
person in the military. On the other hand workplace
status may be temporary like between a nurse and a patient who is a physician.
Messages about friendship and status vary as
a function of a person’s class, race/ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. Unfortunately these messages are often unconsciously sent and received. They are the stealth dimensions of
friendship and status are expressed in 5 easily observed behaviors: Address, Self-disclosure, Seating, Eye-Contact and Touch. And scientific studies indicate that these five behaviors are the telltale expressions of friendship and status.
The expressions of friendship and status in Address are calling a person by
their First Name or a Title + Last Name.If people are good friends they will use First Names (“Jim”). On the other hand people who don’t know each
other very well will use a Title like “Ms.”, “Mrs.”, “Mr.” or “Dr.” plus a last
name (“Dr. Smith”).
In addition a term of address may indicate
status. In most U.S. workplaces
supervisors call staff by their First Name (“John”) but staff call supervisors
by their Title + Last Name (“Mrs. Jones”).
In other words supervisors have more workplace status than staff.
However among some racial/ethnic groups
age status trumps
in Nigeria an older worker greets a younger supervisor: “Good morning Dr.
Mbanugo.” But following Ibo tradition the younger supervisor will not call the
elder by first name but will respond with an Title + Last Name: “Good morning
Drs. Takiff, Sanchez and Stewart
report that college students cheerfully call their male professors by Title +
Last Name, however they prefer to address female professors by their First
Names. Adding insult to injury, when a female teacher asks students to address
her by her Title (“Doctor" or "Professor”), they grudgingly think she is being
“bitchy” or less approachable.
first clue to friendship and status in Self-disclosure is starting a conversation with:
“I think … ,” “I feel …” “I
consider … ,” “I like … ,”
“I find … ,” “I enjoy … ,” or “My favorite …”.
The second clue is the topic of
the conversation. Topics that indicate self-disclosure are:
Social Issues: class, race/ethnicity or sexual orientation;
Work Place Issues: problems, ambitions or fellow
Money Issues: salary, debts or financial worth;
Mental Issues: guilt, fears or self-esteem;
Appearance Issues: figure, diet or attractiveness.
Research shows that
self-disclosure in a conversation results in feelings of friendship by
conversation partners. However, speaking of intimate matters may be
embarrassing – even when speaking to your personal physician.
Communication experts Smith-Dupre and Beck say that
even a physician can overcome a patient’s shyness “by self-disclosing about her
own interests, feelings, ideas and fears” rather than keeping them safely
tucked behind her white coat. The result is that the patient feels that his
physician is a friend and is, therefore, more likely to disclose intimate
It should be noted that Self-disclosure is significantly related to status and ethnicity. Research shows that
we will disclose more to a high status male than to a low status male, and that people from the
U.S. are more likely to reveal intimate information about themselves than
people from China.
Some possible seating arrangements are:
Square Table – sit opposite or at
Rectangular Table – sit at the head, side, or
No Table – sit face-to-face or side-by-side.
Experimental research indicate that equal status friends sit
side-by-side or at the corners.On the
other hand unequal status acquaintances sit face-to-face. Curiously even though people sitting side-by-side
are closer to each other, those sitting at corners engage in more conversation.
Dr. Carl Word
provides a stark example of how seating arrangement influences
performance in a job interview. He discovered that White
interviewers sit face-to-face with Black job applicants – like unequal status
acquaintances – but at the corners with White job applicants – like equal
In a follow-up study it was found that sitting face-to-face with a job applicant, Black or White, makes the
applicant tense and anxious leading to a poor performance rating.
Dr. Word finds a
workplace moral here:
“Analyses of Black-White interactions, particularly in
the area of job-seeking Blacks in white society, might profit if it were
assumed that the ‘problem’ of Black performance resides not entirely within the
Blacks, but rather within the interaction setting itself.”
The clues to friendship and status in Eye-Contact
are where the person is looking in their role as speaker or
As you probably already know eye
contact plays a significant role in romantic relationships. In fact a speaker
makes more eye contact with a romantic partner than with same – or opposite – sex
Greater friendship means more frequent eye contact. In other words
good friends look at each other while speaking and while listening.
scientists have developed a special measure to study the relationship between
eye contact and status. The Visual
Dominance Ratio is the amount of eye contact while speaking compared to eye
contact while listening. In a conversation between individuals of different
status, the higher status person looks more while speaking than while
listening. On the other hand the lower status person looks more while listening
than while speaking.
But it turns out
that gender is also a factor.
When the higher
status of a woman is well defined she looks more while speaking than while listening.
Similarly in a conversation where the lower status of a man is well defined he
looks more while listening than while speaking. However in a conversation
between a man and a woman where status is equal, the man looks more while
speaking than while listening.
The point is
that the man’s eye contact is as if he is of higher status – even when he
The clues to friendship and status in
touching are the frequency and duration of touch.
Yes indeed, according to social
psychologists Crusco and Wetzel.
researchers arrived at this conclusion by studying of the effect of touch on
the size of restaurant tips. Waitresses were instructed to briefly touch some
customers on the hand or shoulder as they returned change. The result – the
size of the tip as a percent of the bill was greater for those customers
In a similar vein studies show that we can increase
our attractiveness with brief, infrequent touches.
The anthropologist Edward Hall points out that
racial/ethnic groups differ in their attitudes about giving or receiving
touch. He designates these differences
as “contact cultures” vs. “non-contact cultures.”
are found in Southern Europe, South East Asia, and the Hispanic Caribbean.
Non-contact cultures are found in Northern Europe and North East Asia.
occurs when people greet each other. One study looked at 2 types of touch
during greetings: handshake and a pat on the arm or shoulder. It seems that
friends greet with a pat on the arm or shoulder but acquaintances with a
handshake. In fact, judges looking at videotapes of greeting behavior perceive
a handshake as formal and cold but a pat as informal and warm.
The major points of this brief introduction to Conversation Psychology are:
Whatever else participants in a conversation are talking about, or think
they are talking about, they are always broadcasting their attitudes about friendship and
The major observable behaviors of these attitudes are the Five Vital Signs: Address, Self-disclosure, Seating,
Eye-Contact and Touch.
The research studies relating these attitudes to observable behaviors are:
GOOD FRIENDS OF EQUAL STATUS
Address → First
Name or Nickname
Self-disclosure → Reveal private information
Seating → Side-by-Side or sit at corner
Eye-Contact → Similar
speaking & listening
Touch → Frequent
ACQUAINTANCES OF UNEQUAL STATUS
Address → Title or Title+Last Name
Self-disclosure → Do not reveal private information
Seating → Face-to-Face or Head of table
→ Hi status: more
→ Lo status: more while
Touch → Infrequent or Never
more your conversation partner is different from you in terms of class,
race/ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, the more likely you are to
misinterpret the meaning of their behavior – or vice versa. However, it is
possible to get a handle on what’s happening in these situations by paying
attention to the Five Vital Signs and the contexts in which they occur.
The good news is that Address, Self-disclosure,
Seating, Eye contact and Touch are easily observable expressions of friendship
and status. Your everyday conversations are
naturally occurring experiments. Be alert to the Five Vital Signs and you will
excellent Conversation Psychologist!