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6.2: Environment and Physical Characteristics

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    • Identify the primary functions of nonverbal communication.
    • Distinguish between four types of nonverbal communication.
    • Explain how the person’s environment and physical appearance impact communication message construction and reception


    Classifications of Nonverbal Communication

    Scholars have classified nonverbal communication into three principal classifications: environmental conditions where communication takes place, the physical characteristics of the communicators, and behaviors of communicators during interaction (Knapp, Hall & Morgan, 2014). Obviously, many scholars have classified the broad range of nonverbal communication, however these categories will serve as a frame for how we will explain nonverbal communication in a variety of contexts.

    Classification I: Communicator Environment

    The environment is everything around us and can be defined as any place, setting, location, surrounding in which something occurs. The physical environment plays a significant role in nonverbal communication (Patterson & Quadflieg, 2016; Patterson, 2018). Traditional dimensions include territory and how human beings utilize personal space (proxemics), inanimate objects even interior designs, furniture arrangement, lighting, colors, textures, and even time (chronemics).

    Consider the following questions:

    • What message might a cluttered living room send?
    • Is having desks split into two groups facing each other or in a circle the most effective arrangement for class discussions?
    • Do you know someone who is guilty of ‘manspreading’ on public transit? Manspreading (or man-sitting) is when men sit “with their legs in a wide v-shape filling two or three single seats on public transport” (Jane, 2017, p. 459). This practice is clearly a high-power nonverbal display that violates social expectations of how public spaces should be utilized.


    Proxemics is part of the communicative environment. It is broadly defined as the study of the way people use space. Cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall, in his now classic book The Hidden Dimension (1966), coined and defined proxemics as "the interrelated observations and theories of humans use of space as a specialized elaboration of culture." Personal space refers to the area an individual maintains around him or herself, while territory is a larger area an individual controls to provide privacy (for example, an office or a specific chair in the conference room). Invading another’s territory may cause that person discomfort and a desire to defend their space (e.g., by turning away or creating a barrier).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Hall's Dimensions of Personal Space

    From "Personal Space," by WebHamster, 2009, WikiMedia Commons ( Licensed under CC-BY-SA 4.0

    Although the term “personal space” was originally introduced by environmental psychologist Robert Sommer (1959) to denote the area that separates yourself from others, it was cultural anthropologist, Edward T. Hall who created specific zones of interpersonal distance and the impact proxemics has on interpersonal communication. Below are Hall’s spatial distances demonstrated in Figure 1:

    Public: 12 feet or more

    Social: 4 to 12 feet

    Personal: 18 inches to 4 feet

    Intimate: Skin contact to 18 inches


    Chronemics is the study of how time is perceived by individuals or by cultural groups, how it is used, and how differing perceptions and usages can affect communication. In The Dance of Life (1983), Hall examined how we treat time in nonverbal communication and classified time into nine categories, each with its own rules and meanings: biological time, personal time, physical time, metaphysical time, micro time, sync time, sacred time, profane time, and meta time.” In addition, informal rules about chronemics dominate our time-based behaviors, including (Burgoon, Guerrero, & Floyd, 2016):

    ● punctuality

    ● duration of events

    ● acceptability of multitasking

    ● how much advance time is given for notice of events

    For example, have you ever been late to a party on purpose? The way an individual talks about or uses time nonverbally communicates much about them.

    Classification II. Communicator Physical Characteristics

    Physical characteristics are a significant part of nonverbal communication, and these greatly affect the nature in which people perceive others as they communicate with them. Judgments are quickly formed within seconds (Willis & Todorov, 2006). Examples of physical characteristics include physical attractiveness, hair, skin color, facial features, height, weight, body modifications and even hair. Research points out that, while some of these are easily alterable (e.g., clothing, hair color and length), others are less so (e.g., skin color) (Bonaccio, Reilly, O’Sullivan, Chiocchio, 2016, p. 7). People make initial judgments based on appearances and often play a significant role in interpersonal relationships. In this module, discover how appearance, physical attractiveness, hair, olfactics, clothing, tattoos, and even makeup can influence interpersonal communication.

    Physical Attractiveness

    When asked, many people will tell you that physical appearance is only one aspect of what attracts them to other people. Studies on physical attractiveness suggest that attractive people are more successful in the workplace (Elmer & Houran, 2020), earn more money (Ruffle & Shtudiner, 2015), receive more leniency in court (Wareham, Blackwell, Berry & Boots, 2019; Gunnell & Ceci, 2010) and applying for jobs (Chiang & Saw, 2018). On the other hand, there is evidence that being physically attractive might not always be beneficial (Fang, S., Zhang, C., & Li, Y., 2020). In television commercials, for example, retailers and other companies are increasingly using real people - with all their physical flaws rather than models to give their brands an “authentic” feel. When it comes to interpersonal romantic relationships however, the longer we know each other, the less important physical attractiveness becomes to beginning and maintaining a long-term relationship (Spielmann, Maxwell, MacDonald, Peragine & Impett, 2020). In other words, physical appearance is subjective, meaning that what one person considers physically attractive another person may not consider physically attractive.


    Hair is communication and communicative and plays a role in nonverbal communication. Because hair is on the head it is highly noticeable and combines with other facial factors to send out powerful unspoken messages. Hair communicates power, status, influence, even cultural identity (mostly for African-American women (Varner, 2003). In other words, a person’s hair is often an integral part of expressing body language. Because hair is malleable - meaning capable of being altered, shaped, cut and easily changed into a new shape, it may information about the persons’ femininity/masculinity/non-gender conforming identity, sexuality, authority status, self-development or even mood.

    In interpersonal relationships, hair matters. Scholars found that women judged males with heavy stubble faces as most attractive and heavy beards, light stubble and clean-shaven faces as similarly less attractive (Dixson & Brooks, 2013). On the other hand, men rated full beards and heavy stubble as most attractive and not too far behind rated clean-shaven and light stubble as least attractive. Additional research revealed that in some instances beards are associated with being more aggressive (Saxton, Mackey, McCarty, & Neave, 2016). Hair is used to convey different messages. The type of message depends mostly on the individual's personality, religion, background and cultural milieu.


    The sense of smell can also play a role in nonverbal communication, especially when it comes to interpersonal relationships. Just as your fingers have unique prints, our bodies have distinct and unique odors. Olfactics is communication through smell. Olfactics can communicate status, ethnicity, and social class. The sense of smell in humans is more powerful than we think. One study showed that we can distinguish at least 1 trillion different odors — up from previous estimates of a mere 10,000 (Bushdid, Buller, Guerrereo, Afifi & Feldman, 2014). When it comes to smells, “sexual chemistry” is more than just a way of talking about heated attraction. People are influenced by “good smells” and “bad smells” and do not even realize it. Think of taking a deep inhale of someone you were attracted to. You may have even had a physical reaction. Think about how the scent of cologne or perfume lingered long after this person was gone. While we may personally be repelled or attracted to the scent of another person, the fact of the matter is this...inhaling body odor can offer information about a person’s emotional state. Research also concludes that anxious odors can increase alertness in others (Pazzaglia, 2015). Although our noses can sometimes lead us astray, in general they send us important messages about other people. Keep smell’s importance in context. Be cognizant of the importance of natural scents and manufactured scents.


    Like other aspects of human physical appearance, clothing has social significance, with different rules and expectations being valid depending on circumstance and occasion. Clothing conveys nonverbal clues about a speaker's personality, culture, mood,financial status, level of confidence, interests, age, authority, values, sexual identity -- even religious or political affiliations. Research has shown that we are sensitive to clothing (Dunbar & Bernhold, 2019) and also body art/tattoos (Ozanne, Tews, & Mattila, 2019). Consider how your choice of clothing impacts an audience while giving a formal speech or presentation. If you have ever taken a presentational speaking class, the instructor probably talked about first impressions and the impact your clothing (Smith, 1976) even shoes (Gillath, Bahns, & Crandall, 2012) has on the audience. Scholars that have researched nonverbal expressions of behavior and how they contribute to personality judgments note, “In a get-to-know context, the broad smile of an interaction partner and the colorful clothing could lead to the conclusion that this person is friendly, thus resulting in a friendship or a romantic relationship” (Breil, Osterholz, Nestler & Back, 2019, p. 3). It may sound cliché, but you never get a second chance to make a first impression.


    Tattoos are not just for bikers, rock stars or even hardened criminals anymore (DeMello, 1995). These are just outdated stereotypes that fail to take into account that tattoos have become an acceptable form of self expression. Tattoos send many nonverbal messages and have gained popularity among young Americans over the last two decades (Maloney & Koch, 2020; Shannon-Missal, L. 2016). These messages can range from signaling a sense of freedom, memorializing a family member, accentuating religious identity, or indicating whether one was a criminal, or prisoner of war. Caution should be taken when interpreting the design or assigning a “meaning” to the wearer’s tattoo(s). Regardless of the motivation, amount, type, size, style or location of a tattoo, any given tattoo is likely to speak volumes about the one who bears it.


    Americans (more women than men) spend a lot of money and time on makeup. As of Aug 20, 2019, 1.12 million Americans spent $500 or more on makeup products in the last 3 months in the United States. Although there has been a cultural shift in ideas about self adornment, especially makeup, cosmetics can significantly change how people see you, how intelligent other people think you are, and how warm or approachable you seem at first impression. In a study featuring photos of female models without makeup and with natural, professional and glamorous makeup, “respondents (male and female) overwhelmingly felt that makeup produced a significant effect on judgments of attractiveness, competence, and likeability -- but not trustworthiness (Etcoff, Stock, Haley, Vickery, & House, 201, p. 5). Perceptions about makeup are not just situated within a certain age group. Even seniors continue to have judgement about what is communicated with makeup (Baek, 2019). Their findings showed that seniors had a prejudice against makeup and their generation tended to wear makeup to look younger rather than prettier.

    In summary, when it comes to clothes, hairstyle, fragrance, tattoos and even make-up, be certain that whatever message you are communicating is reflected not only on the inside is also being communicated on the outside.


    Activity 1: Distance Violations

    You can test the importance of distance by deliberately violating the cultural rules for use of the proxemic zones outlined by cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall:

    1. Join with a partner. Choose which one of you will be the perpetrator and which will be the observer.
    2. In three distinct situations, the perpetrator should deliberately use the "wrong" amount of space for the context. Make the violations as subtle as possible. You might, for instance, gradually move into another person's intimate zone when personal distance would be more appropriate. (Be careful not to make the violations too offensive!)
    3. The observer should record the verbal and nonverbal reactions of others when the distance zones are violated. After each experiment, inform the people involved about your motives and ask whether they were consciously aware of the reason for any discomfort they experienced.

    Activity 2: Micro-expressions

    Test your ability to detect micro-expressions for free by using the link:

    How well did you interpret the micro-expressions?

    Now retake the test -- this time with a partner -- to see if you can agree on what micro-expression is being displayed. Then address the following:

    ● Discuss why you chose the expression you did.

    ● Talk about how easy or difficult it is to interpret these brief nonverbal cues.


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    Proxemics: The study of personal space management.

    Chronemics: The study of how timing and meaning relate.

    Olfactics: The study of how smell is used to communicate.

    Environment: The place, setting, location, surrounding in which something occurs


    1. Seinfield’s “The Close Talker"

    Here is an episode from the comedy sitcom Seinfeld where someone has an issue with proxemics. Use this video to spark a discussion about personal space management:

    2. The Halo Effect

    Watch this segment from a documentary about the studies of physical attractiveness and impression format. How might this bias come into play in our daily lives?


    "Photo of woman wearing sunglasses" licensed by Malcom Garrett is in the Public Domain, CC0.

    This page titled 6.2: Environment and Physical Characteristics is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Daniel Usera & contributing authors.

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