Our nonverbal communications are subject to interpretation, governed partly by our proximity to one another. Violating personal space boundaries can cause a negative reaction. On the flip side, respecting personal boundaries can have a positive influence on our personal interactions, particularly in the early stages of a romantic relationship where we need time to get to know one another, to build trust with one another, and to feel comfortable in different settings within and outside of our own comfort zones.
In general, Americans maintain a much stricter personal space boundary than other cultures with more open spatial needs. Researchers relate our personal space boundaries to the following spatial zones:
- Closely Intimate Zone
- Intimate Zone
- Personal Zone
- Social Zone
- Public Zone
Closely Intimate Zone
Since certain authors draw a distinction between the closely intimate and intimate zones, I’ve included both in this segment. The closely intimate zone, as the name suggests, describes a physical proximity reserved for those we feel most comfortable with, namely a lover or a faithful platonic friend. The closely intimate zone defines a region within six inches of each other; close enough to whisper in someone’s ear or a prelude to a kiss. Unwanted advances in this personal space can spell disaster for the aggressor and embarrassment for the defender of their personal space in this zone. An unwelcome hug, or a kiss on the lips at the end of a forgettable date offers one example. In this closely intimate zone, we reserve the right to preclude all except those we invite into our personal space.
The intimate zone, defined by a personal boundary of six inches to a foot and a half away from our person, represents another region we guard closely; one typically off limits to strangers or casual acquaintances. As the name suggests, we usually reserve this zone for close encounters with a lover or a close platonic friend.
As we move out from the intimate zone and expand our personal space boundary from eighteen inches to four feet, we enter the personal zone. The personal zone reflects our comfort range for social settings with work colleagues or new acquaintances. In this relatively close, but not intimate personal boundary, we converse comfortably without raising our voices or feeling insecure about the sesame garlic chicken lingering on our breath from lunch. Many cultures, especially Americans, feel most at ease in this personal zone—not too close to feel uncomfortable and not too far to feel standoffish.
The social zone relates more to business interactions than the personal zone. Contrary to the name, the social zone, defined as four to twelve feet away from us, often works well with customer or client relationships as opposed to social gatherings with friends. Again, the personal space defined by this zone can vary from culture to culture. Americans tend to keep their distance, as opposed to say a business associate from the Middle East, where a colleague from Saudi Arabia would be more inclined to stand nose to nose with someone in their closely intimate zone instead of several feet away.
Lastly, the public zone, defined as twelve feet or more away from us, acts like a buffer between a speaker and their audience. There are always exceptions, particularly with dynamic, outspoken individuals who are capable, and comfortable shifting from a less intimate to a more intimate zone. People on stage who want a stronger connection with their audience will leave the public zone and move closer to their audience to engage them in their personal or social space boundaries.
Understanding depth perception helps us decipher subtle nonverbal cues to draw us closer or push us away. Subtle gestures such as leaning forward to engage in conversation or stretching an arm out to brush a shoulder or touch someone’s hand provide examples of positive communication conveyed at an appropriate distance. Standing behind a woman in line close enough to sniff her hair, not so much. Respecting an individual’s personal space goes a long way toward improving communication. Too much physical space can make us appear withdrawn, indifferent, or insecure. Too little space makes the other person leery.
We all have personal preferences for the way we dress, the types of food we like to eat, the kinds of music we enjoy, favorite movies, and so forth. In a similar manner, we tend to exhibit a particular communication style, derived in part by our gender, personality, culture, and past experiences. Our communication style also derives from the way we think and process information. Some psychologists believe we are born with a predisposition to prefer certain behaviors over others, and in addition, we tend to develop a primary communication style, defined by eye contact, hand gestures, facial expressions, speech patterns, and other indicators. By understanding our own unique communication style, we can learn to recognize other individuals’ communication styles, which in turn helps us communicate more effectively in our romantic relationships. The challenge involves learning to mesh our personal communication style with our partner’s.
First, we have to identify our own style, learn to recognize our partner’s, and then discern how and when to adapt our style accordingly. I’m not implying we should fundamentally change who we are or how we view the world. I’m saying it’s important to try and see things from the other person’s perspective. We don’t have to agree with their style or even like it, but we have to accept it for what it is. As Dr. Sherrie Bourg Carter counsels in her book, High Octane Women, “My advice is to not spend too much time focusing on how women tend to communicate and how men tend to communicate, but rather take the time to figure out how you tend to communicate, then use that information to understand how your style may be affecting your relationship.”
With Dr. Carter’s advice in mind, let’s review four common and well-documented communication styles defined as passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive, and assertive. As you read about these styles, I encourage you to give some thought to your own communication style and the style you perceive your partner to express most often.
The passive communication style defines an individual who avoids expression of opinion, fails to protect their rights, and lacks the ability to identify and meet their own needs. A passive person does not express their honest feelings or desires, attributed partly to their low self-esteem and inclination to bottle up their feelings instead of responding overtly to confrontations. Individuals who adopt this passive communication style exhibit poor eye contact and speak softly or apologetically. They allow others to inadvertently or deliberately infringe on their rights. They are also prone to explosive outbursts when the pressure from their internalized emotions boils over. They tend to feel anxious, resentful, or depressed because their needs are not being met. It is often difficult to form intimate relationships with a passive person who avoids vulnerability by hiding their needs and desires.
The aggressive communication style defines an individual who tries to dominate others by criticizing or attacking them. A person with an aggressive style often speaks loudly and interrupts frequently, thus violating the rights of others. This type of personality also suffers from low self-esteem and feelings of powerlessness with a tendency to engage in a verbally or physically threatening manner to humiliate and blame others. Aggressive communicators favor “you” statements and exhibit an aura of superiority.
The passive-aggressive communication style defines an individual whose outward appearance implies a passive style. In reality, a passive-aggressive person uses subtle, indirect methods to sabotage a situation or act out in anger. Often, their facial expressions don’t mirror their true feelings. A passive-aggressive person also suffers from low self-esteem and relies on tactics to make others wish they had seen things their way. Passive-aggressive individuals make sarcastic comments and avoid confrontation, leaving issues unaddressed. They might appear cooperative, but behind the scenes, they’re sawing the floor out from under you.
The assertive communication style defines an individual with high self-esteem who speaks their mind without violating the rights of others. The assertive person straddles the middle portion of the passive to aggressive spectrum, and unlike passive or aggressive individuals, an assertive person channels their high self-esteem. In contrast to the aggressive style, assertive communicators use “I” statements and listen without interrupting. They effectively express themselves by speaking in a calm tone of voice and maintaining good eye contact. They stand up for their rights and do not allow others to impose their will upon them or manipulate the situation. They value their time as well as their emotional and physical needs. They address problems head-on without disrespecting the opinions of others or resorting to unwarranted schemes.
In The Couple Checkup, Doctors Olson, Sigg, and Larson summarize the aforementioned communication styles and their associated outcomes and intimacy levels. When both partners in a relationship communicate with an assertive style, both win, and both enjoy a high level of intimacy through a positive emotional environment that fosters openness and increased communication. In almost every other combination of passive, aggressive, and assertive styles, both partners lose, and both partners suffer from lower levels of intimacy.
I prefer the assertive style as well, but we can’t fundamentally change who we are, or our partner’s personality to accommodate a preferred communication style. If perpetual conflicts in communication styles create unnecessary tension in your romantic relationship and deprive you from satisfying your high priority needs, then it might be time to reconsider the relationship and cut ties. On the other hand, for some couples, a minor course correction can make the difference between poor communication and good communication in the relationship if both partners are willing to work on the unfavorable aspects of their communication style and strive for a mutually beneficial outcome. Also recognize that no single communication style reflects our personalities one hundred percent of the time. Although each of us exhibits a primary communication style, we also display attributes of more than one style, depending on the circumstances of our romantic relationship (e.g., how long we’ve known one another, our level of trust, and past experiences—good or bad—from previous relationships).
Research suggests men and women have different communication styles, largely attributed to socialization, biology, status, and self-image. In this segment on gender differences, I draw a distinction between the formal communication styles previously described, which apply equally as well to men or women—and the more gender-centric communication styles intrinsic to each sex.
In terms of grasping at the subtle and sometimes glaring differences between genders, I acknowledge the expertise and wisdom of Dr. Phil McGraw, who writes in Love Smart, “Men cannot apply their linear logic to understanding the emotional intricacies and intuition of the female. They invariably evaluate and judge female behavior trying to use a male yardstick. That doesn’t even almost work.”
Fortunately, I’m not attempting to comprehend the emotional intricacies of the female psyche, which would no doubt expand beyond the scope of this work. Instead, consider the Venn diagram below, composed of three categories: feelings, beliefs, and behaviors.
Though our gender differences stem from more than feelings, beliefs, and behaviors alone, a significant portion of our fundamental outlook on life derives from our feelings toward one another, our beliefs about traditional gender roles, and our behaviors toward the opposite sex—which don’t always coincide with how we feel about them. Consider women who like to play hard to get. Their feelings might imply a certain apathy, but their behavior suggests they want attention from someone they’re interested in but aren’t ready to confess to. Similar inconsistencies exist with men as well, where they say one thing and do another. In the previous graphic, the male and female symbols share common ground in the small intersection, implying similarities exist between feelings, beliefs, and behaviors with both sexes. But from the broader perspective, symbolized by the scale of each circle in relation to the small intersection, we infer how men and women share less in common, overall, from our individual gender perspectives.
In the context of gender differences, the inconsistency between communication styles attributes less to the spoken words themselves and more to the conversation’s intent. Men communicate to maintain status and independence while women use conversation as a way to empathize and understand people’s feelings. Women also use conversation to gain support, understanding, and agreement between themselves; they deal with problems by talking about them and sharing their feelings—something men appear less prone to do. In general, men focus less on emotions and feelings and more on trying to sift through the facts. Men strive to find a solution rather than talk about the problem. They prefer to make relationship decisions based on personal needs or desires, whereas women strive for mutual dependence and cooperation. In one corner, men perceive women to be unappreciative for the solutions men offer while women feel frustrated by men’s apparent lack of empathy and unwillingness to talk about important relationship issues.
Women maintain a more intuitive grasp of how communication works. Where men can be oblivious at times, women perceive details from a casual conversation or the way a person dresses or how a particular room is decorated. Women perceive subtle differences in someone’s facial expressions, their tone of voice, or the way their eyes divert to catch a glimpse at the competition. One study, conducted by psychologists at Harvard University, demonstrated women’s superior perception over men at recognizing contradictions between words and body language; although men in nurturing or artistic occupations scored almost as well as women in the study.
Sorry guys, but women are simply better equipped at discerning the truth and reading between the lines. And in my experience, along with numerous studies to support it, this skill also works in reverse, as women are more adept than men at hiding the truth or masking their genuine emotions during verbal or nonverbal communications.