Sunday, August 2, 2009

To Touch or Not To Touch, That is the Question.


Tags: Characters, human behavior, creative writing.

An interesting quiz on Yahoo posed the following question, ‘When is a hug cool, and when is it awkward?’ Over sixty people responded to the survey and their answers brought up several points that should make an author think carefully about the interaction of his characters.

Anthropologist who have studied the behavior of people in various social situations have commented on the wide variations of what is acceptable human behavior, and what is not. All of us know people who are naturally ‘cuddly,’ and we know others who are ‘standoffish.’ You don’t have to be a careful observer of human nature to realize social behavior varies from one individual to another, as well as from culture to culture. Nor is it necessary to describe any of this in scientific terms in your story, for each of these behaviors is universally understood by most people. You can expect the same level of understanding from your readers. Nordic people seem to require more personal space than the average person from Latin cultures. It also varies from family to family.

People who perceive themselves as being among the elite in a given social situation, tend to invade the personal space of others, as well as effecting a speech pattern that projects their voice in a pleasing or non-pleasing manner, as perceived by the listener. Anthropologist Edward T. Hall attempted to develop a graph that demonstrated the various distances we need to maintain in a social situation in order to feel comfortable. The Intimate Space involves a circle of 1.5 feet and is reserved for embracing, touching, and whispering. Personal Space is 4.0 feet and is where the interaction occurs between good friends. Social Space is 12 feet and is where most people are comfortable interacting with acquaintances. Public space is 25 feet, used by a public speaker. There are many other things that give clues to our personality, such as the arrangement of furniture in a room to create barriers or give an open invitation to increased intimacy. Proxemics is the science that defines eight factors in non-verbal communications. The following is a brief explanation of each.

Posture sex identifiers: The postures in man/woman relationship, which might involve reclining, sitting, leaning toward the other, or making contact with a hand, etc.

Sociopetal-sociofugal axis: The position of one person’s shoulders in relationship to the other, which tends to change, moment by moment, as the encounter continues.

Kinesthetic factors: The physical distance between the parties in a touching, non-touching situation, which may increase or decrease.

Touching code: How the two people are touching, such as stroking, patting, squeezing, and the opposite, which might involve signals sent by tugging at the hem of a skirt, or adjusting a collar.

Visual code: Eye contact or the lack of it. A tendency to look past the other, looking downward, staring into the distance, or to make direct eye contact with the other. The pupil might dilate, which is generally understood as a signal of encouragement.

Thermal code: Heat from the body of the other person which becomes a factor in the encounter. This might be pleasant, or unpleasant.

Olfactory code: Odor detected from the body of the other, such as perfume, after shave, or simply the product of exercise or the environment.

Voice loudness: Soft to very loud, depending on the emotional situation or a change in the relationship of the two.

While this brief summation only touches the surface of body language, it might give you the inspiration to make your characters do more than simply walk, look, sit, or stand in the presence of the others. All of these factors, more than anything else in your story, create an opportunity for you to transform each scene from the commonplace to the sublime.

1 comment:

unwriter said...

I'll keep these in mind when I do my next speech. I knew about the personal space but the eight 'rules' are new. I belong to toastmasters and by giving an oral presentation or speech, one can judge how their words affect the audience. This then can be translated into how to write more effectively, more show than tell.