Nonverbal communication

Chapter 4 (Environment)
When people communicate with one another, features of the surrounding environ- ment always exert an influence on their interaction. What are these environmental features, and how do they affect us?

First, let us look at a familiar communication environment: the classroom. Modern architects experiment with different designs, but many classes still take place in a rectangular room with straight rows of chairs for student seating. A row of windows along one side of the room may determine the direction students face, and consequently determine the front of the room. It is not uncommon for classroom seats to be permanently attached to the floor for ease of maintenance and tidiness. Classrooms typically have some type of partition, often a desk or lectern, that serves as a boundary between the teacher and students. It is not hard for students and teachers to identify problems encountered in environments designed for learning: poor lighting and acoustics; inadequate climate control; external construction noises; inoperative or nonexistent electrical outlets; immov- able seats; gloomy, dull, or distracting color schemes; unpleasant odors; and so on. Both students and teachers recognize that such problems impede the purpose for gathering in these rectangular rooms: to increase knowledge through effective student/teacher communication. The influence of the classroom environment on student and teacher behavior remained relatively unexplored until Sommer (1967, 1969, 1974) took a closer look. He focused his attention on the influence of classroom design on student participation

Sommer selected several different types of classrooms for his study. He wanted to compare the amount of student participation in these classrooms and to analyze aspects of participatory behavior in each type. He selected seminar rooms with movable chairs, usually arranged in a horseshoe shape; laboratories—complete with Bunsen burners, bottles, and gas valves—that represented an extreme in straight-row seating; a windowless room; and a room with an entire wall of windows. Among other things, Sommer concluded the following from his studies:

  1. Students and teachers who dislike their learning environment will try to avoid it or change it.
  2. In general, the amount of student participation decreases as the number of students in the class increases. The length of a student’s participation is also longer in smaller classes.
  3. The content of student participation in large classes is more likely to be devoted to questions of clarification or requests to repeat an idea rather than participation focused on the ideas themselves.
  4. Participation was most frequent among those students within range of the instructor’s eye gaze. In a seminar room, the students sitting directly across from the instructor participated more. A follow-up study by Adams and Biddle (1970) found a zone of participation in the center of the room (see Figure 4-1). This center zone is most likely to occur when the instructor stands in the middle of the room because it is highly dependent on the instructor’s visual contact with the students. If the instructor moved to the side and maintained visual contact with the students in front of him or her, the zone of participa- tion would no longer be in the center. But there is more to this story: Koneya (1973) found that when high-, moderate-, and low-participating students were

given a chance to select any seat they desired, high participators were most likely to select seats in the central zone of participation. We can conclude from this that student participation can be facilitated by visual contact with the instructor, but that students who are likely to participate tend to position themselves in seats that are close to the instructor or within the instructor’s likely field of gaze. Also note that an instructor’s gaze can be used to inhibit communication as well as facilitate it. When students feel they will be punished—or at least not rewarded—for participating, the zone of participation is inoperative.

  1. What happens when you take moderate- and low-participating students and deliberately seat them in the zone of participation? Koneya (1973) found that moderate participators increased their participation, but low participators remained low. This suggests that where students sit can alter their classroom participation, but this effect is less likely with low participators. Haber (1982) found that ethnic, racial, and religious minorities at five colleges tended to select seating peripheral to the zone of participation—even when they were

a majority at a particular college.

From these studies, we can conclude that classroom seating is not random. Certain types of people gravitate toward seats that are close to the instructor and/or within his or her expected pattern of gaze. The instructor’s gazing patterns create a zone where students are more likely to verbally participate, unless they are students who initially sought seating outside of this zone and were moved within it. Even then, we might find increased participation at some point if a teacher rewards and supports student participation.

The world of education has changed dramatically since the time of Sommer’s research. Students take notes (and, of course, check their Facebook pages) on laptops, enroll in online classes, participate with other students in “discussion boards,” meet with the instructor during his or her virtual office hours, and so on. For some who are shy in face-to-face settings, an online setting might afford them more opportunities to participate in a class. For those who need to see the instruc- tor in person, an online format might be detrimental to the quality of their education.

Even though many classrooms have changed in form (to more technologically rich) or location (cyberspace), educators must still be aware of the setting in which students learn. For example, online classes should be designed to be user-friendly. A virtual classroom should be designed so as not to make one group, such as females, feel less welcome because it is more stereotypically masculine in appear- ance (Cheryan, Meltzoff, & Kim, 2011). Brooks (2011) examined the relationship between classroom design and student learning in a face-to-face setting. Most of the participants in the study were first-year, first-semester students taking Principles of Biological Science with the same instructor. Some of these students were enrolled in a traditional classroom where they sat at tables facing the front of the classroom, which had a whiteboard, projection screen, and teacher’s desk. The other students were enrolled in an active learning classroom that had round tables (which have been shown to promote greater collaborative and student-centered learning), laptop technology, an instructor station, and marker boards along the perimeter of theoom. With respect to learning outcomes, the difference between actual grades and predicted grades based on college entrance exam scores was greater for those in the active learning classroom than it was for those in the traditional classroom. This meant that the active learning environment benefited students’ performance to a greater extent than did the traditional classroom.

The preceding discussion of the classroom is an example of a specific context in which spatial relationships, architecture, and objects surrounding the partici- pants influence the amount of interaction and learning that occur. We will examine other environmental factors that impinge on human communication behavior shortly. As a cautionary note, though, you should remember that the environment is only one element in structuring such behavior. If students, administrators, teachers, secretaries, and custodians want to run a school or university like a prison or a dehumanized bureaucracy, changes in the classroom structure will likely have little impact.

Throughout this chapter, we discuss a number of characteristics of environ- ments. Let us initiate our exploration by examining the way we perceive our surroundings, because this can significantly influence the way we feel and the way we choose to communicate.


The number of places in which we communicate with others is limitless: buses, homes, apartments, restaurants, offices, parks, hotels, sports arenas, factories, libraries, movie theaters, museums, and so on. Despite their diversity, we probably evaluate these environments along similar dimensions. Once we perceive our environment in a certain way, we may incorporate such perceptions in the develop- ment of the messages we send. And once these messages have been sent, the environmental perceptions of the other person have been altered. Thus, we influ- ence and are influenced by our environments.

How do we see our environments? We believe the following six dimensions are central to our perceptions and consequently to how we send and receive messages.


One familiar dimension along which we can classify environments is a formal– informal continuum. Reactions may be based on the objects present, the people present, the functions performed, or any number of other variables. Individual offices may be more formal than a lounge in the same building; a year-end banquet takes on more formality than a “come as you are” party; an evening at home with one other couple may be more informal than an evening with 10 other couples. The greater the formality, the greater the chances that the communication behavior will be less relaxed and more superficial, hesitant, and stylized.

Of importance, what we expect to see along the formal–informal continuum in a particular setting matters. We expect to see less formal behavior and dress in informal settings and more formal behavior and dress in formal settings. Trouble can arise when these expectations go unmet. Consider the likely reactions of sun- bathers at a beach to a group of men and women sitting on leather chairs and


Environments that make us feel psychologically warm encourage us to linger, relax, and feel comfortable. It may be some combination of the color of the drapes or walls, paneling, carpeting, texture of the furniture, softness of the chairs, soundproofing, and so on. Even the exterior of an environment can affect our anticipated feelings of com- fort. Students viewed slides of 34 different medical facilities, and the expected quality of care and degree of comfort varied with different types of buildings (Devlin, 2008).

Fast-food chains try to exhibit enough warmth in their decor to seem inviting but enough coldness to encourage rapid turnover. Interestingly, environments that make us feel psychologically warm may also make us feel physically warmer. Students were asked to spend 2 hours studying or reading in a room with a neutral decor, similar to that of a classroom. Then they were asked to read or study in a room that resembled a walk-in meat cooler. Nearly all the students felt the second room was cooler, even though the temperature was actually the same in both read or study in each room. This time, the redesigned meat-cooler room was judged to have a higher temperature than the classroom. Again, actual tempera- tures were the same (Rohles, 1980).


Enclosed environments usually suggest greater privacy, particularly if they accom- modate only a few people. If the possibility of other people’s entering and/or overhearing our conversation is slight, even if we are outdoors, there is a greater feeling of privacy. Personal items such as toilet articles, low or focused lighting, high-density situations, partitions, noise, and other environmental factors can affect perceptions of privacy (Buslig, 1999). With greater privacy, we will probably find close speaking distances and more personal messages designed and adapted for the specific other person rather than people in general.


When we meet a new person or encounter an unfamiliar environment, our responses typically are cautious, deliberate, and conventional. Unfamiliar environments are laden with rituals and norms we do not yet know, so we are hesitant to move too quickly. We will probably go slowly until we can associate this unfamiliar environment with one we know. One interpretation for the stereotyped structure of fast-food restau- rants is that they allow us, in our mobile society, to readily find a familiar and predict- able place that will guarantee minimal demands for active contact with strangers. In unfamiliar environments, the most likely initial topic of conversation will be the envi- ronment itself: Have you ever been here before? What is it like? Who comes here?


Part of our total reaction to our environment is based on our perception of whether, and how easily, we can leave it. Some students feel confined in their own homes during the school Christmas break. But consider the differences between this 2-week constraint and a permanent live-at-home arrangement. The intensity of these perceptions of constraint is closely related to the space available to us as well as the privacy of this space during the time we are in the environment. Some envir- onments seem to be only temporarily confining, such as an automobile during a long trip. Perceptions of confinement in other environments, such as prisons, space- craft, or nursing homes, will likely seem more enduring.


Sometimes our responses within a given environment are influenced by how close or far away we must conduct our communication with another. This may reflect actual physical distance—an office on a different floor, a house in another part of the city—or it may reflect psychological distance, with barriers clearly separating people who are fairly close physically. You may be seated close to someone and

still not perceive it as a close environment: for example, interlocking chairs facing the same direction in an airport. When the setting forces us into close quarters with other people not well known to us, such as elevators or crowded buses, we try to increase distance psychologically to reduce threatening feelings of intimacy. We can do this through less eye contact, body tenseness and immobility, cold silence, nervous laughter, jokes about the intimacy, and public conversation directed at all present.

The perceptions just described represent only some of the dimensions along which we can view communication settings. Generally, more intimate communi- cation is associated with informal, unconstrained, private, familiar, close, and warm environments. In everyday situations, however, these dimensions combine in complex ways. The mixture of intimate and nonintimate factors can be seen in an elevator if it is perceived as close, familiar, and temporarily confining but also pub- lic, formal, and cold.


Once these perceptions are made, how do they affect our reactions? Sometimes the impact of the environment will be slight, but it has the potential to play a signifi- cant role in affecting our behavior. In a study of 98 child-care classes for 3- and 4-year-olds, Maxwell (2007) concluded that perceptions of the physical environ- ment were related to measures of the children’s cognitive and social competency, especially for the 3-year-olds.

Mehrabian (1976) argued that we react emotionally to our surroundings. These emotional reactions can be accounted for in terms of (1) how aroused the environment makes us feel, (2) how pleasurable we feel, and (3) how dominant we feel. Arousal refers to how active, stimulated, frenzied, or alert we are. Pleasure refers to feelings of joy, satisfaction, and happiness. Dominance refers to feelings of being in control, important, and free to act in a variety of ways.

Novel, surprising, and complex environments probably produce higher arousal. Those people less able to screen out unwanted information from the envi- ronment inevitably have to respond to more stimuli and, in turn, become more aroused. Although we all probably respond as screeners and nonscreeners on occa- sion, some people tend to respond habitually as one or the other. Nonscreeners are less selective in what they respond to in any environment. They see, hear, smell, and otherwise sense more stimuli. Screeners, in contrast, are selective in what they respond to. They impose a hierarchy of importance on various components in a complex situation. Nonscreeners not only become more aroused than screeners in novel, changing, and sudden situations, they also remain aroused longer—even after leaving the arousing environment. That is why nonscreeners are most attracted to environments that are both arousing and pleasurable.

Introversion–extraversion is another personality variable that influences how people respond to arousing environments. Research by Geen (1984) has shown that introverts require less stimulation to reach their optimal level of physiological arousal than do extraverts. This means that introverts could become overly aroused in an environment that is comfortable for extraverts. Knowing this, introverts and extraverts may choose some environments over others, avoiding those that will when studying, whereas extraverts sought noisier settings where they could socialize with others.

Ambient aroma is an environmental factor that influences how people behave in an environment. Research by Baron (1997) has shown that pleasant odors increase our willingness to help members of the same sex. The increased helpful- ness seems to be due to the pleasant odors making people feel better. It also appears that clean scents increase people’s willingness to be charitable (Liljenquist, Zhong, & Galinsky, 2010). Importantly, these environmental effects are likely to be nonconscious in nature, suggesting that our behavior could, at times, be under the influence of the odors wafting through or lingering in the spaces we pass through.


Time is also a part of the communicative environment. At first, it may seem strange to include something as seemingly intangible as time in the same environmental package as chairs, walls, noise, or even weather conditions. However, the human brain may be wired to encode time and place information after an event that is tragic or of momentous importance. Do you have a vivid memory of the events directly surrounding 9/11? What were you doing before, during, and after that news broke? Chances are that that information is burned into your memory, some- thing psychologists refer to as a flashbulb memory. In the United States, people treat time as something tangible, a commodity that can be divided up, saved, spent, and made. Furthermore, we often project temporal qualities onto objects within our environment: for example, a chair that looks like it has been there for- ever or an elevator that “never seems to be on time.”

Time is important to us. It governs when we eat and sleep, it often determines how much we get paid at work, and it sets limits on how much material students can learn in a given class period. Time plays a key role in social interaction as well. It influences our perceptions of people: for example, responsible people are on time, boring people talk too long, or a good romantic partner gives us some time to ourselves (Leonard, 1978; Werner & Baxter, 1994). A course in time man- agement is a staple for anyone expecting to climb the corporate ladder in U.S. organizations. Time plays such an important role in our lives that we often carry the date and time around with us on our wrist or on our cell phones. Most cars have clocks, and some of them even have devices for computing the time it will take to drive from one location to another. We are very much aware of the stress time can create in our lives. We think of a vacation as a retreat to a place where time matters less. Ironically, vacations are usually thought of as a set period of time.

Time is perceived very differently in other cultures (Hall, 1959). These varying orientations to time are often a central factor in misunderstandings among mem- bers of different cultures. Psychology professor Robert Levine gives this account of his teaching experience in Brazil:

As I left home for my first day of class, I asked someone the time. It was 9:05 a.m., which allowed me time to relax and look around the campus before my 10 o’clock

lecture. After what I judged to be half an hour, I glanced at the clock I was passing. It said 10:20! In a panic, I broke for the classroom, followed by gentle calls of “Hola, professor” and “Tudo bem, professor?” from unhurried students, many of whom, I later realized, were my own. I arrived breathless to find an empty room. Frantically, I asked a passerby the time. “Nine forty-five” was the answer. No,

that couldn’t be. I asked someone else. “Nine fifty-five.” Another said: “Exactly 9:43.” The clock in a nearby office read 3:15. I had learned my first lesson about Brazilians: Their timepieces are consistently inaccurate. And nobody minds. My class was scheduled from 10 until noon. Many students came late, some very late … none seemed terribly concerned about lateness…. The real surprise came at noon … only a few students left immediately. Others drifted out during the next fifteen minutes, and some continued asking me questions long after that. (Levine & Wolff, 1985, p. 30)

Biologically, our bodies seem to be programmed so that “internal clocks” regulate our physical, emotional, and intellectual functioning as well as our sense of time (Luce, 1971; Meissner & Wittmann, 2011). However, we can experience distor- tions in the perception of time; some of which are influenced by events, whereas others by personality variables.

We all know that “a watched pot doesn’t boil” and that the waiting room at a physician’s office is a fitting description. Examples of events that seem to slow time down—that is, the perceived duration is longer than the actual duration—include scary ones (e.g., skydiving for novices) and seeing angry or fearful faces compared to neutral faces (Campbell & Bryant, 2007; Effron, Niedenthal, Gil, & Droit-Volet, 2006; Gil & Droit-Volet, 2011). On the other hand, highly exciting events can make time fly (Campbell & Bryant, 2007).

Individual differences in the perception of time have been linked to neurolog- ical and psychological differences (Westfall, Jasper, & Zelmanova, 2010; Zimbardo & Boyd, 1999). Regarding the latter, Zimbardo and Boyd (1999) believe in individual differences in people’s attitudes toward time, something which can influence their decisions and judgments. These include the past- negative type (you view your past negatively, and your past still upsets you), the past-positive type (you have a nostalgic view of your past), the present-hedonistic type (you think more about partaking in pleasures of the present than conse- quences in the future), the present-fatalistic type (you feel stuck in the present and unable to change your future), and the future-focused type (you are focused on accomplishing goals important to your future). These orientations may repre- sent a long-term style or may be subject to change; for example, a present- hedonistic type, who “lives for the moment” at one point in his or her life, might later adapt to a future-focused style that involves evaluating today’s “moments” in terms of the long-range picture (Gonzalez & Zimbardo, 1985).

We devote the remainder of this chapter to the characteristics of environ- ments that form the bases of the perceptions just outlined: perceptions of our surroundings and perceptions of time. Each environment has three major components:

The natural environment—geography, location, atmospheric conditions The presence or absence of other people The architectural design and movable object


Some of us live in densely populated urban areas, some in smaller towns, some in suburban areas on the outskirts of these cities and towns, and others in rural areas. Within these broad areas, we find other environmental features that affect the nature of human interaction and health: for example, apartment complexes, neighborhoods, high-rise buildings, and urban settings with forested areas. The places we live, play, and work are bound to have an impact on our behavior. The number of people we communicate with can influence our interaction style, but perhaps more important is the number of different people for whom we have to adapt our messages. Some environments are very homogeneous and provide inhabitants with fewer experiences and fewer examples of diverse styles, behavior, and values. The pace of life and the time devoted to developing social and personal relationships may also vary as a function of where we live. In slums or ghettos in urban areas, we often find a social climate that encourages or fosters unconven- tional and deviant behavior or at least tolerates it. Thus, slum areas show a high incidence of juvenile delinquency, prostitution, alcohol and drug addiction, physical and mental disability, and crimes of violence (Krupat, 1985).

The natural environment that surrounds us on a day-to-day basis also comes with a host of weather-related phenomena. For instance, behavioral scientists have been interested in the effects of barometric pressure: High or rising barometric pressure has been associated with feelings of good health; low or falling barometric pressure is more likely to be linked to feelings of pain or depression. Optimum stu- dent behavior and performance have been observed when the barometer was high or rising and on cool days with little wind and precipitation. Increase in positive air ions also seems to increase people’s irritability and tension.

The changing seasons seem to have an impact on our behavior and mental health, too. Even in areas of the United States with minimal seasonal variations in temperature, national routines associated with changing seasons are still followed: for example, taking summer vacations and starting school in the fall. Some of the ways in which our behavior varies with the seasons include the following:

  1. Suicide rates and admissions to public mental hospitals rise dramatically in the spring and peak in the summer.
  2. College students tend to break up with their dating partners at the beginnings and endings of semesters (May/June, August/September, or December/ January).
  3. During the summer, people tend to see their friends more often. 4. During the summer, crimes of assault and rape increase. 5. From July to November, people tend to report less happiness but more activity

and less boredom. 6. U.S. females born during the fall are more likely to have symptoms related to

eating disorders than females born during the other seasons (Javaras, Austin, &

Field, 2011). 7. Although seasonal affective disorder (we describe this later in the chapter) can

be triggered in spring, the onset is more likely to be during late fall and early winter.


It should be clear by now that our communication is often affected by the social and physical environment. And we have some control over structuring these envir- onments; we can paint our walls a different color, substitute candles for electric lights, and so on. But our communication environments are influenced by others, too. Earlier in this chapter, we noted how architects and furniture designers affect our social interaction, but laws and government regulations also play an important role in creating the environments that affect our communicative behavior. It is important to conclude the chapter with this reminder because gaining control over the environment that affects our communication may mean becoming a community activist or leader.

Zoning laws, for example, determine whether a part of our environment will be used for industrial, commercial, or residential activity. Zoning laws also deter- mine the population density of an area by defining how many housing units per acre are allowed. Laws prohibiting adult bookstores from operating too close to churches are essentially saying the two environments generate quite different forms of communication and are not likely to happily share the same territory. When business hours of operation are regulated, it affects when streets are empty, when they are crowded, and what segment of the population occupies the street. Some communities have specific laws governing signs and billboards, where they can be placed, their size, materials, and colors that can be used, and so on. Obviously these and similar regulations governing parking areas, parks, display windows, and vending machines impact our social lives.

In addition, there are penal codes that punish loitering, smoking, drinking alcoholic beverages, and other behaviors. Smoking regulations have changed things such as where smokers are allowed to congregate. As a consequence, smokers today may have a greater feeling of us (namely, the in-group of smo- kers) versus them (namely, the out-group of nonsmokers) than did smokers of the past. Moreover, in places that prohibit smoking, including college campuses, smokers may be viewed as, and feel deviant for, the practice of lighting up. Thus, in an effort to safeguard the well-being of those who occupy it, an environment may be restructured both in a physical way (designated smoking areas) and in a psychological way (e.g., regulations that recast the behavior of smoking).


The environment in which people communicate frequently contributes to the overall outcome of their encounters. We have seen that both the frequency and the content of our messages are influenced by various aspects of the setting in which we communicate. We have seen how the environment influences our behavior, but we also know that we can alter environments to elicit certain types of responses. As our knowledge of environments increases, we may deliberately use them to help us obtain desired responses. In many respects, we are products of our environment, and if we want to change behavior, we need to learn to control the environment in which we interact.

Throughout this chapter, we referred to a number of different types of environments: class- rooms, dormitories, offices, prisons, fast-food restaurants, homes, and bars. We suggested sev- eral different ways of looking at environments. Mehrabian (1976), following research in other areas of human perception, commented that all environments could profitably be examined


  1. Select a familiar environment that effectively encourages or discourages human interaction. Now indicate all the changes you would make so this environment would have the exact opposite effect.
  2. Assume the role of a stranger entering your own apartment or your family’s home. What messages does the environment communicate?
  3. The impact of environmental features on human behavior will vary as a function of

by looking at emotional reactions to them. These emotions or feelings, says Mehrabian, can be plotted on three dimensions: arousing– nonarousing, pleasant–unpleasant, and dominant– submissive. We suggested six perceptual bases for examining environments: formal–informal, warm–cold, private–public, familiar–unfamiliar, constraining–free, and distant–close. We also pointed out that people perceive temporal aspects of their environments: when things happen, how long they last, how much time exists between events, and the pattern or rhythm of events.

Each environment seems to have three major characteristics: (1) the natural environment, (2) the presence or absence of other people, and (3) the architectural design and movable objects, including lighting, sound, color, and general visual-aesthetic appeal. The quality and quantity of the research in each of these areas vary consid- erably, but it is clear that any analysis of human behavior must account for the influence of envi- ronmental features.

context, but what features do you think play a large or small role across different contexts? Explain your choices.

  1. How do people communicate time-related messages by their behavior?
  2. To get an idea of your time perspective, take the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory, which is available onlin
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