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Toward Democratic and Compassionate Conversations


Toward Democratic and Compassionate Conversations

Norman Markel, PhD

Professor Emeritus University of Florida

[email protected]


            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 or workplace. 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 conversation.

            Fortunately, 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 workplace status.

            For example 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 Mr. Ifekwenegwe.”

            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.


            The 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 workers;

            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 information.

         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 the corners;

            Rectangular Table – sit at the head, side, or corners;

            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 status friends.

         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 listener.

         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 friends.

         Greater friendship means more frequent eye contact. In other words good friends look at each other while speaking and while listening.

         Social 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 isn’t!


         The clues to friendship and status in touching are the frequency and duration of touch.

         A Midas touch?

         Yes indeed, according to social psychologists Crusco and Wetzel.

These 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 touched!

         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.”

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.

         Touch also 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 status.


         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:


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


Address → Title or Title+Last Name

Self-disclosure → Do not reveal private information

Seating → Face-to-Face or Head of table

Eye-Contact → Hi status: more while speaking

→ Lo status: more while listening

Touch → Infrequent or Never

         The 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 become an excellent Conversation Psychologist!