Immediacy Behaviors Between Close People

Immediacy (also called positive involvement) is the degree of perceived physical or psychological closeness between people (Mehrabian, 1971). A set of nonverbal behaviors called immediacy or positive involvement cues helps people communicate intimacy and liking to one another.

Immediacy behaviors are actions that signal warmth, communicate availability, psychological closeness, sensory stimulation, and promote involvement between people (Andersen, 1985).

These behaviors have also been called positive involvement behaviors (Guerrero, 2004; Prager, 2000) because they show both positive affect and high levels of involvement in an interaction.

  • Immediate behaviors indicate physical and psychological closeness, approachability, sensory stimulation, interest, and interpersonal warmth (Andersen, 1985; Andersen & Guerrero, 1998).
  • Involvement behaviors, such as leaning toward someone, giving eye contact Opens in new window, and using an expressive voice, show that a person is actively engaged in a conversation (Coker & Burgoon, 1987).

When involvement behaviors are coupled with indicators of positive affect Opens in new window, such as smiling Opens in new window and speaking in a warm vocal tone Opens in new window, they send strong messages related to liking and intimacy.

Immediacy (or positive involvement) is a broader concept than affection. Affection and affectionate communication Opens in new window are rooted in feelings of fondness and positive regard that have developed toward someone over time (Floyd, 2006).

Immediacy, in contrast, is a style of communicating that is used across a wide variety of interactions to express involvement and positivity without necessarily expressing affection.

For example, a person who uses behaviors such as eye contact, smiling, and handshaking with a prospective employer during a job interview would probably be labeled as immediate but not affectionate.

Nonetheless, increases in immediacy provide a foundation for creating and sustaining close relationships (Andesen, 2008), and there is some overlap between immediacy behavior and affectionate communication.

Verbal Immediacy

Most research on immediacy has focused on nonverbal behaviors. However, certain verbal behaviors also reflect immediacy.

Verbal immediacy is a function of several stylistic features of language that reflect the closeness of a relationship including word choice, forms of address, depth of disclosure, and relationship indicators.

1.   Word Choice

Inclusive pronouns, such as we, are perceived to indicate more interdependence than using exclusive pronouns, such as I or you and me (Weiner & Mehrabian, 1968).

Prager (1995) suggested that more immediate pronoun use (this and these versus that and those), adverb use (here versus there), and verb tense (present versus past), as well as the use of the active as opposed to the passive voice, all contribute to greater verbal immediacy and perceptions of closeness.

Bradac, Bowers, and Courtwright (1979) maintained that verbal immediacy builds positive relationships and likewise that being in a close, emotionally connected relationship leads to more verbal immediacy.

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2.   Forms of Address

Casual forms of address (“Chris” as opposed to “Dr. Rodriguez”) also imply a closer relationship, as do nicknames (King & Sereno, 1984). Using inappropriately informal names or disliked nicknames, however, is not a way to establish a close relationship. For example, calling your boss “Bud” when he prefers “Mr. Johnson” or calling your date by a nickname that might be considered derogatory or sexist, such as “sweet cheeks” or “sugar daddy,” is not an effective way to build a strong relationship.

Personal idioms can be a way to express affection and emotional closeness in a relationship. Special greetings, secret nicknames, sexual euphemisms, mild teases, and unique labels for the relationship often are a source of emotional closeness that also increases the immediacy level of an interaction (Bell et al., 1987; Hopper et al., 1981). Of course, the use of some of these terms in a public setting may be a source of embarrassment and cause a loss of closeness.

3.   Depth of Disclosure

Close relationships are characterized by deep rather than superficial interactions. In close relationships partners “can communicate deeply and honestly ... sharing innermost feelings” (Sternberg, 1987, p. 333).

Self-revealing statements that convey vulnerable emotions are especially conducive to emotional closeness (Prager & Roberts, 2004).

Self-disclosure plays an essential role in relationship development because, as people become closer, they share their innermost thoughts and feelings.

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Only by sharing personal information, thoughts, and feelings can two people get to know each other well enough to develop an emotionally close relationship and build interdependence. Therefore, the depth with which people explore various topics and self-disclose to one another is sometimes considered to be an indicator of the immediacy level within an interaction (Andersen 1998a).

For example, when responding to a friend who asks, “How’ve you been?” the level of depth in Kevin’s answer may reflect the emotional closeness of the friendship. If the friendship is casual, Kevin might say “fine” even if he has been feeling terrible lately. If the friendship is moderately close, Kevin might say, “not that great, I’ve been overwhelmed with work and sick with the flu, but I’ll be okay.” In contrast, if talking to Dan or Jennifer, Kevin would feel free to go into much more depth about his recent trials and tribulations, including asking for help.

4.   Relationship Indicators

The language partners use to refer to each other suggests a certain public, relational image that is an index of the closeness between them. For example, cohabitors may describe themselves along a continuum that includes roommate, friend, boyfriend or girlfriend, and partner—which signals increasing levels of immediacy and emotional closeness. Similarly, when individuals call someone their “best friend” in public, this label sends a strong message about the closeness of the relationship.

The first time Kevin publicly referred to Jennifer as his “girlfriend” in public was probably a milestone in their relationship because the nature of their relationship was made clear to both Jennifer and others, suggesting that Kevin and Jennifer are a “pair,” have a special bond, and are dating each other exclusively. This type of language is considered immediate because it emphasizes that there is a special level of psychological and physical closeness between Kevin and Jennifer.

Nonverbal Immediacy

Verbal immediacy is undoubtedly important, yet nonverbal immediacy appears to be even more critical for sending messages related to emotional closeness. Some scholars even contend that nonverbal immediacy is considered one of the main means one person can use to get another person to like him or her.

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This “liking” is believed to include a number of positive affects—for example, having increased interpersonal attraction (social and/or task) for the other person, having increased respect for the other person, seeing the other person as more credible (competent, caring, and/or trustworthy), being more responsive to the other person, and so on (McCroskey & Wheeless, 1976).

Prager (2000; Prager & Roberts, 2004) used the term “positive involvement cues” to refer to the nonverbal behaviors that show both involvement and positive affect. Next, we discuss some of the most frequently studied positive involvement cues which include haptic, proxemic, and kinesic behaviors, and to a lesser extent, vocal and chronemic cues.

1.   Haptic or Tactile Behaviors

Physical contact, or haptics, is a key immediacy behavior that reflects closeness. A study found that observers perceived higher levels of closeness for touching couples than for non-touching couples (Kleinke, Meeker, & LaFong, 1974).

Indeed, most scholars consider touch or physical contact to be the most important means for expressing attraction and liking (Andersen & Guerrero, 1998). Similarly, Guerrero and Andersen’s (1991) study of couples’ tactile communication in theater and zoo lines revealed that high levels of touch were associated with a more serious, accelerating relationship.

Touch also communicates comfort. In a study in which people described how they would comfort a roommate who was going through a romantic relationship breakup, the vast majority of people reported that they would likely engage in some form of tactile contact.

Hugs and pats to the shoulder or am were commonly reported as ways to comfort the roommate. People also described less common types of comforting touch, such as stroking the room-mate’s hair or putting the room-mate’s head on their shoulders.

2.   Proxemic or Spatial Behaviors

Proxemics, or the way people use space in interpersonal communication, signals the level of closeness in a relationship. People who sit or stand close together are usually rated as more intimate than are those who are farther apart from one another.

Hall (1990) defined the intimate zone as ranging from 0 to 18 inches, suggesting that such close proxemic distancing is typically reserved for intimate relationships such as those between family members, romantic partners, and close friends. Immediacy is also communicated proxemically via body angle.

Facing someone directly is immediate, while sitting or standing at a 45-degree angle is less immediate and positioning oneself side by side or back-to-back with another person is even less so. Women are more likely to use a direct, face-to-face body orientation than men (Guerrero, 1997); this is one of several ways that women seem to be more nonverbally immediate than men.

Communicating eye to eye also increases perceptions of immediacy and closeness. Researchers suggest that being at eye level minimizes height differentials, sends messages of equality, and reduces power differentials, creating intimacy. For example, toddlers are often placed in high chairs so they are face-to-face with the rest of the family at the dinner table. Such placement increases the overall immediacy level of the family’s interaction during dinner.

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3.   Kinesic Behaviors

Many kinesic cues are associated with intimacy, attraction, and likability. These comprises body movements Opens in new window such as smiling Opens in new window, body positions, and posture. Over several decades, researchers have found that the frequency and intensity of smiling is the single best predictor of interpersonal closeness, liking, and warmth (Argyle, 1972; Bayes, 1970; Ray & Floyd, 2006; Reece & Whiteman, 1962).

SmilesOpens in new window are a universal sign of positive affect that signal approachability and availability for communication.

Open body positions free of obstruction by objects or limbs are also considered immediate. People are most likely to cross their arms, hide their face, or stand behind objects when they lack trust, feel vulnerable, and do not want to interact.

In contrast, Beier and Sternberg (1977) reported that “close” couples used more open leg positions than did couples who were less close or who were experiencing conflict. Like good dancers, intimate couples show high levels of coordinated movement, called body synchrony. The good “vibes” resulting from smooth interaction with and adaptation to one’s partner are a vital part of communicating immediacy and closeness (Guerrero & Floyd, 2006; Morris, 1977).

4.   Vocalic Behaviors

Vocal cues Opens in new window also affect the intimacy level of a given interaction. When people are highly involved in the conversation at hand, they tend to talk faster and louder, sound more varied in terms of tempo, pitch, and volume, and have fewer silences and non-fluencies.

In addition, intimacy is communicated by voices that are warm, expressive, moderately relaxed, resonant, rhythmic, and punctuated with relaxed laughter (Coker & Burgoon, 1987; McAdams et al., 1984; Scott, 1994).

Warmth and expressiveness seem to be the key components contributing to a voice that reflects intimacy and liking (Andersen, 2008; Beebe, 1980; Scherer, 1979a). In one study, same-sex high school students who liked one another had more “lively voices” during their interactions than did those who did not like one another (Maxwell et al., 1985).

Soft voices and silences can also communicate intimacy. Lovers often use soft, even slurred, voices during intimate conversations and courtship situations (Givens, 1978; Kimble, Forte, & Yoshikawa, 1981).

Soft voices draw people closer together proxemically as people lean near one another to hear. And sometimes the absence of any sound sends a strong message. As Burgoon, Buller, and Woodall (1996) put it, “Silences may be associated with complete harmony ... When people are comfortable in a relationship, there is no need to talk” (p. 327).

5.   Chronemic Behaviors

The way people structure and use time communicates a lot about their relationships. Studies show that chronemic cues send subtle messages related to intimacy and closeness (Andersen, 2008; Guerrero et al., 2007). The time that people spend with you is another important immediacy cue. In fact, Egland, Steltzner, Andersen, and Spitzberg (1997) found that spending time with one’s partner was a key way of showing relational closeness.

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Three particularly important messages related to time revolve around rules of punctuality and consideration, time spent together, and the monochromic use of time. Think about the last time a friend or romantic partner showed up late to pick you up, made you wait while he or she got ready to go out, or forgot to call you at a specified time.

Chances are that you were not very happy when your friend or romantic partner violated these rules of punctuality and consideration. Such violations signal a lack of intimacy, whereas adherence to these rules communicates respect, equality, and liking.

In North America and parts of Europe, having a monochromic focus on your partner is related to closeness and intimacy. Can you remember a time when you were irritated because someone was typing on the computer or watching television while talking on the phone with you?

Or perhaps your partner was talking to other people at a party and ignoring you. Having a monochromic focus means that you concentrate on one task or one person at a time, rather than engaging in multiple tasks. When two people concentrate only on one another, rather than on multiple tasks, this monochromic focus communicates interest and attention.

As we have seen, several nonverbal behaviors are used to express immediacy and positive involvement. Another category of nonverbal behavior that plays a big role in establishing and sustaining close relationship is the communication of affection, which is discussed here.