Social Norms in Interpersonal Communication

Instructor: Vicki Duke

Vick teaches college Communications, and owns a Public Speaking consulting company.

This lesson will discuss cultural expectations for interpersonal communication in North America, and provide concrete tips for success. Examine non-verbal behavior, conversational speaking, and some common pitfalls.


Nobody likes to chat with Bob from Accounting, because Bob is famous for monopolizing the conversation. Once Bob starts talking, nothing short of the fire alarm can save you. Jane from HR can be worse, because although you do get a chance to speak, you can never finish a thought, with Jane interrupting at your slightest pause for breath.

Awareness of what to do, and what not to do, is the first step in forming good communication habits. These good habits will help us to develop connections with others, form new relationships, and enhance existing ones.

Non-Verbal Behavior

Respect personal space. In North America, respecting another's personal space means leaving 1.5 feet between yourself and your listener when standing or sitting - any closer may cause discomfort on the part of your listener.

A firm handshake is generally expected when meeting someone for the first time, or when re-acquainting with someone, beyond a casual acquaintance. The right hand should be offered, connecting the web between thumb and forefinger with the web on the recipient's hand. Hugging or kissing on the cheek is generally reserved for those whom we know well, or with whom we feel comfortable.

Developing and maintaining eye contact in interpersonal communication is crucial, looking at your listener, both while you are speaking and when you are listening. Eye contact communicates interest, authenticity, and a willingness to engage. Short glances away give the speaker an opportunity to re-group thoughts, and are both acceptable and expected. While constant eye contact is good, staring or refusing to look away, however, especially between a male and female, can give the impression of flirting.

Monitoring and adapting to feedback is very important and can prevent discomfort or unwarranted attention. Giving your listener positive non-verbal feedback includes such behaviors as smiling, nodding the head in assent, and responding in kind to the emotional tone of the speaker, showing sensitivity to the message, smiling and showing support when the speaker is revealing exciting news, while portraying a look of concern when a sad anecdote is shared.

Conversational Speaking

Interpersonal communication should involve a relatively equal exchange between two or more individuals. Being a good listener is crucial to this process. A person who speaks without pause may be perceived as egotistical and disinterested. Taking conscious breaks and giving others the opportunity to contribute their ideas makes for effective dialogue.

Hearing and listening are not the same. Hearing is a biological process which requires no active attention on our part. We may hear someone speak, but be paying no attention to the message.

A good listener is an active listener, who gives the speaker his full attention to the best of his ability. We seek to connect with those who are good listeners, and feel slighted or rejected by someone whom we thought was listening, but who has not heard a word we said. We don't want to be the one still smiling when our conversation partner has delivered a piece of tragic news!

A good listener does not interrupt to make his point, but waits until the speaker finishes his thought process. Good conversationalists fluctuate between asking questions, commenting on others' ideas, and offering new information.

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