"Sad Monkey See, Monkey Do:" Nonverbal Matching in Emotional Support Encounters

Article excerpt

Considerable research now documents the tremendous psychological and physiological benefits of emotional support (Wills & Shinar, 2000), which consists of "specific lines of communicative behavior enacted by one party with the intent of helping another cope effectively with emotional distress" (Burleson, 2003, p. 552). When helpers provide emotional support skillfully (i.e., sensitively and helpfully), distraught people often gain better coping abilities (Stroebe & Stroebe, 1996), as well as improved mental and physical health (Wills & Fegan, 2001); and of course, emotional support also makes people feel better (Jones, 2005).

Miczo and Burgoon (2004) recently examined the outcomes of conversational involvement in the emotional support process and found that involvement behaviors significantly influenced communication satisfaction, such that people who interacted with a more conversationally involved partner also reported feeling more satisfied with the interaction. Additional evidence for the importance of nonverbal emotional support comes from a companion study to the current investigation (Jones & Guerrero, 2001). In that study, upset targets talked about a recent stressful event with a confederate who expressed emotional support that varied in high, moderate, or low levels of nonverbal immediacy and person centeredness. Person centeredness is a construct that captures the degree to which a comforter verbally expresses empathy and validates the distressed person's feelings (see Burleson, 2003). Even though person centeredness exerted the most powerful effect on message quality ratings, these ratings decreased significantly for those highly person-centered conditions that also reflected either low or moderate levels of nonverbal immediacy. A second well-established line of research shows that intimates, friends, and strangers tend to reciprocate, to converge, or to match the nonverbal involvement behaviors of their conversational partners (for reviews see Burgoon, Stern, & Dillman, 1995; Guerrero, Jones, & Burgoon, 2000). The current study combines these two lines of research--emotional support and interpersonal coordination and examines systematically whether and how distressed targets respond nonverbally to more and less immediate helpers.

There are several good methodological and theoretical reasons that warrant the examination of interpersonal coordination patterns in the emotional support process. First, behavioral coordination is a ubiquitous human phenomenon; people tend to match postures, speech, and facial expressions of others rather quickly and seemingly automatically (Buck, 1984; Burgoon et al., 1995; Chartrand & Bargh, 1999). But people who experience some form of emotional upset might or might not match helpers. On the one hand, people might be motivated to match helpers in order to foster a smooth and coordinated interaction. But then again, they might not match nonverbal helper cues, because distraught people are preoccupied with their own difficult thoughts and feelings.

Second, the nonverbal cues that have been used in empirical studies to induce behavioral matching often consist of isolated cues that are of little relational value (e.g., face rubbing, foot shaking; Chartrand & Bargh, 1999; Lakin & Chartrand, 2003). Presumably, these cues were chosen precisely because they are so innocuous, and hence, likely to be matched automatically. The current study examines a set of immediacy cues, such as eye contact, forward lean, body orientation and facial agreeability, that do carry powerful relational meanings (Burgoon et al., 1995; Floyd & Erbert, 2003).

Third, in studies where immediacy cues have been examined, contextual features have frequently not been considered (Floyd & Erbert, 2003; van Baaren, Holland, Kawakami, & van Knippenberg, 2004). For example, Floyd and Erbert (2003) had confederates match (or not match) participants while talking about moral dilemmas. …