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Face‐To‐Face Communication



This entry discusses research that treats “face-to-face communication” as a subject in its own right possessing specific self-emergent dynamics and not as indicative of something else (such as “personality” or “power structure”). The concept of face-to-face communication is used in contrast to medial forms of communication and emphasizes properties in situations of bodily copresence of the persons who communicate. Since, in physical copresence and temporal simultaneity, communication is unmediated and direct, this type of communication is also called “interaction.” In particular, the fact that interaction is immediately responsive and that communicators orient their actions at this fact has challenged sender–message–receiver models of communication. After a brief overview of the historical dimensions of the subject, the entry presents the emergence and establishment of interaction studies in the 20th century, followed by current questions and future directions of research.
Face-to-Face Communication
University of Constance, Germany
e concept of “face-to-face communication” is used in contrast to medial forms of
communication and emphasizes properties in situations of bodily copresence of the
persons who communicate. Since, in physical copresence and temporal simultaneity,
communication is unmediated and direct, this type of communication is also—and
more prominently—called “interaction.” In particular, the fact that interaction is
immediately responsive and that communicators orient their actions at this fact has
challenged sender–message–receiver models of communication. is entry discusses
research that treats “face-to-face communication” as a subject in its own right possess-
ing specic self-emergent dynamics and notasindicativeofsomethingelse(suchas
“personality” or “power structure”). Studies of this kind have oen been conducted by
researchers working in a disciplinary triangle between anthropology, sociology, and
Most of these scholars assumethat communication in situations of bodily copresence
constitutes a primordial form representing basic features of human sociality. First, inter-
action is viewed as, in evolutionary terms, a primordial type of communication through
which the human cognitive and social makeup evolved in the rst place. Second, early
interaction of infants with their relatives is considered as an ontogenetically primordial
form of, and resource for, intersubjectivity on which later forms are based. ird, inter-
action in situations of unconstrained togetherness or of joint practice is regarded as a
basic conguration from which other forms of medial or institutional communication
are derived.
Early discussions
Early discussions on interaction addressed features that are still relevant today. Plato,
in his Phaedrus, for example, emphasized the dierence between dialogue and written
texts. While dialogues, due to their responsivity, are able to procedurally secure inter-
subjectivity in the course of the situation itself, medial communication faces interpre-
tation problems that—if at all—cannot be remedied immediately. Scholars in rhetoric
such as Demosthenes, Cicero, or Quintilian, in turn, stressed that the apt employment
of gesture and facial expression is mandatory for the communication of emotion and
authentic performance.
e International Encyclopedia of Communication eory and Philosophy.
Klaus Bruhn Jensen and Robert T. Craig (Editors-in-Chief), Jeerson D. Pooley andEr ic W. Rothenbuhler (Associate Editors).
DOI: 10.1002/9781118766804.wbiect045
roughout antiquity, unmediated communication during copresence was not
denoted with the metaphor of “face-to-face” but with reference to the mouth as the
organ of speech (Latin os), communicative copresence being termed coram (“talking
together”). In English, the metaphor of speaking “mouth-to- (or with-) mouth” was
used from the Middle Ages to the early modern period.
In the “age of conversation,” the 17th and 18th centuries, gentlemen were recom-
mended to “always look people in the face when you speak to them” in order not to
lose the “advantage of serving by their countenances what impression your discourse
makes upon them” (Chestereld, 1775, p. 87). From these times on, the metaphor of
“face-to-face” began to be increasingly used.
Aer the Enlightenment and in the 19th century, however, information added to
pure word semantics through prosody, facial expression, and gesture was considered
evolutionary low-level, ape-like and primitive. e philosopher Nietzsche criticized this
stance and emphasized in 1878 the situated and dialogical qualities of face-to-face com-
Among the rst to emphasize the role of interaction for the coherence of greater social
structures was psychologist Wilhelm Wundt who was interested in interactions as they
give rise to collective consciousness and collective will, regarding the latter as expres-
sions for the interaction of individuals in a community. Furthermore, Wundt empha-
sized that the individual is a result of social interaction rather than its prerequisite.
Hence, in the early sources we nd many properties of interaction that are still dis-
cussed today such as its contextual situatedness, its exhibition of direct sources of inter-
subjectivity, and its function as a nucleus of society at a larger scale.
Emerging disciplines and theories
ese qualities were equally addressed when interaction was established as a research
topic at the beginning of the 20th century. First, the institutionalization of sociology
as a discipline was directly related to the assumption that society is not sustained by
abstract norms or a joint spirit but through constant interactions.
e sociologist Georg Simmel regarded types of reciprocal inuencing (later
termed “interaction”) to constitute “society.” In relation to the “face-to-face” quality
of interaction, he especially singled out the eye. It allows for “unity that momentarily
arises between two persons” that is so fragile that “the slightest glance aside, completely
destroys the unique character of this union” (Simmel, 1921, p. 358). Charles Cooley
(1902, p. 39) agreed that “social may mean what pertains to immediate intercourse,
to the life of conversation and face-to-face sympathy” and added that “it is in these
relations that individuality most obviously exists and expresses itself.” Interaction is
fundamental in forming the social nature of the individual and in creating a “we.”
Viewing the self as a product of interaction, philosopher George H. Mead adopted an
identical stance.
According to the phenomenological sociologist Alfred Schütz, the creation of inter-
subjectivity is a practical problem routinely solved by social actors in the course of
face-to-face communication. Schütz claims that the full particularity of the subjective
experience of one individual is essentially inaccessible to every other. Despite this fact
social actors are able to communicate through the performance of two basic idealiza-
tions which he calls “the general thesis of reciprocal perspectives” (Schütz, 1962, p. 12).
ese idealizations consist in (a) the idealization of the interchangeability of stand-
points, and (b) the idealization of the congruency of the systems of relevancies.
In application of these idealizations, social actors in face-to-face communication are
always interpreting events, artifacts, and actions of others on the basis of their own
experiences and motives, but they also draw on semantic agreement achieved by typi-
cation that is “objectied” in vernacular terms and phrases, shared vocabularies of goals
and motives, taxonomies of plans and courses of action, and a lexicon and a rhetoric
of stories, accounts, and justications. Some goals derived from typied knowledge are
easy to recognize and might only be questioned when evidenced as false. In less pre-
determined situations of interaction, alters’ actions are interpreted in the light of their
bodily presence including their utterances, gestures, comportment, and facial expres-
sions. e unique particularity of the face-to-face situation is thus its immediate tempo-
rality entailing the possibility for the co-interactants to continuously adjust interpreta-
tions. However, in interaction, alter must respond to ego’s acts before the latter’s course
of action and its underlying “project” have been fully disclosed. e co-interactionist
therefore must “take a chance” in responding on the basis of an interpretation of the
other’s action which may turn out to be incorrect. Schütz agrees with Cooley that what
distinguishes face-to-face communication from other forms of social exchange is that
it constitutes a “we-relation” in which the self is mirrored by the other, and both inter-
actants coordinate with, but also reciprocally determine and relate to, one another.
e second discipline that began to study face-to-face communication in the early
20th century was biology. Inspired by Darwin’s study e Expression of the Emotions in
Man and Animals, emerging ethology was concerned with the forms and roles of physi-
cal display, and ceremonies in unmediated communication. Julian Huxley, for example,
described reciprocal displaying in pairs of great crested grebes. Based on thorough long-
term observation and detailed description ethologists subsequently identied a range
of behavioral forms used by animals in face-to-face encounters. ey later extended
this type of research to humans, running the risk, though, of disregarding the fact that
humans dier from animals in that they reexively orient their acts at interpretations
and anticipations of acts of others.
The institutionalization of empirical research
Aer World War II, communication science emerged as a proper eld of research.
ough mostly interested in mass media or psychological mechanisms of social inu-
encing, some scholars were studying face-to-face communication. Most prominently,
anthropologist Gregory Bateson pushed research ahead, partly referring to ndings
made in ethology. In a research project on the general nature of communication con-
ducted by the “Palo Alto Group” (including Bateson, Paul Watzlawick, Don D. Jackson,
Jay Haley, and John Weakland), he observed that monkeys in their interactive sequences
acted as if they were ghting, while mutually interpreting these actions as play. Bateson
(1972, pp. 177–193) concluded that the ostensible ghting had to be accompanied on a
“metacommunicative level” by a message that “this is play.” He thus distinguished a “re-
port” level of communication, relating to content, and a “command” level that refers to
the social relationship established and to how the content is to be understood. Bateson
thus became especially interested in systemic aspects of face-to-face communication
including processes of feedback and recursion (Bateson, 1972, p. 250). According to the
Palo Alto Group the individual is embedded in social relationships, most importantly
the interactional system of the family. is perspective was one of the approaches that
shied communication theory from a linear speaker-centered view to a circular, inter-
actional, and holistic perspective.
anks to Bateson the preferred methodology of the Palo Alto Group was the obser-
vation of situations unaected by the researchers. is resulted in the “Natural History
of an Interview” project at Stanford University that included, along with Bateson, psy-
chiatrist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann and linguist Norman McQuown, and a number
of scholars such as Albert Scheen (“context analysis”), Adam Kendon (“gesture stud-
ies”), and Ray Birdwhistell (“kinesics”) who later became important gures in inter-
action research. e project was innovative in using video to record natural scenes
of face-to-face communication, the thorough and detailed transcription and micro-
analysis of these data, and the interdisciplinary composition of the research team (see
Leeds-Hurwitz, 1987). e new way of research directly corresponded with the better
availability of recording technology of that time.
e sociologist Erving Goman, associated with the group through his teacher
Birdwhistell, studied face-to-face interaction as a general human condition. He denes
it as “the reciprocal inuence of individuals upon one another’s actions when in one
another’s immediate physical presence” (Goman, 1959, p. 15). In these situations,
human individuals are mutually accessible to the senses of one another, so that co-
presence has a profoundly “promissory, evidential character” and is primarily “response
presence.” Individuals’ activities of monitoring are equally accessible to one another, so
that mutual monitoring becomes reexive. Simultaneous to voluntarily giving informa-
tion, most typically through talk, the individual in these kinds of situation also gives o
information in an embodied way. e participants in a social situation draw inferences
about the other on the basis of this information. Humans are able to exploit this knowl-
edge, for example, by disguising intentional actions as unintentional and vice versa.
Goman distinguishes between situations of copresence in general (gatherings) and
situations in which the individuals in copresence sustain a single focus of attention
(encounters). While the unfocused gathering starts from a body-to-body situation, the
encounter is characterized by an “eye-to-eye ecological huddle” (1963, p. 95). In the
latter case, the participants establish a “working consensus” to dene the situation in a
specic way allowing the coparticipants to distinguish between information given by
their counterparts as part of the main line of the activity going on, and information
about side involvements. us, utterances necessarily construct, are implicated in, and
contribute to the reproduction of a particular local framework of meaning and may
at any moment be “laminated” and “re-keyed” (Goman, 1974, pp. 173–186). Mutual
coordination between interactants emerges even in phases of seeming inattention when
they mutually agree not to let their eyes meet and not to establish a joint focus.
Any utterance therefore involves what Goman referred to as “footing”: In inter-
action, attention on the side of the hearer and addressivity on the side of the speaker
have to be constantly signaled in order to allow for successful progression. Goman
has called the constant mutual signaling of participation roles the “participation
framework.” He enlarged the simple speaker–hearer model and distinguished between
ratied (addressee, unaddressed recipient) and unratied hearers (overhearers, eaves-
droppers) as well as between dierent aspects of the speaker role (animator, author,
principal) with special interactional rights and duties (Goman, 1981, p. 133).
According to Goman (1981, pp. 14–18), “system requirements” of face-to-face
communication, such as a two-way capability for sending and receiving messages or
backchannel capabilities, are complemented by “ritual contingencies” that concern
the interactants as social persons. e social costs connected to interaction are much
higher than mere technical eorts of opening, sustaining, and closing channels. Some
methods used to open a channel for communication, for example, also serve to give
recognition to the worthiness of the coparticipants. Brown and Levinson integrated
Goman’s idea of ritual contingencies with the philosophy of Paul Grice to formulate
a theory that gives consideration to these “social pressures on grammar” (Brown &
Levinson, 1987, p. 256).
Contemporaneously, scholars in “conversation analysis” (CA) created a rivaling the-
oretical project. Relating to Schütz, their goal is to empirically identify the methods by
which participants, in the course of a “conversation” (broadly understood as any kind
of interaction that is not predetermined), produce the orderliness of their activities and
make their actions mutually recognizable, analyze the behavior of their coparticipants,
and make the results of these analyses manifest in subsequent utterances. Since conver-
sations can be conducted in all kinds of specic contexts and local settings, Sacks, Sche-
glo, and Jeerson (1974, p. 699) assume that there must be “some formal apparatus
which is itself context-free” so that it can be applied to context-specic circumstances
and yet be recognizable and manageable in conversation. Conversational orderliness
is chiey sequential: interactional moves are orderly, since later moves logically and
reexively refer to earlier ones as their context.
Conversation analysis has coined the term “adjacency” to denominate this sequential
orientedness. Adjacency is constituted in its basic form by two turns placed one aer
the other by dierent speakers. Later parts such as replies or greeting responses always
follow—and are senseless without—rst parts such as questions or greeting addresses.
ey are also expected to follow rst parts as these communicate a normative pres-
sure (“conditional relevance”) to realize a second part. Moreover, the speaker of an
adjacency pair’s rst part also claims an epistemic authority that is contained in the
utterance and is consequential for second-pair-part speakers as guideline or normative
Sequentiality provides the means to constantly and mutually arm and rearm the
progression of interaction, to adjust interpretations, and to collaboratively establish a
joint understanding and shared common ground. Conversation exhibits two means of
sequentially securing mutual understanding. First, utterances are “precautionary” in
that they are designed for recipients in a specic context right from the start (“recipient
design”; see Sacks et al., 1974, p. 727). Second, mutual understanding is secured by
means of “posttreatment,” that is, by practices of “repair,” once a misunderstanding or
a communicative error has occurred.
Even “turn-taking”—the ways in which parties in interaction distribute the opportu-
nities for action through talk among themselves—constitutes a phenomenon of locally
produced social order. As conversation analysis has demonstrated, the standard is that
only one single participant speaks at a time, and gaps and overlaps between turns are
minimized. e formal properties of turn-taking identied by Sacks et al. (1974) com-
prise two resources and a rule set operating on them. e two resources are:
1. “turn constructional resources,” that is, elements of a contribution to a conversation
that construct a turn as being recognizable for the participants as such and that
allow the hearers to project its possible end (Sacks et al., 1974, pp. 701–702);
2. “turn allocation resources,” that is, elements of a contribution that signal the attri-
bution of a next turn to a specic speaker.
e projectability of turn ends through turn constructional units allows hearers to
anticipate possible “transition relevance places,” that is, points where speaker change
becomes possible.
e rule set that organizes the allocation of turns is hierarchically ordered and guar-
antees that during speaker selection, both gaps and overlaps are restricted to a minimum
(Sacks et al., 1974, p. 704). e rule set says that if the current speaker selects a next
speaker (e.g., through a question), the latter has the right and the duty to take over the
turn. If the current speaker does not select a next speaker, any participant of the con-
versation may claim the turn by beginning to speak at a transition relevance point. If
the current speaker does not select a next speaker and no other participant claims the
turn, the current speaker may, but does not need to, continue speaking. is rule set is
administered and controlled by the participants in the course of their doing.
Current research
Subsequently, research about face-to-face communication from the perspective intro-
duced here was concerned with an ongoing critique of the assumption that the units of
interaction are individual bodies motivated and moved by thinking minds. Rather, stud-
ies revealed that mutuality and responsivity play a crucial role for these types of joint
action. For example, Goodwin (1979) demonstrated how the construction of a sentence
is a joint achievement of several interactants in interplay. Later, Goodwin (2006) showed
how a communicatively severely impaired individual was able to communicate suc-
cessfully not only by pointing to available resources of the environment but also by
conducting his coparticipants through prosodic, gestural, and gaze clues into gradu-
ally transforming their utterances into the ones he intended to articulate. us, as these
studies showed, the richness of available resources and mutual feedbacking in situations
of copresence allows participants to procedurally secure understanding. ey show that
interaction, in contrast to medial communication, is organized not linearly but through
the simultaneity of the whole of communicative resources: while one speaks, the other
also does something—for example, gazing, nodding, and uttering “uhums.”
ese insights motivated further research about the usage and employment of
semiotic resources available in situations of copresence. e search for an integrated
framework of interaction disclosed the heterogeneity of the mechanisms, practices,
and resources from which understanding is fashioned. In regard to prosody, for
example, Couper-Kuhlen and Selting (1996) showed that shis in intonation, rhythm,
volume, and tempo are major means for coordinating interactional moves and creating
situated understandings. In the area of gesture, many dierent forms and modalities
have been identied in the last decades including pointing and iconic, emblematic,
and rhythmic gesturing. Most relevantly, cospeech functions of gesture that serve to
manage interaction (attention, addressing, topic selection, pragmatic value, etc.) have
been analyzed. In a similar vein, Goodwin (1981) demonstrated the relevance of gaze
for the management of the participation framework and the procedural substantiation
of intersubjectivity. Heath (1986) has focused on the question how in situations of
medical interaction, physical intimacy with little-known counterparts is managed and
“neutralized.” In most recent times, research interests have turned to the study of pos-
ture and space, thus triggering a conceptual shifrom dyads to multiparty interaction.
rough the concept of embodied interaction, a critique on the divide between verbal
and nonverbal communication was formulated and a case was made for the detailed
study of multisensory modes of communication (Streeck, Goodwin, & LeBaron, 2011).
Further topics of interaction research include emotion, knowledge, as well as face
(including, power, social identity, etc.), even though there remains skepticism toward
these latter concepts for methodological reasons and a preference for questions of for-
mal organization of interaction.
Another area of study concerns the dierence between unmediated and mediated
forms of interaction. e technological advances of recent times allow for ever-rened
ways of simulating physical copresence, so that the assumed fundamental dierence
between face-to-face and medial communication becomes obliterated.
Future directions
Current trends of research include investigations that address interaction holisti-
cally, as embedded in specic environments (“environmentally coupled”), distributed
among and embodied in dierent personal as well as material participants (humans,
technologies, spatial arrangements, etc.), and reexively constituted in the ongoing
course of the doing. is orientation also entails that interaction is no longer conceptu-
alized exclusively as “face-to-face,” but also as “face-to-back,” “hand-to-hand,” “body-
to-body,” and so forth. A growing attention to haptic qualities of interaction as well as
to the coalescence of humans, artifacts, and environments treated, under the Merleau-
Pontyan label of “intercorporeality,” is one result of these trends (Streeck, 2009).
Another current trend is the increasing acknowledgment of the fact that interac-
tion not only happens between normal, wide-awake adult human persons—as many
researchers such as Schütz and others had presupposed—but equally with heteroge-
neous participants such as robots, virtual agents, participants with communication dis-
orders, cultural strangers, pets, and so on (see Meyer, 2013).
SEE ALSO: Cultural Studies; Goman, Erving; Human–Computer Interaction; Inter-
personal Interaction; Nonverbal Communication; Schütz, Alfred; Visual Studies
References and further readings
Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind. New York, NY: Ballantine.
Brown, P., & Levinson, S. C. (1987). Politeness: Some universals in language usage.Cambridge,
UK: Cambridge University Press.
Chestereld, P. D. S. (1775). Letters to his son. London, UK: J. Dodsley.
Cooley, C. (1902). Human nature and the social order .NewYork,NY:CharlesScribnersSons.
Couper-Kuhlen, E., & Selting M. (1996). Prosody in conversation: Interactional studies.Cam-
bridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Deppermann, A. (2013). Conversation analytic studies of multimodal interaction.[Specialissue].
Journal of Pragmatics,46(1).
Goman, E. (1959). e presentation of self in everyday life.NewYork,NY:Anchor.
Goman, E. (1963). Behavior in public places: Notes on the social organization of gatherings.
Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
Goman, E. (1974). Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of experience.NewYork,NY:
Harper & Row.
Goman, E. (1981). Forms of talk. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Goodwin, C. (1979). e interactive construction of a sentence in natural conversation. In G.
Psathas (Ed.), Everyday language: Studies in ethnomethodology (pp. 97–121). New York, NY:
Irvington Publishers.
Goodwin, C., (1981). Conversational organization: Interaction between speakers and hearers.New
Yor k , N Y : A c a d e mi c P r es s .
Goodwin, C. (2006). Human sociality as mutual orientation in a rich interactive environment:
Multimodal utterances and pointing in aphasia. In N. Eneld & S. C. Levinson (Eds.), Roots
of human sociality (pp. 96–125). London, UK: Berg.
Heath, C. (1986). Body movement and speech in medical interaction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge
University Press.
Leeds-Hurwitz, W. (1987). e social history of e Natural History of an Interview: A multidis-
ciplinary investigation of social communication. Research on Language and Social Interaction,
20, 1–51. doi: 10.1080/08351818709389274
Meyer, C. (2013). New alterities and emerging cultures of social interaction. Global cooperation
research pap ers 3. Duisburg, Germany: Käte HamburgerKolleg/Centre for Global Cooperation
Sacks, H., Scheglo, E. A., & Jeerson, G. (1974). A simplest sytematics for the organization of
turn-taking in conversation. Language,50(4), 696–735. doi: 10.2307/412243
Schütz, A. (1962). Common sense and scientic interpretations of human action. In A. Schütz,
Collected papers: Vol. 1 (pp. 3–47). e Hague, Netherlands: Martinus Nijho.
Simmel, G. (1921). Sociology of the senses: Visual interaction. In Introduction to the Science of
Sociology (pp. 356–361). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Streeck, J. (2009). Gesturecra:e manu-facture of meaning. Amsterdam, Netherlands: John
Streeck, J., Goodwin, C., & LeBaron, C. (2011). Embodied interaction: Language and body in a
material world. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Christian Meyer is professor of sociology at the University of Constance, Germany.
His research interests include interaction research and theory, culture theory, and
the foundations of sociality. Meyer has edited Intercorporeality: Emerging Socialities
in Interaction (with J. Streeck and S. Jordan, forthcoming) as well as e Rhetorical
Emergence of Culture (with F. Girke, 2011) and authored a number of journal articles
about dierent aspects of interaction research such as the role of the senses, cultural
variation, interaction in sports, interaction in scientic research, interaction with
spirits in Brazilian Umbanda rituals, interaction with persons with dementia, and
human–robot interaction.
This special issue of the Journal of Pragmatics has its origins in the International Conference on Conversation Analysis 10 (ICCA10), which took place in Mannheim (Germany) in July 2010. More than 650 scholars attended the conference, whose theme was ‘‘multimodal interaction’’. This volume includes papers based on the four plenary talks given at ICCA10 and four additional contributions related to the conference theme.
“Neither common sense nor science can proceed without departing from the strict consideration of what is actual in experience.” This statement by A. N. Whitehead is at the foundation of his analysis of the Organization of Thought.1 Even the thing perceived in everyday life is more than a simple sense presentation.2 It is a thought object, a construct of a highly complicated nature, involving not only particular forms of time-successions in order to constitute it as an object of one single sense, say of sight,3 and of space relations in order to constitute it as a sense-object of several senses, say of sight and touch,4 but also a contribution of imagination of hypothetical sense presentations in order to complete it.5 According to Whitehead, it is precisely the last-named factor, the imagination of hypothetical sense presentation, “which is the rock upon which the whole structure of common-sense thought is erected” 6 and it is the effort of reflective criticism “to construe our sense presentation as actual realization of the hypothetical thought object of perceptions.” 7 In other words, the so-called concrete facts of common-sense perception are not so concrete as it seems.