Effective Non-Verbal Communication – Wait Time and Social Distance
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Effective Non-Verbal Communication – Wait Time and Social Distance

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Wait Time
Another important non-verbal behavior is wait time, which is the pause between conversational turns. Wait time marks when a conversational turn begins or ends. For example, if a teacher asks a question the wait time both allows and prompts students to formulate an appropriate response. Studies on classroom interaction generally show that wait times in most classes are remarkably short – less than one second (Good & Brophy, 2002.
Unfortunately wait times this short can actually interfere with most students’ thinking; in one second, most students either cannot decide what to say or can only recall a simple, automatic fact (Tobin, 1987).
Increasing wait times to several seconds has several desirable effects: students give longer, more elaborate responses, they express more complex ideas, and a wider range of students participate in discussion.
However, for many teachers, learning to increase wait time this much takes conscious effort, and may feel uncomfortable at first. (If you are trying to wait longer, a trick is to count silently to five before calling on anyone.) After a few weeks of practice, discomfort with longer wait times usually subsides and the academic benefits of waiting become more evident.
As with eye contact, preferred wait times vary both among individuals and among groups of students, and the differences in expected wait times can sometimes lead to awkward conversations. Though there are many exceptions, girls tend to prefer longer wait times than boys – perhaps contributing to an impression that girls are unnecessarily shy or that boys are self-centered or impulsive. Students from some ethnic and cultural groups tend to prefer a much longer wait time than is typically available in a classroom, especially when English is the student’s second language (Toth, 2004).
Therefore, when a teacher converses with a member of such a group, what feels to the student like a respectful pause may seem like hesitation or resistance to the teacher.
Yet other cultural groups actually prefer overlapping comments – a sort of negative wait time.
In these situations, one conversational partner will begin at exactly the same instant as the previous speaker, or even before the speaker has finished (Chami-Sather & Kretschmer, 2005). The negative wait time is meant to signal lively interest in the conversation. A teacher who is used to a one-second gap between comments, however, may regard overlapping comments as rude interruptions, and may also have trouble getting chances to speak.
Even though longer wait times are often preferable, they do not always work well with certain individuals or groups. For teachers, the most widely useful advice is to match wait time to the students’ preferences as closely as possible, regardless of whether these are slower or faster than what the teacher normally prefers.
To the extent that a teacher and students can match each other’s pace, they will communicate more comfortably and fully, and a larger proportion of students will participate in discussions and activities.
As with eye contact, observing students’ preferred wait times is easier in situations that give students some degree of freedom about when and how to participate, such as open-ended discussions or informal conversations throughout the day.
Social Distance
When two people interact, the physical space or distance between them – their social distance – often indicates something about how intimate or personal their relationship is (Noller, 2006).
Social distance also affects how people describe others and their actions; someone who habitually is more distant physically is apt to be described in more general, abstract terms than someone who often approaches more closely (Fujita, et al., 2006).
In white American society, a distance of approximately half a meter to a meter is what most people prefer when talking face-to-face with a personal friend.
The closer end of this range is more common if the individuals turn sideways to each other, as when riding on an elevator; but usually the closest distances are reserved for truly intimate friendships, such as between spouses.
If the relationship is more businesslike, individuals are more likely to situate themselves in the range of approximately one meter to three meters.
This is a common distance for example, for a teacher talking with a student or talking with a small group of students.
For still more formal interactions, individuals tend to allow more than three meters; this distance is typical when a teacher speaks to an entire class.
Just as with eye contact and wait time, however, individuals differ in the distances they prefer for these different levels of intimacy, and complications happen if two people expect different distances for the same kind of relationship.
A student who prefers a shorter social distance than her partner can seem pushy or overly familiar to the partner. The latter in turn, can seem aloof or unfriendly – literally “distant”. The sources of these effects are easy to overlook since by definition the partners never discuss social distance verbally, but they are real.
The best remedy, again, is for teachers to observe students’ naturally occurring preferences as closely as possible, and to respect them as much as possible: students who need to be closer should be allowed to be closer, at least within reasonable limits, and those who need to be more distant should be allowed to be more distant.

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