Most relationships start out as a meeting between people who don’t know each other well (if at all). But what determines whether an interaction with a stranger will evolve into a friendship, a marriage, or nothing at all? When thinking about what predicts initial liking toward someone new, concepts like social status, attraction, and perceived similarity often come to mind. But subtle nonverbal behavior can also be important for planting seeds of rapport – seeds that can blossom into a meaningful relationship over time.
Many of us can think of interactions with someone – perhaps a partner or close friend – during which we felt “in sync” with that person: perhaps we experienced behavioral synchrony, or a sense of harmony, shared movement, and felt the person was easy to talk to. One study1 examined the role of behavioral synchrony in the relationship formation process. The researchers paired up same-sex student participants and randomly assigned them to complete one of two 20-minute interaction tasks that were videotaped for later analysis. Half of the pairs completed a “getting to know you” activity where they took turns asking and answering a list of questions that gradually increased in the level of self-disclosure or intimacy (e.g., “if you could choose anyone, who would you want as a dinner guest?”; “share with your partner a personal problem and ask his or her advice on how to solve it”). The other half of the pairs completed a task that did not involve intimate disclosure (i.e., making edits on an article together).
After their respective interactions, all participants completed rapport measures (i.e., the extent to which they felt positively about the partner, a sense of mutual engagement, and energy in the interaction). Later, researchers rated the videotaped interactions based on how “in sync” the pair was by examining their behavioral synchrony: that is, the degree of simultaneous movement, tempo similarity, and coordination/smoothness present. Importantly, the ratings were done with the videos on mute to ensure that judgments of nonverbal synchrony were not affected by the verbal content.
Strangers assigned to complete the “getting to know you” task unsurprisingly experienced more positive emotions than did those in the (dull) proofreading task. But more importantly, those in the getting-to-know-you task appeared to be moving together more as one orchestrated unit, which in turn accounted for partners’ feelings of greater rapport.
This research tells us that it’s not just what you say, or even how you say it, that predicts how two people get along; rather, it is how they nonverbally attune to and harmonize with each other2 during a shared experience. The element of behavioral synchrony may be one of the reasons why we feel closer to others while doing activities such as dancing to the same music.
The feelings of connectedness that stem from shared nonverbal movement can help give early romantically-charged interactions the natural and effortless “chemistry” that many consider diagnostic of a relationship that is meant to be.
The bottom line? Sync up your signals to hit it off!
1Vacharkulksemsuk, T., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2012). Strangers in sync: Achieving embodied rapport through shared movements. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(1), 399-402. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2011.07.015
2For information about mimicry in relationships, see another one of our articles on the topic here.
Dr. Jana Rosewarne – Articles
Jana’s research interests include close relationships and positive emotions. She is most interested in the impact of individual-level variables and interpersonal behavior on personal well-being and optimal relationship functioning.