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Open Access Publications from the University of California

How Spatial is Social Distance?

  • Author(s): Matthews, Justin Lee
  • Advisor(s): Matlock, Teenie
  • et al.

This dissertation examines the link between social distance and physical distance. Why do people use spatial language to describe social relationships? In particular, to what extent do they anchor their thoughts about friendship in terms of space? We readily convey loyalty, concern, and fondness with spatial language that refers to proximity, such as "I'll stand by your side," "You can lean on me in hard times," and "We're close friends." We also imply rejection, betrayal, or waning interest with spatial language that refers to distance, as in "He turned his back on me," "You seem distant lately," and "We are drifting apart." In the domain of work, employees and employers often convey consensus with language such as, "Our ideas are quite close to one another," and "We're on the same page." People in the work environment also use spatial metaphor to convey disagreement and contention, as in "Their perspectives couldn't be further apart" or "Sam has distanced himself from our way of thinking about things." Six experiments used short narratives in combination with drawing and estimation tasks to further explore the conceptual structure of social distance using friendship and employer/employee relationships as manipulations. In all six experiments, participants read short narratives and then drew what they imagined happened during the narrative. Overall, the results suggest that the conceptual structure of friendships and employer/employee relationships are linked to thought about space. Results are discussed in light of social distance, intercharacter interaction, and perspective taking.

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