Understanding face-to-face communication

25 April 2023
Photo credit: Tom Kelley Archive/iStock.
Face-to-face communication is one of the fundamental capacities that make us human. But how does it work? Judith Holler from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and Radboud University in Nijmegen is co-editor of a special issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B on face-to-face communication. The issue brings together multi-disciplinary research on communication in different species and populations with different psychological profiles, using a wide range of methodological approaches.

Photo credit: Tom Kelley Archive/iStock.

Much of our waking hours we engage in face-to-face communication with others. Because we are so well practiced at it, communicating face-to-face often seems trivial and easy. But how delicate a process it is becomes clear very quickly when communication deviates from its most natural face-to-face setting. During the corona pandemic we have all experienced the struggles of coordinating conversation smoothly in zoom calls, and equally familiar will be the ambiguities associated with messages sent via email and WhatsApp.

Digital world

“When we communicate face-to-face, we use words, but many other aspects influence the communication process, such as visual bodily signals, physical co-presence, and the interaction with our interlocutors”, says Judith Holler. “Our understanding of these complex processes and how they shape behaviour and cognition is still in its infancy”.

Understanding face-to-face communication is essential for being able to tackle the challenges posed by the rapidly developing digital world around us – such as the rise of intelligent machines that are able to converse with us (such as chatGPT) and are trained to interact with us in the form of artificial agents in virtual worlds. How does text-based chat or zoom-based interaction compare to face-to-face conversation? How similar or different is communicating in a virtual world, through holograms, or with artificial agents? To be able to answer these questions we must understand the basics.

Gestures and eye-gaze

Kobin Kendrick (formerly MPI, now York University) and colleagues combine fine-grained analyses of conversational corpus data with a quantitative approach, to shed light on the association between visual bodily signals (eye gaze and manual co-speech gestures) and speaker changes in conversation.

The researchers found that visual signals influence whether turn taking takes place: both gaze aversion and gestures that are in progress suppress speaker changes. This is clear evidence that, in the face-to-face environment in which human language has evolved, the body is an integral part of coordinating turns at talk. Not being able to see or use gesture and gaze in Zoom-like environments may thus be one explanation of why we experience basic processes such as speaking alternately as much more effortful.

Evolution of language

MPI director emeritus Stephen Levinson provides the closing article to the special issue with a theoretical perspective on the role of face-to-face communication in the evolution of human language. The core claim of his argument is that face-to-face orientation afforded gestural means for communication, thus allowing for the transmission of spatial information. This gestural system, via its hippocampal basis, shaped later evolving spoken communication. Levinson argues that gestures represent the evolutionary roots of the modern human spoken language system’s deeply spatial nature.

Together, the 15 contributions to the special issue highlight the fundamental importance of face-to-face communication by shedding light on some of its core features, including physical and cognitive requirements (e.g. shared space, multimodality, rhythm, mentalizing and co-representation) and key interactional processes (e.g. turn-taking, co-construction, synchrony or mimicry). The special issue pushes the point that in order to advance the science of face-to-face communication, such a cross-disciplinary focus combined with a cross-fertilisation of methods is of the essence.



Hamilton, A. F. & Holler, J. (2023). Face2face: advancing the science of social interaction. Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society B, 378(1875), 20210470.

Kendrick, K. H., Holler, J., & Levinson, S. C. (2023). Turn-taking in human face-to-face interaction is multimodal: gaze direction and manual gestures aid the coordination of turn transitions. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B378(1875), 20210473.

Levinson, S. C. (2023). Gesture, spatial cognition and the evolution of language. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B378(1875), 20210481.

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