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The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues

Stranger Anxiety


Emotion. An innate anxiety, mistrust, or wariness of foreigners, newcomers, outsiders, or other unacquainted and unknown individuals.

Usage: A panoply of nonverbal signs reveals our anxiety as we interact with unfamiliar people. Before city life, our ancestors spent most of their time dealing face-to-face with people they knew. Today, we spend a great deal of time interacting with strangers.

Psychology. Our aversion to the intrusion of strangers into our usual areas may be innate (Thorndike 1940; see PROXEMICS).

Sweaty palms. "No social relationship is more stressful than the encounter with a stranger, an unknown and potentially threatening fellow human being. . . . studies of the galvanic skin response (e.g., McBride et al. 1965) indicate that anxiety increases in subjects, i.e., skin resistance decreases, as they are approached by strangers" (Givens 1978d:351).

RESEARCH REPORTS1. A mild form of stranger anxiety is social jeopardy: "By saying something, the speaker opens himself up to the possibility that the intended recipients will affront him by not listening or will think him forward, foolish, or offensive in what he has said" (Goffman 1967:37). 2. Among Zhun/twasi infants (of N.W. Botswana), responses to strangers include clingcryapproach mothergaze aversiongaze at motherpucker-facemouth-handstaresmilelaugh, and touch(Konner (1972). 3. In western children, responses to strangers include sobering, slight frowning, and marked and pronounced puckering (as negative signs; infants respond more negatively to adult than to child strangers; Lewis and Brooks 1974). 4. In a study of 150 adult encounters with unfamiliar adults, 90% (137) showed negative signs, e.g., "lip-compression, lip-bite, tongue-show, tongue-in-cheek; downward, lateral, and maximal-lateral gaze avoidance [see CUT-OFF]; hand-to-face, hand-to-hand, hand-to-body, and hand-behind-head automanipulations; and postures involving flexion and adduction of the upper limbs" (Givens 1978d:354). 5. "For a time, scientists thought almost all infants this age [6-to-8 months] were distressed by unfamiliar people. It's now clear that babies react to new people in a wide variety of ways" (Chase and Rubin 1979:118).


Drawing of "Showing My Nonverbal Side" by my son Aaron Huffman (copyright 2012 by Aaron M. Huffman)