by Mary Shafer
Photo by Leo Kim
Ass’t. professor, communication studies
B.A., Georgia Southern U; M.A., Indiana U; Ph.D. Arizona State U
“I’d probably be a doctor on the Ivory Coast building a hospital or maybe a Peace Corps worker.”
“I’d wither away! If I couldn't have a person to talk with, I’d have to build one out of sand.”
“I’m lively and enthusiastic. Definitely energetic.”
“During my Ph.D. studies, I realized that I’ve come so far because I’ve stood on the shoulders of giants.”
Research shows that American culture tends not to encourage touch. But communication scientist Susanne Jones says that when Americans are in distress, “There's nothing wrong with touchy-feely.”
Susanne Jones's career path didn't exactly begin in a Bloomington, Indiana, library. But the blue-and-white-covered book that caught her eye there a few years ago certainly gave her life's work a serendipitous nudge. Still reeling from a painful divorce, Jones picked up the book. It was called Communication of Social Support.
“The words highlighted what I was missing and needing,” says Jones, an assistant professor of communication studies. A German native, she was working on a master's in communication studies at Indiana University.
“My divorce was really hard psychologically, physically, every way,” says Jones. “I was by myself—no friends, nothing but a green card, just beginning my graduate program. And here was an area of research that addressed a personal need. I hit the jackpot—even more so, because the words ‘comforting communication’ are not easily translatable into my native language, German.
“With no family here, I have always had to rely on the kindness of strangers. I needed to feel part of a network. I wanted to understand what people do when they form nurturing and caring relationships with others. I also wanted to know why people sometimes have such a hard time providing support that is nurturing and caring.”
So Jones—always “one to ask questions”— simply called the book's editor, Brant Burleson, a leading scholar in interpersonal communication at nearby Purdue University. Burleson became not only her thesis adviser but also a close friend and colleague with whom Jones—who joined the U's communication studies faculty last fall—still works.
While Jones was completing her Ph.D. at Arizona State University, another serendipitous event nudged her toward the project that would define her scholarly niche. This time, the scene was a Tempe coffee shop, where Jones saw a distraught woman talking to a man whose body language suggested he wasn't paying attention. She began to wonder: What's more important—words or actions?
Communication scientists such as Jones look for the tangibles, the observable words and behaviors in an interaction. So it was that, inspired by the couple in the coffee shop, Jones designed an experiment to learn how verbal and nonverbal behaviors work together in providing comfort to a distressed person. Her subjects were asked to disclose an upsetting event to a confederate—Jones’ research assistant—who was trained to express varying degrees of comforting with both nonverbal cues and verbal responses.
The results were surprising. Jones found that participants spoke freely, disclosing their most private thoughts to relative strangers (the “stranger on the plane” phenomenon, which ensures a kind of anonymity because the encounter is transient and safely circumscribed). She also found verbal and nonverbal comforting to be equally important.
In a research area that is still relatively young—“comforting communication”— these observations provided breakthrough insights into how people support each other emotionally; and they laid groundwork for new areas of inquiry, including the role of gender in comforting.
In Jones’ view, men and women are from the same planet but perhaps different schools when it comes to offering comfort. “Women are better comfort providers, but not because they have a ‘Venus’ gene,” she says. “They’re socialized to do the heavy emotional lifting. Men learn that emotional support is ‘feminine.’ But men feel supported by the same sorts of comforting messages that women do.
“So guess who men seek out when they want to cry about something? Their female best friend, usually their spouse. This is also why men get remarried more quickly than women. When men divorce, they lose not only a wife but also their closest confidante.”
Jones notes that both verbal and nonverbal behaviors fall along a continuum of caring and nurturing. Countless studies have found that supportive verbal messages not only allow people to disclose their feelings but also validate those feelings. In the parlance of communication research, such messages are called “person-centered messages.” As trite as the words may seem, says Jones, “saying ‘Tell me how you feel,’ is ‘You have a right to be upset’ are actually beneficial.”
A whole array of comforting nonverbal behaviors can generate the “sense of being there” that people report as so important, says Jones. These behavioral cues—“nonverbal immediacy”—include smiling, eye contact, and direct body orientation. The most supportive nonverbal behaviors usually involve touch—a hug, for example, or a pat on the shoulder. Curiously, this is so even among strangers. Although Americans tend to be touch-averse, they view brief comforting touch as highly supportive.
In the end, it seems, it's all about listening, whether the person needing comfort is a stranger, a family member, or a patient.
So powerful are comforting messages that Jones and Burleson have been asked to join a research project with the University of Rochester Medical School —through a grant from the National Cancer Institute—that will examine whether comforting messages can make a patient feel better not only emotionally, but also physically.
“People don't get better only by taking medicine,” Jones says. “It's common knowledge by now that people who are part of nurturing and caring social support networks get healthier. Most social psychologists study the general behavioral, cognitive, and affective mechanisms. We in communication studies know that words and actions are the glue of social support. So, we want to study exactly what people say and do that contributes to health. What are the precise mechanisms that keep people healthy?”
And just why do certain messages seem to provide comfort, help people cope, and perhaps even get healthier? One theory, says Jones, is called cognitive appraisal, which holds that people feel distressed not by environmental events per se, but rather by their interpretation of those events.
There's no quick fix for grief, hurt, anxiety, or fear. But, says Jones, there 's some truth to the saying that time heals all wounds. “It's how we think about things over time that will bring about healing,” she explains. “Verbal and nonverbal comfort offers a secure and nurturing environment in which people can think through and talk through their emotional pain and learn to cope. This is a true sign of our humanity.”