How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
Proximal and Distal Language
In language, there are words that are often used interchangeably, but which have subtle effect. These include:
Words such as 'here' and 'this' suggest something that is in close proximity, while 'there' and 'that' indicate greater distance.
Proximal indication occurs in in personal and social words such as my, mine or ours as these give a sense of closeness. In contrast, words such as your, yours and theirs suggests people and things that are more distant.
When you give something to another person, do you say 'Here you are' or 'There you are'?
When talking about other people, when do you say 'these people' and when do you say 'those people'?
Close physical proximity can have different signals, such as romantic attachment and close friendship. It can also be threatening. The language of proximity and distance echoes this in the signals that it sends. Proximal and distal language is hence an effective metaphor for physical or emotional closeness or distance.
Proximal language suggests closeness. When a person is close this makes you vulnerable to attack (them too!) which means that trust is needed for this to be allowed. The language of friendship and familiarity can subtly encourage closeness, for example where we say 'Look at this' as opposed to 'Look at that'. 'This' brings the other person closer, making them more familiar.
This proximal familiarity and trust appears in other words, such as when we talk about in-groups and out-groups, where the group as a trust container is a common metaphor. When you are 'in' with others you are naturally closer to them and you each trust each other more. When you are outside a group, there is a barrier that keeps people out who have not passed the trustworthiness test that is needed to allow them the proximal benefits of membership.
When a powerful person moves closer to a less powerful person they threaten the other person. Being closer, the powerful person can launch an attack against which the weaker person cannot defend, even as the more powerful person can defend against any desperate attacks or escape attempts. We hence use proximity language to control and signal power.
When faced with other people who we fear could harm us, we use proximal and distal language to signal control of these 'others'. We talk about 'those people', distancing them from us, placing them at a safe distance. This can be seen when people talk about others from different groups (which may be based on such as religious, geographic, ethnic or political differences).
Interestingly, we may alternatively talk about 'these people'. In such usage the 'these' pulls the other people close in order to conceptually control them, placing them under the speaker's close inspection and control, sending signals that the speaker is more powerful.
Piweka et al (2008) found that proximal language is used for for intensive/strong indicating (i.e., directing of attention) and the distal for neutral indicating. This aligns with the usage as above, where proximity can signal affection or threat.
Piweka, P., Beun, R-J. and Cremers, A. (2008). 'Proximal' and 'distal' in language and cognition: Evidence from deictic demonstratives in Dutch, Journal of Pragmatics, 40, 4, 694-718
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