How We Nonverbally Negotiate A Conversation By Walking Away
Christopher Philip

6509508521_fbd9947fe6_bAccording to Swedish Researchers Mathias Broth and Lorenza Mondada walking away is a carefully organized and negotiated activity that works in closing specific communication between people involving the entire body.

By careful review and dissection of video in which participants were naturally observed in walking away in order to exit conversations the researchers conclude that walking away is “publicly projectable and recognizable.”

The study found that walking away is initiated by some, aligned or disaligned by others, and in some instances retracted and revised.

Walking can also control turn taking during talk in a very specific and detailed way.

When conversations are aimed to be closed, participants may begin to move in different directions or when conversations are meant to continue, all participants might move together.

Closing of talk by walking can also be negotiated through small increments or add-ons potentially continuing the ongoing activity.

“In that environment, participants might slow down or stop, and then resume their walking,” say the researchers.

Other situations arise which are considered deviant. This happens, for example, when one person unilaterally walks away without coordinating walking with his partner such as before completing a conversational sequence.

Overall, the researchers agree that walking away is not just a response to closing, but rather, a way in which people actually close conversations. In other words, people walk away as a method of ending a conversation. Also, walking away is a collective achievement, say the researchers, even if it is initiated by one participant.

In the “closing problem” or to end a conversation, people orient away from their “f-formation” or face-to-face formation in order to turn toward their preferred exit.

We follow specific norms in ‘walking away’ in order to close down a conversation in an “orderly way.”

When walking together whilst talking, people will initiate walking by orienting first and then using a variety of cues including syntax, prodsody, gesture (such as pointing) and then begin to walk. Mutual alignment, if not achieved initially, can be renegotiated with additional cues.

Other more complex sequences are outlined in the study. These happen with going and stopping, then going again. These, as described in the study, seem quite disorderly, yet, in each case, produce a finely tuned responsiveness with all participants involved. Incremental movements or orientations seem to be quite reflexive and natural to produce coordination between members.

When not all members are in agreement about walking away and ending the conversation, then it is met with turns at talking, as well as delays in walking. These are then adjusted according to the needs and desires of the group. Even when some members do not orient and begin to walk away, it is read as a relevant signal not to terminate the interaction and walk away by those who have already begun to end the conversation.

The researchers also note encounters which are read as “strange” in which walking away occurs suddenly without any nonverbal signal even as conversation is being directed specifically toward a person. This may be viewed as “normatively deviant.” However, in some instances, this may be done competently and purposefully to signal a particular stance without expressing it explicitly.

Overall the study, published in the Journal of Pragmatics, is quite…pragmatic. However, it does help outline the nonverbal sequences that are used to negotiate walking away. Of note, is that the process is not simply accomplished with one source of body language, such as the head or trunk, but rather the entire body. Walking away is an important feature in ending conversations and is done with care and control likely so that we are not left offending others (being “normatively deviant.”) Though, in some instances, we may prefer to do end a conversation abruptly without nonverbal negotiation in order to send an explicit message. Nevertheless, walking away, while being described, might seem quite disorderly, it is in fact, the reverse. It follows very specific carefully coordinated movements to produce a smooth outcome.

Image Credit: Matt Newfield


Broth, Mathias and Lorenza Mondada. Walking Away: The Embodied Achievement of Activity Closings in Mobile Interaction. Journal of Pragmatics. 2013. 47: 41-58.