The effect of linguistic abstraction on interpersonal distance



It is well known that people describe positive behaviors of others close to them (e.g., in-group member, friend) in abstract terms, but with concrete terms in the case of people who they are not close to (e.g., out-group member, enemy). In contrast, negative behaviors of people who we are close to are described in concrete terms, but in abstract terms for people who are distant. However, the communicative impact of such subtle differences in language use on a receiver who is also the actor of the behavior being described has never been addressed. We hypothesized and found that a positive abstract message compared to a positive concrete message leads to perceived proximity to the sender, while a negative abstract message compared to a negative concrete message leads to perceived distance. The implications of this study, which is the first to show the communicative impact of biased language use, are discussed. Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.