Social Distance Within the Service Encounter: Does the Consumer Want to Be Your Friend?

Cathy Goodwin, Georgia State University
Charles D. Frame, Emory University
ABSTRACT - This paper investigates formality as a dimension of the service encounter which can influence consumer perceptions of service quality. An empirical study of consumer preferences for formality and social distance in a variety of service situations is presented. The results indicate that a consumer's perception of the provider's social status affects that consumer's preference for a friendly (less-distanced) relationship, which will, in turn, affect the consumer's evaluation of service quality.
[ to cite ]:
Cathy Goodwin and Charles D. Frame (1989) ,"Social Distance Within the Service Encounter: Does the Consumer Want to Be Your Friend?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, eds. Thomas K. Srull, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 64-71.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, 1989      Pages 64-71


Cathy Goodwin, Georgia State University

Charles D. Frame, Emory University


This paper investigates formality as a dimension of the service encounter which can influence consumer perceptions of service quality. An empirical study of consumer preferences for formality and social distance in a variety of service situations is presented. The results indicate that a consumer's perception of the provider's social status affects that consumer's preference for a friendly (less-distanced) relationship, which will, in turn, affect the consumer's evaluation of service quality.


A consumer may cash a check at a new bank, eat dinner at an unfamiliar restaurant, have a tooth filled by a new dentist, or buy car insurance from a new agent. Will the consumer want to develop a friendship or remain strangers? How will the consumer respond when the provider, trying to create a friendly relationship, greets him/her with a friendly, "Hi John [or Jill]!" This paper suggests that the provider's attempts to create or reduce social distance can influence the consumer's perception of service quality.

Marketers have become increasingly concerned with the role relationship between provider and consumer (Solomon et al. 1985), and with the "human contact" aspect of the service encounter as a basis for creating perceptions of service quality (Bateson and Langeard 1981). Such attributes as courtesy and friendliness have been identified as critical in establishing consumer quality perceptions (Parasuraman et al., 1985). However, consumers as well as providers may agree that bank tellers, physicians and gas station attendants should be polite and friendly, but may disagree on whether the style of the encounter communicates these qualities.

This paper investigates formality as a dimension of the service encounter which can influence perceptions of quality. Specifically, we examine a particular behavior designed to express formality as opposed to familiarity: addressing a service patron by his/her first name. Numerous articles and letters in the popular press (e.g., Nemy 1987; Norgren 1986; Yardley 1985; Middleton 1984) suggest that this aspect of the service encounter is extremely salient to the consumer. Space allocated to letters on this topic in a medical journal (Natkins 1982; Fenichel 1975; Wilking 1974) suggests that service providers are also concerned. Therefore, the topic seems timely and important for marketers whose firms include a service component.

This paper presents an empirical study of consumer preferences for formality and distance in a variety of service situations. We suggest that consumer perception of a provider's status will influence his/her preference for a friendly, as opposed to formal, relationship. If the friendly relationship is preferred, a consumer will be more likely to respond positively when the service provider uses his/her first name.

Social Distance

Houston and Gassenheimer (1987) note the influence of the "social distance dimension" on exchanges. The authors suggest that family relationships exemplify minimal social distance. leading to more generalized reciprocity, while criminal-victim relationships represent the opposite pole.

Close relationships, these authors suggest, offer the parties a choice of non-role "transactions" as well as allocation of "giver" and "taker" roles between the parties. Services which encourage intimacy may come to resemble close relationships; thus, providers of services which require physical touch, such as dentists, nurses and hair stylists, may be enacting "giver" roles to clients who take on more passive roles.

Individuals in a close or "primary" relationship (Cooley 1909; Robertson 1974) react with spontaneity to each other as "whole persons;" by contrast, people in non-primary relationships respond with more routinized behaviors to role-related aspects of their partners. In a service context, a customer's relationship with a waiter or gas station attendant may be constrained by roles and minimally influenced by individuals occupying those roles, while the same customer's relationship with a dentist, hair stylist or psychotherapist may be more spontaneous and responsive to changes in the role-occupant. .Moreover, in closer role relationships, the consumer may expect to be known as an individual rather than an anonymous face.

This concept of social distance has been incorporated in social psychological theories which address a variety of dyadic role relationships. Levinger and Snoek (1972) identify three "levels of relatedness" which are applicable to "human pairs of all sorts:" the "zero contact" level, preceding interaction; the "surface contact" level, incorporating role-related behaviors; and "mutual" relationships, where role partners identify one another as unique individuals, emotionally invest in the relationship and engage in mutual non-essential self-disclosure. Empirical studies of role relationships have also identified social distance as an element of dyadic encounters. Wish et al. (1976), studying dimensions of role relationships, identified one dimension labeled "socioemotional and informal" (family and close friend roles) at one pole and "task-oriented and formal" (interview/job applicant and business rival roles) at the other. Marwell and Hage (1970) labeled a similar dimension "intimacy.'

Status vs. Solidarity Expressed by Form of Address

Brown (1965) specifically associates the social distance dimension with form of address. He refers to social distance as a "solidarity norm," which may conflict with "status norms" also governing form of address; "persons of inferior status...may be as solidary as the old family retainer or a younger brother and as remote as the waiter in a strange restaurant (p. 59)." The "status semantic" of the nineteenth century, Brown suggests, has been replaced by a "solidarity semantic" in the twentieth. Empirical studies tend to emphasize status rather than solidarity as a correlate of form of address choice. Brown and Ford (1961) found that age and occupational or organizational status accounted for non-reciprocal naming (i.e., one person is addressed by first name, the other by last name), with status dominant over age; thus, a young corporate executive would first-name an older janitor, reflecting American emphasis on achievement. Slobin et al. (1968), found similar status effects in an insurance company. Thus, as Brown (1963) suggests, form of address may have replaced status-based pronouns (e.g., "thou" vs. "ye") in contemporary language.

Both social distance and status have been identified as influences on forms of address used in professional and educational settings. Rubin (1980) noted that female professors were more commonly addressed by first name than male professors; while females might have lower status, the students also reported greater closeness with professors addressed by first name.

A survey of mental health professionals (Senger 1984) found inconsistent use of clients' first names, with a minority of providers (15%) favoring non-reciprocal naming, i.e., client uses therapist's last name and title but is addressed by his/her first name. Senger concluded that this ambivalence about naming may reflect therapists' ambivalence about balancing informality and closeness with "formality, respect and distance." Similarly, Selzer (1960) cautioned that first name usage may encourage psychotherapy patients to "regress" to a more childlike state or create a "chatty" rather than helpful environment. Although these therapist-authors do not seem to be aware of Brown (1965) and Brown and Ford (1961) they implicitly identify the conflict between solidarity and status, which translates to balancing the need for professional distance with the need to set a friendly tone conducive to disclosure


The consumer-provider relationship within a service encounter can range from a superficial contact between two strangers to a relationship in which the parties have a personal friendship extending beyond the service encounter (Loevinger and Snoek 1972). Attraction theory suggests that people prefer to be friends with people who are similar to one another and substantial research suggests that friendship rarely occurs between people who differ widely in status. Additionally, physical contact creates an intimacy and closeness similar to that of the "old family retainer" identified in Brown (1965), encouraging an emphasis on solidarity rather than status. Therefore,

H1. Consumers will express preference for a more intimate or "solidary" relationship with service providers when (a) the provider's status is similar to their own and (b) the service requires physical contact between provider and consumer.

Brown (1965) noted that positive responses to first name usage were associated with solidarity or closeness in the relationship. Empirical studies in psychotherapeutic settings (Selzer 1960; Senger 1984) also associate first-naming with closeness and intimacy. Therefore, we would expect that

H2. The more a consumer expresses a preference for a friendly, as opposed to superficial, relationship with a service provider, the more likely s/he will report positive perceptions of service quality following the provider's use of his/her first name

Brown (1965) noted that status considerations as well as solidarity influence form of address. Moreover, a number of empirical studies (e.g., Rubin 1980; Little and Gelles 1975; Brown and Ford 1961) suggest that higher status "others" may generate less discomfort from forced closeness created by first-name usage than lower-status "others." Therefore,

H3. Consumers will display less irritation and evaluate service quality more highly when they are first-named by higher-status, rather than lower-status, providers.

Age tends to be associated with deference in many segments of society. Additionally, Rubin (1980) found students were less reluctant to first-name younger faculty members than older faculty. There fore

H4: Consumers will display less irritation and evaluate service quality more highly when the provider is in an older age group than when the provider is perceived as belonging to a younger age group.


For this pilot study, 98 questionnaires were collected from a convenience sample of graduate and undergraduate students. Average age of the sample was 25.8 years, ranging from 20 to 51. Seventy-five percent were single, 21% married, and 3% were divorced; 53% were male. The questionnaire itself was based on two pilot studies involving faculty members at University of Connecticut and Georgia State University.

Service Provider Characteristics: Status and Age

Services were selected to represent high, low and medium status as estimated by Duncan (1961) and by a single-item measure in which subjects were asked to estimate providers' as well as their own status on a scale of 1 to 7 (7=' high status"). Kluegel et al. (1977) support the measurement of status as a unidimensional construct. Table 1 suggests that respondents' perceptions resemble the rankings which Duncan computed by multiple measures. Within each category, high and low touch providers were chosen when possible.

Lawyer and dentist were selected as high-status providers; casualty (car and property) insurance agents, bank tellers and nurses were included in the middle status category; and the "low status" category was represented by gas station attendants and waiters. A low-status, high-touch category familiar to the subject population could not be identified; therefore, status rankings and friendship preferences were also obtained for the hair stylist (middle to low status) category. Over half the respondents reported using all service categories at least once within the last five years, except legal services (33% usage).

Influence of provider's age was assessed by distributing two versions of the questionnaire asking respondents to imagine the provider's age as either 25 or 45.

Dependent Measures

Two dependent measures were obtained: irritation with provider arising from uninvited first-name usage and an evaluation of quality following first-name usage.

Subjects were asked to use a 3-item semantic differential scale (appropriate-inappropriate, irritating-pleasing, and inoffensive-offensive) to indicate irritation with providers who, as strangers to the consumer, had obtained their first names from credit cards, deposit slips or appointment records. Scale items for each service loaded on a single factor, accounting for 76% (waiter) to 91% (insurance agent) of the variance; overall alpha coefficient was 92%. As these scales appear to measure a single construct, sums of the three item scores were entered in further analysis. A listing of scores for each service provider (Table 2) suggests a relationship with status rankings.

To measure service quality, respondents were asked to imagine that they had been asked by the provider in the previous settings to rate the service they had received, based on four qualities: "organized," "sincere," "caring," and "efficient." These qualities represent aspects of dimensions identified in Parasuraman et al. (1985) and were among those utilized to evaluate quality of basic service encounters (Surprenant and Solomon 1987). While "efficient" and "organized" were expected to emerge as a separate dimension from "sincere" and "caring," these four items were perceived as a single dimension by subjects in this study for all but "waiter" service, in which 2 dimensions emerged. The quality evaluation items were summed for the subsequent analysis. A listing of evaluations of the various service providers (Table 3) shows a relationship with status, similar to the irritation scores.

Preference for friendship, or closeness, with particular providers (henceforth called the PEF scale) was measured using a single Likert-type item for each service. Subjects were asked to indicate the degree of friendliness they would like to have for each service provider, ranging from impersonal ("deal with someone who doesn't know me") to "close friends with frequent social contact." Degrees of closeness were designed to resemble the levels of relatedness suggested by Levinger and Snoek (1972). Friendship preference scores (Table 4) show some relationship to status, but also are influenced by the presence or absence of physical contact during the service encounter.

Covariates: Individual Difference Variables

Two scales were created to identify individual attitudes toward first-name usage and preference for dealing with a provider "who is also a friend."

A scale to assess general attitudes toward first-name usage (henceforth called the GAFN scale) consisted of six items designed to capture the solidarity and status dimensions: respect associated with use of last names and creation of a more personal service relationship associated with use of first names. Additionally, two items were included to associate perceived quality with form of address preferences. A factor analysis of these six items uncovered these two dimensions.

A second scale (Preference for Close Relationship or PCR scale) asked respondents to indicate agreement with five positively-oriented expectations about dealing with a service provider who is also a friend, such as more enjoyable visits, better service and ease of problem-solving. These scale items loaded on one factor which accounted for 63% of the variance (alpha coefficient = .85).

As a third measure of individual differences, the individuation scale (Maslach et al. 1985) was administered. This scale attempts to measure the degree to which individuals feel comfortable differentiating themselves from "other people and objects" by asking respondents to indicate willingness to enact a variety of behaviors, from "giving a lecture to a large audience" to "presenting a personal opinion on a controversial issue to a group of strangers."

Individuals who prefer to be "individuated" in a variety of situations may be more likely to prefer dealing with providers who know them as friends. Psychological experimenters often create the "individuation" by referring to someone by name, as opposed to anonymity associated with deindividuation. The use of a first name may communicate even distinction more than a last name with "Mr." or "Ms." Therefore, people who like to individuate themselves may be more likely to prefer a first-name relationship as well.


Hypothesis I was tested using a regression equation with "preference for provider friendship" (PFF scale) as the dependent variable; independent variables included general preference for close relationships with the provider (PCR scale), difference between provider's and own status, respondent gender, and a dummy variable to indicate whether the service delivery requires touch.











Results (Table 5) suggest that respondents prefer to relate as friends rather than strangers or acquaintances when they perceive their social status to be similar to the provider's. Two services included in the study, dentist and nurse, involve physical contact as part of service delivery. Results here suggest that people prefer to deal with people they know when a service involves touching (p < .04). Interaction between status level and physical contact was not significant in this study. Respondents desiring closer relationships also tend to score higher on the scale testing generalized preference for friendship with service providers.

Although a specific hypothesis was not developed for demographics, males tended to prefer closer relationships than females. Further investigation would be necessary to explain this finding.

To test Hypotheses II and m the seven service roles tested were grouped into the 3 categories utilized for their section: high (mean perceived status = 6.05), middle (mean perceived status = 3.95), and low (mean perceived status = 2.28). Mean values of the irritation and quality evaluation scores for these categories were significantly different from one another (p < .05), as estimated by Scheffe tests of multiple comparisons.

Irritation and perceived quality scores were entered as dependent variables. Covariates included provider's age (either 25 or 45), and individual difference variables: individuation score, general attitude toward first-naming and preference for dealing with the service category on a friendly basis. Univariate analyses found all variables significantly associated with irritation at first name usage, and all but individuation significantly associated with quality evaluation (Table 6), Wilks' Lambda = .91, (p < .02).

Thus, respondents seem to distinguish levels of social distance identified by Levinger and Snoek (1972). However, regardless of preference for friendship, respondents were more willing to be addressed on a first-name basis by providers who (a) have higher status, and (b) are older rather than younger.

Results also suggest that people who like to be individuated (i.e., differentiated from other people and objects) feel significantly (p < .0002) less irritated when addressed by first name in a service encounter, but individuation does not seem to affect quality evaluation following first-name usage.

Summary of Findings

Respondents preferred to (a) develop a friendly relationship with providers whose status was similar to their own and (b) allow higher-status providers to use their first names. However, the intimacy generated by physical contact also seems to lessen the social distance between consumer and provider (Table 4). Although the interaction was insignificant in this study, future studies should be designed to address the relative importance of physical contact; a relationship between touch and status has been suggested by social psychologists (e.g., Henley 1977; Schlenker 1980).

This study also identified preference segments among consumers with respect to social distance. Significant individual differences included both demographic and psychographic variables. This result suggests the existence of preference segments among consumers, and the potential for negative perceptions of quality when consumers are treated identically.

An additional area of interest is a recasting of the model in a structural equation framework (Jorekog and Sorbom 1984; Hayduk 1987). Within a LISREL format, general preference for friendship (PFF) is posited to be an exogenous latent variable. Irritation and quality evaluation preference for specific service friendship are modeled as endogenous variables within the LISREL framework. Additionally, an experimental approach In which respondents are exposed to only one treatment will avoid distortion of results associated with directed focusing on form of address. A follow-up study is planned to test these hypothesized constructs and their relationships.




Haas and Deseran (1981) observe that, "American ideology is egalitarian...we conceal real differences in power behind a facade of equality." This study suggests that consumers may be aware of those differences as they deal with service providers, although they may not consciously associate those differences with status. During debriefings, several subjects expressed discomfort with drawing distinctions among service providers. In earlier pilot studies conducted with faculty through campus mail, a few people wrote on the form, "I do not believe in status differences;" however, results of surveys from student and faculty samples in two different states suggests that people not only make status evaluations, but also agree with one another in ranking service provider occupations.

The results here support Brown's (1965) framework of status and solidarity. The influence of first-name usage on evaluations of service quality seems related to the provider's perceived social status, as well as such status-related attributes as age. At the same time, some consumers do seem to prefer a more informal, friendly relationship with providers whose status is similar to theirs or somewhat higher. When the nature of the service requires physical contact. the consumer may prefer to be friends with the provider, regardless of status.

In defining the preferred style of a relationship, respondents seem to be influenced more by the nature of the service and the service provider than by their own individual differences. Therefore, segments may not be identifiable for providers to offer differential treatment. However, understanding the consumer's perception of the service category may help providers to delineate policies designed to elicit high quality ratings from consumers.

First, service providers cannot assume that consumers, clients or patients will respond positively when the contact provider addresses them by first name. There appears to be a sizable segment that will associate such use of first names with a lowering of service quality.

Second, providers should be aware that the specific type of service may affect a consumer's irritation with the use of his/her first name. High status providers, such as those in medical and dental settings, may choose to ask clients or consumers how they would like to be addressed. Providers of hotel, restaurant, airline and department store services may train employees to use either a last name or no name at all (perhaps only a "sir" or "ma'am"), as this study suggests that the use of first names will be poorly accepted by consumers in these settings. Furthermore, service marketers may want to be especially careful when an age discrepancy exists between consumer and provider.

Additionally, providers can train their personnel not to become too familiar with the customers, such as asking too many personal questions. Many consumers don't want to be more than a name and face to such providers as waiters and clerks; attempts at deeper relations may be perceived as intrusive rather than positive. On the other hand, consumers seem to want more personal relationships with medical providers. In this setting, more personal questions may be welcome, but this study should caution a provider to "test the waters" as some respondents indicated a preference for dealing with strangers.

Future research in this area can be directed toward the broader issue of social distance within a variety of marketing relationships. Applications may be found in retailing and industrial sales as well as a services marketing. While these relationships tend to appear very similar when compared with a full range of human relationships, this study suggests that -important differences can be detected within the realm of marketing relationships.


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