Communication Currents

Examining Communication

June 1, 2010
General Communication Studies

Our communication practices are among the most human of all human behavior. We use words to create messages, and we create meanings from those messages. Humans are social creatures, making the need to communicate essential to our survival, development, and happiness. Too often, communication is thought of as just something we do. However, to fully appreciate communication, let's examine it more closely.

Communication is functional. Communication allows us to create things we need. For example, an organization does not exist until we talk one into existence. For an organization to survive, we talk about the culture we want to create and the policies we will implement. We develop procedures for procuring and providing products and services. In large collectives, such as organizations and communities, communication can be more functionally difficult as time and geography separate us. For example, you call the utility company to report a disruption of service and get “press 1 for . . .” In this case, what is functional for the utility company (and the people who represent it) is different than your idea of functionality. Often the ways in which we use communication to accomplish a function or do something complicates the conversations we have.

Communication is social. Communication allows us to create and manage relationships with one another. You don't have a boyfriend until you have the talk about being boyfriend and girlfriend. You can't get a divorce until you (or the lawyer and judge) talk one into existence. Relationships between people are negotiated from talk. Formal relationships become solidified as you accept your role as manager and talk as a manager to your subordinates. The relationship between husband and wife is also negotiated—think of the number of couples who disagree over what is said in their wedding vows. You can't just say, “I do.” This simple phrase has to be said after what you vow to do, and after it is said in front of others (or at least a justice of the peace). Informal relationships, such as friendships, are derived from talk that shares personal information. Through these conversations we learn what the other person likes and dislikes, as well as his or her attitudes toward the things we like and dislike. Somewhere in those conversations, acquaintances turn to friendships—but you really don't know you are friends until he or she introduces you with, “Say hello to my friend Jeff.”

Communication is symbolic. Communication is not water than can be turned on or off. Its symbolic nature is fluid and dynamic, and, as a result, meanings are not necessarily fixed. Communicators can't give meaning, rather meaning is negotiated through talk with others. This is why your meaning and my meaning can differ, although we agree that you sent me a specific message. “Mowing the grass” said by my dad, I soon learned, did not mean simply pushing the lawnmower around the yard. Rather, through negotiated talk (okay, yelling), I came to understand that mowing the lawn meant (in this order): picking up trash and sticks in the yard, mowing the grass, sweeping grass clippings off the driveway and walk, cleaning the mower, and, finally, returning the mower to where it was stored. Over time, I forgot about the negotiation and was able to use his “mowing the grass” message for this set of tasks. Imagine my surprise when many years later I hired someone to “mow my grass” and he did exactly that. I had failed to negotiate what “mowing the grass” meant. There is no way the person I hired could have guessed that “mow the grass” was a multi-task operation. I had not talked about what I wanted done, and the person I hired hadn't questioned my simple request for mowing the grass.

Communication is cultural. Obviously, we have flattened the world through travel and the use of technology. Beyond these obvious national differences in culture, cultural differences also exist locally. The culture of neighborhoods and regions, age and sex, race and religion, and politics and philosophy complicate communication. Every way we demographically identify ourselves results in a cultural division that is the basis of our message development and meaning making. We argue and disagree because our fundamental views of the world are at odds with one another. I announce to my colleagues that I have to go home and “get the kids.” I use this phrase even though my kids are dogs. Why? Because it's acceptable to leave the meeting to pick up one's children from school, but less acceptable to leave to let the dogs out of the house.

As you can see, because communication is functional, social, symbolic, and cultural, communication is complicated—whether it is face to face or mediated. Too often, we are not effective communicators and we get by with it. Over the course of a day, we communicate with many people in different relationships to accomplish different things. In some situations, we want our communication to be explicit and meaningful. Other times, we want our communication to be implicit and strategic. After all, we want to accomplish something with our communication, but we do not always want to expose ourselves too much to the other person. Why not? Sometimes, we may feel like it doesn't matter. Having a courteous interaction with a retail clerk is sufficient. I do not need to establish a relationship more explicit than clerk-customer with him or her. Saying “yes” to the clerk's “Did you find everything you need?” is all that is needed (whether I found everything or not).

Sometimes, we don't have the words or messages to express ourselves fully. Not all feelings can be easily labeled; not all experiences can be easily translated. I may be feeling that something is not right about our relationship, but cannot find a way to express it to you that sounds genuine. After all, communication often appears to be linear, yet feelings, experiences, and meanings can be simultaneously layered: “I love you, but I can't stand you.”  

Sometimes, we fail to take the time to talk with others in a meaningful way. Time is a precious commodity. When I'm in a hurry, “please” and “thank you” interfere in my making a meeting on time. You come to my office to talk over a problem with me, but I have only 15 minutes before I must be somewhere else. When communication is strained by time and other pressures, people communicate less effectively because they talk at rather than talk with others.

Communication is complicated. Communication scholars have studied these complexities, and we are learning more about how to communicate more effectively. Communication Currents is one method the National Communication Association uses for sharing this information with you. Our slogan—knowledge for communicating well—is to remind you and us that we can communicate more effectively. Reading Communication Currents gives me information I need for communicating better. I hope you've found it just as valuable.

About the author (s)

Joann Keyton

North Carolina State University

Professor