Definitions of Communication

 

 

Contents

Communication Misconceptions

Information Transfer

Restoring the Connection

Either on or off

Passive

Legal

Humans as Machines

Definitions as Listed by Dance

Communication Postulates

Dynamic

Irreversible

Proactive

Interactive

Contextual

Grounded in Perspective

 

A.     Communication Misconceptions

Before considering definitions of communication, we should consider the misconceptions that those definitions will have to address.

See “Task Force 5 Report” to see some of these same misconceptions discussed in an actual company report dealing with how to handle a process breakdown.

1.     Communication is Information Transfer

The first myth is that communication is simply the transfer of information, just like a computer. This is part of what Theodore Roszak in 1986 called The Cult of Information, where we assume that human beings behave just like computers as data processing machines. The fact is, we’re not machines. Our communicative behavior is much more complex. Part of that complexity is the fact that we do not respond equally to the each message, even to the same message sent at different times in a different context. If we assume, therefore, that once we have sent a message, it will obviously be correctly received, we set ourselves up for communication failures.

Communication is not about giving information. It is about exerting influence. Far from being guided by logic, it is guided by psycho-logic, to coin a phrase. The goal of communication is not simply telling, but acting, changing another person’s behavior through what we say to them.

2.     Communication failures can be solved by restoring the connection

If we assume that communication is simply the transfer of information, then all we need to do to solve it if repair the open circuit, plug back into to the network, tune the signal.

Mortensen: “The notion of gaps and breakdowns automatically portrays communicative activity as a directional and linear sequence of events-much like electronic impulses traveling from beginning to end in a telephone system or digital computer. Once this linear, one-way analogy is accepted, it is almost impossible not to think of communicative difficulties as a result of some malfunctioning that occurs along the line. To correct a breakdown, one is tempted to search for the part or element that needs repair, much as a telephone repairman looks for a break in circuits along a row of telephone lines (Smith, 1970). Even worse, communication tends to be defined in all-or-nothing terms: Either the system works or it does not; the signals arrive at their destination, or they are blocked somewhere along the line.”

3.     Communication is either on or off

Again, if communication is information transfer, when it fails, it must fail completely. No signals can sneak through a broken network connection.

However, human communication can’t be turned off so easily. Some messages, perhaps unintentional, still exert some influence. In a sense we can never have a communication failure—some message is communicated even if it is not the one the speaker intended.

Mortensen: “Running through the previous quotations about communication breakdown is an implicit and mistaken notion that “no” communication occurred. Supposedly, whenever people fail to arrive at an identical point of view, we can merely assume that they have-almost by definition-“failed to communicate.” . . . . Communication does not necessarily stop simply because people stop talking or listening.

4.     Communication is passive

If communication is information transfer, it doesn’t take much active effort. We have come to regard communication as passive. We simply send our messages and let them take their course, never bothering to reinforce them or check to see if they were received. When we begin to see communication as exerting influence, we can see it is hardly a passive matter. We have to actively attend to the messages we send. We have to be conscious of the unintentional messages we give out that may betray our unguarded intent. We begin to manage our communication strategically, making sure we make the most of the messages we send. We must overcome what George Orwell called “the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.”  

5.     Communication success is defined in legal terms

This misconception comes out of the litigious world we live in. We may assume that once we have formally communicated, we have met our legal obligations to get a message across and therefore have no further obligation to communicate. If our purpose in communicating is only to meet some legal standard, this assumption would be correct. But if our purpose is to change someone’s behavior, this assumption falls far short of effective communication.

Two and a half millennia ago, Plato described three different kinds of communicators as three different kinds of lovers. The evil lover is concerned only about himself and abuses the audience to get what he wants. The neutral lover is like our legal-minded communicator; he gives the bare facts with no care for the ultimate outcome. The best communicator, Plato argues, is like the noble lover who, overcome with a divine madness, does all he can to get his message across for the sake of the audience. Giving the facts is not enough. We have to change the way people work and think.

6.     If human communication is like machine communication, humans must be like machines

Roszak has pointed out that one problem of assuming that machines “think” like humans is that it leads us to think that humans “think” like machines.

One of the major liabilities of the data processing model of thought is the way in which it coarsens subtle distinctions in the anatomy of the mind. The model may do this legitimately in order to simplify for analytical purposes; all scientific models do that. But there is always the danger—and many computer scientists have run afoul of it—that the model will become reified and be taken seriously. When that happens on the part of experts who should know better, it can actually falsify what we know (or should know) about the way our own minds work.

However, as Roszak and others point out, human communication cannot be summed up in terms of data-transfer. In fact, some of the most compelling human ideas have no basis in formation at all.

There we discover the riskiest ideas of all. Yet they may also be the richest and most fruitful. For there we find what might be called the master ideas—the great moral, religious, and metaphysical teachings which are the foundations of culture. Most of the ideas that occupy our thinking from moment to moment are not master ideas; they are more modest generalizations. But from this point forward I will be emphasizing master ideas because they are always there in some form at the foundation of the mind, molding our thoughts below the level of awareness. I want to focus upon them because they bear a peculiarly revealing relationship to information, which is our main subject of discussion. Master ideas are based on no information whatever. I will be using them, therefore, to emphasize the radical difference between ideas and data which the cult of information has done so much to obscure.
Let us take one of the master ideas of our society as an example:
All men are created equal.
The power of this familiar idea will not be lost on any of us. From it, generations of legal and philosophical controversy have arisen, political movements and revolutions have taken their course. It is an idea that has shaped our culture in ways that touch each of us intimately; it is part, perhaps the most important part, of our personal identity.

To see communication as data transfer can lead to the assumptions that humans should be treated as machines to solve human communication problems.

B.     Defining Communication

Communication is difficult to define.

Littlejohn: “The word communication is abstract and, like all words, possesses multiple meanings. Scholars have made many attempts to define communication, but seeking a single working definition may not be as fruitful as probing the various concepts behind the term.”

Mortensen: “In the case of the term communication, few would have qualms about saying that it occurs whenever people attempt to use the power of spoken or written words to influence others. And yet here is where the difficulties occur. Does our common-sense notion mean that communication is limited solely to human activity? Do machines communicate? Is all communication a matter of using spoken or written words? What is meant by the idea of influence? Must the influence be intentional? If so, what about overheard or accidental speech that nonetheless modifies the behavior of a bystander? Is all thinking to be regarded as communication?”

For discussions of the multiple meanings of the term communication, see:

Dance, Frank E. X. “The ‘Concept’ of Communication.” Journal of Communication 20 (1970):201 10.
Dance, Frank E. X., and Larson, Carl E. The Functions of Human Communication: A Theoretical Approach. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976.
Gordon, Languages;
Mortensen, Human Interaction;
Thomas R. Nilsen, “On Defining Communication,” Speech Teacher 6 (1957): 10-17.

1.     Dance found three points of “critical conceptual differentiation,” which form the basic dimensions along which the various definitions differ.

a.      level of observation. Definitions vary in level of abstractness. Some definitions are broad and inclusive; others are restrictive.

b.     the inclusion or exclusion of intentionality. Some definitions include only intentional message sending and receiving; others preclude intention.

c.      normative judgment. Some definitions include a statement of evaluation; other definitions do not contain such implicit judgments of quality.

2.     Dance’s analysis of communication definitions remains the single most comprehensive discussion of the many ways communication has been defined.

3.     Dance’s conclusion is important: “We are trying to make the concept of  ‘communication’ do too much work for us.”

4.     Littlejohn: “Most communication theory today is basically descriptive in approach, attempting to describe and explain behaviors that are communicative, regardless whether the behavior results in a successful outcome.”

 

Conceptual components in communication (from Dance)

1. Symbols/Verbal/Speech

“Communication is the verbal interchange of thought or idea” (Hoben, 1954).

2. Understanding

“Communication is the process by which we understand others and in turn endeavor to be understood by them. It is dynamic, constantly changing and shifting in response to the total situation” (Anderson, 1959).

3. Interaction/ Relationship/

Social Process

“Interaction, even on the biological level, is a kind of communication; otherwise common acts could not occur” (Mead, reprinted 1963).

4. Reduction of Uncertainty

“Communication arises out of the need to reduce uncertainty, to act effectively, to defend or strengthen the ego” (Barnlund, 1964).

5. Process

“Communication: the transmission of information, idea, emotion, skills, etc., by the use of symbols-words, pictures, figures, graphs, etc. It is the act or process of transmission that is usually called communication” (Berelson and Steiner, 1964).

6. Transfer/Transmission/

Interchange

“The connecting thread appears to be the idea of something’s being transferred from one thing, or person, to another. We use the word ‘communication’ sometimes to refer to what is so transferred, sometimes to the means by which it is transferred, sometimes to the whole

process. In many cases, what is transferred in this way continues to be shared; if I convey information to another person, it does not leave my own possession through coming into his. Accordingly, the word ‘communication’ acquires also the sense of participation. It is in this

sense, for example, that religious worshipers are said to communicate” (Ayer, 1955).

7. Linking/Binding

“Communication is the process that links discontinuous parts of the living world to one another” (Ruesch, 1957).

8. Commonality

“It (communication) is a process that makes common to two or several what was the monopoly of one or some” (Gode, 1959).

9. Channel/Carrier/Means/

Route

“The means of sending military messages, orders, etc., as by telephone, telegraph, radio, couriers” (American College Dictionary).

10. Replicating Memories

“Communication is the process of conducting the attention of another person for the purpose of replicating memories” (Carrier and Harwood, 1953).

11. Discriminative Response/

Behavior Modifying Response

“Communication is the discriminatory response of an organism to a stimulus” (Stevens, 1950).

12. Stimuli

“Every communication act is viewed as a transmission of information, consisting of a discriminative stimuli, from a source to a recipient” (Newcomb, reprinted 1966).

13. Intentional

“In the main, communication has as its central interest those behavioral situations in which a source transmits a message to a receiver(s) with conscious intent to affect the latter’s behaviors” (Miller, 1966).

14. Time/Situation

“The communication process is one of transition from one structured situation-as-a-whole to another, in preferred design” (Sondel, 1956).

15. Power

“Communication is the mechanism by which power is exerted” (Schacter, 1951).

 

C.     Communication Postulates

Given the many different definitions of communication, the best way to understand the concept is to consider the basic dimensions or postulates of communication:

Mortensen: The most fruitful alternative to an exhaustive and exclusive definition is one that specifies the conditions deemed necessary for an act of communication to be said to occur. The concern, then, is with fundamental attributes rather than with an exhaustive and definitive description. These fundamental aspects or conditions can best be surveyed within the framework of a single broadly conceived postulate: Communication occurs whenever persons attribute significance to message-related behavior.

1.     Communication Is Dynamic, not Static

a.      Instead of a mechanistic picture of linear cause and effect, “is the more complex notion of dynamic change, one in which an indefinitely large number of particulars interact in a reciprocal and continuous manner. Each successively smaller level of activity is itself a composite of interacting elements. An example is the activity of the nervous system” (Mortensen).

b.     “Communication simply is not analogous to a process where something changes as it is “passed” or “transferred” from one person or setting to another. It is less misleading to think of communication as an occurrence, a happening, rather than something that exists in and of itself.”

2.     Communication Is Irreversible

a.      Heraclitus: You can’t step in the same river twice.

b.     Mortensen: “Research on perception suggests that human beings do not perceive at any single time; in the stream of consciousness there is no literal sense of the instant, no sharp beginning or sharp ending, no lines of demarcation in what we perceive of the physical world.

c.      Platt (1968) a “rowboat anchoring in a flowing river, which may bear the gashes of the past logs that have floated by but which never experiences any part of the river except where it is. In such a system, the only moment of decision and change, the only time there is, is now [p. 84].”

d.     Whyte (1954) compared time to a line running “through each succeeding wakeful hour of the individual’s past life. . . . Time’s strip of film runs forward, never backward, even when resurrected from the past. It seems to proceed again at time’s own unchanged pace [p. 117].”

e.      Human experience flows, in the words of Barnlund (1970), as a stream, in a “single direction leaving behind it a permanent record of man’s communicative experience [p. 93].”

f.       Mortensen: “Seen in this light, no statement, however repetitious, can be regarded as pure redundancy. Somehow, repetition of even the same signal alters the larger significance of the exchange. Once the transaction begins, there can be no retreat, no fresh start, no way to begin all over again.”

3.     Communication Is Proactive, not Passive

a.      Communication is more than “an exercise in translation” or an “action that ensures agreement between what is said and what is understood” (Mortensen).

b.     Communication is more than a passive reaction to a stimulus.

c.      Meerloo (1968) adopts this passive assumption:

Our technical means of communication, especially the press, radio, movies, and TV have gradually exerted a peculiar weakening influence on people’s critical capacities. Too much sensational imagery, reading and hearing is offered to our senses. The feast is too rich for our stomachs. We lose all sense of proportion. Advertising continually insinuates dissatisfaction with the products we have at hand. We are living in the richest country in the world. Yet we are daily urged to feel most deprived. Television hypnotizes us in our own living rooms. We feel trapped in a web of technical communications with their confusing and conflicting persuasions and we cannot escape.
Technical devices of advertising and propaganda-those new media with their paradoxical messages-gradually break down our barriers of criticism. Glued to the TV screen, people become passive and apathetic, and compulsively want to drink in the overabundance of communications like greedy babes with a bottle. We are all a little bit slave to the great television hypnosis. Instead of looking inward and reviewing our thoughts and meditations, we are held in a vise by a screen that dribbles away our time [p. 84, italics added].

d.     However, as Mortensen observes, “What such a reactive image ignores is the tremendous capacity of the human organism to select, amplify, and manipulate the signals that assault his senses. It ignores the fact that people engaged in communication are proactive because they enter the transaction totally. . . .The notion of man as a detached bystander, an objective and dispassionate reader of the environment, is nothing more than a convenient artifact. Among living creatures man is the most spectacular example of an agent who amplifies his every activity, first in the way he perceives it, and then in the way he modifies his environment.”

4.     Communication Is Interactive

a.      Communication “cannot be properly understood apart from the constant succession of interacting forces that influence us, both internally and externally” (Mortensen).

b.     As Kelley (1963) wrote:

A person can be a witness to a tremendous parade of episodes, and yet, if he fails to keep making something out of them, or if he waits until they have occurred before he attempts to reconstrue them, he gains little in the way of experience from having been around when they happened. It is not what happens around him that makes a man experienced; it is the successive construing and reconstruing of what happens, as it happens, that enriches the experience of his life [p. 73].

c.      The term interaction suggests a reciprocal influence.

5.     Communication Is Contextual

a.      Mortensen: “Communication never takes place in a vacuum; it is not a “pure” process, devoid of background or situational overtones; it always requires at least one’s minimal sensitivity to immediate physical surroundings, an awareness of setting or place that in turn influences the ebb and flow of what is regarded as personally significant. To be sure, the context of communication comprises physical characteristics—seating arrangement, color and light, physical space, and the like—but it is much more than the sense of these physical things. It includes the less tangible matter of atmosphere and ambiance, of socio-cultural background.”

6.     Communication is grounded in perspective

a.      Mortensen: Though formed for the most part in an unconscious way, these assumptive biases, taken together, dictate the meaning we attribute to events. Thus, as Barnlund (1968b) noted, “It is not events themselves, but how men construe events, that determines what they will see, how they will feel, what they will think, and how they will respond [p. 25].”

b.     The perspective of the student looking up at the teacher is different than the perspective of the teacher looking out at the students.

c.      The perspective you have toward these words as you read them is different than the perspective I have as I write them.

d.     These differences in perspective account for wide variations in context and culture as well as for many communication failures.

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