Chapter 1 - Section 2

The Essential Elements of Communication

Ingredient #1: Separation

     Have you ever considered the purpose or ‘why’ there is a need to study the field of communication? It’s not a question we often ask because communication is something we engage in all the time, consciously or unconsciously. Communication can be compared to breathing: we don’t’ think about it unless it becomes difficult for us.

     Simply put, we desire to communicate because we are separated, or distanced from one another. We each have unique physiological structures, separate nervous systems and are biologically distinct from one another. This is a biological fact of the human condition we cannot deny. If we completely understood one another, like the mystical powers of the mind reading character Mel Gibson demonstrated in the movie, “What Women Want” (2000), there would be no need to open our mouths to speak or gesture with our body. But, we are not mind readers. In fact, most of us have had the thought that relationships would indeed be a great deal easier if we could read one another’s mind. However, it is one of the great ironies of life that we communicate as a consequence of our inability to completely understand one another and because of our natural instinct to be understood.

     It is no surprise then that one of the basic motives of human beings is to be understood. We all have a desire for those important individuals in our lives to ‘get us’ like those more superficial others in our lives do not. Consider the movie, The Break Up (2006) where Jennifer Aniston’s character, Brooke, stages a break up with Gary, her boyfriend, in hopes to make him better understand her needs. However, she never becomes clear on her intentions. That, coupled with listening to bad advice, creates a comical view of breaking up and the societal perceived war of the sexes. However, in reality, the perception of needs and the desire to be understood is very real.

     While we are physiologically separated from one another, we spend our lives trying to overcome the distance (both physiological and metaphorical) between ourselves and others through communication. We want others to understand us. We want others to feel our pain. We want others to appreciate our life story, to pay attention to our goals for the future, to respect our beliefs, to listen to our fears, and so on. Each of us has a motive to communicate, a reason to open our mouths, a reason to listen and be listened to as each is a symptom of our desire to help others ‘get’ us and for us to ‘get’ others. As a tragic example, think back or consider the 1999 Columbine high school shooting where two young men, both students at the high school, killed 13 fellow students and wounded more than 20 (2007). While there is little doubt and compiled evidence that these boys were influenced by particular video games and the Gothic lifestyle, the identified reason they asserted for the slaughtering of their fellow classmates was the absence of connection with their peers. Instead, they asserted that they were often bullied and left to ‘feel’ disconnected and not understood by others at the school. One can only speculate on the layered forces that lead to such a tragedy, but what we can decipher from their statements is that the lack of being ‘gotten’ by others was a large psychological component to this devastation.

Ingredient #2: Symbols

     Moving forward, a rational question that would follow our understanding of separation as an essential element of communication is, “How do we overcome the physical reality of being separated from others”? What appears to be a simple answer is more complex than most give credit for: the use of symbols. We are symbol-users and our tools are verbal and nonverbal signs that allow us to communicate. Through agreement, culture and convention, for example, the letters c-e-l-l stand for what we put up to ear and carry around with us to contact people near or far. Yet it has layered meaning as well, doesn’t it? When we say that we are texting someone, we automatically understand that to mean the communication comes from the cell phone. The latter term, phone, is often dropped now when we reference our cell, as it has now become a negotiated and accepted term. An exaggerated yawn in the midst of a class lecture, by agreement or convention, means that you may be tired but it also means that you may be bored. In each instance, specific letters in the alphabet and commonly understood nonverbal gestures help us understand or communicate about our feelings, thoughts, ideas, and experiences (Brummett, 2006).

     For the sake of clarity, let’s consider what our lives would look like without a symbolic tool we almost always depend on to communicate with one another: words. The importance of words to both speakers and audiences can only fully be appreciated when we consider a world without words:

  • Without words, how else could you explain to your chiropractor where specifically in your back the pain is emanating from and what the pain feels like – is it a throbbing pain, is it a sharp pain, and how long have you experienced the pain?
  • Without words, how could you express your likes and dislikes? Imagine sitting inside of a restaurant with your friends and not being able to explain what type of food you enjoy or what you’d like to order and drink. You could point and have them play guessing games, but imagine the time, energy and the vast amount of ambiguity in this method. The ease of explanation through symbols allows for communication to be expedited and less ambiguous.
  • Without words, we wouldn’t be able to share. Laughter, for example, is a byproduct of a shared meaning. Think of the last time you recalled a fun memory that evoked positive feelings that resulted in laughter. When you share that memory, the laughter is a consequence of understanding this shared meaning – common friends in the scenario, possible embarrassments or comedy within the circumstance, a commonly shared experience – that resulted in a laugh-out-loud funny because the situation was put into verbal words and then shared among the group. Wouldn’t life be a very unfunny and lonely place without words?
  • Without words, how would we unite to achieve collective action? Try inspiring hundreds and perhaps thousands of individuals, organize them, and direct them toward a common cause without the use of words. All public figures, religious and political alike, share something in common: words were necessary to their ministry as it was through words that they communicated, inspired, and led their followers.
  • Without words, how would protest be possible? As symbol users, we have a remarkable capacity to say “no” to the status quo – a relationship we’re unhappy in, a local curfew that you believe is unfair, a proposed tax increase on your college education, or even a war you believe is unjust or unworthy of human suffering.

     To reiterate, without symbols or words, there would an endless variety of individuals but no possibility for achieving “We” or “Us.” “We” and “Us” are the unique byproducts of communication (Burke, 1966).

Ingredient #3: Mystery

     Unfortunately, complete understanding is impossible. There is always ‘noise’, ambiguity or misperceptions when individuals communicate. The good news is that this doesn’t stop us from trying to be understood or to understand others. Inherent in every conversation you have with a friend or a stranger and in every email you send to a boss or a significant other, there will always be the mystery of how they will respond, how they will interpret the symbols in your email or the messages you impart on the phone. Mystery is the feeling in the pit of your stomach that emerges every time you ask someone for a job, ask a stranger for a favor, or the first time you call someone on the phone to set up a date, because you are unsure of how they will respond or what they might say in response. This mystery – that feeling in the pit of your stomach – is the universal communication situation all of us share together.

     Even though you can attempt to describe accurately your headache to your doctor, the doctor may still not understand your pain or frustration. Your doctor may approximate what your headache feels like, but because she is physiologically distinct from you, understanding is always proximate as it is an ongoing process that is never complete. Granted, while some people seem to understand us more than others (family, spouse, partner, friends), communication is never finished because we are always changing, situations are always evolving, and so too are our feelings, ideas, and beliefs. There are two specific factors in particular that exacerbate the mystery between people that can partly explain why your life-long friend may understand you more than a stranger you pass on a busy street might: noise.

     External noise includes conditions of the physical environment where communication occurs that affects or prevents communication with another person. An example of such conditions is talking to a friend while a loud car drives by in the background or talking to a friend on your cell phone as your phone loses reception. External noises are those elements that impede or change what can be heard, said, or understood between you and someone else.

     Internal noises, on the other hand, are physiological or psychological factors within us that inhibit or prevent us from fully understanding or communicating with others. Trying to listen to someone who is giving you directions to a job interview is difficult when you are already fifteen minutes late to an important interview. You may hear the words come out of the mouth of the person giving you directions, but you are likely to forget what they are saying because you are still angry that you left your home fifteen minutes later than you had scheduled and now may not get the job as a result of your tardiness. Likewise, concentrating on taking an exam when you have a migraine headache might inhibit your ability to recall important information and thus, diminishes your ability to communicate accurately your knowledge. Psychological noise, such as worry, fear, memories, anticipations, and expectations, always influences or affects how we interpret (what we attune to and what we ignore) and communicate.

     External and internal psychological noise, therefore, draws attention to the reality that there are always variables at play in the physical surroundings or on our minds and in our hearts when we communicate with other people. While we may give the person we are talking to eye contact, nod our heads in approval, and remain silent while they talk, our mind is never completely focused because other factors are always competing and/or interrupting our complete and undivided attention. After all, when reflecting upon the above information, we can assess that communication does not take place in a vacuum. In other words, there are a myriad of factors that affect our processes within communication.

Speech Class Noise Types

Ingredient #4: Channel(s) of Communication

Letter Writing     A communication channel is the manner in which communication is expressed. It can also be viewed as a means to an end – a tool that assists in the effectiveness of communication. Typically, the channels of communication are either visual or auditory. For example, the tenor and projection of your voice are auditory channels of communication and baggy jeans, jewelry and tattoos are visual channels of communication. The particular type of channel of communication can affect the communication encounter. For example, texting a professor to inform her that you are sick and will not be able to attend class is a different channel of communication than emailing, which is a different communication channel from writing a letter, which is a different communication channel from explaining the reason for your absence in person. In each communication situation, the channel of communication affects the message and the interpretation of the content.

Ingredient #5: The Invisible Past

iPod     Perhaps an example will help highlight the invisible factors at play in every communication encounter. No one carries an empty iPod. Our iPods are always full of play lists that we have created, songs our friends have sent us, songs that remind us of our past, songs that help motivate us to work out, and songs we play when we are depressed. We aren’t objective, fully impartial judges of what we hear. In other words, we aren’t blank slates. We have likes and dislikes reflected in the type of music on our iPod. We already have developed tastes. When we listen to a new song or new CD, we can’t help but interpret that piece of music in light of what music is already on our iPod; evaluating the new music in terms of what genre it will fit into, determining whether we like that kind of music, assessing whether we have ever heard something similar before, and of course, determining whether we are in the right mood to appreciate the song itself.

     In one important manner, we are like our iPods because we are never empty. In every communication encounter, we bring to the interaction an invisible past that affects how and in what we way we communicate. We can’t help but bring our beliefs, previous experiences, attitudes, traditions, biases, prejudices and expectations to each speaking situation. Most of the time we’re unaware of how our invisible past affects how we communicate but we cannot deny that the sum of our experiences affects how we communicate.

Ingredient #6: Source and Receiver(s)

     When we communicate, we simultaneously play the role of source and receiver. When you create a verbal or nonverbal message (encoding) – from a simple “hello” to holding someone’s hand – you are the communication source. The recipient of your messages, or receiver, tries to makes sense of your message by decoding each of your messages – “You’re my friend, I haven’t seen you in a week – Hello!” or “Why are you extending your hand to hold my hand – this makes me uncomfortable!” As both sources and receivers of messages, we exchange so much information through encoding and decoding that it is sometimes difficult to discern who originates a message.

     To complicate matters just a bit, there are different types of receivers or audiences as well. The self as audience is the audience who never leaves us. We spend much of our time arguing with ourselves. For example, when your alarm goes off early in the morning and it’s still dark and cold outside, you initiate a debate with yourself as to whether you should get out of bed and start your day or stay nestled warmly in your covers.

Audience     The other type of audience that we typically think of in everyday communication encounters is the other as audience. This includes everyone but you. This audience can be present physically when you speak – you can see the color of your audience’s eyes while you talk – or they can be an audience that watches your latest rant on YouTube on their own cell phone, hundreds of miles away. Regardless of where this audience is located, one common feature of the other as audience is that recognizing the other changes how we think and communicate.

     Here’s a good test to help you remember how present the other as audience is in your own mind, even when an audience may not be physically present when you communicate. When you use the eraser on your pen or pencil, or when you push the delete key on your keyboard, you are acknowledging the presence of the other as audience because you are trying to translate what you believe or think in your own mind and make it understandable to someone else. You would never have to use your eraser if you were writing/speaking to yourself because your own ideas, thoughts, and beliefs always make complete sense to you. However, the moment you begin to think about how others might understand or interpret your beliefs and ideas, you know you are in the realm of the universal communication situation.

Ingredient #7: Feedback

     In every communication exchange between source and receiver, there is feedback. Feedback is another way of acknowledging (verbally or nonverbally) that others influence how and what we communicate. Namely, a nod or raised eyebrows or a “Really?” from the person we are talking with (receiver) affects whether we continue with our story as originally planned, end our story, provide more detail to our story, and/or move onto another topic. Feedback is always present in communication interactions so we oftentimes forget its presence. However, it is only when the feedback we expected from others (audiences) is broken do we realize its impact. Have you ever told a joke and heard nothing but silence when you were expecting laughter? Have you ever tried to explain something and instead of a nod of approval, the person you were talking to showed facial expressions of confusion and exasperation? In each situation, the feedback from receivers affects what the communication source says or does not say, thereby creating an ongoing loop of correction or modification to the messages being sent and received.

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