COM 125 discussion

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Discussion 6: Verbal Communication


Review Chapter 7 before responding to the following questions: 

1. Do you agree with some of the criticisms scholars have offered against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? How important is language in shaping our worldview? How important is our worldview in shaping language development? Make a case either for or against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

2. Your text has made the suggestion that generally positive forms of language, like humor, can sometimes have negative consequences, and that generally negative forms of language, like profanity, can sometimes be positive. This point illustrates how much the effects of language depend on the context in which it is used. In your response, explain this point by using concrete examples of humor (both positive and negative). Then, extend your discussion to the other forms of speech discussed in the chapter, including euphemism, slang, libel, slander, and hate speech. Is it true that each of these forms of language could have either positive or negative effects, depending on the context?

Discussion 6: Verbal Communication

Review Chapter 7 before responding to the following questions:

1. Do you agree with some of the criticisms scholars have offered

against the Sapir

Whorf hypothesis? How important is language in

shaping our worldview? How important is our worldview in shap


language development? Make a case either for or against the Sapir

Whorf hypothesis.

2. Your text has made the suggestion that generally positive forms of

language, like humor, can sometimes have negative consequences, and

that generally negative forms

of language, like profanity, can sometimes

be positive. This point illustrates how much the effects of language

depend on the context in which it is used. In your response, explain this

point by using concrete examples of humor (both positive and


. Then, extend your discussion to the other forms of speech

discussed in the chapter, including euphemism, slang, libel, slander, and

hate speech. Is it true that each of these forms of language could have

either positive or negative effects, depending on

the context?

Discussion 6: Verbal Communication

Review Chapter 7 before responding to the following questions:

1. Do you agree with some of the criticisms scholars have offered

against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? How important is language in

shaping our worldview? How important is our worldview in shaping

language development? Make a case either for or against the Sapir-

Whorf hypothesis.

2. Your text has made the suggestion that generally positive forms of

language, like humor, can sometimes have negative consequences, and

that generally negative forms of language, like profanity, can sometimes

be positive. This point illustrates how much the effects of language

depend on the context in which it is used. In your response, explain this

point by using concrete examples of humor (both positive and

negative). Then, extend your discussion to the other forms of speech

discussed in the chapter, including euphemism, slang, libel, slander, and

hate speech. Is it true that each of these forms of language could have

either positive or negative effects, depending on the context?


Table of Contents

Chapter One: What is Interpersonal Communication
1.1 Why Study Interpersonal Communication

1.2 Functional Aspects of Interpersonal Communication

1.3 Cultural Aspects of Interpersonal Communication

1.4 Communication is Integrated into All Parts of Our Lives

1.5 Communication Culture, Context, Learned, Rules and Norms

1.6 Communication Meets Needs

Chapter Two: The Self
2.1 Self-Disclosure

2.2 Media, the Self, and Relationships

2.3 Perceiving and Presenting the Self

Chapter Three: Perception
3.1 Perception

3.2 Improving Perception

Chapter Four: Deception
4.1 Deception

4.2 Language and Deception

4.3 Nonverbal Cues and Deception

4.4 Deception and Social Media

4.5 Deception and Communication Competence

Chapter Five: Gender
5.1 Gender Introduction

5.2 Gender Differences

5.3 Gender Roles

5.4 Gender Sexism and Socialization

5.5 Sexual Orientation

5.6 Important Gender-Related Events in the United States

5.7 Gender and Communication

Chapter Six: Culture
6.1 What is Culture?

6.2 Culture, Identity, and Communication

6.3 Cultural Taxonomies

6.4 Culture and Communication

6.5 Strengthening our Intercultural Communication Skills


Chapter Seven: Language
7.1 Language Introduction

7.2 Using Words Well

7.3 Functions of Language

Chapter Eight: Nonverbal Communication
8.1 Nonverbal Communication Introduction

8.2 Principles and Functions of Nonverbal Communication

8.3 Types of Nonverbal Communication

8.4 Nonverbal Communication Competence

8.5 Nonverbal Communication in Context

Chapter Nine: Listening
9.1 Listening Defined

9.2 Understanding How and Why We Listen

9.3 Barriers to Effective Listening

9.4 Improving Listening Competence

Chapter Ten: Emotion
10.1 Emotions

10.2 Evolution and Emotions

10.3 Culture and Emotions

10.4 Expressing Emotions

10.5 Managing and Responding to Emotions

Chapter Eleven: Relationship Theories
11.1 Communication in Relationships

11.2 Foundations of Relationships

11.3 Theories in Relationship Communication

Chapter Twelve: Romantic and Family Relationships
12.1 Theories in Relationship Communication

12.2 Communication and Friends

12.3 Relationships at Work

Chapter Thirteen: Friends and Workplace Relationships
13.1 Relationships at Work

13.2 Communication and Families

13.3 Romantic Relationships

13.4 Listening in Relational Contexts

13.5 The Dark Side of Relationships


Chapter Fourteen: Conflict
14.1 Conflict Introduction

14.2 Conflict Management Styles

14.3 Culture and Conflict

14.4 Handling Conflict Better


Creative Commons Licenses and Acknowledgements
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A Primer on Communication Studies (v. 1.0).

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( 3.0/) license. See the license for more details, but

that basically means you can share this book as long as you credit the author (but see below),

don’t make money from it, and do make it available to everyone else under the same terms. This

book was accessible as of December 29, 2012, and it was downloaded then by Andy Schmitz

( in an effort to preserve the availability of this book.

Gender article on NOBA

Gender by Christia Spears Brown and Jennifer A. Jewell is licensed under a Creative Commons

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scope of this license may be available in our Licensing Agreement.

Speaking of Culture by Nolan Weil

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Language and Culture in Context by R. Godwin-Jones

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Communication in the Real World

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work’s original creator or licensee.



Kristy Callihan, Assistant Professor of Communication, Pikes Peak Community College

Marcelle Hureau, Instructor of Communication, Pikes Peak Community College

Shayne McCormick, Instructor of Communication, Pikes Peak Community College

Katie Wheeler, Assistant Professor of Communication, Pikes Peak Community College


Chapter 1.1 – Interpersonal Communication Introduction

By its very nature communication is not a skill we are born with. If lucky, we are born with the

senses necessary to learn to use the communication skills. Studying interpersonal communication

takes the senses that we have and enhances them. Exploring interpersonal communication is a

journey. This journey begins with the core of who we are, why we make the decisions we do,

how we approach relationships, identity, emotions, language, listening, and the layers of

conversations we have in a variety of contexts. Only when individuals understand themselves

better, can they improve their own communication skills.

In chapter one, you will have an opportunity to learn the fundamentals of communication. The

very process of communication is complex even to explain, yet in real time occurs very quickly.

As each section is explained, try to apply it to your own life and you will have more

comprehensive learning experience.

In order to understand interpersonal communication, we must understand how interpersonal

communication functions to meet our needs and goals and how our interpersonal communication

connects to larger social and cultural systems. Interpersonal communication is the process of

exchanging messages between people whose lives mutually influence one another in unique

ways in relation to social and cultural norms. This definition highlights the fact that

interpersonal communication involves two or more people who are interdependent to some

degree and who build a unique bond based on the larger social and cultural contexts to which

they belong. So a brief exchange with a grocery store clerk who you don’t know wouldn’t be

considered interpersonal communication, because you and the clerk are not influencing each

other in significant ways. Obviously, if the clerk were a friend, family member, coworker, or

romantic partner, the communication would fall into the interpersonal category. In this section,

we discuss the importance of studying interpersonal communication and explore its functional

and cultural aspects.


Chapter 1.2 Why Study Interpersonal Communication?

Interpersonal communication has many implications for us in the real world. Did you know that

interpersonal communication played an important role in human evolution? Early humans who

lived in groups, rather than alone, were more likely to survive, which meant that those with the

capability to develop interpersonal bonds were more likely to pass these traits on to the next

generation (Leary, 2001). Interpersonal skills have a measurable impact on psychological and

physical health. People with higher levels of interpersonal communication skills are better able to

adapt to stress, have greater satisfaction in relationships and more friends, and have less

depression and anxiety (Hargie, 2011).

Image by Cheryl Holt from Pixabay

In fact, prolonged isolation has been shown to severely damage a human (Williams & Zadro,

2001). Have you ever heard of the boy or girl who was raised by wolves? There have been

documented cases of abandoned or neglected children, sometimes referred to as feral children,

who survived using their animalistic instincts but suffered psychological and physical trauma as

a result of their isolation (Candland, 1995). There are also examples of solitary confinement,

which has become an ethical issue in many countries. In “supermax” prisons, which now operate

in at least forty-four states, prisoners spend 22.5 to 24 hours a day in their cells and have no

contact with the outside world or other prisoners (Shalev, 2011).


Aside from making your relationships and health better, communication can impact your

employment opportunities and chances for promotion. According to the National Association of

Colleges and Employers (2010), interpersonal communication skills are highly sought after by

potential employers, consistently ranking in the top ten in national surveys. Each of these

examples illustrates how interpersonal communication meets our basic needs as humans for

security in our social bonds, health, and careers. But we are not born with all the interpersonal

communication skills we’ll need in life. So in order to make the most out of our interpersonal

relationships, we must learn some basic principles.

Think about a time when a short communication exchange affected a relationship almost

immediately. Did you mean for it to happen? Many times we engage in interpersonal

communication to fulfill certain goals we may have, but sometimes we are more successful than

others. This is because interpersonal communication is strategic, meaning we intentionally create

messages to achieve certain goals that help us function in society and our relationships. Goals

vary based on the situation and the communicators, but ask yourself if you are generally

successful at achieving the goals with which you enter a conversation or not. If so, you may

already possess a high degree of interpersonal communication competence, or the ability

to communicate effectively and appropriately in personal relationships. This chapter will

help you understand some key processes that can make us more effective and appropriate


Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

You may be asking, “Aren’t effectiveness and appropriateness the same thing?” The answer is

no. Imagine that you are the manager of a small department of employees at a marketing agency

where you often have to work on deadlines. As a deadline approaches, you worry about your


team’s ability to work without your supervision to complete the tasks, so you interrupt

everyone’s work and assign them all individual tasks and give them a bulleted list of each

subtask with a deadline to turn each part in to you. You meet the deadline and have effectively

accomplished your goal. Over the next month, one of your employees puts in her two-weeks’

notice, and you learn that she and a few others have been talking about how they struggle to

work with you as a manager. Although your strategy was effective, many people do not respond

well to strict hierarchy or micromanaging and may have deemed your communication

inappropriate. A more competent communicator could have implemented the same detailed plan

to accomplish the task in a manner that included feedback, making the employees feel more

included and heard. In order to be competent interpersonal communicators, we must learn to

balance being effective and appropriate.


Chapter 1.3 Functional Aspects of Interpersonal


We have different needs that are met through our various relationships. Whether we are aware of

it or not, we often ask ourselves, “What can this relationship do for me?” In order to understand

how relationships achieve strategic functions, we will look at instru mental goals, relationship-

maintenance goals, and self-presentation goals.

What motivates you to communicate with someone? We frequently engage in communication

designed to achieve instrumental goals such as gaining compliance (getting someone to do

something for us), getting information we need, or asking for support (Burleson, Metts, & Kirch,

2000). In short, instrumental talk helps us “get things done” in our relationships. Our

instrumental goals can be long term or day to day. The following are examples of

communicating for instrumental goals:

• You ask your friend to help you move this weekend (gaining/resisting compliance)

• You ask your coworker to remind you how to balance your cash register till at the end of

your shift (requesting or presenting information)

• You console your roommate after he loses his job (asking for or giving support)

When we communicate to achieve relational goals, we are striving to maintain a positive

relationship. Engaging in relationship-maintenance communication is like taking your car to

be serviced at the repair shop. To have a good relationship, just as to have a long-lasting

car, we should engage in routine maintenance. For example, have you ever wanted to stay in

and order a pizza and watch a movie, but your friend suggests that you go to a local restaurant

and then to the movie theatre? Maybe you don’t feel like being around a lot of people, or

spending money (or changing out of your pajamas!), but you decide to go along with his, or her,

suggestion. In that moment, you are putting your relational partner’s needs above your own,

which will likely make him or her feel valued. It is likely that your friend has made, or will also

make, similar concessions to put your needs first, which indicates that there is a satisfactory and

complimentary relationship. Obviously, if one partner always insists on having their way, or

always concedes, the individuals are not exhibiting interpersonal-communication competence.

Other routine relational tasks include celebrating special occasions or honoring

accomplishments, spending time together, and checking in regularly by phone, e-mail, text,

social media, or face-to-face communication. The following are examples of communicating for

relational goals:

• You organize an office party for a coworker who has just become a US citizen

(celebrating/honoring accomplishments)

• You make breakfast with your mom while you are home visiting (spending time together)

• You post a message on your long-distance friend’s Facebook wall saying you miss him

(checking in)


Gathering to celebrate a colleague’s birthday is a good way for coworkers to achieve relational

goals in the workplace. © Thinkstock

Another form of relational talk is the DTR talk, which stands for “defining-the-relationship

talk” and serves a relationship-maintenance function. In the early stages of a romantic

relationship, you may have a DTR talk to reduce uncertainty about where you stand by deciding

to use the term boyfriend, girlfriend, or partner. In a DTR talk, you may proactively define your

relationship by saying, “I’m glad I’m with you and no one else.” Your romantic interest may

respond favorably, echoing or rephrasing your statement, which gives you an indication that they

agree with you. The talk may continue on from there, and you may talk about what to call your

relationship, set boundaries, or not. It is not unusual to have several DTR talks as a relationship

progresses. At times, you may have to define the relationship when someone steps over a line by

saying, “I think we should just be friends.” This more explicit and reactive (rather than


proactive) communication can be especially useful in situations where a relationship may be

unethical, inappropriate, or create a conflict of interest—for example, in a supervisor-supervisee,

mentor-mentee, professional- client, or collegial relationship.

Image by pasja1000 from Pixabay

We also pursue self-presentation goals by adapting our communication in order to be perceived

in particular ways. Just as many companies, celebrities, and politicians create a public image, we

desire to present different faces in different contexts. The well-known scholar Erving Goffman

(1959) compared self-presentation to a performance and suggested we all perform different roles

in different contexts. Indeed, competent communicators can successfully manage how others

perceive them by adapting to situations and contexts. A parent may perform the role of stern

head of household, supportive shoulder to cry on, or hip and culturally aware friend to their

child. A newly hired employee may initially perform the role of serious and agreeable coworker.

Sometimes people engage in communication that doesn’t necessarily present them in a positive

way. For example, Haley, the oldest daughter in the television show Modern Family, often

presents herself as incapable in order to get her parents to do her work. In one episode, she

pretended she didn’t know how to crack open an egg so her mom would make brownies for her

school bake sale. Here are some other examples of communicating to meet self-presentation



• As your boss complains about struggling to format the company newsletter, you tell her

about your experience with Microsoft Word and editing and offer to look over the

newsletter once she’s done to fix the formatting (presenting yourself as competent)

• You and your new college roommate stand in your dorm room full of boxes. You let him

choose which side of the room he wants and then invite him to eat lunch with you

(presenting yourself as friendly)

• You say, “I don’t know,” in response to a professor’s question even though you have an

idea of the answer (presenting yourself as aloof, or “too cool for school”)

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

The Association of Image Consultants International (AICI) states that appearance, behavior,

and communication are the “ABC’s of image” (AICI, 2011). Many professional image

consultants are licensed by this organization and provide a variety of services to politicians,

actors, corporate trainers, public speakers, organizations, corporations, and television

personalities such as news anchors. Consider the following questions:

1. If you were to hire an image consultant for yourself, what would you have them “work
on” for you? Why?

2. What communication skills that you’ve learned about in the book so far would be most
important for an image consultant to possess?

3. Many politicians use image consultants to help them connect to voters and win elections.
Do you think this is ethical? Why or why not?


As if managing instrumental, relational, and self-presentation goals isn’t difficult enough when

we consider them individually, we must also realize that the three goal types are always working

together. In some situations, we may use instrumental goals over relational or self-presentation

goals. For example, if your partner is offered a great job in another state and you decided to go

with them which will move you away from your job and social circle, you would be focusing on

relational goals over instrumental or self-presentation goals. When you’re facing a stressful

situation and need your best friend’s help and call saying, “Hurry and bring me a gallon of gas or

I’m going to be late to work!” you are using instrumental goals over relational goals. Of course,

if the person really is your best friend, you can try to smooth things over or make up for your

shortness later. However, you probably wouldn’t call your boss and bark a request to bring you a

gallon of gas so you can get to work, because you likely want your boss to see you as dependable

and likable, meaning you have focused on self-presentation goals.

The functional perspective of interpersonal communication indicates that we communicate

to achieve certain goals in our relationships. We get things done in our relationships by

communicating for instrumental goals. We maintain positive relationships through relational

goals. We also strategically present ourselves in order to be perceived in particular ways. As our

goals are met and our relationships build, they become little worlds we inhabit with our relational

partners, complete with their own relationship cultures.


Chapter 1.4 Cultural Aspects of Interpersonal


Aside from functional aspects of interpersonal communication, communicating in relationships

also helps establish relationship cultures. Just as large groups of people create cultures through

shared symbols (language), values, and rituals, people in relationships also create cultures at a

smaller level. Relationship cultures are the climates established through interpersonal

communication that are unique to the relational partners but based on larger cultural and

social norms. We also enter into new relationships with expectations based on the schemata we

have developed in previous relationships and learned from our larger society and culture. Think

of relationship schemata as blueprints or plans that show the inner workings of a

relationship. Just like a schematic or diagram for assembling a new computer desk helps you put

it together, relationship schemata guide us in how we believe our interpersonal relationships

should work and how to create them. So from our life experiences in our larger cultures, we

bring building blocks, or expectations, into our relationships, which fundamentally connect our

relationships to the outside world (Burleson, Metts, & Kirch, 2000). Even though we experience

our relationships as unique, they are at least partially built on preexisting cultural norms.

Think of how you use storytelling among your friends, family, coworkers, and other relational

partners. If you recently moved to a new place for college, you probably experienced some big

changes. One of the first things you started to do was reestablish a social network—remember,

human beings are fundamentally social creatures. As you began to encounter new people in your

classes, at your new job, or in your new housing, you most likely told some stories of your life

before—about your friends, job, or teachers back home. One of the functions of this type of

storytelling, early in forming interpersonal bonds, is a test to see if the people you are meeting

have similar stories or can relate to your previous relationship cultures. In short, you are testing

the compatibility of your schemata with the new people you encounter. Although storytelling

will continue to play a part in your relational development with these new people, you may be

surprised at how quickly you start telling stories with your new friends about things that have

happened since you met. You may recount stories about your first trip to the dance club together,

the weird geology professor you had together, or the time you all got sick from eating the

cafeteria food. In short, your old stories will start to give way to new stories that you’ve created.

Storytelling within relationships helps create solidarity, or a sense of belonging and closeness.

This type of storytelling can be especially meaningful for relationships that don’t fall into the

dominant culture. For example, research on a gay male friendship circle found that the gay men

retold certain dramatic stories frequently to create a sense of belonging and to also bring in new

members to the group (Jones, 2007).


Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Some additional communicative acts that create our relational cultures include relational

storytelling, personal idioms, routines and rituals, and rules and norms. Storytelling is an

important part of how we create culture in larger contexts and how we create a uniting and

meaningful storyline for our relationships. In fact, an anthropologist coined the term homo

narrans to describe the unique storytelling capability of modern humans (Fisher, 1985). We

often rely on relationship storytelling to create a sense of stability in the face of change, test the

compatibility of potential new relational partners, or create or maintain solidarity in established


We also create personal idioms in our relationships (Bell & Healey, 1992). If you’ve ever studied

foreign languages, you know that idiomatic expressions like “I’m under the weather today” are

basically nonsense when translated. For example, the equivalent of this expression in French

translates to “I’m not in my plate today.” When you think about it, it doesn’t make sense to use

either expression to communicate that you’re sick, but the meaning would not be lost on English

or French speakers, because they can decode their respective idiom. This is also true of idioms

we create in our interpersonal relationships. Just as idioms are unique to individual cultures and

languages, personal idioms are unique to certain relationships, and they create a sense of

belonging due to the inside meaning shared by the relational partners. In romantic

relationships, for example, it is common for individuals to create nicknames for each other that

may not directly translate for someone who overhears them. You and your partner may find that

calling each other “booger” is sweet, while others may think it’s gross. Researchers have found


that personal idioms are commonly used in the following categories: activities, labels for others,

requests, and sexual references (Bell and Healey, 1992). In J. K. Rowling’s fantasy novels, Harry

Potter, we learn the idiom “muggles” (or no-majs) in reference to individuals born without

magic. In NBC’s comedy The Good Place, a group of four individuals, Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, &

Jason, find themselves navigating the afterlife together. Chidi, the ethics professor, struggles

with making the right decision in any scenario (including selecting muffins). As the show

progresses, the other characters begin to refer to difficulty in decision-making as “pulling a

Chidi.” What personal idioms can you think of that you share with family, friends, a partner, or

coworkers? Idioms help create cohesiveness, or solidarity in relationships, because they are

shared cues between cultural insiders. They also communicate the uniqueness of the relationship

and create boundaries, since meaning is only shared within the relationship.

Routines and rituals help form relational cultures through their natural development in repeated

or habitual interaction (Burelson, Metts, & Kirch, 2000). While “routine” may connote boring in

some situations, relationship routines are communicative acts that create a sense of

predictability in a relationship that is comforting. Some communicative routines may develop

around occasions or conversational topics.

Image by Omar Medina Films from Pixabay

For example, it is common for long-distance friends, or relatives, to schedule a recurring phone

conversation, or even for couples to review the day’s events over dinner. Students who study


abroad often talk on the phone to their families, at the same time, every week, which establishes

a comfortable routine for the entire family.

Other routines develop around entire conversational episodes. For example, two best friends

recounting their favorite spring-break story may seamlessly switch from one speaker to the other,

finish each other’s sentences, speak in unison, or gesture simultaneously because they have told

the story so many times.

Relationship rituals take on more symbolic meaning than do relationship routines and may

be variations on widely recognized events—such as birthdays, anniversaries, Passover,

Christmas, or Thanksgiving—or highly individualized and original. Relational partners may

personalize their traditions by eating mussels and playing Yahtzee on Christmas Eve or going

hiking on their anniversary. Other rituals may be more unique to the relationship, such as

celebrating a dog’s birthday or going to opening day at the amusement park. The following

highly idiosyncratic ritual was reported by a participant in a research study:

I would check my husband’s belly button for fuzz on a daily basis at bedtime. It originated when

I noticed some blanket fuzz in his belly button one day and thought it was funny…We both found

it funny and teased often about the fuzz. If there wasn’t any fuzz for a few days my husband

would put some in his belly button for me to find. It’s been happening for about 10 years now.

(Bruess & Pearson, 1997, p. 35).

Whether the routines and rituals involve phone calls, eating certain foods, or digging for belly

button fuzz, they all serve important roles in building relational cultures. However, as with

storytelling, rituals and routines can be negative. For example, verbal and nonverbal patterns to

berate or belittle your relational partner will not have healthy effects on a relational culture.

Additionally, visiting your in-laws during the holidays loses its symbolic value when you dislike

them and comply with the ritual because you feel like you have to. In this case, the ritual doesn’t

enrich the relational culture, but it may reinforce norms or rules that have been created in the



A couple may share a relationship routine of making dinner together every Saturday night. ©


Relationship rules and norms help with the daily function of the relationship. They help create

structure and provide boundaries for interacting in the relationship and for interacting with larger

social networks (Burleson, Metts, & Kirch, 2000). Relationship rules are explicitly

communicated guidelines for what should and should not be done in certain contexts. A

couple could create a rule to always confer with each other before letting their child spend the

night somewhere else. If a parent lets their son sleep over at a friend’s house without consulting

their partner, a more serious conflict could result. Relationship norms are similar to routines

and rituals in that they develop naturally in a relationship and generally conform to or are

adapted from what is expected and acceptable in the larger culture or society. For example,

it may be a norm that you and your coworkers do not “talk shop” at your Friday happy-hour

gathering. So when someone brings up work at the gathering, their coworkers may remind them

that there’s no shop talk, and the consequences may not be that serious. In regards to topic of

conversation, norms often guide expectations of what subjects are appropriate within various

relationships. Do you talk to your boss about your personal finances? Do you share your greatest

fears with an acquaintance? Do you tell your classmates about your medical history? In general,

there are no rules that say you can’t discuss any of these topics with anyone you choose, but

relational norms usually lead people to answer “no” to the questions above. Violating

relationship norms and rules can negatively affect a relationship, but in general, rule violations

can lead to more direct conflict, while norm violations can lead to awkward social interactions.


Developing your interpersonal communication competence will help you assess your

communication in relation to the many rules and norms you will encounter.

Taking this course will change how you view communication. Most people admit that

communication is important, but it’s often in the back of our minds or viewed as something that

“just happens.” Putting communication at the front of your mind and becoming more aware of

how you communicate can be informative and have many positive effects. Many individuals

report that when they first start studying communication as an undergraduate, they begin seeing

the concepts learned in class in their everyday life. When working in groups, they apply what

they had learned about group communication to improve their performance and overall

experience. They also noticed interpersonal concepts and theories as they communicate within

various relationships. Whether analyzing mediated messages or considering the ethical

implications of a decision, studying communication helps individuals see more of what was

going on around them, which allows them to more actively and competently participate in

various communication contexts. So, take note of aspects of communication that you haven’t

thought about before and begin to apply the principles of communication to various parts of your



Chapter 1.5 Communication is Integrated Into All Parts of

Our Lives

This book is meant to help people see the value of communication in the real world and in our

own lives. Real can mean a variety of contexts of your world including face-to-face

relationships, online games, forums, and interactions, and our other electronic communication.

What you’re reading in this book isn’t just about theories and vocabulary or passing a test and

giving a good speech. This course is about taking the concepts and theories we read about, and

trying them out in our real world. The “real world” is whatever we are experiencing at any given

moment. You might be practicing these skills when meeting up with friends later, in the

workplace, or even in the hallway after class. Communication impacts the main spheres of our

lives: academic, professional, personal, and civic. The boundaries and borders between these

spheres are not solid, and there is much overlap. After all, much of what goes on in a classroom

is present in a professional environment, and the classroom has long been seen as a place to

prepare students to become active and responsible citizens in their civic lives. You might have a

section of your course that is taught in a service-learning format, which means you’ll take these

skills and apply them in a community experience. The philosophy behind this approach is

called integrative learning, which encourages students to reflect on how the content they

are learning connects to other classes they have taken or are taking, their professional

goals, and their civic responsibilities.


It’s probably not difficult to get you, as students in a communication class, to see the relevance

of communication to your academic lives. At least during this semester, studying communication

is important to earn a good grade in the class, right? Beyond the relevance to your grade in this

class, try to make explicit connections between this course and courses you have taken before

and are currently taking. Then, when you leave this class, connect the content in future classes

back to what you learned here. If you can begin to see these connections now, you can build on

the foundational communication skills you learn in here to become a more competent

communicator, which will undoubtedly also benefit you as a student.

Aside from wanting to earn a good grade in this class, you may also be genuinely interested in

becoming a better communicator. If that’s the case, you are in luck because research shows that

even people who have poor communication skills can improve a wide range of verbal, nonverbal,

and interpersonal communication skills by taking introductory communication courses (Zabava

& Wolvin, 1993). Communication skills are also tied to academic success. Poor listening skills

were shown to contribute significantly to failure in a person’s first year of college. Also, students

who take a communication course report more confidence in their communication abilities, and

these students have higher grade point averages and are less likely to drop out of school. Much of

what we do in a classroom such as interpersonal interactions with our classmates, professors,

along with actively listening will be discussed in this textbook. These lessons can be used to

build a foundation of good communication skills and knowledge that can carry you through to

other contexts.


Good communication skills can help you succeed in academic settings and set you up for success

post-graduation. © Thinkstock


The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) has found that employers most

desire good communication skills in the college graduates they may hire (NACE, 2010). Desired

communication skills vary from career to career, but again, this textbook provides a foundation

onto which you can build communication skills specific to your major or field of study. Research

has shown that introductory communication courses provide important skills necessary for

functioning in entry-level jobs, including listening, writing, motivating/persuading, interpersonal

skills, informational interviewing, and small-group problem solving (DiSalvo,

1980). Interpersonal communication skills are also highly sought after by potential employers,

consistently ranking in the top ten in national surveys (NACE, 2010). Poor listening skills, lack

of conciseness, and inability to give constructive feedback have been identified as potential

communication challenges in professional contexts. Employers appreciate good listening skills

and the ability to communicate concisely because efficiency and clarity are often directly tied to

productivity and success in terms of profit or task/project completion. Despite the well-

documented need for communication skills in the professional world, some individuals still resist

participating in communication training. Perhaps people think they already have good

communication skills or can improve their skills on their own. While either of these may be true

for some, studying communication can only help. In such a competitive job market, being able to


document that you have received communication instruction and training from communication

professionals (the faculty in your communication department) can give you the edge needed to

stand out from other applicants or employees.

Image by Keshav Naidu from Pixabay


Many individuals know from personal experience that communication forms and maintains

relationships along with also having the ability to end those relationships. In this book, we will

learn specific vocabulary and develop foundational knowledge of communication concepts and

theories along with gaining the tools needed to make sense of these experiences. Having a

vocabulary to name the communication phenomena in our lives does indeed increase our ability

to consciously alter our communication to achieve our personal goals.


Chapter 1.6 Communication Culture, Context, Learned,

Rules and Norms

Communication Is Guided by Culture and Context

Context is a dynamic component of the communication process. Culture and context also

influence how we perceive and define communication. Western culture tends to put more value

on senders than receivers and also on the content rather the context of a message. These cultural

values are reflected in our definitions and models of communication. The United States is

considered an individualistic culture, where emphasis is put on individual expression and

success. Japan is considered a collectivistic culture, where emphasis is put on group cohesion

and harmony. These are strong cultural values that are embedded in how we learn to

communicate. In many collectivistic cultures, there is more emphasis placed on silence and

nonverbal context. Whether in the United States, Japan, or another country, people are socialized

from birth to communication in culturally specific ways that vary by context.

Communication Is Learned

Most people are born with the capacity and ability to communicate, but everyone communicates

differently. This is because communication is learned rather than innate. As we have already

seen, communication patterns are relative to the context and culture in which one is

communicating, and many cultures have distinct languages consisting of symbols.

Photo by Duy Pham on Unsplash


A key principle of communication is that it is symbolic. Communication is symbolic in that the

words that make up our language systems do not directly correspond to something in reality.

Instead, they stand in for or symbolize something. The fact that communication varies so much

among people, contexts, and cultures illustrates the principle that meaning is not inherent in the

words we use. For example, let’s say you go to France on vacation and see the word poisson on

the menu. Unless you know how to read French, you will not know that the symbol is the same

as the English symbol fish. Those two words don’t look the same at all, yet they symbolize the

same object. If you went by how the word looks alone, you might think that the French word for

fish is more like the English word poison and avoid choosing that for your dinner. Putting a

picture of a fish on a menu would definitely help a foreign tourist understand what they are

ordering, since the picture is an actual representation of the object rather than a symbol for it.

All symbolic communication is learned, negotiated, and dynamic. We know that the letters b-o-

o-k refer to a bound object with multiple written pages. We also know that the letters t-r-u-c-

k refer to a vehicle with a bed in the back for hauling things. But if we learned in school that the

letters t-r-u-c-k referred to a bound object with written pages and b-o-o-k referred to a vehicle

with a bed in the back, then that would make just as much sense, because the letters don’t

actually refer to the object and the word itself only has the meaning that we assign to it.

We are all socialized into different languages, but we also speak different “languages” based on

the situation we are in. For example, in some cultures it is considered inappropriate to talk about

family or health issues in public, but it wouldn’t be odd to overhear people in a small town

grocery store in the United States talking about their children or their upcoming surgery. There

are some communication patterns shared by very large numbers of people and some that are

particular to a dyad—best friends, for example, who have their own inside terminology and

expressions that wouldn’t make sense to anyone else. These examples aren’t on the same scale as

differing languages, but they still indicate that communication is learned. They also illustrate

how rules and norms influence how we communicate.

Rules and Norms

Whether verbal or nonverbal, mediated or interpersonal, our communication is guided by rules

and norms.

Phatic communion is an instructive example of how we communicate under the influence of

rules and norms (Senft, 2009). Phatic communion refers to scripted and routine verbal

interactions that are intended to establish social bonds rather than actually exchange

meaning. When you pass your professor in the hall, the exchange may go as follows:

Person Dialog

Student: “Hey, how are you?”

Professor: “Fine, how are you?”

Student: “Fine.”

What is the point of this interaction? It surely isn’t to actually inquire as to each other’s well-

being. We have similar phatic interactions when we make comments on the weather or the fact


that it’s Monday. We often joke about phatic communion because we see that is pointless, at

least on the surface. The student and professor might as well just pass each other in the hall and

say the following to each other:

Person Dialog

Student: “Generic greeting question.”

Professor: “Generic greeting response and question.”

Student: “Generic response.”

The term phatic communion derives from the Greek word phatos, which means “spoken,”

and the word communion, which means “connection or bond.” As we discussed earlier,

communication helps us meet our relational needs. In addition to finding communion through

food or religion, we also find communion through our words. But the degree to which and in

what circumstances we engage in phatic communion is also influenced by norms and rules.

Generally, US Americans find silence in social interactions awkward, which is one sociocultural

norm that leads to phatic communion, because we fill the silence with pointless words to meet

the social norm. It is also a norm to greet people when you encounter them, especially if you

know them. We all know not to unload our physical and mental burdens on the person who asks,

“How are you?” or go through our “to do” list with the person who asks, “What’s up?” Instead,

we conform to social norms through this routine type of verbal exchange.


Rules and norms guide much of our communication. Think of all the unspoken norms for

behavior in a crowded elevator. © Thinkstock

Phatic communion, like most aspects of communication, is culturally relative as well. While

most cultures engage in phatic communion, the topics of and occasions for phatic communion

vary. Scripts for greetings in the United States are common, but scripts for leaving may be more

common in another culture. Asking about someone’s well-being may be acceptable phatic

communion in one culture, and asking about the health of someone’s family may be more

common in another.


Chapter 1.7 Communication Meets Needs

You hopefully now see that communication is far more than the transmission of information. The

exchange of messages and information is important for many reasons, but it is not enough to

meet the various needs we have as human beings. While the content of our communication may

help us achieve certain physical and instrumental needs, it also feeds into our identities and

relationships in ways that far exceed the content of what we say.

Physical Needs

Physical needs include needs that keep our bodies and minds functioning. Communication,

which we most often associate with our brain, mouth, eyes, and ears, actually has many more

connections to and effects on our physical body and well-being. At the most basic level,

communication can alert others that our physical needs are not being met. Even babies cry when

they are hungry or sick to alert their caregiver of these physical needs. Asking a friend if you can

stay at their house because you got evicted or kicked out of your own place will help you meet

your physical need for shelter. There are also strong ties between the social function of

communication and our physical and psychological health. Human beings are social creatures,

which makes communication important for our survival. In fact, prolonged isolation has been

shown to severely damage a human (Williams & Zadro, 2001). Aside from surviving,

communication skills can also help us thrive. People with good interpersonal communication

skills are better able to adapt to stress and have less depression and anxiety (Hargie, 2011).

Communication can also be therapeutic, which can lessen or prevent physical problems. A

research study found that spouses of suicide or accidental death victims who did not

communicate about the death with their friends were more likely to have health problems such as

weight change and headaches than those who did talk with friends (Greene, Derlega, &

Mathews, 2006). Satisfying physical needs is essential for our physical functioning and survival.

But, in order to socially function and thrive, we must also meet instrumental, relational, and

identity needs.

Instrumental Needs

Instrumental needs include needs that help us get things done in our day-to-day lives and

achieve short- and long-term goals. We all have short- and long-term goals that we work on

every day. Fulfilling these goals is an ongoing communicative task, which means we spend much

of our time communicating for instrumental needs. Some common instrumental needs include

influencing others, getting information we need, or getting support (Burleson, Metts, & Kirch,

2000). In short, communication that meets our instrumental needs helps us “get things done.”


Communicating for instrumental needs helps us get things done. Think about how much

instrumental communication is required to build a house. © Thinkstock

To meet instrumental needs, we often use communication strategically. Politicians, parents,

bosses, and friends use communication to influence others in order to accomplish goals and meet

needs. There is a research area within communication that examines compliance-gaining

communication, or communication aimed at getting people to do something or act in a

particular way (Gass & Seiter, 1999). Compliance gaining and communicating for instrumental

needs is different from coercion, which forces or manipulates people into doing what you want.

Common Tactics Used for Compliance Gaining

• Offering rewards. Seeks compliance in a positive way, by promising returns, rewards, or

generally positive outcomes.

• Threatening punishment. Seeks compliance in a negative way, by threatening negative

consequences such as loss of privileges, grounding, or legal action.

• Using expertise. Seeks compliance by implying that one person “knows better” than the

other based on experience, age, education, or intelligence.

• Liking. Seeks compliance by acting friendly and helpful to get the other person into a

good mood before asking them to do something.

• Debt. Seeks compliance by calling in past favors and indicating that one person “owes”

the other.


• Altruism. Seeks compliance by claiming that one person only wants “what is best” for

the other and he or she is looking out for the other person’s “best interests.”

• Esteem. Seeks compliance by claiming that other people will think more highly of the

person if he or she complies or think less of the person if he or she does not comply.

Relational Needs

Relational needs include needs that help us maintain social bonds and interpersonal

relationships. Communicating to fill our instrumental needs helps us function on many levels,

but communicating for relational needs helps us achieve the social relating that is an essential

part of being human. Communication meets our relational needs by giving us a tool through

which to develop, maintain, and end relationships. In order to develop a relationship, we may use

nonverbal communication to assess whether someone is interested in talking to us or not, then

use verbal communication to strike up a conversation. Then, through the mutual process of self-

disclosure, a relationship forms over time. Once formed, we need to maintain a relationship, so

we use communication to express our continued liking of someone. We can verbally say things

like “You’re such a great friend” or engage in behaviors that communicate our investment in the

relationship, like organizing a birthday party. Although our relationships vary in terms of

closeness and intimacy, all individuals have relational needs and all relationships require

maintenance. Finally, communication or the lack of it helps us end relationships. We may

communicate our deteriorating commitment to a relationship by avoiding communication with

someone, verbally criticizing him or her, or explicitly ending a relationship. From spending time

together, to checking in with relational partners by text, social media, or face-to-face, to

celebrating accomplishments, to providing support during difficult times, communication forms

the building blocks of our relationships. Communicating for relational needs isn’t always

positive though. Some people’s “relational needs” are negative, unethical, or even illegal.

Identity Needs

Identity needs include our need to present ourselves to others and be thought of in

particular and desired ways. What adjectives would you use to describe yourself? Are you

funny, smart, loyal, or quirky? Your answer isn’t just based on who you think you are, since

much of how we think of ourselves is based on our communication with other people. Our

identity changes as we progress through life, but communication is the primary means of

establishing our identity and fulfilling our identity needs. Communication allows us to present

ourselves to others in particular ways. Just as many companies, celebrities, and politicians create

a public image, we desire to present different faces in different contexts. Goffman (1959)

compared self-presentation to a performance and suggested we all perform different roles in

different contexts. Indeed, competent communicators can successfully manage how others

perceive them by adapting to situations and contexts. A parent may perform the role of stern

head of household, supportive caregiver with a shoulder to cry on, or hip and culturally aware

friend based on the situation they are in with their child. A newly hired employee may initially

perform the role of motivated and agreeable coworker but later perform more leadership

behaviors after being promoted.


Communication Is a Process

Communication is a process that involves an interchange of verbal and/or nonverbal messages

within a continuous and dynamic sequence of events (Hargie, 2011). When we refer to

communication as a process, we imply that it doesn’t have a distinct beginning and end, or

follow a predetermined sequence of events. It can be difficult to trace the origin of a

communication encounter, since communication doesn’t always follow a neat and discernible

format, which makes studying communication interactions or phenomena difficult. Any time we

pull one part of the process out for study. or closer examination, we artificially “freeze” the

process in order to examine it, which is not something that is possible when communicating in

real life. But sometimes scholars want to isolate a particular stage in the process in order to gain

insight by studying, for example, feedback or eye contact. Doing that changes the very process

itself, and by the time you have examined a particular stage or component of the process, the

entire process may have changed. These snapshots are useful for scholarly interrogation of the

communication process, and they can also help us evaluate our own communication practices,

troubleshoot a problematic encounter we had, or slow things down to account for various

contexts before we engage in communication (Dance & Larson, 1976).

In the transaction model of communication, we communicate using multiple channels along with

sending and receiving messages simultaneously. There are also messages and other stimuli

around us that we never actually perceive because we can only attend to so much information at

one time. The dynamic nature of communication allows us to examine some principles of

communication that are related to its process related nature.

Some scholars have put forth definitions of communication stating that messages must be

intended for others to perceive in order for a message to “count” as communication. This narrow

definition only includes messages that are tailored or at least targeted to a particular person or

group and excludes any communication that is involuntary (Dance & Larson, 1976). Since intra-

personal communication happens in our heads and isn’t intended for others to perceive, it

wouldn’t be considered communication. But imagine the following scenario: You and your best

friend are riding on a bus and you are sitting across from them. As your friend sits thinking about

their stressful week ahead, they wrinkle up my forehead, shake their head, and put their head in

their hands. Upon seeing this you think, “They must be pretty stressed out.” In this scenario, did

communication take place? If your friend really didn’t intend for anyone to see the nonverbal

communication that went along with their intra-personal communication, then this definition

would say no. But even though words weren’t exchanged, you still generated meaning from the

communication they were unintentionally sending. Based on the definition of communication,

the scenario above would count as communication, but the scenario also illustrates that

communication messages are sent both intentionally and unintentionally.


Since communication is such a dynamic process, it is difficult to determine where communication

begins and ends. © Thinkstock

Communication messages also vary in terms of the amount of conscious thought that goes into

their creation. In general, we can say that intentional communication usually includes more

conscious thought while unintentional communication usually includes less. For example, some

communication is reactionary and almost completely involuntary. We often scream when we are

frightened, say “ouch!” when we stub our toe, and stare blankly when we are bored. This isn’t

the richest type of communication, but it is communication. Some of our interactions are slightly

more substantial and include more conscious thought but are still very routine. For example, we

say “excuse me” when we need to get past someone, say “thank you” when someone holds the

door for us, or say “what’s up?” to our neighbor we pass every day in the hall. The reactionary

and routine types of communication just discussed are common, but the messages most studied

by communication scholars are considered constructed communication. These messages include

more conscious thought and intention than reactionary or routine messages and often go beyond

information exchange to also meet relational and identity needs. A higher degree of conscious

thought and intention doesn’t necessarily mean the communication will be effective, understood,


or ethical. In addition, ethical communicators cannot avoid responsibility for the effects of what

they say by claiming they didn’t “intend” for their communication to cause an undesired effect.

Communication has short- and long-term effects, which illustrates the idea that communication

is irreversible.

The dynamic nature of the communication process also means that communication is

irreversible. After an initial interaction has gone wrong, characters in sitcoms and romantic

comedies often use the line “Can we just start over?” As handy as it would be to be able to turn

the clock back and “redo” a failed or embarrassing communication encounter, it is impossible.

Miscommunication can occur regardless of the degree of conscious thought and intention put

into a message. For example, if David tells a joke that offends his coworker Beth, then he can’t

just say, “Oh, forget I said that,” or “I didn’t intend for it to be offensive.” The message has been

sent and it can’t be taken back. I’m sure we have all wished we could take something back that

we have said. Conversely, when communication goes well, we often wish we could recreate it.

However, in addition to communication being irreversible, it is also unrepeatable.

If you try to recreate a good job interview experience by asking the same questions and telling

the same stories about yourself, you can’t expect the same results. Even trying to repeat a

communication encounter with the same person won’t feel the same or lead to the same results.

We have already learned the influence that contexts have on communication, and those contexts

change frequently. Even if the words and actions stay the same, the physical, psychological,

social, relational, and cultural contexts will vary and ultimately change the communication

encounter. Have you ever tried to recount a funny or interesting experience to a friend who

doesn’t really seem that impressed? These “I guess you had to be there” moments illustrate the

fact that communication is unrepeatable.


1.8 The Communication Process

Communication is a complex process, and it is difficult to determine where or with whom a

communication encounter starts and ends. Models of communication simplify the process by

providing a visual representation of the various aspects of a communication encounter. Some

models explain communication in more detail than others, but even the most complex model still

doesn’t recreate what we experience in even a moment of a communication encounter. Models

still serve a valuable purpose for students of communication because they allow us to see

specific concepts and steps within the process of communication, define communication, and

apply communication concepts. When you become aware of how communication functions, you

can think more deliberately through your communication encounters, which can help you better

prepare for future communication and learn from your previous communication. The three

models of communication we will discuss are the transmission, interaction, and transaction


Although these models of communication differ, they contain some common elements. The first

two models we will discuss, the transmission model and the interaction model, include the

following parts: participants, messages, encoding, decoding, and channels. In communication

models, the participants are the senders and/or receivers of messages in a communication

encounter. The message is the verbal or nonverbal content being conveyed from sender to

receiver. For example, when you say “Hello!” to your friend, you are sending a message of

greeting that will be received by your friend.


Although models of communication provide a useful blueprint to see how the communication

process works, they are not complex enough to capture what communication is like as it is

experienced. © Thinkstock

The internal cognitive process that allows participants to send, receive, and understand messages

is the encoding and decoding process. Encoding is the process of turning thoughts into

communication. As we will learn later, the level of conscious thought that goes into encoding

messages varies. Decoding is the process of turning communication into thoughts. For

example, you may realize you’re hungry and encode the following message to send to your

roommate: “I’m hungry. Do you want to get pizza tonight?” As your roommate receives the

message, he decodes your communication and turns it back into thoughts in order to make

meaning out of it. Of course, we don’t just communicate verbally—we have various options, or

channels for communication. Encoded messages are sent through a channel, or a sensory route

on which a message travels, to the receiver for decoding. While communication can be sent and

received using any sensory route (sight, smell, touch, taste, or sound), most communication

occurs through visual (sight) and/or auditory (sound) channels. If your roommate has

headphones on and is engrossed in a video game, you may need to get his attention by waving

your hands before you can ask him about dinner.

Transmission Model of Communication

The transmission model of communication describes communication as a linear, one-way

process in which a sender intentionally transmits a message to a receiver (Ellis & McClintock,

1990). This model focuses on the sender and message within a communication encounter.

Although the receiver is included in the model, this role is viewed as more of a target or end

point rather than part of an ongoing process. We are left to presume that the receiver either

successfully receives and understands the message or does not. The scholars who designed this

model extended on a linear model proposed by Aristotle centuries before that included a speaker,

message, and hearer. They were also influenced by the advent and spread of new communication

technologies of the time such as telegraphy and radio, and you can probably see these technical

influences within the model (Shannon & Weaver, 1949). Think of how a radio message is sent

from a person in the radio studio to you listening in your car. The sender is the radio announcer

who encodes a verbal message that is transmitted by a radio tower through electromagnetic

waves (the channel) and eventually reaches your (the receiver’s) ears via an antenna and

speakers in order to be decoded. The radio announcer doesn’t really know if you receive his or

her message or not, but if the equipment is working and the channel is free of static, then there is

a good chance that the message was successfully received.


Figure 1.1 The Transmission Model of Communication

Since this model is sender and message focused, responsibility is put on the sender to help ensure

the message is successfully conveyed. This model emphasizes clarity and effectiveness, but it

also acknowledges that there are barriers to effective communication. Noise is anything that

interferes with a message being sent between participants in a communication encounter.

Even if a speaker sends a clear message, noise may interfere with a message being accurately

received and decoded. The transmission model of communication accounts for environmental

and semantic noise. Environmental noise is any physical noise present in a communication

encounter. Other people talking in a crowded diner could interfere with your ability to transmit a

message and have it successfully decoded. While environmental noise interferes with the

transmission of the message, semantic noise refers to noise that occurs in the encoding and

decoding process when participants do not understand a symbol. To use a technical example,

FM antennae can’t decode AM radio signals and vice versa. Likewise, most French speakers

can’t decode Swedish and vice versa. Semantic noise can also interfere in communication

between people speaking the same language because many words have multiple or unfamiliar


Although the transmission model may seem simple or even underdeveloped to us today, the

creation of this model allowed scholars to examine the communication process in new ways,

which eventually led to more complex models and theories of communication that we will

discuss more later. This model is not quite rich enough to capture dynamic face-to-face

interactions, but there are instances in which communication is one-way and linear, especially

with e-mail and texting. Think of text messaging for example. The transmission model of

communication is well suited for describing the act of text messaging since the sender isn’t sure


that the meaning was effectively conveyed or that the message was received at all. Noise can

also interfere with the transmission of a text. If you use an abbreviation the receiver doesn’t

know or the phone autocorrects to something completely different than you meant, then semantic

noise has interfered with the message transmission.

Interaction Model of Communication

The interaction model of communication describes communication as a process in which

participants alternate positions as sender and receiver and generate meaning by sending

messages and receiving feedback within physical and psychological contexts (Schramm,

1997). Rather than illustrating communication as a linear, one-way process, the interaction

model incorporates feedback, which makes communication a more interactive, two-way

process. Feedback includes messages sent in response to other messages. For example, your

instructor may respond to a point you raise during class discussion or you may point to the sofa

when your roommate asks you where the remote control is. The inclusion of a feedback loop also

leads to a more complex understanding of the roles of participants in a communication

encounter. Rather than having one sender, one message, and one receiver, this model has two

sender-receivers who exchange messages. Each participant alternates roles as sender and receiver

in order to keep a communication encounter going. Although this seems like a perceptible and

deliberate process, we alternate between the roles of sender and receiver very quickly and often

without conscious thought.

The interaction model is also less message focused and more interaction focused. While the

transmission model focused on how a message was transmitted and whether or not it was

received, the interaction model is more concerned with the communication process itself. In fact,

this model acknowledges that there are so many messages being sent at one time that many of

them may not even be received. Some messages are also unintentionally sent. Therefore,

communication isn’t judged effective or ineffective in this model based on whether or not a

single message was successfully transmitted and received.


Figure 1.2 The Interaction Model of Communication

The interaction model takes physical and psychological context into account. Physical

context includes the environmental factors in a communication encounter. The size, layout,

temperature, and lighting of a space influence our communication. Imagine the different physical

contexts in which job interviews take place and how that may affect your communication. I have

had job interviews on a sofa in a comfortable office, sitting around a large conference table, and

even once in an auditorium where I was positioned on the stage facing about twenty potential

colleagues seated in the audience. I’ve also been walked around campus to interview with

various people in temperatures below zero degrees. Although I was a little chilly when I got to

each separate interview, it wasn’t too difficult to warm up and go on with the interview. During a

job interview in Puerto Rico, however, walking around outside wearing a suit in near 90 degree

temperatures created a sweating situation that wasn’t pleasant to try to communicate through.

Whether it’s the size of the room, the temperature, or other environmental factors, it’s important

to consider the role that physical context plays in our communication.

Psychological context includes the mental and emotional factors in a communication

encounter. Stress, anxiety, and emotions are just some examples of psychological influences

that can affect our communication. I recently found out some troubling news a few hours before

a big public presentation. It was challenging to try to communicate because the psychological

noise triggered by the stressful news kept intruding into my other thoughts. Seemingly positive


psychological states, like experiencing the emotion of love, can also affect communication.

During the initial stages of a romantic relationship individuals may be so “love struck” that they

don’t see incompatible personality traits or don’t negatively evaluate behaviors they might

otherwise find off-putting. Feedback and context help make the interaction model a more useful

illustration of the communication process, but the transaction model views communication as a

powerful tool that shapes our realities beyond individual communication encounters.

Transaction Model of Communication

As the study of communication progressed, models expanded to account for more of the

communication process. Many scholars view communication as more than a process that is used

to carry on conversations and convey meaning. We don’t send messages like computers, and we

don’t neatly alternate between the roles of sender and receiver as an interaction unfolds. We also

can’t consciously decide to stop communicating, because communication is more than sending

and receiving messages. The transaction model differs from the transmission and interaction

models in significant ways, including the conceptualization of communication, the role of sender

and receiver, and the role of context (Barnlund, 1970).

To review, each model incorporates a different understanding of what communication is and

what communication does. The transmission model views communication as a thing, like an

information packet, that is sent from one place to another. From this view, communication is

defined as sending and receiving messages. The interaction model views communication as an

interaction in which a message is sent and then followed by a reaction (feedback), which is then

followed by another reaction, and so on. From this view, communication is defined as producing

conversations and interactions within physical and psychological contexts. The transaction

model views communication as integrated into our social realities in such a way that it helps us

not only understand them but also create and change them.

The transaction model of communication describes communication as a process in which

communicators generate social realities within social, relational, and cultural contexts. In

this model, we don’t just communicate to exchange messages; we communicate to create

relationships, form intercultural alliances, shape our self-concepts, and engage with others in

dialogue to create communities. In short, we don’t communicate about our realities;

communication helps to construct our realities.

The roles of sender and receiver in the transaction model of communication differ significantly

from the other models. Instead of labeling participants as senders and receivers, the people in a

communication encounter are referred to as communicators. Unlike the interaction model, which

suggests that participants alternate positions as sender and receiver, the transaction model

suggests that we are simultaneously senders and receivers. For example, on a first date, as you

send verbal messages about your interests and background, your date reacts nonverbally. You

don’t wait until you are done sending your verbal message to start receiving and decoding the

nonverbal messages of your date. Instead, you are simultaneously sending your verbal message

and receiving your date’s nonverbal messages. This is an important addition to the model

because it allows us to understand how we are able to adapt our communication—for example, a


verbal message—in the middle of sending it based on the communication we are simultaneously

receiving from our communication partner.

Figure 1.3 The Transaction Model of Communication

The transaction model also includes a more complex understanding of context. The interaction

model portrays context as physical and psychological influences that enhance or impede

communication. While these contexts are important, they focus on message transmission and

reception. Since the transaction model of communication views communication as a force that

shapes our realities before and after specific interactions occur, it must account for contextual

influences outside of a single interaction. To do this, the transaction model considers how social,

relational, and cultural contexts frame and influence our communication encounters.

Social context refers to the stated rules or unstated norms that guide communication. As

we are socialized into our various communities, we learn rules and implicitly pick up on norms

for communicating. Some common rules that influence social contexts include don’t lie to

people, don’t interrupt people, don’t pass people in line, greet people when they greet you, thank

people when they pay you a compliment, and so on. Parents and teachers often explicitly convey

these rules to their children or students. Rules may be stated over and over, and there may be

punishment for not following them.

Norms are social conventions that we pick up on through observation, practice, and trial and

error. We may not even know we are breaking a social norm until we notice people looking at us

strangely or someone corrects or teases us. For example, as a new employee you may over- or

underdress for the company’s holiday party because you don’t know the norm for formality.

Although there probably isn’t a stated rule about how to dress at the holiday party, you will

notice your error without someone having to point it out, and you will likely not deviate from the

norm again in order to save yourself any potential embarrassment. Even though breaking social

norms doesn’t result in the formal punishment that might be a consequence of breaking a social

rule, the social awkwardness we feel when we violate social norms is usually enough to teach us

that these norms are powerful even though they aren’t made explicit like rules. Norms even have

the power to override social rules in some situations. To go back to the examples of common

social rules mentioned before, we may break the rule about not lying if the lie is meant to save


someone from feeling hurt. We often interrupt close friends when we’re having an exciting

conversation, but we wouldn’t be as likely to interrupt a professor while they are lecturing. Since

norms and rules vary among people and cultures, relational and cultural contexts are also

included in the transaction model in order to help us understand the multiple contexts that

influence our communication.

Relational context includes the previous interpersonal history and type of relationship we

have with a person. We communicate differently with someone we just met versus someone

we’ve known for a long time. Initial interactions with people tend to be more highly scripted and

governed by established norms and rules, but when we have an established relational context, we

may be able to bend or break social norms and rules more easily. For example, you would likely

follow social norms of politeness and attentiveness and might spend the whole day cleaning the

house for the first time you invite your new neighbors to visit. Once the neighbors are in your

house, you may also make them the center of your attention during their visit. If you end up

becoming friends with your neighbors and establishing a relational context, you might not think

as much about having everything cleaned and prepared or even giving them your whole attention

during later visits. Since communication norms and rules also vary based on the type of

relationship people have, relationship type is also included in relational context. For example,

there are certain communication rules and norms that apply to a supervisor-supervisee

relationship that don’t apply to a brother-sister relationship and vice versa. Just as social norms

and relational history influence how we communicate, so does culture.

Cultural context includes various aspects of identities such as race, gender, nationality,

ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, and ability. It is important for us to understand that

whether we are aware of it or not, we all have multiple cultural identities that influence our

communication. Some people, especially those with identities that have been historically

marginalized, are regularly aware of how their cultural identities influence their communication

and influence how others communicate with them. Conversely, people with identities that are

dominant or in the majority may rarely, if ever, think about the role their cultural identities play

in their communication.

When cultural context comes to the forefront of a communication encounter, it can be difficult to

manage. Since intercultural communication creates uncertainty, it can deter people from

communicating across cultures or lead people to view intercultural communication as negative.

But if you avoid communicating across cultural identities, you will likely not get more

comfortable or competent as a communicator. Intercultural communication has the potential to

enrich various aspects of our lives. In order to communicate well within various cultural

contexts, it is important to keep an open mind and avoid making assumptions about others’

cultural identities. While you may be able to identify some aspects of the cultural context within

a communication encounter, there may also be cultural influences that you can’t see. A

competent communicator shouldn’t assume to know all the cultural contexts a person brings to

an encounter, since not all cultural identities are visible. As with the other contexts, it requires

skill to adapt to shifting contexts, and the best way to develop these skills is through practice and



Cultural context is influenced by numerous aspects of our identities and is not limited to race or

ethnicity. © Thinkstock


Key Takeaways

• Getting integrated: Interpersonal communication occurs between two or more people

whose lives are interdependent and mutually influence one another. These relationships

occur in academic, professional, personal, and civic contexts, and improving our

interpersonal communication competence can also improve our physical and

psychological health, enhance our relationships, and make us more successful in our


• There are functional aspects of interpersonal communication.

o We “get things done” in our relationships by communicating for instrumental

goals such as getting someone to do something for us, requesting or presenting

information, and asking for or giving support.

o We maintain our relationships by communicating for relational goals such as

putting your relational partner’s needs before your own, celebrating

accomplishments, spending time together, and checking in.

o We strategically project ourselves to be perceived in particular ways by

communicating for self-presentation goals such as appearing competent or


• There are cultural aspects of interpersonal communication.

o We create relationship cultures based on the relationship schemata we develop

through our interactions with our larger society and culture.

o We engage in relationship storytelling to create a sense of stability in the face of

change, to test our compatibility with potential relational partners, and to create a

sense of solidarity and belonging in established relationships.

o We create personal idioms such as nicknames that are unique to our particular

relationship and are unfamiliar to outsiders to create cohesiveness and solidarity.

o We establish relationship routines and rituals to help establish our relational

culture and bring a sense of comfort and predictability to our relationships.


1. Getting integrated: In what ways might interpersonal communication competence vary
among academic, professional, and civic contexts? What competence skills might be

more or less important in one context than in another?

2. Recount a time when you had a DTR talk. At what stage in the relationship was the talk?
What motivated you or the other person to initiate the talk? What was the result of the


3. Pick an important relationship and describe its relationship culture. When the relationship
started, what relationship schemata guided your expectations? Describe a relationship

story that you tell with this person or about this person. What personal idioms do you

use? What routines and rituals do you observe? What norms and rules do you follow?


Chapter 1 References

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D. (Eds.) Foundations of Communication Theory (pp. 83-92). New York, NY: Harper and Row.

Bruess, C. and Pearson, J. (1997). Interpersonal rituals in marriage and adult

friendship. Communication Monographs, 64(1), 35.

Burleson, B. R., Metts, S., and Kirch, M. W. (2000). Communication in close relationships. In C.

Hendrick and S. Hendrick (Eds.) Close relationships: A sourcebook (p. 247). Thousand Oaks,

CA: Sage.

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approach. New York, NY: Holt, Reinhart and Winston.

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communication. London: Edward Arnold.

Gass, R. H. and Seiter, J. S. (1999). Persuasion, social influence and compliance

gaining. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

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Greene, K., Derlega, V. J., and Mathews, A. (2006). Self-disclosure in personal relationships. In

A. Vangelisti and D. Perlman (Eds.) The Cambridge handbook of personal relationships (p.

421). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hargie, O. (2011). Skilled interpersonal interaction: Research, theory, and practice. London:


Keith, W. (2008) On the origins of speech as a discipline: James A. Winans and public speaking

as practical democracy. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 3(38), 239–58.

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communication: A multidisciplinary approach (p. 260). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

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to the internet. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

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and language use (pp. 26-33). Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Shannon, C. and Weaver, W. (1949). The mathematical theory of communication. Urbana, IL:

University of Illinois Press.

W. W. Muggles. (N.d.). Muggles. Retrieved from

Williams, K. D. and Zadro, L. (2001). Ostracism: On being ignored, excluded, and rejected. In

M. R. Leary (Ed.) Interpersonal rejection (pp. 21-54). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Zabava, W. S., and Wolvin, A. D. (1993). The differential impact of a basic communication

course on perceived communication competencies in class, work, and social

contexts. Communication Education, 42, 215–17.


Chapter 2.1 – Self-Disclosure and Interpersonal


Have you ever said too much on a first date? At a job interview? To a professor? Have you ever

posted something on Facebook only to return later to remove it? When self-disclosure works out

well, it can have positive effects for interpersonal relationships. Conversely, self-disclosure that

does not work out well can lead to embarrassment, lower self-esteem, and relationship

deterioration or even termination. As with all other types of communication, increasing your

competence regarding self-disclosure can have many positive effects.

PPCC Professor Experience

I once heard a song on the radio that made me think of my son. I found the lyrics (the poetry) of

the song and posted it on Facebook telling my son just how much this particular song made me

think of all of his incredible successes. I went to bed thinking “I am the best mother,

EVER!” The next morning, I saw I had a voice message on my phone. In a very respectful

voice, my son said, “Mom, I appreciate your love for me, but please don’t put it on

Facebook! This is private. Please delete!” Reluctantly, and with a little embarrassment, I

deleted the post. I disclosed a bit too much.

By supermattzor is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0


So what is self-disclosure? It could be argued that any verbal or nonverbal communication

reveals something about the self. The clothes we wear, a laugh, or an order at the drive-through

may offer glimpses into our personality or past, but they are not necessarily self-disclosure. Self-

disclosure is purposeful disclosure of personal information to another person. If I

purposefully wear the baseball cap of my favorite team to reveal my team loyalty to a new

friend, then this clothing choice constitutes self-disclosure. Self-disclosure doesn’t always have

to be deep to be useful or meaningful. Superficial self-disclosure, often in the form of “small

talk,” is key in initiating relationships that then move onto more personal levels of self-

disclosure. Telling a classmate your major or your hometown during the first week of school

carries relatively little risk but can build into a friendship that lasts beyond the class.

By KallArt is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Theories of Self-Disclosure

Social penetration theory states that as we get to know someone, we engage in a reciprocal

process of self-disclosure that changes in breadth and depth and affects how a relationship

develops. Depth refers to how personal or sensitive the information is, and breadth refers to the

range of topics discussed (Kathryn Greene, 2006). You may recall Shrek’s declaration that ogres

are like onions in the movie Shrek. While certain circumstances can lead to a rapid increase in

the depth and/or breadth of self-disclosure, the theory states that in most relationships people


gradually penetrate through the layers of each other’s personality like we peel the layers from an


“Day 235” by mitch98000 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Social penetration theory compares the process of self- disclosure to peeling back the layers of

an onion.

The theory also argues that people in a relationship balance needs that are sometimes in tension,

which is a dialectic. Balancing a dialectic is like walking a tightrope. You have to lean to one

side and eventually lean to another side to keep yourself balanced and prevent falling. The

constant back and forth allows you to stay balanced, even though you may not always be even,

or standing straight up. One of the key dialectics that must be negotiated is the tension between

openness and closedness (Kathryn Greene, “Self-Disclosure in Personal Relationships”, 2006).

We want to make ourselves open to others, through self-disclosure, but we also want to maintain

a sense of privacy.

We may also engage in self-disclosure for the purposes of social comparison. Social comparison

theory states that we evaluate ourselves based on how we compare with others (Hargie,

2006). We may disclose information about our intellectual aptitude or athletic abilities to see


how we relate to others. This type of comparison helps us decide whether we are superior or

inferior to others in a particular area. Disclosures about abilities or talents can also lead to self-

validation if the person to whom we disclose reacts positively. By disclosing information about

our beliefs and values, we can determine if they are the same as or different from others. Last,

we may disclose fantasies or thoughts to another to determine whether they are acceptable or

unacceptable. We can engage in social comparison as the discloser or the receiver of disclosures,

which may allow us to determine whether or not we are interested in pursuing a relationship with

another person.

The final theory of self-disclosure that we will discuss is the Johari window, which is named

after its creators Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham (Luft, 1969). The Johari window can be

applied to a variety of interpersonal interactions in order to help us understand what parts

of ourselves are open, hidden, blind, and unknown. To help understand the concept, think of a

window with four panes. As you can see in Figure 6.2 “Johari Window”, one axis of the window

represents things that are known to us, and the other axis represents things that are known to

others. The upper left pane contains open information that is known to us and to others. The

amount of information that is openly known to others varies based on relational context. When

you are with close friends, there is probably a lot of information already in the open pane, and

when you are with close family, there is also probably a lot of information in the open pane. The

information could differ, though, as your family might know much more about your past and

your friends more about your present. Conversely, there isn’t much information in the open pane

when we meet someone for the first time, aside from what the other person can guess based on

our nonverbal communication and appearance.

The bottom left pane contains hidden information that is known to us but not to others. As we are

getting to know someone, we engage in self-disclosure and move information from the “hidden”

to the “open” pane. By doing this, we decrease the size of our hidden area and increase the size

of our open area, which increases our shared reality. The reactions that we get from people as we

open up to them help us form our self-concepts and also help determine the trajectory of the

relationship. If the person reacts favorably to our disclosures and reciprocates disclosure, then

the cycle of disclosure continues and a deeper relationship may be forged.

The Process of Self-Disclosure

There are many decisions that go into the process of self-disclosure. We have many types of

information we can disclose, but we have to determine whether or not we will proceed with

disclosure by considering the situation and the potential risks. Then we must decide when,

where, and how to disclose. Since all these decisions will affect our relationships, we will

examine each one in turn.

Four main categories for disclosure include observations, thoughts, feelings, and needs (Hargie,

Skilled Interpersonal Interaction: Research, Theory, and Practice , 2011). Observations include

what we have done and experienced. For example, I could tell you that I live in a farmhouse in

Illinois. If I told you that I think my move from the city to the country was a good decision, I

would be sharing my thoughts, because I included a judgment about my experiences. Sharing

feelings includes expressing an emotion—for example, “I’m happy to wake up every morning


and look out at the corn fields. I feel lucky.” Last, we may communicate needs or wants by

saying something like “My best friend is looking for a job, and I really want him to move here,

too.” We usually begin disclosure with observations and thoughts and then move onto feelings

and needs as the relationship progresses. There are some exceptions to this. For example, we are

more likely to disclose deeply in crisis situations, and we may also disclose more than usual with

a stranger if we do not think we’ll meet the person again or do not share social networks.

Although we don’t often find ourselves in crisis situations, you may recall scenes from movies or

television shows where people who are trapped in an elevator or stranded after a plane crash

reveal their deepest feelings and desires. I imagine that we have all been in a situation where we

said more about ourselves to a stranger than we normally would.

Generally speaking, some people are naturally more transparent and willing to self- disclose,

while others are more opaque and hesitant to reveal personal information (Jourard, 1964).

Interestingly, recent research suggests that the pervasiveness of reality television, much of which

includes participants who are very willing to disclose personal information, has led to a general

trend among reality television viewers to engage in self-disclosure through other mediated means

such as blogging and video sharing (Lakaff, 2009). Whether it is online or face-to-face, there are

other reasons for disclosing or not, including self-focused, other-focused, interpersonal, and

situational reasons (Kathryn Greene, “Self-Disclosure in Personal Relationships”, 2006).

Self-focused reasons for disclosure include having a sense of relief or catharsis, clarifying or

correcting information, or seeking support. Self-focused reasons for not disclosing include fear

of rejection and loss of privacy. In other words, we may disclose to get something off our chest

in hopes of finding relief, or we may not disclose out of fear that the other person may react

negatively to our revelation. Other-focused reasons for disclosure include a sense of

responsibility to inform or educate. Other-focused reasons for not disclosing include feeling like

the other person will not protect the information. If someone mentions that their car wouldn’t

start this morning and you disclose that you are good at working on cars, you’ve disclosed to

help out the other person. On the other side, you may hold back disclosure about your new

relationship from your coworker because he or she’s known to be loose-lipped with other

people’s information. Interpersonal reasons for disclosure involve desires to maintain a trusting

and intimate relationship. Interpersonal reasons for not disclosing include fear of losing the

relationship or deeming the information irrelevant to the particular relationship. Your decision to

disclose an affair in order to be open with your partner and hopefully work through the aftermath

together or withhold that information out of fear he or she will leave you is based on

interpersonal reasons. Finally, situational reasons may be the other person being available,

directly asking a question, or being directly involved in or affected by the information being

disclosed. Situational reasons for not disclosing include the person being unavailable, a lack of

time to fully discuss the information, or the lack of a suitable (i.e., quiet, private) place to talk.

For example, finding yourself in a quiet environment where neither person is busy could lead to

disclosure, while a house full of company may not.

Deciding when to disclose something in a conversation may not seem as important as deciding

whether or not to disclose at all. But deciding to disclose and then doing it at an awkward time in

a conversation could lead to negative results. As far as timing goes, you should consider whether

to disclose the information early, in the middle, or late in a conversation (Kathryn Greene, “Self-


Disclosure in Personal Relationships”, 2006). If you get something off your chest early in a

conversation, you may ensure that there’s plenty of time to discuss the issue and that you don’t

end up losing your nerve. If you wait until the middle of the conversation, you have some time to

feel out the other person’s mood and set up the tone for your disclosure. For example, if you

meet up with your roommate to tell her that you’re planning on moving out and she starts by

saying, “I’ve had the most terrible day!” the tone of the conversation has now shifted, and you

may not end up making your disclosure. If you start by asking her how she’s doing, and things

seem to be going well, you may be more likely to follow through with the disclosure. You may

choose to disclose late in a conversation if you’re worried about the person’s reaction. If you

know they have an appointment or you have to go to class at a certain time, disclosing just before

that time could limit your immediate exposure to any negative reaction. However, if the person

doesn’t have a negative reaction, they could still become upset because they don’t have time to

discuss the disclosure with you.

Sometimes self-disclosure is unplanned. Someone may ask you a direct question or disclose

personal information, which leads you to reciprocate disclosure. In these instances, you may not

manage your privacy well because you haven’t had time to think through any potential risks. In

the case of a direct question, you may feel comfortable answering, you may give an indirect or

general answer, or you may feel enough pressure or uncertainty to give a dishonest answer. If

someone unexpectedly discloses, you may feel the need to reciprocate by also disclosing

something personal. If you’re uncomfortable doing this, you can still provide support for the

other person by listening and giving advice or feedback.

Once you’ve decided when and where to disclose information to another person, you need to

figure out the best channel to use. Face-to-face disclosures may feel more genuine or intimate

given the shared physical presence and ability to receive verbal and nonverbal communication.

There is also an opportunity for immediate verbal and nonverbal feedback, such as asking

follow-up questions or demonstrating support or encouragement through a hug. The immediacy

of a face- to-face encounter also means you have to deal with the uncertainty of the reaction

you’ll get. If the person reacts negatively, you may feel uncomfortable, pressured to stay, or even

fearful. If you choose a mediated channel such as an e-mail or a letter, text, note, or phone call,

you may seem less genuine or personal, but you have more control over the situation in that you

can take time to carefully choose your words, and you do not have to immediately face the

reaction of the other person. Also, you can communicate with the other person even if both of

you are busy, and the mediated channel can become the prelude to a personal interaction. This

can be beneficial if you fear a negative or potentially violent reaction. Another disadvantage of

choosing a mediated channel, however, is the loss of nonverbal communication that can add

much context to a conversation. Although our discussion of the choices involved in self-

disclosure so far have focused primarily on the discloser, self-disclosure is an interpersonal

process that has much to do with the receiver of the disclosure.

The final theory of self-disclosure that we will discuss is the Johari window, which is named

after its creators Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham (Luft, 1969). The Johari window can be

applied to a variety of interpersonal interactions in order to help us understand what parts

of ourselves are open, hidden, blind, and unknown. To help understand the concept, think of a

window with four panes. As you can see in Figure 6.2 “Johari Window”, one axis of the window


represents things that are known to us, and the other axis represents things that are known to

others. The upper left pane contains open information that is known to us and to others. The

amount of information that is openly known to others varies based on relational context. When

you are with close friends, there is probably a lot of information already in the open pane, and

when you are with close family, there is also probably a lot of information in the open pane. The

information could differ, though, as your family might know much more about your past and

your friends more about your present. Conversely, there isn’t much information in the open pane

when we meet someone for the first time, aside from what the other person can guess based on

our nonverbal communication and appearance.

The bottom left pane contains hidden information that is known to us but not to others. As we are

getting to know someone, we engage in self-disclosure and move information from the “hidden”

to the “open” pane. By doing this, we decrease the size of our hidden area and increase the size

of our open area, which increases our shared reality. The reactions that we get from people as we

open up to them help us form our self-concepts and also help determine the trajectory of the

relationship. If the person reacts favorably to our disclosures and reciprocates disclosure, then

the cycle of disclosure continues and a deeper relationship may be forged.

Figure 2.1 Johari Window

Open or Hidden Blind or Unknown



The upper right pane contains information that is known to others but not to us. For example, we

may be unaware of the fact that others see us as pushy or as a leader. Looking back to self-

discrepancy theory from Chapter 3 “Communication and Perception”, we can see that people

who have a disconnect between how they see themselves and how others see them may have

more information in their blind pane. Engaging in perception checking and soliciting feedback

from others can help us learn more about our blind area.

The bottom right pane represents our unknown area, as it contains information not known to

ourselves or others. To become more self-aware, we must solicit feedback from others to learn

more about our blind pane, but we must also explore the unknown pane. To discover the

unknown, we have to get out of our comfort zones and try new things. We have to pay attention

to the things that excite or scare us and investigate them more to see if we can learn something

new about ourselves. By being more aware of what is contained in each of these panes and how

we can learn more about each one, we can more competently engage in self-disclosure and use

this process to enhance our interpersonal relationships.

Effects of Disclosure on the Relationship

The process of self-disclosure is circular. An individual self-discloses, the recipient of the

disclosure reacts, and the original discloser processes the reaction. How the receiver interprets

and responds to the disclosure are key elements of the process. Part of the response results from


the receiver’s attribution of the cause of the disclosure, which may include dispositional,

situational, and interpersonal attributions’ (Crystal Jiang, 2011). Let’s say your coworker

discloses that she thinks the new boss got his promotion because of favoritism instead of merit.

You may make a dispositional attribution that connects the cause of her disclosure to her

personality by thinking, for example, that she is outgoing, inappropriate for the workplace, or

fishing for information. If the personality trait is positive, then the reaction to the disclosure is

more likely to be positive. Situational attributions identify the cause of a disclosure with the

context or surroundings in which it takes place. For example, you may attribute your

coworker’s disclosure to the fact that you agreed to go to lunch with her. Interpersonal

attributions identify the relationship between sender and receiver as the cause of the

disclosure. So if you think you are best friends at work, you think your unique relationship

allowed you to speak freely. If the receiver’s primary attribution is interpersonal, relational

intimacy and closeness will likely be reinforced more than if the attribution is dispositional or

situational. Think about the times you’ve vented to someone you trusted at work, rather than

venting directly to your manager or boss.

So you can see, the receiver’s role doesn’t end with attribution and response. There may be

added burdens if the information shared with you is a secret. As was noted earlier, there are clear

risks involved in self-disclosure of intimate or potentially stigmatizing information if the receiver

of the disclosure fails to keep that information secure. As the receiver of a secret, you may feel

the need to unburden yourself from the co-ownership of the information by sharing it with

someone else (Valerian J. Derlega, 1993). This is not always a bad thing. You may strategically

tell someone who is removed from the social network of the person who told you the secret to

keep the information secure.

Although unburdening yourself can be a relief, sometimes people tell secrets they were entrusted

to keep for less productive reasons. A research study of office workers found that 77 percent of

workers that received a disclosure and were told not to tell anyone else told at least two other

people by the end of the day! (Hargie, Skilled Interpersonal Interaction: Research, Theory, and

Practice , 2011). They reported doing so to receive attention for having inside information or to

demonstrate their power or connection. Needless to say, spreading someone’s private disclosure

without permission for personal gain does not demonstrate communication competence. When

the cycle of disclosure ends up going well for the discloser, there is likely to be a greater sense of

relational intimacy and self-worth, and there are also positive psychological effects such as

reduced stress and increased feelings of social support.

Self-disclosure can also have effects on physical health. Spouses of suicide or accidental death

victims who did not disclose information to their friends were more likely to have more health

problems such as weight change and headaches and suffer from more intrusive thoughts about

the death than those who did talk with friends (Kathryn Greene, “Self-Disclosure in Personal

Relationships”, 2006).


Chapter 2.2 – Media, the Self, and Relationships

Think about some ways that social media has changed the way you think about yourself and the

way you think about ,and interact, in your relationships. The technological changes of the past

twenty years have affected you and your relationships whether you are a heavy user, or not. Even

people who don’t engage with technology as much as others are still affected by it, since the

people they interact with, use, and are affected by social media to varying degrees.

Media and the Self

The explicit way we become conscious of self-presentation when using new media, social

networking sites (SNSs) in particular, may lead to an increase in self-consciousness. The things

that we “like” on social media, the pictures we are tagged in, and the news stories that we share

on our timeline all come together to create a database of information that friends can access to

form impressions of us. Because we know that others are making impressions based on this

database of information, and because we have control over most of what appears in this database,

people may become overly focused on crafting their online presence to the point that they

neglect their face to face relationships that are offline. This extra level of self-consciousness has

also manifested in an increase in self-image and self-esteem issues for some users. For example,

some cosmetic surgeons have noted an uptick in patients coming in to have facial surgeries or

procedures specifically because they don’t like the way their chin looks on a webcam or because

they feel self-conscious about the way they look in the numerous digital pictures that are now

passed around and stored. Since social media is being increasingly used in professional

capacities, some people are also seeking cosmetic surgery as a way of investing in their personal

brand for an edge in a tight job market (Roy, 2012).

The personal and social nature of this media also creates an openness that isn’t necessarily part

of our personal social reality. Some people try to address this problem by creating more than one

social media account. People may also have difficulty managing their different commitments,

especially if they develop a dependency to media devices and/or platforms. Social media can

blur the lines between personal and professional in many ways, which can be positive and

negative. For example, the constant connection offered by laptops and smartphones increases the

expectation that people will continue working from home or while on vacation. At the same

time, however, people may use social media for non-work-related purposes while at work, which

may help even out the work/life balance. Cyberslacking, which is the non-work-related use of

social media while on the job, is seen as a problem in many organizations. However, some

research shows that occasional use of social media for personal reasons while at work can have

positive effects, as it may relieve boredom, help reduce stress, or lead to greater job satisfaction

(Ellison & Vitak, 2011).

Personal devices bring with them a sense of constant connectivity that makes us “reachable”

nearly all the time and can be comforting or anxiety inducing. While this can be convenient and

make things more efficient in some cases, it can also create a dependence that we might not be

aware of until those connections are broken, or become unreliable. Today, people report a sense

of panic when they accidentally leave their cell phone at home. You don’t have to look too far to


see people buried in their smartphones, tablets, or laptops all around. While some people have

learned to rely on peripheral vision in order to text and walk at the same time, others aren’t so

graceful. Take a look at the hallways of our colleges. You will see signs that say, “Don’t text and

walk!” People have walked into walls, other people, and injured themselves by simply not

paying attention. It’s become a part of our reality. The city of London, England created “text

safe” areas with padding on street signs and lamp poles to help prevent injuries when people

inevitably bump into them while engrossed in their gadgets’ screens.

Simon Bramwell is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Additionally, a survey conducted in the United Kingdom found that being away from social

networks causes more anxiety than being a user of them. Another study found that 73 percent of

people would panic if they lost their smartphone. (Fitzgerald, 2012).

Of course, social media can also increase self-esteem or have other social benefits. A recent

survey of fifteen thousand women found that 48 percent of the respondents felt that social media

helped them stay in touch with others while also adding a little stress in terms of over

stimulation. Forty-two percent didn’t mention the stress of over stimulation and focused more on

the positive effects of being in touch with others and the world in general. When asked about

how social media affects their social lives, 30 percent of the women felt that increased use of

social media helped them be more social offline as well (Kintzer, 2012). Other research supports

this finding for both genders, finding that Facebook can help people with social anxiety feel

more confident and socially connected (Ryan & Xenos, 2011).


Media and Interpersonal Relationships

How does social media affect our interpersonal relationships, if at all? This is a question that has

been addressed by scholars, commentators, and people in general. To provide some perspective,

similar questions and concerns have been raised along with each major change in communication

technology. Social media, however, has been the primary communication shift in the last few

generations, which likely accounts for the attention it receives. Some scholars in sociology have

noted the negative effects of technology on society, and relationships in particular, saying that

the quality of relationships is deteriorating and the strength of connections is

weakening (Hessey, 2009). On the flip side, there are positive effects of social media as we have

the ability to reach out to one another with speed that enables participants to “speak” honestly

and clearly when a face-to-face interaction might not be possible.

“Typey typey” by Clover_1 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Facebook has greatly influenced our use of the word friend. When someone “friends you” on

Facebook, it doesn’t automatically mean that you now have the closeness and intimacy that you

have with some offline friends. And research shows that people don’t regularly accept friend

requests from, or send them to, people they haven’t met, preferring instead to have met a person


at least once before accepting (Hessey, 2009). Some users, especially adolescents, engage in

what is called “friend-collecting behavior,” which entails users friending people they don’t know

personally, or that they wouldn’t talk to in person, in order to increase the size of their online

network (Christofides, 2012). This could be an impression management strategy, as the user may

assume that a large number of Facebook friends will make him or her appear more attractive or

popular to others.

Although many have critiqued the watering down of the term friend, specifically Facebook,

some scholars have explored how the creation of these networks affects our interpersonal

relationships and may even restructure how we think about our relationships. A person may have

hundreds of social media friends that he or she doesn’t regularly interact with on, or offline, but

just knowing that the network exists in a somewhat tangible form (cataloged on the social media

site) that can be comforting. Even the people who are distant acquaintances, but are “friends” can

serve important functions. Rather than users seeing these connections as pointless, frivolous, or

stressful, they are often comforting background presences. A dormant network is a network of

people with whom users may not feel obligated to explicitly interact but may find comfort

in knowing the connections exist. Such networks can be beneficial, because when needed, a

person can easily tap into that dormant network. It’s almost like being friends on social media

keeps the communication lines open, because both people can view the other’s posts and keep up

with their lives, without directly communicating. This can help sustain past friendships and

prevent them from fading away which is a common occurrence as we go through various life


A key part of interpersonal communication is impression management, and some forms of social

media allow us more tools for presenting ourselves than others. Impression management is the

effort to control or influence other people’s perceptions. This could be their perception of a

certain person, a material possession or an event. The theory goes on to explain that we try to

make the perception consistent with our goals (, n.d.). Social networking sites (or

SNSs) in many ways are platforms for self-presentation. Even more than blogs, web pages, and

smartphones, the environment on an social networking sites like Instagram, Facebook or Twitter

facilitates self-disclosure in a directed way that allows those with permissions to see our other

“friends.” This convergence of different groups of people (close friends, family, acquaintances,

friends of friends, colleagues, and strangers) can present challenges for self-presentation.

Although Facebook was often thought of as a social media outlet for teens and young adults,

research shows half of all US adults have a profile on Facebook or another social networking

site (Ellison). The fact that Facebook is expanding to different generations of users has coined a

new phrase” the graying of Facebook.” This is due to a large increase in users over the age of

fifty-five. In fact, it has been stated the fastest-growing Facebook user group is women fifty-five

and older, which is up more than 175 percent since fall 2008 (Gates, 2009) The growing

diversity of our social media networks creates new challenges as we try to engage in impression



“2012-11-08 14.58.48” by KimSanDiego is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

We should be aware that people form impressions of us based not just on what we post on our

profiles, but also on our friends and the content that they post on our profiles. In short, as in our

offline lives, we are judged online by the company we keep (Walther, 2008). The difference is,

though, that via Facebook a person (unless blocked or limited by privacy settings) can see our

entire online social network and friends, which doesn’t happen offline. The information on

our Facebook profiles is also archived, meaning there is a record the likes of which doesn’t exist

in offline interactions. Recent research found that a person’s perception of a profile owner’s

attractiveness is influenced by the attractiveness of the friends shown on the profile. In short, a

profile owner is judged more physically attractive when his or her friends are judged as

physically attractive, and vice versa. The profile owner is also judged as more socially attractive

(likable, friendly) when his or her friends are judged as physically attractive. The study also

found that complimentary and friendly statements made about the owner on their wall, or in

comments, increased perceptions of the owner’s social attractiveness and credibility. An

interesting, but not surprising, gender double standard also emerged. When statements containing

sexual remarks or references to the owner’s excessive drinking were posted, perceptions of

attractiveness increased if the profile owner was male and decreased if female (Walther, 2008).


Self-disclosure is a fundamental building block of interpersonal relationships, and social media

makes self-disclosures easier for many people because of the lack of immediacy, meaning the

fact that a message is sent through electronic means arouses less anxiety or inhibition than would

a face-to-face exchange. Social media sites provide opportunities for social support. Research

has found that Facebook communication behaviors such as “friending” someone, or responding

to a request posted on someone’s wall, lead people to feel a sense of attachment and perceive that

others are reliable and helpful (Vitak & Ellison, n.d.). Much of the research on Facebook,

though, has focused on the less intimate alliances that we maintain through social media. Since

most people maintain offline contact with their close friends and family, Facebook is more of a

supplement to interpersonal communication. Since most people’s “friend” networks are

composed primarily of people with whom they have less face-to-face contact in their daily lives,

Facebook provides an alternative space for interaction that can more easily fit into a person’s

busy schedule. For example, to stay connected, both people don’t have to look at each other’s

profiles simultaneously.

The space provided by social media can also help reduce some of the stress we feel in regards to

relational maintenance or staying in touch by allowing for more convenient contact online. The

expectations for regular contact with our Facebook friends who are in our extended network are

minimal. An occasional comment on a photo, a status update, or a click on the “like” button can

help maintain those relationships. However, when we post something asking for information,

help, social support, or advice, those in the extended network may play a more important role

and allow us to access resources and viewpoints beyond those in our closer circles. Research

shows that many people ask for informational help through their status updates (Vitak & Ellison,


These extended networks serve important purposes, one of which is to provide access to new

information and different perspectives than those we may get from close friends and family. For

example, since we tend to have significant others that are more similar rather than different from

us, the people that we are closest to are likely to share many or most of our beliefs, attitudes, and

values. Extended contacts, however, may expose us to different political views or new sources of

information, which can help broaden our perspectives.

Using Social Media Competently

We all have a growing log of personal information stored on the Internet, and some of it is under

our control, and some of it isn’t. We also have increasingly diverse social networks that require

us to be cognizant of the information we make available and how we present ourselves. While

we can’t control all the information about ourselves online or the impressions people form, we

can more competently engage with social media so that we are getting the most out of it in both

personal and professional contexts. This is called Netiquette: the correct or acceptable way of

communicating on the Internet.


“Netiquette1” by hj_dewaard is licensed under CC BY 2.0

1. Be consistent. Given that most people have multiple social media accounts, it’s
important to have some degree of consistency. At least at the top level of your profile (the

part that isn’t limited by privacy settings), include information that you don’t mind

anyone seeing.

2. Know what’s out there. Since the top level of many social media sites are visible in
Google search results, you should monitor how these appear to others by regularly (about

once a month) doing a Google search using various iterations of your name. Putting your

name in quotation marks will help target your results. Make sure you’re logged out of all

your accounts and then click on the various results to see what others can see.

3. Think before you post. Software that enable people to take “screen shots” or download
videos and tools that archive web pages can be used without our knowledge to create

records of what you post. While it is still a good idea to go through your online content

and “clean up” materials that may form unfavorable impressions, it is even a better idea

to not put that information out there in the first place. Posting something about how you

hate school, hate your job or even dislike a specific person may be done in the heat of the

moment and forgotten, but a potential employer might find that information and form a

negative impression even if it’s months, or years, old.


4. Be familiar with privacy settings. If you are trying to expand your social network, it
may be counterproductive to put your Facebook or Twitter account on “lockdown,” but it

is beneficial to know what levels of control you have and to take advantage of them. You

can create groups of contacts on various social media sites so that only certain people see

certain information.

5. Be a gatekeeper for your network. Do not accept friend requests or followers that you
do not know. Not only could these requests be sent from “bots” that might skim your

personal info or monitor your activity; they could be from people that might make you

look bad. Remember, we learned earlier that people form impressions based on those

with whom we are connected. You can always send a private message to someone asking

how he or she knows you or do some research by Googling his or her name or username.


Chapter 2.3 – Perceiving and Presenting Self

Just as our perception of others affects how we communicate, so does our perception of

ourselves affect how we communicate. But what influences our self-perception? How much of

our self is a product of our own making and how much of it is constructed based on how others

react to us? How do we present ourselves to others in ways that maintain our sense of self or

challenge how others see us? We will begin to answer these questions in this section as we

explore self-concept, self-esteem, and self- presentation.


Self-concept refers to the overall idea of who a person thinks he or she is. Have you ever

been surprised when someone describes you differently than how you see yourself? If you were

asked “Tell me who you are,” your answers would be clues as to how you see yourself, your self-

concept. Each person has an overall self-concept that might be encapsulated in a short list of

overarching characteristics that he or she finds important. But each person’s self-concept is also

influenced by context, meaning we think differently about ourselves depending on the situation

we are in. In some situations, personal characteristics, such as our abilities, personality, and other

distinguishing features, will best describe who we are. You might consider yourself laid back,

traditional, funny, open minded, driven, a leader or a thrill seeker. In other situations, our self-

concept may be tied to group or cultural membership. For example, you might consider yourself

a member of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, a Southerner, or a member of the track team.


anorexia” by KairosOfTyre is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Our self-concept is also formed through our interactions with others and their reactions to us.

The concept of the looking glass self explains that we see ourselves reflected in other

people’s reactions to us and then form our self-concept based on how we believe other

people see us (Cooley, 1902). This reflective process of building our self-concept is based on

what other people have actually said, such as “You’re a good listener,” and other people’s

actions, such as coming to you for advice. These thoughts evoke emotional responses that feed

into our self-concept. For example, you may think, “I’m glad that people can count on me to

listen to their problems.”


We also develop our self-concept through comparisons to other people. Social comparison

theory states that we describe and evaluate ourselves in terms of how we compare to other

people. Social comparisons are based on two dimensions: superiority/inferiority

and similarity/difference (Hargie, 2011). In terms of superiority and inferiority, we evaluate

characteristics like attractiveness, intelligence, athletic ability, and so on. For example, we might

compare ourselves to our siblings, who may be taller, stronger, smarter or more attractive. These

judgments are incorporated into our self-concept. This process of comparison and evaluation

isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can have negative consequences if our reference group isn’t

appropriate. Reference groups are the groups we use for social comparison, and they

typically change based on what we are evaluating. In terms of athletic ability, many people

choose unreasonable reference groups with which to engage in social comparison. If a man

wants to get into better shape and starts an exercise routine, he may be discouraged by his

difficulty keeping up with a running partner who has run for years and judge himself as inferior.

This negatively affect his self-concept. Instead, the man could use someone who recently started

a fitness program, but has shown progress, could help maintain a more accurate and hopefully

positive self-concept. This is a more accurate reference group.

“Baltimore Ravens Cheerleaders” by Keith Allison is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

We also engage in social comparison based on similarity and difference. Since self-concept is

context specific, similarity may be desirable in some situations and difference more desirable in

others. Factors like age and personality may influence whether we want to fit in or stand out.

Although we compare ourselves to others throughout our lives, adolescent and teen years usually


bring new pressure to be similar to, or to be different, from particular reference groups. Think of

all the cliques in high school and how people voluntarily, and involuntarily, broke into groups

based on popularity, interest, culture, or grade level. Some kids might hand out with the

marching band while others hang out with the track athletes. Athletes are more apt to compare

themselves, in terms of similar athletic ability, to other athletes rather than kids in show choir.

But social comparison can be complicated by perceptual influences. As we learned earlier, we

organize information based on similarity and difference, but these patterns don’t always hold

true. Even though students involved in athletics and students involved in arts may seem very

different, a dancer or singer may also be very athletic.

PPCC Professor Experience

When I was in my graduate program, I took a class titled Quantative Research, which required a

lot of math-based concepts. After we took our first exam, I felt I had done pretty well. In the

next class the professor handed back the exams, I received a C-. I was devastated. The student

sitting next to me got her test and said “Score!! I got an “A”. How’d you do?” I just smiled at

her and said “Good!!” I left class and cried. The next morning, I realized how important it was

for me to finish my degree, so I reached out to the professor. She explained that my answers

were right. I had just failed to show any of my work. On the next exam, I showed my work and

got a “B”. I finished the class with a “B”. I still brag about this class. The final grade of “B” was

like an “A” to me because I worked so hard for it. Going back to self-concept and social

comparison, I had to fight the negative thoughts of “I am not smart enough” and “I can’t do this”

to perform successfully.

Self-esteem refers to the judgments and evaluations we make about our self- concept. While

self-concept is a broad description of the self, self-esteem is a more specifically an evaluation

of the self (Byrne, 1996). If you were again prompted to “Tell me who you are,” and then asked

to evaluate (label as good/bad, positive/negative, desirable/undesirable) each of the things you

listed about yourself, we would get clues about your self- esteem. Like self-concept, self-esteem

has general and specific elements. Generally, some people are more likely to evaluate themselves

positively while others are more likely to evaluate themselves negatively (Brockner, 1988). More

specifically, our self-esteem varies across our life span and across contexts.

How we judge ourselves affects our communication and our behaviors, but not every negative or

positive judgment carries the same weight. The negative evaluation of a trait that isn’t very

important for our self-concept will likely not result in a loss of self-esteem. For example, if you

were not very good at drawing, but appreciated drawing as an art form, you would not consider

your drawing ability to be a very big part of your self-concept. So, if someone critiqued your

drawing ability, your self-esteem wouldn’t take a big hit. But on the other hand, if you did

consider yourself to be a good softball player, and spent considerable time and effort on

improving your skill, your self esteem would be hurt if critiqued negatively. This doesn’t mean

that we can’t be evaluated on something we find important. Even though softball is very

important to your self-concept, as an athlete, you are likely evaluated on your skills often by

coaches and teammates. Most of that feedback is in the form of constructive criticism, which can

still be difficult to receive, but when taken in the spirit of self-improvement, it is valuable and

may even enhance your self-concept and self-esteem. In fact, in professional contexts, people


with higher self- esteem are more likely to work harder based on negative feedback, are less

negatively affected by work stress, are able to handle workplace conflict better, and are better

able to work independently and solve problems (Brockner, 1988). Self-esteem isn’t the only

factor that contributes to our self-concept; perceptions about our competence also play a role in

developing our sense of self.

Self-Efficacy refers to the judgments people make about their ability to perform a task

within a specific context. For example, students walking into a Public Speaking class are

typically terrified of standing up and presenting before their peers. As the class progresses, they

have opportunities to present their speeches and receive feedback from their peers and

instructor. They start to feel more confident going into the next speech and believe they will do

well. This skill-based assessment is an indication that students can develop a high level of self-

efficacy related to public speaking. If they do well on the speech, the praise from their

classmates, and professor, will reinforce their self-efficacy and lead them to positively evaluate

their speaking skills, which will contribute to their self- esteem. Throughout these points of

connection, it’s important to remember that self-perception affects how we communicate,

behave, and perceive other things. Student’s increased feeling of self-efficacy may give them

more confidence in their delivery, which will likely result in positive feedback that reinforces

self-perception. These interconnections can create powerful positive or negative cycles. While

some of this process is under our control, much of it is also shaped by the people in our lives.

The verbal and nonverbal feedback we get from people affect our feelings of self- efficacy and

our self-esteem. Getting positive feedback can increase our self-efficacy, which may make us

more likely to engage in a similar task in the future (Hargie, 2006). Obviously, negative feedback

can lead to decreased self-efficacy and a declining interest in engaging with the activity again. In

general, people adjust their expectations about their abilities based on feedback they get from

others. Positive feedback tends to make people raise their expectations for themselves and

negative feedback does the opposite, which ultimately affects behaviors and creates the cycle.

When feedback from others is different from how we view ourselves, additional cycles may

develop that impact self-esteem and self-concept.

Self-discrepancy theory states that people have beliefs about and expectations for their

actual and potential selves that do not always match up with what they actually experience

(Higgins, 1987). To understand this theory, we have to understand the different “selves” that

make up our self-concept, which are the actual, ideal, and ought selves. The actual self consists

of the attributes that you or someone else believes you actually possess. The ideal self

consists of the attributes that you or someone else would like you to possess. The ought self

consists of the attributes you or someone else believes you should possess.

These different selves can conflict with each other in various combinations. Discrepancies

between the actual and ideal/ought selves can be motivating in some ways and prompt people to

act for self-improvement. For example, if your “ought self” should volunteer more for the local

animal shelter, then your actual self may be more inclined to do so. Discrepancies between the

ideal and ought selves can be especially stressful. For example, many professional women who

are also mothers have an ideal view of self that includes professional success and advancement.

They may also have an ought self that includes a sense of duty and obligation to be a full-time


mother. The actual self may be someone who does OK at both but doesn’t quite live up to the

expectations of either. These discrepancies do not just create cognitive unease—they also lead to

emotional, behavioral, and communicative changes.

When we compare the actual self to the expectations of ourselves and others, we can see

particular patterns of emotional and behavioral effects. When our actual self doesn’t match up

with our own ideals of self, we are not obtaining our own desires and hopes, which can lead to

feelings of dejection including disappointment, dissatisfaction, and frustration. For example, if

your ideal self has no credit card debt and your actual self does, you may be frustrated with your

lack of financial discipline.

When our actual self doesn’t match up with other people’s ideals for us, we may not be obtaining

significant others’ desires and hopes, which can lead to feelings of dejection including shame,

embarrassment, and concern for losing the affection or approval of others. For example, if a

significant other sees you as an “A” student and you get a 2.8 GPA your first year of college,

then you may be embarrassed to share your grades with that person.


( My second paper for that class from last week… just an A. And I can’t read the first word of his

comments.” by SassyPhotographer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

When our actual self doesn’t match up with what we think other people feel we should obtain,

we are not living up to the ought self, which can lead to feelings of agitation, feeling threatened,

and fearing potential punishment. For example, your parents think you should follow in their

footsteps and take over the family business. Your actual self wants to go into the military, then

you may be unsure of what to do and fear being isolated from the family.

Finally, when our actual self doesn’t match up with what we think we should obtain, we are not

meeting our duties or obligations, which can lead to feelings of agitation including guilt,

weakness, and a feeling that we have fallen short of our moral standard (Higgins, 1987). For

example, if your “own ought” self should volunteer more for the local animal shelter, then your

actual self may be more inclined to do so due to the guilt of increasing number of animals at the


The following is a review of the four potential discrepancies between selves:

• Actual vs. own ideals. We have an overall feeling that we are not obtaining our desires

and hopes, which leads to feelings of disappointment, dissatisfaction, and frustration.

• Actual vs. others’ ideals. We have an overall feeling that we are not obtaining significant

others’ desires and hopes for us, which leads to feelings of shame and embarrassment.

• Actual vs. others’ ought. We have an overall feeling that we are not meeting what others

see as our duties and obligations, which leads to feelings of agitation including fear of

potential punishment.

• Actual vs. own ought. We have an overall feeling that we are not meeting our duties and

obligations, which can lead to a feeling that we have fallen short of our own moral


Influences on Self-Perception

We have already learned that other people influence our self-concept and self-esteem. While

interactions we have with individuals and groups are definitely important to consider, we must

also note the influence that larger, more systemic forces have on our self-perception. Social and

family influences, culture, and the media all play a role in shaping who we think we are and how

we feel about ourselves. Although these are powerful socializing forces, there are ways to

maintain some control over our self-perception.

Social and Family Influences

Various forces help socialize us into our respective social and cultural groups and play a

powerful role in presenting us with options about who we can be. While we may like to think

that our self-perception starts with a blank canvas, our perceptions are limited by our experiences

and various social and cultural contexts.


Parents and peers shape our self-perceptions in positive and negative ways. Feedback that we get

from significant others, and close family, can lead to positive views of self (Hargie, 2011). In the

past few years, however, there has been a public discussion and debate about how much positive

reinforcement people should give to others, especially children. The following questions have

been raised: Do we have current and upcoming generations that have been overpraised? Is the

praise given warranted? What are the positive and negative effects of praise? What is the end

goal of the praise? Let’s briefly look at this discussion and its connection to self-perception.

Whether praise is warranted is very subjective and specific to each person and context, but in

general there have been questions raised about the potential negative effects of too much praise.

Motivation is the underlying force that drives us to do things. Sometimes we are intrinsically

motivated, meaning we want to do something for the love of doing it or the resulting internal

satisfaction. Other times we are extrinsically motivated, meaning we do something to receive a

reward or avoid punishment. If you put effort into completing a short documentary for a class

because you love filmmaking and editing, you have been largely motivated by intrinsic forces. If

you complete the documentary because you want an “A”, and know that if you fail, your parents

will not give you money for your spring break trip. You are motivated by extrinsic factors. Both

can effectively motivate us. Praise is a form of extrinsic reward, and if there is an actual reward

associated with the praise, like money or special recognition, some people speculate that intrinsic

motivation will suffer. But what’s so good about intrinsic motivation? Intrinsic motivation is

more substantial and long-lasting than extrinsic motivation and can lead to the development of a

work ethic and sense of pride in one’s abilities. Intrinsic motivation can move people to

accomplish great things over long periods of time and be happy despite the effort and sacrifices

made. Extrinsic motivation dies when the reward stops. Additionally, too much praise can lead

people to have a misguided sense of their abilities. College professors who are reluctant to fail

students who produce failing work may be setting those students up to be shocked when their

supervisor critiques their abilities once they get into a professional context (Hargie, 2011).

There are cultural differences in the amount of praise and positive feedback that teachers and

parents give their children. For example, teachers give less positive reinforcement in Japanese

and Taiwanese classrooms than do teachers in US classrooms. Chinese and Kenyan parents do

not regularly praise their children because they fear it may make them too individualistic, rude,

or arrogant (Wierzbicka, 2004). So the phenomenon of overpraising isn’t universal, and the

debate over its potential effects is not resolved.

Research has also found that communication patterns develop between parents and children that

are common to many verbally and physically abusive relationships. Such patterns have negative

effects on a child’s self-efficacy and self-esteem (Wilson, 2007). As you’ll recall from our earlier

discussion, attributions are links we make to identify the cause of a behavior. In the case of

aggressive or abusive parents, they are not as able to distinguish between mistakes and

intentional behaviors. The often see honest mistakes as intentional and react negatively to the

child. Such parents also communicate generally negative evaluations to their child by saying, for

example, “You can’t do anything right!” or “You’re a bad girl.” When children do exhibit

positive behaviors, abusive parents are more likely to use external attributions that diminish the

achievement of the child by saying, for example, “You only won because the other team was off

their game.” In general, abusive parents have unpredictable reactions to their children’s positive


and negative behavior, which creates an uncertain and often scary climate for a child that can

lead to lower self- esteem and erratic or aggressive behavior. The cycles of praise and blame are

just two examples of how the family as a socializing force can influence our self- perceptions.

Culture also influences how we see ourselves.

How people perceive themselves varies across cultures. For example, many cultures exhibit a

phenomenon known as the self-enhancement bias, meaning that we tend to emphasize our

desirable qualities relative to other people (Loughnan et al., 2011). But the degree to which

people engage in self- enhancement varies. A review of many studies in this area found that

people in Western countries such as the United States were significantly more likely to self-

enhance than people in countries such as Japan. Many scholars explain this variation using a

common measure of cultural variation that claims people in individualistic cultures are more

likely to engage in competition and openly praise accomplishments than people in collectivistic

cultures. The difference in self-enhancement has also been tied to economics. Scholars argue that

people in countries with greater income inequality are more likely to view themselves as superior

in order to conform to the country’s values and norms. This holds true for the United States

where competition is valued along with the right to boast about winning or succeeding. Other

countries with more economic equality, like Japan, have a cultural norm of modesty (Loughnan

et al., 2011).

Race also plays a role in self-perception. For example, positive self-esteem and self-efficacy tend

to be higher in African American adolescent girls than Caucasian girls (Stockton et al, 2009). In

fact, more recent studies have discounted much of the early research on race and self-esteem that

purported that African Americans of all ages have lower self-esteem than whites. Self-perception

becomes more complex when we consider biracial individuals—more specifically those born to

couples comprising an African American and a white parent (Bowles, 1993). In such cases, it is

challenging for biracial individuals to embrace both of their heritages, and social comparison

becomes more difficult due to diverse and sometimes conflicting reference groups. Since many

biracial individuals identify as and are considered African American by society, living and

working within a black community can help foster more positive self-perceptions in these

biracial individuals. Such a community offers a more nurturing environment and a buffer zone

from racist attitudes but simultaneously distances biracial individuals from their white identity.

Conversely, immersion into a predominantly white community and separation from a black

community can lead biracial individuals to internalize negative views of people of color and

perhaps develop a sense of inferiority. Gender intersects with culture and biracial identity to

create different experiences and challenges for biracial men and women. Biracial men have more

difficulty accepting their potential occupational limits, especially if they have white fathers, and

biracial women have difficulty accepting their black features, such as hair and facial features. All

these challenges lead to a sense of being marginalized from both ethnic groups and interfere in

the development of positive self-esteem and a stable self-concept.


By BellaGaia is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

There are some general differences in terms of gender and self-perception that relate to self-

concept, self- efficacy, and envisioning ideal selves. As with any cultural differences, these are

generalizations that have been supported by research, but they do not represent all individuals

within a group. Regarding self-concept, men are more likely to describe themselves in terms of

their group membership, and women are more likely to include references to relationships in

their self- descriptions. For example, a man may note that he is a Tarheel fan, a boat enthusiast,

or a member of the Rotary Club, and a woman may note that she is a mother of two or a loyal


Regarding self-efficacy, men tend to have higher perceptions of self-efficacy than women

(Hargie, 2006). In terms of actual and ideal selves, men and women in a variety of countries both

described their ideal self as more masculine (Thomas, 2004). As was noted earlier, gender

differences are interesting to study but are very often exaggerated beyond the actual variations.

Socialization and internalization of societal norms for gender differences accounts for much

more of our perceived differences than do innate or natural differences between genders. These

gender norms may be explicitly stated—for example, a mother may say to her son, “Boys don’t

play with dolls”—or they may be more implicit, with girls being encouraged to pursue

historically feminine professions like teaching or nursing without others actually stating the




The representations we see in the media affect our self-perception. The vast majority of media

images include idealized representations of attractiveness. Despite the fact that the images of

people we see in glossy magazines and on movie screens are not typically what we see when we

look at the people around us in a classroom, at work, or at the grocery store, many of us continue

to hold ourselves to an unrealistic standard of beauty and attractiveness. Movies, magazines, and

television shows are filled with beautiful people, and less attractive actors, when they are present

in the media, are typically portrayed as the butt of jokes, villains, or only as background

extras (Patzer, 2008). Aside from overall attractiveness, the media also offers narrow

representations of acceptable body weight.

Researchers have found that only 12 percent of prime-time characters are overweight, which is

dramatically less than the national statistics for obesity among the actual US population (Patzer,

2008). Further, an analysis of how weight is discussed on prime-time sitcoms found that heavier

female characters were often the targets of negative comments and jokes that audience members

responded to with laughter. Conversely, positive comments about women’s bodies were related

to their thinness. In short, the heavier the character, the more negative the comments, and the

thinner the character, the more positive the comments. The same researchers analyzed sitcoms

for content regarding male characters’ weight and found that although comments regarding their

weight were made, they were fewer in number and not as negative, ultimately supporting the

notion that overweight male characters are more accepted in media than overweight female

characters. Much more attention has been paid in recent years to the potential negative effects of

such narrow media representations.

In terms of self-concept, media representations offer us guidance on what is acceptable or

unacceptable and valued or not valued in our society. Mediated messages, in general, reinforce

cultural stereotypes related to race, gender, age, sexual orientation, ability, and class. People

from historically marginalized groups must look much harder than those in the dominant groups

to find positive representations of their identities in media. As a critical thinker, it is important to

question media messages and to examine who is included and who is excluded.

Advertising in particular encourages people to engage in social comparison, regularly

communicating to us that we are inferior because we lack a certain product or that we need to

change some aspect of our life to keep up with and be similar to others. For example, for many

years advertising targeted to women instilled in them a fear of having a dirty house, selling them

products that promised to keep their house clean, make their family happy, and impress their

friends and neighbors. Now messages tell us to fear becoming old or unattractive, selling

products to keep our skin tight and clear, which will in turn make us happy and popular.

Body Image and Self-Perception

Take a look at any magazine, television show, or movie and you will most likely see very

beautiful people. When you look around you in your daily life, there are likely not as many

glamorous and gorgeous people. Scholars and media critics have critiqued this discrepancy for


decades because it has contributed to many social issues and public health issues ranging from

body dysmorphic disorder, to eating disorders, to lowered self-esteem.

Much of the media is driven by advertising, and the business of media has been to perpetuate a

“culture of lack” (Wachs, 2009). This means that we are constantly told, via mediated images,

that we lack something. In short, advertisements often tell us we don’t have enough money,

enough beauty, or enough material possessions. Over the past few decades, women’s bodies in

the media have gotten smaller and thinner, while men’s bodies have gotten bigger and more

muscular. At the same time, the US population has become dramatically more obese. As research

shows that men and women are becoming more and more dissatisfied with their bodies, which

ultimately affects their self-concept and self-esteem, health and beauty product lines proliferate

and cosmetic surgeries and other types of enhancements become more and more popular. From

young children to older adults, people are becoming more aware of and oftentimes unhappy with

their bodies, which results in a variety of self- perception problems.


How we perceive ourselves manifests in how we present ourselves to others. Self- presentation

is the process of strategically concealing or revealing personal information in order to

influence others’ perceptions (Human et al., 2012). We engage in this process daily and for

different reasons. Although people occasionally intentionally deceive others in the process of

self-presentation, in general we try to make a good impression while still remaining authentic.

Since self-presentation helps meet our instrumental, relational, and identity needs, we stand to

lose quite a bit if we are caught intentionally misrepresenting ourselves. In May of 2012,

Yahoo!’s CEO resigned after it became known that he stated on official documents that he had

two college degrees when he actually only had one. In a similar incident, a woman who had long

served as the dean of admissions for the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology was

dismissed from her position after it was learned that she had only attended one year of college

and had falsely indicated she had a bachelor’s and master’s degree. (Korn, 2012). Such incidents

clearly show that although people can get away with such false self-presentation for a while, the

eventual consequences of being found out are dire. As communicators, we sometimes engage in

more subtle forms of inauthentic self-presentation. For example, a person may state or imply that

they know more about a subject or situation than they actually do in order to seem smart or “in

the loop.” During a speech, a speaker works on a polished and competent delivery to distract

from a lack of substantive content. These cases of strategic self-presentation may not ever be

found out, but communicators should still avoid them as they do not live up to the standards of

ethical communication.

Consciously and competently engaging in self-presentation can have benefits because we can

provide others with a more positive and accurate picture of who we are. People who are skilled at

impression management are typically more engaging and confident, which allows others to pick

up on more cues from which to form impressions (Human et al., 2012). Being a skilled self-

presenter draws on many of the practices used by competent communicators, including

becoming a higher self-monitor. When self-presentation skills and self-monitoring skills

combine, communicators can simultaneously monitor their own expressions, the reaction of

others, and the situational and social context (Sosik, 2002). Sometimes people get help with their


self- presentation. Although most people can’t afford ,or wouldn’t think of hiring an image

consultant, some people have started generously donating their self- presentation expertise to

help others. Many people who have been riding the tough job market for a year or more get

discouraged and may consider giving up on their job search. Now a project called “Style Me

Hired” has started offering free makeovers to jobless people in order to offer them new

motivation and help them make favorable impressions and hopefully get a job offer (can be

accessed at

There are two main types of self-presentation: prosocial and self-serving (Sosik, 2002).

Prosocial self-presentation entails behaviors that present a person as a role model and

make a person more likable and attractive. For example, a supervisor may call on her

employees to uphold high standards for business ethics, model that behavior in her own actions,

and compliment others when they exemplify those standards. Self-serving self-presentation

entails behaviors that present a person as highly skilled, willing to challenge others, and

someone not to be messed with. For example, a supervisor may publicly take credit for the

accomplishments of others or publicly critique an employee who failed to meet a particular

standard. In summary, prosocial strategies are aimed at benefiting others, while self-serving

strategies benefit the self at the expense of others.

In general, we strive to present a public image that matches up with our self- concept, but we can

also use self-presentation strategies to enhance our self- concept (Hargie, 2006). When we

present ourselves in order to evoke a positive evaluative response, we are engaging in self-

enhancement. In the pursuit of self-enhancement, a person might try to be as appealing as

possible in a particular area or with a particular person to gain feedback that will enhance one’s

self-esteem. For example, a singer might train and practice for weeks before singing in front of a

well-respected vocal coach but not invest as much effort in preparing to sing in front of friends.

Although positive feedback from friends is beneficial, positive feedback from an experienced

singer could enhance a person’s self-concept. Self-enhancement can be productive and achieved

competently, or it can be used inappropriately. Using self-enhancement behaviors just to gain the

approval of others or out of self-centeredness may lead people to communicate in ways that are

perceived as phony or overbearing and end up making an unfavorable impression (Sosik, 2002).


Chapter 2 Key Takeaways and Exercises

Key Takeaways

• Through the process of self-disclosure, we disclose personal information and learn about


• The social penetration theory argues that self-disclosure increases in breadth and depth as

a relationship progresses, like peeling back the layers of an onion.

• We engage in social comparison through self-disclosure, which may determine whether

or not we pursue a relationship.

• Social media affects the self as we develop a higher degree of self- consciousness due to

the increased visibility of our lives (including pictures, life events, and communication).

The constant connectivity that comes with social media can also help us feel more

connected to others and create anxiety due to over stimulation or a fear of being cut off.

Social media affects interpersonal relationships, as conceptions of relationships are

influenced by new points of connection such as “being Facebook friends.” While some

people have critiqued social media for lessening the importance of face-to-face

interaction, some communication scholars have found that online networks provide

important opportunities to stay connected, receive emotional support, and broaden our

perspectives in ways that traditional offline networks do not.

• Our self-concept is the overall idea of who we think we are. It is developed through our

interactions with others and through social comparison that allows us to compare our

beliefs and behaviors to others.

• Our self-esteem is based on the evaluations and judgments we make about various

characteristics of our self-concept. It is developed through an assessment and evaluation

of our various skills and abilities, known as self-efficacy, and through a comparison and

evaluation of who we are, who we would like to be, and who we should be (self-

discrepancy theory).

• Social comparison theory and self-discrepancy theory affect our self- concept and self-

esteem because through comparison with others and comparison of our actual, ideal, and

ought selves we make judgments about who we are and our self-worth. These judgments

then affect how we communicate and behave.

• Socializing forces like family, culture, and media affect our self- perception because they

give us feedback on who we are. This feedback can be evaluated positively or negatively

and can lead to positive or negative patterns that influence our self-perception and then

our communication.


1. Answer the questions from the beginning of the section: Have you ever said too much on
a first date? At a job interview? To a professor? Have you ever posted something on

Facebook only to return later to remove it? If you answered yes to any of the questions,

what have you learned in this chapter that may have led you to do something differently?


2. Have you experienced negative results due to self-disclosure (as sender or receiver)? If
so, what could have been altered in the decisions of what, where, when, or how to

disclose that may have improved the situation?

3. Under what circumstances is it OK to share information that someone has disclosed to
you? Under what circumstances is to not OK to share the information?

4. How do you manage your privacy and self-disclosures online? Do you think it’s ethical
for school officials or potential employers to make admission or hiring decisions based

on what they can learn about you online? Why or why not?

5. Are you or would you be friends with a parent on Facebook? Why or why not? If you
already are friends with a parent, did you change your posting habits or privacy settings

once they joined? Why or why not?

6. Answer the questions from the beginning of the section: Have you ever said too much on
a first date? At a job interview? To a professor? Have you ever posted something on

Facebook only to return later to remove it? If you answered yes to any of the questions,

what have you learned in this chapter that may have led you to do something differently?

7. Have you experienced negative results due to self-disclosure (as sender or receiver)? If
so, what could have been altered in the decisions of what, where, when, or how to

disclose that may have improved the situation?

8. Discuss the notion that social media has increased our degree of self- consciousness. Do
you agree? Why or why not?

9. Do you find the constant connectivity that comes with personal media overstimulating or

10. Make a list of characteristics that describe who you are (your self- concept). After
looking at the list, see if you can come up with a few words that summarize the list to

narrow in on the key features of your self-concept. Go back over the first list and evaluate

each characteristic, for example noting whether it is something you do well/poorly,

something that is good/bad, positive/negative, desirable/undesirable. Is the overall list

more positive or more negative? After doing these exercises, what have you learned

about your self-concept and self- esteem?

11. Discuss at least one time in which you had a discrepancy or tension between two of the
three selves described by self-discrepancy theory (the actual, ideal, and ought selves).

What effect did this discrepancy have on your self-concept and/or self-esteem?

12. How do you think the media influences your self-perception and body image?
13. Describe the typical man that is portrayed in the media. Describe the typical woman that

is portrayed in the media. What impressions do these typical bodies make on others?

What are the potential positive and negative effects of the way the media portrays the

human body?

14. Find an example of an “atypical” body represented in the media (a magazine, TV show,
or movie). Is this person presented in a positive, negative, or neutral way? Why do you

think this person was chosen?


Chapter 2 References

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“Getting Plugged In”

Self-Disclosure and Social Media

Facebook and Twitter are undoubtedly dominating the world of online social networking, and the

willingness of many users to self-disclose personal information ranging from moods to religious

affiliation, relationship status, and personal contact information has led to an increase in privacy

concerns. Sometimes, however, self-disclosure can be difficult for people who are naturally shy

or reticent. Social media can provide a channel divorced from immediate feelings of

embarrassment or rejection. So, though Facebook and Twitter offer seemingly safe and

convenient opportunities to stay in touch with friends, family, and coworkers, the question

remains, are people using them responsibly? Some argue that there are fundamental differences

between today’s digital natives, whose private and public selves are intertwined through these

technologies, and older generations (Kornblum, 2007). Even though some colleges are offering

seminars on managing privacy online, we still hear stories of self-disclosure gone wrong, such as

the football player from the University of Texas who was kicked off the team for posting racist

comments about the president or the student who was kicked out of his private, Christian college

after a picture of him dressed in drag surfaced on Facebook. Or, think of the work place and how

email can be misused. For example, in many offices there are often strict rules regarding the

types of emails that could be sent out to co-workers, especially those that were negative towards

management. Placed in the wrong “in box” and individuals can get reprimanded or even fired for

sending unprofessional emails.

Class Discussion

1. How do you manage your privacy and self-disclosures online?
2. Do you think it’s ethical for school officials or potential employers to make admission or

hiring decisions based on what they can learn about you online? Why or why not?

3. Are you or would you be friends with a parent on Facebook? Why or why not? If you
already are friends with a parent, did you change your posting habits or privacy settings

once they joined? Why or why not?


“Getting Plugged In”

Self-Presentation Online: Social Media, Digital Trails, and

Your Reputation

Although social networking has long been a way to keep in touch with friends and colleagues,

the advent of social media has made the process of making connections and those all-important

first impressions much more complex. Just looking at Facebook as an example, we can clearly

see that the very acts of constructing a profile, posting status updates, “liking” certain things, and

sharing various information via Facebook features and apps is self- presentation (Lee, 2011).

People also form impressions based on the number of friends we have and the photos and posts

that other people tag us in. All this information floating around can be difficult to manage. So

how do we manage the impressions we make digitally given that there is a permanent record?

Research shows that people overall engage in positive and honest self- presentation on Facebook

(Lee, 2011). Since people know how visible the information they post is, they may choose to

only reveal things they think will form favorable impressions. But the mediated nature of

Facebook also leads some people to disclose more personal information than they might

otherwise in such a public or semipublic forum. These hyperpersonal disclosures run the risk of

forming negative impressions based on who sees them. In general, the ease of digital

communication, not just on Facebook, has presented new challenges for our self-control and

information management. Sending someone a sexually provocative image used to take some

effort before the age of digital cameras, but now “sexting” an explicit photo only takes a few

seconds. So people who would have likely not engaged in such behavior before are more

tempted to now, and it is the desire to present oneself as desirable or cool that leads people to

send photos they may later regret. In fact, new technology in the form of apps is trying to give

people a little more control over the exchange of digital information. An iPhone app called

“Snapchat” allows users to send photos that will only be visible for a few seconds. Although this

isn’t a guaranteed safety net, the demand for such apps is increasing, which illustrates the point

that we all now leave digital trails of information that can be useful in terms of our self-

presentation but can also create new challenges in terms of managing the information floating

around from which others may form impressions of us.


1. What impressions do you want people to form of you based on the information they can
see on your Facebook page?

2. Have you ever used social media or the Internet to do “research” on a person? What
things would you find favorable and unfavorable?

3. Do you have any guidelines you follow regarding what information about yourself you
will put online or not? If so, what are they? If not, why?


Chapter 3.1 – Communication and Perception

“The Glass is Half Full!” by Ibn Ar-Rashid is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Think back to the first day of classes. Did you plan ahead for what you were going to wear? Did

you try to find your classrooms ahead of time or look for the syllabus online? Did you look up

your professors on an online professor evaluation site like RateMyProfessor? Based on your

answers to these questions, an impression of who you are as a student could be made. But would

that perception be accurate? Would it match up with how you see yourself as a student?

Perception is a two-way street. You also formed impressions about your professors based on

their appearance, dress, organization, intelligence, and approachability on the first day. The

impressions that both teacher and student make on the first day help set the tone for the rest of

the semester. So what is Perception? Perception refers to the way sensory information is

organized, interpreted, and consciously experienced. (Lumen, 2019). We do this all the time:

we see our friend (organized), they are not smiling so we think they are upset (interpret) and then

come to conclusion based on past experiences with this person (consciously experienced).

As we go through our daily lives, we perceive all sorts of people and objects, and we often make

sense of these perceptions by using previous experiences to help filter and organize the

information we take in. Sometimes we encounter new or contradictory information that changes

the way we think about a person, group, or object. The perceptions that we make of others and

that others make of us affect how we communicate and act. In this chapter, we will learn about


the perception process, how we perceive others, how we perceive and present ourselves, and how

we can improve our perceptions.

Perceiving Others

Are you a good judge of character? How quickly can you “size someone up?” Interestingly,

research shows that many people are surprisingly accurate at predicting how an interaction with

someone will unfold based on initial impressions. Fascinating research has also been done on the

ability of people to make a judgment about a politican’s competence after as little as 100

milliseconds of exposure to politicians’ faces. Even more surprising is that people’s judgments of

competence, after exposure to two candidates for senate elections, accurately predicted election

outcomes (Todorov, 2007). In short, after only minimal exposure to a candidate’s facial

expressions, people made judgments about the person’s competence, and those candidates

judged more competent were people who won elections! As you read this section, keep in mind

that these principles apply to how you perceive others and to how others perceive you. Just as

others make impressions on us, we make impressions on others. We have already learned how

the perception process works in terms of selecting, organizing, and interpreting. In this section,

we will focus on how we perceive others, with specific attention to how we interpret our

perceptions of others.


In most interactions, we are constantly running an attribution script in our minds, which

essentially tries to come up with explanations for what is happening. For example, we might ask

ourselves questions like “Why did my sister slam her bedroom door when she saw me walking

upstairs?” “Why is my partner being extra nice to me today?” “Why did my office mate miss our

project team meeting this morning?” In general, we seek to attribute the cause of others’

behaviors to internal or external factors. Internal attributions connect the cause of behaviors

to personal aspects such as personality traits. External attributions connect the cause of

behaviors to situational factors. Attributions are important to consider because our reactions to

others’ behaviors are strongly influenced by the explanations we reach. Imagine being in a

restaurant with your friend and her child. The child starts to have a temper tantrum and your

friend just smiles, does nothing and continues to eat. You may find that behavior unacceptable

and consider her a bad mom. You attribute her lack of action as lazy.


“MOM!!” by srietzke is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

One of the most common perceptual errors is the fundamental attribution error, which refers

to our tendency to explain others’ behaviors using internal rather than external

attributions (Sillars, 1980). For example, at an urban college with specialized parking zones,

students often come to class, saying, “I got a parking ticket! I can’t believe those people. Why

don’t they get a real job and stop ruining my life!” In this case, illegally parked students

attribute the cause of their situation to the malevolence of the parking officer, essentially saying

they got a ticket because the officer was a mean/bad person, which is an internal attribution.

Students were much less likely to acknowledge that the officer was just doing his or her job (an

external attribution) and the ticket was a result of the student’s decision to park illegally.

Perceptual errors can also be biased, and in the case of the self-serving bias, the error works out

in our favor. Just as we tend to attribute others’ behaviors to internal rather than external causes,

we do the same for ourselves, especially when our behaviors have led to something successful or

positive. When our behaviors lead to failure or something negative, we tend to attribute the cause

to external factors. Thus, the self-serving bias is a perceptual error through which we

attribute the cause of our successes to internal personal factors while attributing our

failures to external factors beyond our control. For example, after a job interview, you

thought it went well and leave the interview feeling like you are going to get the job. Later, you

find out you were not selected. Your first thought might be “I bet they already had someone else

in mind from the beginning, why did they bother interviewing me? I didn’t have a chance! I

would have been perfect for that job!!” When we look at the fundamental attribution error and

the self-serving bias together, we can see that we are likely to judge ourselves more favorably

than another person, or at least less personally.

The professor-student relationship offers a good case example of how these concepts can play

out. Students who earn an unsatisfactory grade on an assignment might attribute that grade to the

strictness, unfairness, or incompetence of their professor. Whereas, their professors might


attribute a poor grade to the student’s laziness, attitude, or intelligence. In both cases, the

behavior is explained using an internal attribution and is an example of the fundamental

attribution error. Students may further attribute their poor grade to their busy schedule or other

external, situational factors rather than their lack of motivation, interest, or preparation (internal

attributions). But, when a student earns a good grade on a paper, they might attribute that cause

to their intelligence or hard work rather than an easy assignment or an “easy grading” professor.

Both of these examples illustrate the self-serving bias.

These psychological processes have implications for our communication because when we

attribute causality to another person’s personality, we tend to have a stronger emotional reaction.

There is a tendency to assume that the personality characteristic is stable, which may lead us to

avoid communication with the person. Now that you aware of these common errors, you can

monitor them more and engage in perception checking, which we will learn more about later, to

verify your attributions.

Impressions and Interpretation

As we perceive others, we make impressions about their personality, likeability, attractiveness,

and other characteristics. Although much of our impressions are personal, what forms them is

sometimes based more on circumstances than personal characteristics. All the information we

take in isn’t treated equally. How important are first impressions? Does the last thing you notice

about a person stick with you longer because it’s more recent? Do we tend to remember the

positive or negative things we notice about a person? This section will help answer these

questions, as we explore how the timing of information and the content of the messages we

receive can influence our perception.

PPCC Professor Experience

In one of my classes, I had a student who would show up late and leave early. I knew why this

was happening. He and I had worked it out. However, the rest of the class knew nothing of his

situation, so they had created their own interpretation of what type of student he was. They

thought he was lazy, not committed, and a slacker. Not surprisingly, when groups were selected

for the final project, none of the groups wanted to include this student. The student realized his

classmates perception of him, so he asked if he could address the class. He said “I know a lot of

you might think I’m not committed to this class, you see me come in late and leave early, so I’m

going to share with you what is going on in my life. My mother has cancer, before class I take

her to chemotherapy, which makes me a little late. Then before I pick her up, I buy her a

milkshake as its soothing to her stomach, so I leave a little early. I work two jobs and am trying

to help my mom out as much as I can. I promise you that I will give 100% to any team I work

with. I need this class and this degree to move forward.” Immediately afterwards, all the

students in the class invited him to be on their team. Their opinion and impression of this

student completely changed, furthermore, his group earned an A on their final project for

exceptional work.

First and Last Impressions


The old saying “You never get a second chance to make a good first impression” points to the

fact that first impressions matter. The brain is a predictive organ in that it wants to know, based

on previous experiences and patterns, what to expect next, and first impressions function to fill

this need, allowing us to determine how we will proceed with an interaction after only a quick

assessment of the person with whom we are interacting (Hargie, 2011). Research shows that

people are surprisingly good at making accurate first impressions about how an interaction will

unfold and at identifying personality characteristics of people they do not know. Studies show

that people are generally able to predict how another person will behave toward them based on

an initial interaction. People’s accuracy and ability to predict interaction based on first

impressions vary, but people with high accuracy are typically socially skilled and popular and

have less loneliness, anxiety, and depression; more satisfying relationships; and more senior

positions and higher salaries (Hargie, 2011). So not only do first impressions matter but having

the ability to form accurate first impressions seems to correlate too many other positive


First impressions are enduring because of the primacy effect, which leads us to place more

value on the first information we receive about a person. So, if we interpret the first

information we receive from or about a person as positive, then a positive first impression will

form and influence how we respond to that person as the interaction continues. Likewise,

negative interpretations of information can lead us to form negative first impressions. If you sit

down at a restaurant and servers walk by for several minutes and no one greets you, then you

will likely interpret that negatively and not have a good impression of your server when they

finally show up. This may lead you to be short with the server, which may lead them to not be as

attentive as they normally would. At this point, a series of negative interactions has set into

motion a cycle that will be very difficult to reverse and make positive.

The recency effect leads us to put more weight on the most recent impression we have of a

person’s communication over earlier impressions. Even a positive first impression can be

tarnished by a negative final impression. Imagine that a professor has maintained a relatively

high level of credibility with you over the course of the semester. She made a good first

impression by being organized, approachable, and interesting during the first days of class. In

fact, the rest of the semester went fairly well with no major conflicts. However, during the last

week of the term, she didn’t have final papers graded when she said that she would, which left

you with some uncertainty about how well you needed to do on the final exam. When you did

get your paper back, on the last day of class, you saw that your grade was much lower than you

expected. If this happened to you, what would you write on the instructor evaluation? Because of

the recency effect, many students would likely give a disproportionate amount of value to the

professor’s actions in the final week of the semester, negatively skewing the evaluation, which is

supposed to be reflective of the entire semester. Even though the professor only returned one

assignment late, that fact is very recent and can overshadow the positive impression that formed

throughout the rest of the semester.

Physical and Environmental Influences on Perception

We make first impressions based on a variety of factors, including physical and environmental

characteristics. In terms of physical characteristics, style of dress and grooming are important,


especially in professional contexts. We have general schema regarding how to dress and groom

for various situations ranging from formal, to business casual, to casual, to lounging around the


You would likely be able to offer some descriptors of how a person would look and act from the

following categories: goth, a prep, a jock, a fashionista, or a hipster. The schema associated with

these various cliques or styles are formed through personal experience and through exposure to

media representations of these groups. Different professions also have schema for appearance

and dress. Imagine a doctor, mechanic, congressperson, exotic dancer, or mail carrier. Each

group has clothing and personal styles that create and fit into general patterns. Of course, the

mental picture we have of any of the examples above is not going to be representative of the

whole group, meaning that stereotypical thinking often exists within our schema. We will learn

more about the negative effects of stereotypical thinking later in the chapter, but it’s important to

understand how persuasive various physical perceptual influences can be.

by morpholux is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Just as clothing and personal style help us form impressions of others, so do physical body

features. The degree to which we perceive people to be attractive influences our attitudes about

and communication with them. Facial attractiveness and body weight tend to be common

features used in the perception of physical attractiveness. In general, people find symmetrical


faces attractive. People perceived as attractive are generally evaluated more positively, and seen

as kinder, and more competent, than people evaluated as less attractive. Additionally, people

rated as attractive receive more eye contact, more smiles, and closer proximity to others (people

stand closer to them). Unlike clothing and personal style, these physical features are more

difficult, if not impossible, to change.

By Anoto AB is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Clothing, like a doctor’s lab coat, forms powerful impressions that have noticeable effects on

people’s behavior.

Finally, the material objects and people that surround a person influence our perception such as a

doctor’s that has certifications and diplomas hanging on the wall.


Research supports the reliability of such impressions, as people have been shown to make

reasonably accurate judgments about a person’s personality after viewing his or her office or

home (Hargie, 2011). In the workplace, the link between environmental cues and perception is

important enough for many companies to create policies about what can and can’t be displayed

in personal office spaces. It would seem odd for a bank manager to have clown poster hanging in

his office, and that would definitely influence customers’ perceptions of the manager’s

personality and credibility. The arrangement of furniture also creates impressions. Walking into a

meeting and sitting on one end of a long boardroom table is typically less inviting than sitting at

a round table or on a sofa.

Although some physical and environmental features are easier to change than others, it is useful

to become aware of how these factors, which aren’t necessarily related to personality or verbal

and nonverbal communication, shape our perceptions. These early impressions also affect how

we interpret and perceive later encounters, which can be further explained through the halo and

horn effects.

The Halo and Horn Effects

We have a tendency to adapt information that conflicts with our earlier impressions in

order to make it fit within the frame we have established. This is known as selective

distortion, and it manifests in the halo and horn effects. The angelic halo and devilish horn are

useful metaphors for the lasting effects of positive and negative impressions.

The halo effect occurs when initial positive perceptions lead us to view later interactions as

positive. The horn effect occurs when initial negative perceptions lead us to view later

interactions as negative (Hargie, 2011). Since impressions are especially important when a

person is navigating the job market, let’s imagine how the horn and halo effects could play out

for a recent college graduate looking for their first job. For example, Nell has recently graduated

with her degree in communication studies and is looking to start her career as a corporate trainer.

If one of Nell’s professors has a relationship with a local executive, his positive verbal

recommendation will likely result in a halo effect for Nell. Since the executive thinks highly of

his friend, the professor, and the professor thinks highly of Nell, then the executive will start his

interaction with Nell with a positive impression and interpret her behaviors more positively than

he would otherwise. The halo effect initiated by the professor’s recommendation may even lead

the executive to dismiss, or overlook, some negative behaviors. However, if Nell doesn’t have a

professor’s recommendation and arrives late for her interview, that negative impression may

create a horn effect that carries through the interview. Even if Nell appears competent and

friendly, the negative first impression could lead the interviewer to minimize, or ignore, those

positive characteristics, and the company may not hire her.


Personality refers to a person’s general way of thinking, feeling, and behaving based on

underlying motivations and impulses (McCornack, 2007). These underlying motivations and

impulses form our personality traits. Personality traits are “underlying,” but they are fairly


enduring once a person reaches adulthood. That is not to say that people’s personalities do not

change, but major changes in personality are not common unless they result from some form of

trauma. Although personality scholars believe there are thousands of personalities, they all

comprise some combination of the same few traits. Much research has been done on personality

traits, and the “Big Five” that are most commonly discussed are extraversion, agreeableness,

conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness (McCrea, 2001). These five traits appear to be

representative of personalities across cultures, and you can read more about what each of these

traits entails below.

The Big Five Personality Traits

• Extraversion. Refers to a person’s interest in interacting with others. People with high

extraversion are sociable and often called “extroverts.” People with low extraversion are

less sociable and are often called “introverts.”

• Agreeableness. Refers to a person’s level of trustworthiness and friendliness. People

with high agreeableness are cooperative and likable. People with low agreeableness are

suspicious of others and sometimes aggressive, which makes it more difficult for people

to find them pleasant to be around.

• Conscientiousness. Refers to a person’s level of self-organization and motivation. People

with high conscientiousness are methodical, motivated, and dependable. People with low

conscientiousness are less focused, less careful, and less dependable.

• Neuroticism. Refers to a person’s level of negative thoughts regarding himself or herself.

People high in neuroticism are insecure and experience emotional distress and may be

perceived as unstable. People low in neuroticism are more relaxed, have less emotional

swings, and are perceived as more stable.

• Openness. Refers to a person’s willingness to consider new ideas and perspectives.

People high in openness are creative and are perceived as open minded. People low in

openness are more rigid and set in their thinking and are perceived as “set in their ways.”

Scholarship related to personality serves many purposes, and some of them tie directly to

perception. Corporations and television studios spend millions of dollars on developing

personality profiles and personality testing. Corporations can make hiring and promotion

decisions based on personality test results, which can save them money and time if they can

weed out those who don’t “fit” the position before they get in the door and drain resources.

Television studios make casting decisions based on personality profiles because they know that

certain personalities evoke strong and specific reactions from viewers. The reality television

show Survivor has done more than one season where they bring back “Heroes and Villains,”

which already indicates that the returning cast members made strong impressions, both positive

and negative, on the show’s audience members. On this note, some shows intentionally cast

fading stars who already have strong personalities with emotional and addiction issues in order to

create the kind of human train wrecks that attract millions of viewers. So why does this work? It

is likely that audience members have more in common with those reality TV stars than they care

to admit. Essentially, we tend to focus on personality traits in others that we feel are important to

our own personality. What we like in ourselves, we like in others, and what we dislike in

ourselves, we dislike in others (McCornack, 2007). If you admire a person’s loyalty, then

loyalty is probably a trait that you think you possess as well. If you work hard to be positive,


motivated and suppress negative or unproductive urges within yourself, you will likely think

harshly about those negative traits in someone else.

The concept of assumed similarity refers to our tendency to perceive others as similar to us.

When we don’t have enough information about a person to know their key personality traits, we

fill in the gaps—usually assuming they possess traits similar to those we see in ourselves. We

also tend to assume that people have similar attitudes, or likes and dislikes, as us. If you set your

friend up with a man you think she’ll really like, only to find out there was no chemistry when

they met, you may be surprised to realize your friend doesn’t have the same taste in men as you.

Even though we may assume more trait and taste similarity between our significant others, and

ourselves, than there actually is, research generally finds that people do connect, or group

together, based on many characteristics including race, class, and intelligence. However, these

findings don’t show that people with similar personalities group together (Watson, 2008).

In summary, personality affects our perception, and we all tend to be amateur personality

scholars given the amount of effort we put into assuming and evaluating others’ personality

traits. This bank of knowledge we accumulate based on previous interactions with people is used

to help us predict how interactions will unfold and help us manage our interpersonal

relationships. When we size up a person based on their personality, we are auditioning or

interviewing them in a way to see if we think there is compatibility. We use these implicit

personality theories to generalize a person’s overall personality from the traits we can

perceive. The theories are “implicit” because they are not of academic origin, but rather from

experience-based origin. The information we use to theorize about people’s personalities isn’t

explicitly known, or observed, but implied instead. In other words, we use previous experience to

guess other people’s personality traits. We then assume more about a person based on the

personality traits we assign to them.

This process of assuming has its advantages and drawbacks. In terms of advantages, the use of

implicit personality theories offers us a perceptual shortcut that can be useful when we first meet

someone. Our assessment of their traits and subsequent assumptions about who they are as a

person makes us feel like we “know the person,” which reduces uncertainty and facilitates

further interaction. In terms of drawbacks, our experience-based assumptions aren’t always

correct, but they are still persuasive and enduring. As we have already learned, first impressions

carry a lot of weight in terms of how they influence further interaction. Positive and negative

impressions formed early can also lead to a halo effect, or a horn effect. Personality-based

impressions can also connect to impressions based on physical and environmental cues to make

them even stronger. For example, perceiving another person as attractive can create a halo effect

that then leads you to look for behavioral cues that you can then tie to positive personality traits.

You may notice that the attractive person also says “please” and “thank you,” which increases

his or her likeability. You may also notice that the person has clean and fashionable shoes, which

leads you to believe he or she is professional and competent while also trendy and hip. Now you

have an overall positive impression of this person that will affect your subsequent behaviors

(Watson, 2008).


Chapter 3.2 – Improving Perception

So far, we have learned about the perception process and how we perceive others and ourselves.

Now we will turn to a discussion of how to improve our perception. Our self-perception can be

improved by becoming aware of how schema, socializing forces, self-fulfilling prophecies, and

negative patterns of thinking can distort our ability to describe and evaluate ourselves. How we

perceive others can be improved by developing better listening and empathetic skills, becoming

aware of stereotypes and prejudice, developing self-awareness through self-reflection, and

engaging in perception checking.

Improving Self-Perception

Our self-perceptions can and do change. Recall that we have an overall self-concept and self-

esteem that are relatively stable, and we also have context-specific self- perceptions. Context-

specific self-perceptions vary depending on the person with whom we are interacting, our

emotional state, and the subject matter being discussed. Becoming aware of the process of self-

perception and the various components of our self-concept (which you have already started to do

by studying this chapter) will help you understand and improve your self-perceptions.

By frederique.frencken is licensed under CC BY 2.0


By kmakice is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

PPCC Professor Experience

When I was in high school, I considered myself an average student and never considered myself

to be someone who could go to college. My self-concept wasn’t positive. I joined the military

and was encouraged to take advantage of the college benefits that were offered. I attended a few

classes but I put very little effort into my work and therefore earned low grades. When I saw

those low grades, I simply told myself “See, you are not college material” (A self-fulfilling

prophecy.). A few years later I met my husband who kept encouraging me to go back to

school. When I tried to tell him I wasn’t smart enough, he would stop me and say, “One of these

days you are going to see what I see when I look at you.” The military offered me a chance to

attend a leadership school. I accepted but was scared of failing. I gave all my focus to school

work and earned high grades. On the day of graduation, I received three academic awards, one

being a distinguished graduate (top 10%). That graduation changed how I saw myself (self-

concept). I went on to earn my bachelor’s with honors and my master’s degree in



Aside from experiencing life-changing events, we can make slower changes to our self-

perceptions with concerted efforts aimed at becoming more competent communicators through

self-monitoring and reflection. As you actively try to change your self-perceptions, sometimes

you might encounter some resistance from significant others. When you change or improve your

self-concept, your communication will also change. You become more confident which may

prompt other people to respond to you differently. Although you may have good reasons for

changing certain aspects of your self-perception, others may become unsettled or confused by

your changing behaviors and communication, thinking “Why do you want to change what we

have? Who are you?” Remember, people try to increase predictability and decrease uncertainty

within personal relationships. For example, many students begin to take their college education

more seriously during their junior and senior years. These students begin to change their self-

concept to include the role of a “serious student” who is preparing to graduate and enter the

professional world. They likely also have friends that want to maintain the “fun student” who

doesn’t exert consistent effort and prefers partying to studying. As the now serious student’s

behavior changes to accommodate their new self-concept, it may upset the friend who was used

to spending weeknights hanging out.

by Martin Tod is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


Avoid Reliance on Rigid Schema

As we learned earlier, schemata are sets of information based on cognitive and experiential

knowledge that guide our interaction. We rely on schemata almost constantly to help us make

sense of the world around us. Sometimes schemata become so familiar that we use them as

scripts, which prompts mindless communication and can lead us to overlook new information

that may need to be incorporated into the schema. It’s important to remain mindful of new or

contradictory information that may warrant revision of a schema. Being mindful is difficult

because we often unconsciously rely on schemata. For example, sometimes when you’re driving

a familiar route, you fall under “highway hypnosis.” Despite all the advanced psychomotor skills

needed to drive (braking, turning, and adjusting to other drivers), we can arrive to a familiar

place having driven the whole way on autopilot. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing unless

you slip into autopilot on a familiar route, and then remember, you are actually supposed to be

going somewhere else. This example illustrates the importance of keeping our schemata flexible

and avoiding mindless communication.

Be Critical of Socializing Forces

We learned earlier that family, friends, socio-cultural norms, and media are just some of the

socializing forces that influence our thinking and therefore influence our self-perception. These

powerful forces serve positive functions but can also set into motion negative patterns of self-

perception. Two examples can illustrate the possibility for people to critique and resist

socializing forces in order to improve their self-perception. The first deals with physical

appearance and notions of health, and the second deals with cultural identities and


We have already discussed how media presents us with narrow and often unrealistic standards

for attractiveness. Even though most of us know that these standards don’t represent what is

normal or natural for the human body, we internalize these ideals, which results in various

problems ranging from eating disorders, to depression, to poor self-esteem. A relatively

overlooked movement that has emerged partially in response to these narrow representations of

the body is the fat acceptance movement. The fat acceptance movement has been around for

more than thirty years, but it has more recently gotten public attention due to celebrities like

Oprah Winfrey and Kirstie Alley. Both actresses have publicly struggled with weight issues and

are now embracing a view that weight does not necessarily correspond to health. Many people

have found inspiration in that message and have decided that being healthy and strong is more

important than being thin (Katz, 2006). The “Healthy at Every Size” movement and the National

Association to Advance Fat Acceptance have challenged the narrative put out by the thirty-

billion-dollar-a-year weight- loss industry that fat equals lazy, ugly, and unhealthy (NAAFA:

The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, 2012). Conflicting scientific studies make

it difficult to say conclusively how strong the correlation is between weight and health. It seems

clear that promoting healthy living and positive self-esteem over extensive dieting and a cult of

thinness is worth exploring given the health implications of distorted body images and obesity.

Cultural influences related to identities, and difference, can also lead to distorted self-

perceptions, especially for people who occupy marginalized or oppressed identities. Perception


research has often been used to support the notion that individuals who are subjected to

discrimination are likely to have low self-esteem because they internalize negative societal

views. This is not always the case (Hurt, 2009). In fact, some early perception research showed

that minorities do not passively accept the negative views society places on them. Instead, they

actively try to maintain favorable self-perceptions in the face of discriminatory attitudes.

Numerous studies have shown that people in groups that are the targets of discrimination may

identify with their in-group more because of this threat, which may actually help them maintain

psychological well-being. In short, they reject the negative evaluations of the out-group and find

refuge and support in their identification with others who share their marginalized status.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Self-fulfilling prophecies are our expectations that can evoke responses (such as behaviors,

actions and communication) to confirm what we expect (Griffin, 2009). For example, if you

have an expectation (goal) to earn an A on the next exam. You can evoke responses such as

going to your Professor’s office hours to get some advice on studying, follow that advice and

study diligently along with joining a study group with some friends. As a result, you earn the A

grade that you expected. Your behaviors, actions and communication lent itself to making your

goal come true. This can also be true of the exact opposite. You can have an expectation that you

will fail the next exam. You then halfheartedly read the chapter, play some video games and snap

some friends while the textbook is open next to you. As a result, you earn the F grade that you

expected. Your behaviors, action and communication lent itself to making your goal come true.

Self fulfilling prophecy can work in other ways too. Another example stems from research that

found some people are chronically insecure, meaning they are very concerned about being

accepted by others but constantly feel that other people will dislike them. Such people often end

up reinforcing their belief that others will dislike them because of the behaviors they exhibit.

Take the following scenario as an example: An insecure person assumes that his date will not

like him. During the date he doesn’t engage in much conversation, discloses negative

information about himself, and exhibits anxious behaviors. Because of these behaviors, his date

forms a negative impression and suggests they not see each other again, reinforcing his original

belief that the date wouldn’t like him. The example shows how a pattern of thinking can lead to a

pattern of behavior that reinforces the thinking, and so on. Luckily, experimental research shows

that self- affirmation techniques can be successfully used to intervene in such self-fulfilling

prophecies. Thinking positive thoughts and focusing on personality strengths can stop this

negative cycle of thinking and has been shown to have positive effects on academic

performance, weight loss, and interpersonal relationships (Stinson et al., 2011).

Create and Maintain Supporting Interpersonal Relationships

Aside from giving yourself affirming messages to help with self-perception, it is important to

find interpersonal support. Although most people have at least some supportive relationships,

many people also have people in their lives who range from negative to toxic. When people find

themselves in negative relational cycles, whether it is with friends, family, or romantic partners,

it is difficult to break out of those cycles. But we can make choices to be around people that will

help us be who we want to be and not be around people who hinder our self-progress. This


notion can also be taken to the extreme, however. It would not be wise to surround yourself with

people who only validate you, and do not constructively challenge you, because this too could

lead to distorted self-perceptions.

Beware of Distorted Patterns of Thinking and Acting

Often, engaging in distorted thinking happens without being conscious of it. A solution is to

learn about the typical negative patterns of thinking and acting so we can acknowledge and

intervene. One such pattern involves self-esteem and overcompensation.

People with low self-esteem may act in ways that overcompensate for their feelings of low self-

worth and other insecurities. Whether it’s the businessman buying his midlife crisis Corvette, the

“country boy” adding monster tires to his truck, or the community leader who wears several

carats of diamonds everywhere she goes, people often turn to material possessions to try to boost

self-esteem. While these purchases may make people feel better in the short term, they may have

negative financial effects that can make negative self- perceptions worse and lead to

interpersonal conflict. People also compensate for self-esteem with their relational choices. A

person who is anxious about his career success may surround himself with people who he deems

less successful than himself. In this case, being a big fish in a small pond helps some people feel

better about themselves when they engage in social comparison.

People can also get into a negative thought and action cycle by setting unrealistic goals and

consistently not meeting them. Similar to a self-fulfilling prophecy, people who set unrealistic

goals can end up with negative feelings of self-efficacy, which as we learned earlier, can

negatively affect self-esteem and self-concept. The goals we set should be challenging, but

progressive. This means we work to meet a realistic goal, then increase our expectations and set

another goal, and so on.

By: junaidrao is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


Some people develop low self-esteem because they lack accurate information about themselves,

which may be intentional or unintentional. A person can intentionally try to maintain high self-

esteem by ignoring or downplaying negative comments and focus on positive evaluations

instead. While this can be a good thing, it can also lead to a distorted self-concept. There is a

middle ground between beating yourself up and ignoring potentially constructive feedback about

weaknesses which might make a person miss opportunities to grow. Conversely, people who

have low self-esteem or negative self-concepts may discount or ignore positive feedback.

Overcoming Barriers to Perceiving Others

There are many barriers that prevent us from competently perceiving others. While some are

more difficult to overcome than others, they can all be addressed by raising our awareness.

Awareness can be gleaned from the influences around us. We can make a commitment to

monitor, reflect, and change some of our communication habits. Whether it is our lazy listening

skills, lack of empathy, stereotypes and prejudice, various blinders influence how we perceive

and respond to others.

Develop Empathetic Listening Skills

Effective listening is not easy. Most of us do not make a concerted effort to overcome common

barriers to listening. Our fast-paced lives that emphasize speaking over listening can make

listening feel like a chore. We shouldn’t underestimate the power of listening. We can make

someone else feel better and learn new sources of information. Empathetic listening can also

help us expand our self and social awareness by learning from other people’s experiences and

taking on different perspectives. Empathetic listening is challenging because it requires a

cognitive and emotional investment that goes beyond just active listening.

“Listening” by eekim is licensed under CC BY 2.0


Beware of Stereotypes and Prejudice

Stereotypes are sets of beliefs that we develop about groups, which we then apply to

individuals from that group. Stereotypes are schemata that are taken too far, as they reduce and

ignore a person’s individuality and the diversity present within a larger group of people.

Stereotypes can be based on cultural identities, physical appearance, behavior, speech, beliefs,

and values. These are often caused by a lack of information about the target person or group

(Guyll et al, 2010). Stereotypes can be positive, negative, or neutral, but all run the risk of

lowering the quality of our communication.

While the negative effects of stereotypes are pretty straightforward in that they devalue people

and prevent us from adapting and revising our schemata, positive stereotypes also have negative

consequences. For example, the “model minority” stereotype has been applied to some Asian

cultures in the United States. Seemingly positive stereotypes of Asian Americans as

hardworking, intelligent, and willing to adapt to “mainstream” culture are not always received as

positive and can lead some people within these communities to feel objectified, ignored, or


Stereotypes can also lead to double standards that point to larger cultural and social inequalities.

There are many more words to describe a sexually active female than a male. The words used for

females are disproportionately negative, while those used for males are more positive. Since

stereotypes are generally based on a lack of information, we must take it upon ourselves to gain

exposure to new kinds of information and people. This will require us to move out of our

comfort zones. When we meet people, we should base our impressions on describable behavior

rather than inferred or secondhand information. When stereotypes negatively influence our

overall feelings and attitudes about a person or group, prejudiced thinking results.


by jbj is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Prejudice is negative feelings or attitudes toward people based on their identity or

identities. Prejudice can have individual or widespread negative effects. At the individual level,

a hiring manager may not hire a young man with a physical disability (even though that would be

illegal if it were the only reason). This negatively affects that one man. However, if pervasive

cultural thinking that people with physical disabilities are mentally deficient leads hiring

managers all over the country to make similar decisions, then the prejudice has become a social

injustice. In another example, when the disease we know today as AIDS started killing large

numbers of people in the early 1980s, response by some health and government officials was

influenced by prejudice. Since the disease was primarily affecting gay men, Haitian immigrants,

and drug users, the disease was prejudged to be a disease that affected only “deviants” and

therefore didn’t get the same level of attention it would have otherwise. It took many years,

money, and educational campaigns to help people realize that HIV and AIDS do not prejudge

based on race or sexual orientation. In fact, HIV and AIDS can affect any human.


Engage in Self-Reflection

A good way to improve your perceptions and increase your communication competence in

general is to engage in self-reflection. If a communication encounter doesn’t go well and you

want to know why, your self-reflection will be much more useful if you are aware of your

thoughts and actions.

Self-reflection can also help us increase our cultural awareness. Our thought process regarding

culture is often “other focused,” meaning that the culture of the other person is what stands out in

our perception. The old adage “know thyself” is appropriate, as we become more aware of our

own culture by better understanding other cultures and perspectives. Developing cultural self-

awareness often requires us to get out of our comfort zones. Listening to people who are

different from us is a key component of developing self-knowledge. This may be uncomfortable.

There is a tendency to apply deeply held beliefs which may become less certain when we see the

multiple perspectives that exist.

We can also become more aware of how our self-concepts influence how we perceive others. We

often hold other people to the standards we hold for ourselves. We assume that other’s self-

concept should be consistent with our own. For example, if you consider yourself a neat person

and think that sloppiness in your personal appearance would show that you are unmotivated,

rude, and lazy, then you are likely to think the same of a person you judge to have a sloppy

appearance. Asking questions about the perceptions you are making is an integral part of

perception checking.

Checking Perception

Perception checking is a strategy to help us monitor our reactions to and perceptions about

people and communication. There are some internal and external strategies we can use to

engage in perception checking. In terms of internal strategies, review the various influences on

perception and be willing to ask yourself, “What is influencing the perceptions I am making right

now?” Being aware of what influences our perceptions makes us engaged in what is happening

in the perception process. In terms of external strategies, we can use other people to help verify

our perceptions by simply asking them if our perception is correct.

The cautionary adage “Things aren’t always as they appear” is useful when evaluating your own

perceptions. Sometimes it’s a good idea to bounce your thoughts off someone, especially if the

perceptions relate to high-stakes situations. But not all situations allow us the chance to verify

our perceptions. Preventable crimes have been committed because people who saw something

suspicious didn’t report it even though they had a bad feeling about it. Of course, we have to

walk a line between being reactionary and being too cautious, which is difficult to manage. We

all know that we should report someone to the police who is harming themselves, or others, but

sometimes the circumstances are much more uncertain.

The Tony Award–winning play Doubt: A Parable deals with the interplay of perception, doubt,

and certainty. The story is set in a Bronx, Catholic school in 1964. A young priest with new ideas

comes into the school, which is run by a traditional nun who is not fond of change. The older nun


begins a campaign to get the young priest out of her school after becoming convinced that he has

had an inappropriate relationship with one of the male students. No conclusive evidence is

offered during the story. The audience is left (as are the characters in the story) to determine

whether or not the priest is “guilty.” The younger priest doesn’t fit into the nun’s schema of how

a priest should look and act. He has longer fingernails than other priests, he listens to secular

music, and he takes three sugars in his tea. A series of perceptions like this led the nun to

certainty of the priest’s guilt, despite a lack of concrete evidence. Although this is a fictional

example, it mirrors many high-profile cases of abuse that have been in the news. In these

extreme cases, and even in more mundane daily interactions, perception checking can be useful.

Perception Checking

Perception checking helps us slow down perception and the communication process to have

more control over both. Perception checking involves being able to describe what is happening

in a given situation, provide multiple interpretations of behaviors, and ask for clarification. Some

of this process happens inside our heads, and some happens through interaction. Let’s take an

interpersonal conflict as an example.

Stefano and Patrick are roommates. Stefano is in the living room playing a video game when he

sees Patrick walk through the room with his suitcase and walk out the front door. Since Patrick

didn’t say or wave good-bye, Stefano must make sense of this encounter, and perception

checking can help him do that. First, he needs to try to describe (not evaluate yet) what just

happened. This can be done by asking internally, “What is going on?” In this case, Patrick left

without speaking or waving good-bye. Next, Stefano should think of some possible

interpretations of what just happened. One interpretation could be that Patrick is mad about

something (at him or someone else). Another could be that he was in a hurry and simply forgot,

or that he didn’t want to interrupt the video game. In this step of perception checking, it is good

to be aware of the attributions you are making. You might try to determine if you are over

attributing internal or external causes. Lastly, you will want to verify and clarify. So, Stefano

might ask a mutual friend if she knows what might be bothering Patrick that made him leave so

suddenly. Or he may also just want to call or text Patrick. During this step, it’s important to be

aware of punctuation. Even though Stefano has already been thinking about this incident, and is

experiencing some conflict, Patrick may have no idea that his actions caused Stefano to worry. If

Stefano texts and asks why he’s mad (which wouldn’t be a good idea because it’s an assumption)

Patrick may become defensive, which could escalate the conflict. Stefano could just describe the

behavior (without judging Patrick) and ask for clarification by saying, “When you left today you

didn’t speak to me or say bye. I just wanted to check to see if things are OK.”

The steps of perception checking as described in the previous scenario are as follows:

• Step 1: Describe the behavior or situation without evaluating or judging it.

• Step 2: Think of some possible interpretations of the behavior, being aware of

attributions and other influences on the perception process.

• Step 3: Verify what happened and ask for clarification from the other person’s

perspective. Be aware of punctuation, since the other person likely experienced the event

differently than you.


Chapter 3 Key Takeaways and Exercises


1. We use attributions to interpret perceptual information, specifically, people’s behavior.
Internal attributions connect behavior to internal characteristics such as personality traits.

External attributions connect behavior to external characteristics such as situational


2. Two common perceptual errors that occur in the process of attribution are the
fundamental attribution error and the self- serving bias.

3. The fundamental attribution error refers to our tendency to overattribute other people’s
behaviors to internal rather than external causes.

4. The self-serving bias refers to our tendency to overattribute our successes to internal
factors and overattribute our failures to external factors.

5. We can improve self-perception by avoiding reliance on rigid schemata, thinking
critically about socializing institutions, intervening in self- fulfilling prophecies, finding

supportive interpersonal networks, and becoming aware of cycles of thinking that distort

our self-perception.

6. We can improve our perceptions of others by developing empathetic listening skills,
becoming aware of stereotypes and prejudice, and engaging in self-reflection.

7. Perception checking is a strategy that allows us to monitor our perceptions of and
reactions to others and communication.


• Think of a recent conflict and how you explained the behavior that caused the conflict

and subsequently formed impressions about the other person based on your perceptions.

Briefly describe the conflict situation and then identify internal and external attributions

for your behavior and the behavior of the other person. Is there any evidence of the

fundamental attribution error or self-serving bias in this conflict encounter? If so, what?

• Describe a situation in which you believe the primacy and/or recency effect influenced

your perceptions of a person or event.

• Has your perception of something ever changed because of exposure to cultural

difference? For example, have you grown to like a kind of food, music, clothing, or other

custom that you earlier perceived unfavorably?

• Which barrier(s) to self-perception do you think present the most challenge to you and

why? What can you do to start to overcome these barriers?

• Which barrier(s) to perceiving others do you think present the most challenge to you and

why? What can you do to start to overcome these barriers?

• Recount a recent communication encounter in which perception checking may have led

to a more positive result. What could you have done differently?


Chapter 3 References

Ballew II, C. C. and Todorov, A. (2007). Predicting political elections from rapid and

unreflective face judgments. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(46),


Griffin, E. (2009). Communication, communication, communication: A first look at

communication theory (7th ed.). Boston.: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

Hargie, O. (2011). Skilled interpersonal interaction: Research, theory, and practice. London:


Hurt, B. E. (2009). Responding to societal devaluation: Effects of perceived personal and group

discrimination on the ethnic group identification and personal self-esteem of

Latino/Latina adolescents. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 12(1), 11-12.

Katz, M. (2006). Tossing out the diet and embracing the fat. The New York Times. Retrieved


Max Guyll et al. (2010). The potential roles of self-fulfilling prophecies, stigma consciousness,

and stereotype threat in linking Latino/a ethnicity and educational outcomes. Social

Issues, 66(1), 116.

McCornack, S. (2007). Reflect and relate: An introduction to interpersonal communication.

Boston: Bedford/St Martin’s.

McCrea, R. R. (2001). Trait psychology and culture. Journal of Personality, 69(6), 825.

NAAFA: The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. (2012). About Us. Retrieved

from NAAFA: The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance :

Sillars, A. L. (1980). Attributions and communication in roommate conflicts. Communication

Monographs, 47(3), 183.

Stinson, D., et al. (2011). Rewriting the self-fulfilling prophecy of social rejection: Self-

affirmation improves relational security and social behavior up to 2 months later.

Psychological Science, 20(10), 2.

Watson, A. B. (2008). Personality judgement at zero acquaintance: Agreement, assumed

similarity, and implicit simplicity. Journal of Personality Assessment, 90(3), 252.




(Zara, 2019)

The “Boy Who Cried Wolf” is a famous Aesop’s fable about a shepherd boy who amused

himself while watching the village sheep by falsely yelling, “Wolf! Wolf!” to make the villagers

run up the hill to protect the flock. Both times that he yelled this he was lying—there was no

wolf. By the time a wolf actually came, and the sheep needed protecting, the villagers did not

come because they no longer believed the shepherd boy when he called. One of the villagers

later explained to the boy his wrongdoings: “We’ll help you look for the lost sheep in the

morning. Nobody believes a liar . . . even when he is telling the truth (Aesop, 2019).

Lying is a form of deception, requires the expression of an actual statement known to be

untrue (Burgoon, 1996). The research on deception and nonverbal communication indicates that

heightened arousal and increased cognitive demands contribute to the presence of nonverbal

behaviors that can be associated with deception. Remember, however, that these nonverbal

behaviors are not solely related to deception and also manifest as a result of other emotional or

cognitive states.

Lying to others is not entirely unusual. A review of empirical literature assessing daily lying

frequency reveals that human beings admit to telling lies in, on average, in 20 percent of social

interactions. On a typical day, people lie an average of approximately one time a day, but some

lie as many as five times a day, and about 10 percent avoid lying altogether (Hoerger, 2014).


Not all lies have the same function; motives for telling lies are variable. Lies may be self-

focused, other-focused, self-oriented or altruistic. Self-focused lies are generally told to save

face (that is, impression management) (Hoerger, 2014), e.g. being late for a lunch date you tell

your friend, “I thought we were meeting at 12:30!” (deception) instead of simply saying “I can’t

believe I almost forgot about our lunch.” (honesty). Another is to avoid judgment or admission

of personal weaknesses and failures (e.g., telling your parents you earned an “A” when you

really failed your math exam). People may also tell self-oriented lies to avoid discussing

sensitive emotional information, evade responsibility or commitment, or even to avoid

verbal or physical confrontation (e.g., telling your landlord to expect a rent payment

tomorrow, despite a depleted bank account) (Levine, 2014). Other-oriented or Altruistic lies

aim at providing benefit to another person. They are related to the willingness to be polite

and to care about another person’s feelings. The benefits of another person related to these lies

can involve trying to make another person feel good by saving them from an unpleasant truth.

For example, telling them their hair cut looks great or their cooking is tasty. Benefits of other-

oriented or altruistic lies could include making their partner feel better, avoiding offending their

partner, or avoiding conflict.

Some empirical studies have found that self-oriented lies are more frequently told to strangers

than close others (e.g., friends, family, and romantic partners), perhaps attributable to the desire

to maintain interpersonal closeness or the presumption that close others may be more suspect of

deception (though this varies by attachment style). Other-focused lies are told to protect the

psychological welfare or self-interests of others on the receiving end of the lie (e.g., a dinner

party guest praises the host’s cooking skills despite their dislike of the food). Resembling other-

focused lies, altruistic lies are intended to protect the interests and emotions of others; they are

distinct in that they are told to a third party regarding the individual to be protected (e.g., a

college student reports to her professor that her classmate is attending a funeral) (Levine, 2014).

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave…when first we practice to deceive.”

― Walter Scott, Marmion (Scott, n.d.)

1. The lie does matter – to the liar! The number one reason people lie when it just doesn’t
matter is because they actually do think it matters (Ley, 2017).

2. Telling the truth feels like giving up control. Often, people tell lies because they are
trying to control a situation and exert influence toward getting the decisions or reactions,

they want (Ley, 2017).

3. They don’t want to disappoint you. It may not feel like it to you, but people who tell lie
after lie are often worried about losing the respect of those around them. They want you

to like them, be impressed, and value them. And they’re worried that the truth might lead

you to reject or shame them (Ley, 2017).

4. Lies snowball. If a chronic liar admits to any single lie, they feel like they’re admitting
to being a liar, and then you’ll have reason to distrust them (Ley, 2017).

5. It’s not a lie to the liar When we are under pressure, our thinking about the big picture
can be challenged. Our memory of things is quite unreliable: Multiple studies

demonstrate that our memories are influenced by many things, that they change over

time, and that they are essentially reconstructed each time we think about them (Ley,



6. They want it to be true. Finally, the liar might want their lie to be true so badly that their
desire and needs again overwhelm their instinct to tell the truth. sometimes, liars hope

that they can make something come true by saying it over and over, and by believing it as

hard as they can. In today’s environment of “alternative facts,” it’s hard not to see this as

somewhat justified (Ley, 2017).

For the average individual, the perceived magnitude of telling everyday lies is diminutive,

resulting in minimal guilt and cognitive stress. This is particularly true of individuals who are

characteristically manipulative (to have the ability to influence) and are able to act in social

situations, as some research has demonstrated. Some data suggest that everyday lie tellers tend to

be confident that they will not be exposed, and if one’s lies are convincing, considering how the

target might feel in the case of disclosure is futile.

When someone is lied to in an interaction, they report greater dislike of the lie teller and are also

more likely to increase their lying in return. Therefore, while the lie-teller may experience

minimal guilt and cognitive stress in the moment, the longer-term repercussions of lying are

potentially sizeable in that they may risk harming later socio-emotional functioning (Levine,


“Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it

happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken.”

― Jane Austen, Emma (Austen, 2019)



The language people use when deceiving others is a topic of increasing interest in the social

sciences. Research on language and deception focuses largely on the linguistic cues associated

with deceptive speech and on the ways in which speakers utilize language to dissociate

themselves from unpleasant topics or events. The most consistent linguistic characteristics

associated with deception include increased word count, use of third-person pronouns, and

markers of reduced cognitive complexity. Conflicting research findings on linguistic cues

associated with deception hinder the ability to generalize findings beyond localized contexts, and

emphasize the importance of situational factors when examining linguistic cues associated with

deception (McGlone, 2014).

Do you recall a time you were caught in a lie? Some of us think we are good at figuring out a

lie, however researchers estimate the average person lies a minimum of one to two times per day

(Hancock, 2012).

In Dr. Jeff Hancock’s TED Talk “Science of Lying,” he discusses that there are things we should

know about liars.

1. We’re all liars: He asks “Do you ever give people compliments that aren’t completely
genuine? Or tell people you are busy to avoid having to talk to them? Then you’ve lied

(Hancock, 2012).

2. “Normal” Liars vs. “Prolific” Liars: The good news? Most people are honest, at least
with good intentions in their lie. Recent research shows that the majority of lies are told

by the same, small group of people known as ‘prolific’ liars.

Here’s how you can try spotting a prolific liar:

• Prolific liars tend to be younger, male and have higher occupational statuses.

• They are likely to lie the most to their partners and children.

• They are more likely than the average person to believe that lying is acceptable

in some circumstances.

• They are less likely to lie because of concern for others and more likely to lie for their

own self-interest, such as to protect a secret.

• Prolific liars tell five and a half lies for every white lie told by an average person.

• They tell 19.1 lies for every big lie told by an average person.

(Hancock, 2012)

3. People Prefer to Lie for Their Teams – Studies have found that people are more
willing to lie to receive incentives that benefit their entire team rather than incentives that

are just for themselves. For example, employees are more likely to lie to their boss about

the progress of a project when doing so prevents their entire team from getting in trouble

rather than just themselves (Hancock, 2012).


4. Lying in Email vs Pen and Paper – The frequency of lying does change based on the
medium, but can it change within the same one? Researchers have found that people are

more likely to lie when using email versus pen and paper. Both are the same in terms of

‘media richness,’ meaning both forms are text only. Yet, people lie more, reveal less

information and feel more justified when using email than when sending a message via

pen and paper. According to the study, “The findings were consistent, whether the task

assured participants that their lie either would or would not be discovered by their

counterparts” (Hancock, 2012).

5. Liars Struggle to Answer Why Questions – If you suspect someone might be lying to
you but aren’t sure, an easy way to find out is to ask them ‘Why?’ questions. It is much

more difficult for people to lie about why they did something or why something

happened than it is for them to lie about basic facts. If someone struggles to explain their

intentions, it’s a major red flag that they are lying (Hancock, 2012).

“Deception may give us what we want for the present, but it will always take it away in the


― Rachel Hawthorne, Dark of the Moon (Hawthorne, 2019)



Aside from nonverbal cues, also listen for inconsistencies in or contradictions between

statements, which can also be used to tell when others are being deceptive. The following are

some nonverbal signals that have been associated with deception in research studies but be

cautious about viewing these as absolutes since individual and contextual differences should also

be considered.

• Gestures. One of the most powerful associations between nonverbal behaviors and

deception is the presence of adaptors. Self-touches like wringing hands and object-

adaptors like playing with a pencil or messing with clothing have been shown to correlate

to deception. Some highly experienced deceivers, however, can control the presence of

adaptors (Andersen, 1999).

• Eye contact. Deceivers tend to use more eye contact when lying to friends, perhaps to try

to increase feelings of immediacy or warmth, and less eye contact when lying to

strangers. A review of many studies of deception indicates that increased eye blinking is

associated with deception, probably because of heightened arousal and cognitive activity

(Andersen, 1999).

• Facial expressions. People can intentionally use facial expressions to try to deceive, and

there are five primary ways that this may occur. People may show feelings that they do

not actually have, show a higher intensity of feelings than they actually have, try to show

no feelings, try to show less feeling than they actually have, or mask one feeling with

another. Other ways to tell if someone is lying? Flared nostrils, lip nibbling, deep

breathing, and rapid blinking, which hint that the brain is working overtime (Reader’s

Digests Editors , n.d.).

• Micro expressions: These are very brief facial expressions, lasting only a fraction of a

section. According to Dr Paul Ekman, the world’s expert in emotions and deception

detection, these are revealing facial expressions that are universal, and often occur

without our knowledge. (Paul Ekman Group, 2019). A recent, insightful program that

was based on Dr. Ekman’s research was called “Lie to Me.” The main character, Dr. Cal

Lightman, is loosely based on Dr. Ekman. Many of the episodes of Lie to Me feature

references from Dr. Ekman’s own experiences and give relevant examples of micro-

expressions and nonverbal lie detection (Paul Ekman Group, 2019).

• Vocalics. One of the most common nonverbal signs of deception is speech errors. As

you’ll recall, verbal fillers and other speech disfluencies are studied as part of vocalics;

examples include false starts, stutters, and fillers. Studies also show that an increase in

verbal pitch is associated with deception and is likely caused by heightened arousal and


• Chronemics (The study of the role of time in communication). Speech turns are often

thought to correspond to deception, but there is no consensus among researchers as to the

exact relationship. Most studies reveal that especially in response to direct questions

(Andersen, 1999).

Studies show that people engage in deception much more than they care to admit. Do you

consider yourself a good deceiver? Why or why not? Which, if any, of the nonverbal cues

discussed do you think help you deceive others or give you away?



Social media is something that can really bring up the problem of self-deception. How many of

us have heard about people getting scammed by seemingly authentic sights? What was once an

isolated trend has exploded in recent years, to the point where the digital landscape is reeling

from all that fake follower activity. To put the scope of the problem into perspective, up to 20%

of mid-level influencers’ followers are likely fraudulent, according to a Points North Group

study (Vranica, 2018). However, it is hard to spot frauds, either in dating sites, advertisement’s

and especially in communicating with someone, for example, when you are trying to sell

something online.

“Online Dating” by simmons.kevin4208 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

PPCC Professor’s Experience: I wasn’t aware of how pervasive deception was until selling

online. I sold an item on eBay and received a “PayPal” receipt showing that the item had been

paid for. I called PayPal to double check and discovered there was no payment made. The

receipt I received was bogus so my payment had gone to a scammer. Thankfully, I was able to

stop the transaction and report the event. Online scamming can be very costly.

Self-deception occurs when we manage our beliefs without regard for truth. It may be a belief

about others, about oneself, or about anything, really. Rather than rationally evaluating the

relevant evidence for any particular belief, we let something else guide what we believe. This

often has to do with something that we feel strong emotions about such as close relationships,

our character, our career, ethics, politics, or religion. These emotions pressure us to believe

something for reasons other than truth. Social media—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the

rest—can help and hinder us in our struggle with self-deception (Austin, 2013).

A term we continually hear about is “fake news So, what is fake news? Lots of things you read

online especially in your social media feeds may appear to be true, but often are not. Fake news

is news, stories or hoaxes created to deliberately misinform or deceive readers. Usually, these

stories are created to either influence people’s views, push a political agenda or cause confusion

and can often be a profitable business for online publishers. Fake news stories can deceive


people by looking like trusted websites or using similar names and web addresses to reputable

news organizations (Webwise, 2019).

According to Media Literacy Expert Martina Chapman, there are three elements to fake news;

‘Mistrust, misinformation and manipulation’. There are many types of fake or misleading news

we should be aware of, that are predominate are: Clickbait (using shocking or attention grabbing

headlines to get you to read a story), and propaganda (which can deliberately mislead the reader,

often based in a biased point of view or political agenda) (Webwise, 2019).

Fake news is not new; however, it became a hot topic in 2017. Traditionally, we got our news

from trusted sources, journalists and media outlets that are required to follow strict codes of

practice. However, the internet has enabled a whole new way to publish, share and consume

information and news with very little regulation or editorial standards. Many people now get

news from social media sites and networks and often it can be difficult to tell whether stories are

credible ,or not. Information overload and a general lack of understanding about how the internet

works by people has also contributed to an increase in fake news or hoax stories. Social media

sites can play a big part in increasing the reach of these type of stories (Webwise, 2019).

“People trust their eyes above all else – but most people see what they wish to see, or what they

believe they should see; not what is really there”

― Zoë Marriott, Shadows on the Moon (Marriott, 2001)

Deception doesn’t discriminate between the forms of communication people use. To be sure, it

takes place in online and offline forms of courtship alike, and it’s understandable why. When

people are striving to appear pleasant and capable, an aim that’s virtually universal in the world

of modern dating, they’re more prone to fib (Parker, 2019). In an article by Dr. Holly Parker

titled “Online Dating with a Dash of Deception” she found with 81% of people in one study

admitting to lying in at least one of the ways they described themselves. Fibs are also more likely

to occur in some topics than in others, with the most common being weight, height, and age, in

that order; other instances of deception in profiles include hobbies, financial means, and personal

qualities (Parker, 2019).

According to the Interpersonal Deception Theory (Burgoon, 1996), Buller and Burgoon label

three strategies for deceit, falsification, concealment, and equivocation. The three differ in that

falsification creates a fiction, concealment hides a secret, and equivocation dodges the issues

(Burgoon, 1996).

Falsification is the action of falsifying information or a theory (Merriam-Webster, 2019). For

example, even in face-to-face interaction in the dating game, think about how we might “omit or

forget” to say something about our lives (e.g. having children, living with your parents, etc.) in

order not to scare that potential person away.

Concealment is the action of hiding something or preventing it from being known

(Merriam-Webster, 2019). For example, when you come home from school, and your parent

asks you how your day was, oftentimes we don’t give minute by minute details. If you forgot to

do an assignment and lost a grade, you might conceal that information till another time, if ever.



trying-to-hide-from-it.-” by deeplifequotes is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Copy rich text

Finally, equivocation is the use of ambiguous language to conceal the truth or to avoid

committing oneself (Merriam-Webster, 2019). Equivocation is the strategy we experience more

often than we realize. Have you ever gone to a restaurant and you ask the server “I’m thinking

about ordering this from the menu, is it good?” They might dodge the issue by saying “That’s

one of our most popular meals.” Hearing that, you order it. However, if you think about it, the

server never really answered your question.

“Thomasz II” by Crashworks is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0




The research on deception and nonverbal communication indicates that heightened arousal and

increased cognitive demands contribute to the presence of nonverbal behaviors that can be

associated with deception. Remember, however, that these nonverbal behaviors are not solely

related to deception and manifest as a result of other emotional or cognitive states. Additionally,

when people are falsely accused of deception, the signs that they exhibit as a result of the stress

of being falsely accused are very similar to the signals exhibited by people who are engaging in


There are common misconceptions about what behaviors are associated with deception.

Behaviors mistakenly linked to deception include longer response times, slower speech rates,

decreased eye contact, increased body movements, excessive swallowing, and less smiling. None

of these have consistently been associated with deception (Andersen, 1999). As we’ve learned,

people also tend to give more weight to nonverbal than verbal cues when evaluating the

truthfulness of a person or her or his message. This predisposition can lead us to focus on

nonverbal cues while overlooking verbal signals of deception. A large study found that people

were better able to detect deception by sound alone than they were when exposed to both

auditory and visual cues (Andersen, 1999). Aside from nonverbal cues, also listen for

inconsistencies in or contradictions between statements, which can also be used to tell when

others are being deceptive.


Chapter 4 Takeaways and Exercises


• Deception can be defined as the communication of information to a target with the intent

of creating a false understanding on the part of the target.

• Nonverbal behaviors are not solely related to deception and also manifest as a result of

other emotional or cognitive states.

• The most consistent linguistic characteristics associated with deception include increased

word count, use of third-person pronouns, and markers of reduced cognitive complexity.

• There were three strategies for identified for deceit, Falsification, concealment, and



For each of the following scenarios, note (1) what behaviors may indicate deception, (2)

alternative explanations for the behaviors (aside from deception), and (3) questions you could

ask to get more information before making a judgment.

1. Scenario 1. A politician is questioned by a reporter about allegations that she used
taxpayer money to fund personal vacations. She looks straight at the reporter, crosses one

leg over the other, and says, “I’ve worked for the people of this community for ten years

and no one has ever questioned my ethics until now.” As she speaks, she points her index

finger at the reporter and uses a stern and clear tone of voice.

2. Scenario 2. You ask your roommate if you can borrow his car to go pick up a friend from
the train station about ten miles away. He says, “Um, well…I had already made plans to

go to dinner with Cal and he drove last time so it’s kind of my turn to drive this time. I

mean, is there someone else you could ask or someone else who could get her? You

know I don’t mind sharing things with you, and I would totally let you, you know, if I

didn’t have this thing to do. Sorry.” As he says, “Sorry,” he raises both of his hands, with

his palms facing toward you, and shrugs.

3. Scenario 3. A professor asks a student to explain why he didn’t cite sources for several
passages in his paper that came from various websites. The student scratches his head and

says, “What do you mean? Those were my ideas. I did look at several websites, but I

didn’t directly quote anything, so I didn’t think I needed to put the citations in

parentheses.” As he says this, he rubs the back of his neck and then scratches his face and

only makes minimal eye contact with the professor.


Chapter 4 References

Aesop. (2019). The boy who cried wolf. Retrieved from Fairy Tales of the World:

Andersen, P. A. (1999). Nonverbal communication: Forms and functions. Mountain View:


Austen, J. (2019). Jane Austen: Emma. Retrieved from The Literature Page :

Austin, M. (2013). Self-deception and social media. Psychology Today. Retrieved from


Burgoon, D. B. (1996). Interpersonal deception theory. Wiley Online Library. Retrieved from

Hancock, J. (2012). 9 things you should know about liars. Ted Talk. Retrieved from

Hancock, J. (2012). Science of lying. Science of People. Retrieved from

Hawthorne, R. (2019). Deception quote. Retrieved from Rachel Hawthorne Quotes:


Hoerger, H. L. (2014). Encyclopedia of deception, D. In T. R. Levine (Ed.) Encyclopedia of

Deception. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Levine, T. R. (2014). Encyclopedia of deception. In T. R. Levine (Ed.) Encyclopedia of

Deception (pp. 239-250). Thousand Oaks: Sage .

Ley, D. J. (2017). 6 reasons people lie when they don’t need to. Psychology Today. Retrieved



Marriott, Z. (2001). Shadows on the moon. Somerville: Candlewick Press.

McGlone, J. M. (2014). Language. In T. R. Levine (Ed.) Encyclopedia of Deception. Thousand

Oaks: Sage.

Merriam-Webster. (2019). Falsification. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-


Parker, H. (2019). Online dating with a dash of deception. Psychology Today. Retrieved



Paul Ekman Group. (2019). Micro expressions. Retrieved from

Psychology Today. (2019). Deception. Psychology Today. Retrieved from

Reader’s Digests Editors. (n.d.). 7 clues anyone can use to spot a liar. Reader’s Digest. Retrieved


Scott, W. (n.d.). Oh what a tangled weave. Retrieved from Walter Scott:


Vranica, S. (2018, June 17). Unilever demands influencer marketing business clean up its act.

The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from


Webwise. (2019). Explained: What is fake news? Retrieved from Webwise:

Zara, M. (2019). Those who deceive. Retrieved from QuoteGram:




Chapter 5.1 Gender Introduction

Before we discuss gender in detail, it is important to understand what gender actually is. The

terms sex and gender are frequently used interchangeably, though they have different meanings.

In this context, sex refers to the biological category of male or female, as defined by physical

differences in genetic composition and in reproductive anatomy and function. On the other

hand, gender refers to the cultural, social, and psychological meanings that are associated

with masculinity and femininity (Wood & Eagly, 2002). You can think of “male” and “female”

as distinct categories of sex (a person is typically born a male or a female), but “masculine” and

“feminine” as a continuum associated with gender (everyone has a certain degree of masculine

and feminine traits and qualities).

Gender refers to the cultural, social, and psychological meanings that are associated with

masculinity and femininity. [Photo: Michael Foley Photography,, CC BY-

NC-ND 2.0,]

Beyond sex and gender, there are a number of related terms that are also often

misunderstood. Gender roles are the behaviors, attitudes, and personality traits that are

designated as either masculine or feminine in a given culture. It is common to think of gender


roles in terms of gender stereotypes, or the beliefs and expectations people hold about the typical

characteristics, preferences, and behaviors of men and women. A person’s gender identity refers

to their psychological sense of being male or female. In contrast, a person’s sexual orientation is

the direction of their emotional and erotic attraction toward members of the opposite sex, the

same sex, or both sexes. These are important distinctions, and though we will not discuss each of

these terms in detail, it is important to recognize that sex, gender, gender identity, and sexual

orientation do not always correspond with one another. A person can be biologically male but

have a female gender identity while being attracted to women, or any other combination of

identities and orientations.

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Chapter 5.2 Gender Differences

Differences between males and females can be based on (a) actual gender differences (i.e., men

and women are actually different in some abilities), (b) gender roles (i.e., differences in how

men and women are supposed to act), or (c) gender stereotypes (i.e., differences in how

we think men and women are). Sometimes gender stereotypes and gender roles reflect actual

gender differences, but sometimes they do not.

What are actual gender differences? In terms of language and language skills, girls develop

language skills earlier and know more words than boys; this does not, however, translate into

long-term differences. Girls are also more likely than boys to offer praise, to agree with the

person they’re talking to, and to elaborate on the other person’s comments. In contrast, boys are

more likely than girls to assert their opinion and offer criticisms (Leaper & Smith, 2004). In

terms of temperament, boys are slightly less able to suppress inappropriate responses and slightly

more likely to blurt things out than girls (Else-Quest, Hyde, Goldsmith, & Van Hulle, 2006).

Boys exhibit higher rates of unprovoked physical aggression than girls and are more likely to

play organized rough-and-tumble games. [Image: Aislinn Ritchie,,CC

BY-SA 2.0,]

With respect to aggression, boys exhibit higher rates of unprovoked physical aggression than

girls, but no difference in provoked aggression (Hyde, 2005). Some of the biggest differences

involve the play styles of children. Boys frequently play organized rough-and-tumble games in


large groups, while girls often play less physical activities in much smaller groups (Maccoby,

1998). There are also differences in the rates of depression, with girls much more likely than

boys to be depressed after puberty. After puberty, girls are also more likely to be unhappy with

their bodies than boys.

However, there is considerable variability between individual males and individual females.

Also, even when there are mean level differences, the actual size of most of these differences is

quite small. This means, knowing someone’s gender does not help much in predicting their

actual traits. For example, in terms of activity level, boys are considered more active than girls.

However, 42% of girls are more active than the average boy (but so are 50% of boys; see Figure

1 for a depiction of this phenomenon in a comparison of male and female self-esteem).

Furthermore, many gender differences do not reflect innate differences, but instead reflect

differences in specific experiences and socialization. For example, one presumed gender

difference is that boys show better spatial abilities than girls. However, Tzuriel and Egozi (2010)

gave girls the chance to practice their spatial skills (by imagining a line drawing was different

shapes) and discovered that, with practice, this gender difference completely disappeared.

Figure 1. While our gender stereotypes paint males and females as drastically different from each

other, even when a difference exists, there is considerable overlap in the presence of that trait

between genders. This graph shows the average difference in self-esteem between boys and girls.


Boys have a higher average self-esteem than girls, but the average scores are much more similar

than different. Taken from Hyde (2005).

Many domains we assume differ across genders are really based on gender stereotypes and not

actual differences. Based on large meta-analyses, the analyses of thousands of studies across

more than one million people, research has shown: Girls are not more fearful, shy, or scared of

new things than boys; boys are not more angry than girls and girls are not more emotional than

boys; boys do not perform better at math than girls; and girls are not more talkative than boys

(Hyde, 2005).

In the following sections, we’ll investigate gender roles, the part they play in creating these

stereotypes, and how they can affect the development of real gender differences.

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Chapter 5.3 Gender Roles

As mentioned earlier, gender roles are well-established social constructions that may change

from culture to culture and over time. In American culture, we commonly think of gender roles

in terms of gender stereotypes, or the beliefs and expectations people hold about the typical

characteristics, preferences, and behaviors of men and women.

By the time we are adults, our gender roles are a stable part of our personalities, and we usually

hold many gender stereotypes. When do children start to learn about gender? Very early. By

their first birthday, children can distinguish faces by gender. By their second birthday, they can

label others’ gender and even sort objects into gender-typed categories. By the third birthday,

children can consistently identify their own gender (see Martin, Ruble, & Szkrybalo, 2002, for a

review). At this age, children believe sex is determined by external attributes, not biological

attributes. Between 3 and 6 years of age, children learn that gender is constant and can’t change

simply by changing external attributes, having developed gender constancy. During this period,

children also develop strong and rigid gender stereotypes. Stereotypes can refer to play (e.g.,

boys play with trucks, and girls play with dolls), traits (e.g., boys are strong, and girls like to

cry), and occupations (e.g., men are doctors and women are nurses). These stereotypes stay rigid

until children reach about age 8 or 9. Then they develop cognitive abilities that allow them to be

more flexible in their thinking about others.

Figure 2: Children develop the ability to classify gender very early in life.

How do our gender roles and gender stereotypes develop and become so strong? Many of our

gender stereotypes are so strong because we emphasize gender so much in culture (Bigler &

Liben, 2007). For example, males and females are treated differently before they are even born.

When someone learns of a new pregnancy, the first question asked is “Is it a boy or a girl?”

Immediately upon hearing the answer, judgments are made about the child: Boys will be rough

and like blue, while girls will be delicate and like pink. Developmental intergroup

theory postulates that adults’ heavy focus on gender leads children to pay attention to


gender as a key source of information about themselves and others, to seek out any possible

gender differences, and to form rigid stereotypes based on gender that are subsequently

difficult to change.

People are more likely to remember schema-consistent behaviors and attributes than schema-

inconsistent behaviors and attributes. For example, people are more likely to remember men, and

forget women, who are firefighters. [Photo: Billy V,, CC BY-NC-SA


There are also psychological theories that partially explain how children form their own gender

roles after they learn to differentiate based on gender. The first of these theories is gender

schema theory. Gender schema theory argues that children are active learners who

essentially socialize themselves. In this case, children actively organize others’ behavior,

activities, and attributes into gender categories, which are known as schemas. These schemas

then affect what children notice and remember later. People of all ages are more likely to

remember schema-consistent behaviors and attributes than schema-inconsistent behaviors and

attributes. So, people are more likely to remember men, and forget women, who are firefighters.

They also misremember schema-inconsistent information. If research participants are shown

pictures of someone standing at the stove, they are more likely to remember the person to be

cooking if depicted as a woman, and the person to be repairing the stove if depicted as a man. By


only remembering schema-consistent information, gender schemas strengthen more and more

over time.

A second theory that attempts to explain the formation of gender roles in children is social

learning theory. Social learning theory argues that gender roles are learned through

reinforcement, punishment, and modeling. Children are rewarded and reinforced for behaving

in concordance with gender roles and punished for breaking gender roles. In addition, social

learning theory argues that children learn many of their gender roles by modeling the behavior of

adults and older children and, in doing so, develop ideas about what behaviors are appropriate

for each gender. Social learning theory has less support than gender schema theory—research

shows that parents do reinforce gender-appropriate play, but for the most part treat their male and

female children similarly (Lytton & Romney, 1991).

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Chapter 5.4 Gender Sexism and Socialization

Treating people differently based on gender is both a consequence of gender differences and

a cause of gender differences. Differential treatment on the basis of gender is also referred

to gender discrimination and is an inevitable consequence of gender stereotypes. When it is

based on unwanted treatment related to sexual behaviors or appearance, it is called sexual

harassment. By the time boys and girls reach the end of high school, most have experienced

some form of sexual harassment, most commonly in the form of unwanted touching or

comments, being the target of jokes, having their body parts rated, or being called names related

to sexual orientation.

Different treatment by gender begins with parents. A meta-analysis of research from the United

States and Canada found that parents most frequently treated sons and daughters differently by

encouraging gender-stereotypical activities (Lytton & Romney, 1991). Fathers, more than

mothers, are particularly likely to encourage gender-stereotypical play, especially in sons.

Parents also talk to their children differently based on stereotypes. For example, parents talk

about numbers and counting twice as often with sons than daughters (Chang, Sandhofer, &

Brown, 2011) and talk to sons in more detail about science than with daughters. Parents are also

much more likely to discuss emotions with their daughters than their sons.

Image by Daniela Dimitrova from Pixabay

Children do a large degree of socializing themselves. By age 3, children play in gender-

segregated play groups and expect a high degree of conformity. Children who are perceived as


gender atypical (i.e., do not conform to gender stereotypes) are more likely to be bullied and

rejected than their more gender-conforming peers.

Gender stereotypes typically maintain gender inequalities in society. The concept of ambivalent

sexism recognizes the complex nature of gender attitudes, in which women are often

associated with positive and negative qualities (Glick & Fiske, 2001). It has two components.

First, hostile sexism refers to the negative attitudes of women as inferior and incompetent

relative to men. Second, benevolent sexism refers to the perception that women need to be

protected, supported, and adored by men. There has been considerable empirical support for

benevolent sexism, possibly because it is seen as more socially acceptable than hostile sexism.

Gender stereotypes are found not just in American culture. Across cultures, males tend to be

associated with stronger and more active characteristics than females (Best, 2001).

In recent years, gender and related concepts have become a common focus of social change and

social debate. Many societies, including American society, have seen a rapid change in

perceptions of gender roles, media portrayals of gender, and legal trends relating to gender. For

example, there has been an increase in children’s toys attempting to cater to both genders (such

as Legos marketed to girls), rather than catering to traditional stereotypes. Nationwide, the

drastic surge in acceptance of homosexuality and gender questioning has resulted in a rapid push

for legal change to keep up with social change. Laws such as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the

Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), both of which were enacted in the 1990s, have met severe

resistance on the grounds of being discriminatory toward sexual minority groups and have been

accused of unconstitutionality less than 20 years after their implementation. Change in

perceptions of gender is also evident in social issues such as sexual harassment, a term that only

entered the mainstream mindset in the 1991 Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill scandal and was

emphasized through Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement. As society’s gender roles and gender

restrictions continue to fluctuate, the legal system and the structure of American society will

continue to change and adjust.

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Chapter 5.5 Sexual Orientation

Discussions of sexual and affectional orientation range from everyday conversations to

contentious political and personal debates. The negative stereotypes that have been associated

with homosexuality, including deviance, mental illness, and criminal behavior, continue to

influence our language use (American Psychological Association, 2012). Terminology related to

gender and sexual minorities (LGBTQIA+) people can be confusing, so let’s spend some time

raise our awareness about preferred labels. First, sexual orientation is the term preferred

to sexual preference. Preference suggests a voluntary choice, as in someone has a preference for

cheddar or American cheese, which doesn’t reflect the experience of most LGBTQIA+ people or

research findings that show sexuality is more complex. You may also see affectional

orientation included with sexual orientation because it acknowledges that LGBTQIA+

relationships, like heterosexual relationships, are about intimacy and closeness (affection)

that is not just sexually based. Most people also prefer the labels gay, lesbian,

or bisexual to homosexual, which is clinical and doesn’t so much refer to an identity as a sex act.

Language regarding romantic relationships contains bias when heterosexuality is assumed.

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

In 2015, the Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states (Pettys, 2015),

which helped recognize and emphasize equality in sexual orientation. However, there are still

situations where a different lifestyle based on sexual orientation is socially criticized. Comments

comparing LGBTQIA+ people to “normal” people, although possibly intended to be positive,

reinforces the stereotype that LGBTQIA+ people are abnormal. Don’t presume you can identify

a person’s sexual orientation by looking at them or talking to them. Don’t assume that


LGBTQIA+ people will “come out” to you. Given that many LGBTQIA+ people have faced and

continue to face regular discrimination, they may be cautious about disclosing their identities.

However, using gender neutral terminology like partner and avoiding other biased language

mentioned previously may create a climate in which a LGBTQIA+ person feels comfortable

disclosing his or her sexual orientation identity. Conversely, the casual use of phrases like

“that’s gay” to mean “that’s stupid” may create an environment in which LGBTQIA+ people do

not feel comfortable. Even though people don’t often use the phrase to actually refer to sexual

orientation, campaigns like “” try to educate people about the power that

language has and how we should all be more conscious of the words we use.


Chapter 5.6 Important Gender-Related Events in the United


• 1920 — 19th Amendment (women’s Suffrage Ratified)

• 1941-1945 — World War II forces millions of women to enter the workforce

• 1948 — Universal Declaration of Human Rights

• 1963 — Congress passes Equal Pay Act

• 1964 — Congress passes Civil Rights Act, which outlaws sex discrimination

• 1969 — Stonewall riots in NYC, forcing gay rights into the American spotlight

• 1972 –Congress passes Equal Rights Amendment; TitleIX prohibits sex discrimination is

schools and sports

• 1973 — American Psychiatric Association removes homosexuality from the DSM

(Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders)

• 1981 — First woman appointed to the US Supreme Court

• 1987 — Average woman earned $0.68 for every $1.00 earned by a man

• 1992 — World Health Organization no longer considers homosexuality an illness

• 1993 — Supreme Court rules that sexual harassment in the workplace is illegal

• 2011 — Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is repealed, allowing people who identify as gay serve

openly in the US military

• 2012 — President Barack Obama becomes the first American president to openly support

LGBT rights and marriage equality

• 2015 — Same-sex marriage is declared legal in all 50 states

• 2017 — President Donald Trump declares ban on transgender individuals who wish to

serve in the military

• 2018 — Illinois becomes the 37th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, which

declares equality of rights under the law cannot be denied to a person based on sex

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Chapter 5.7 Gender and Communication

Verbal Communication and Gender

Language has a tendency to exaggerate perceived and stereotypical differences between men and

women. The use of the term opposite sex presumes that men and women are opposites, like

positive and negative poles of a magnet, which is obviously not true or men and women

wouldn’t be able to have successful interactions or relationships. A term like other gender

doesn’t presume opposites and acknowledges that gender identities and communication are more

influenced by gender, which is the cultural, social, and psychological meanings that are

associated with masculinity and femininity, than sex, which is the physiology and genetic

makeup of a male and female. One key to avoiding gendered bias in language is to avoid the

generic use of “he” when referring to something relevant to different genders. Instead, you can

informally use a gender-neutral pronoun like “they” or “their” (Publication Manual of the

American Psychological Association, 2010). While some might suggest using “him or her,” this

phrasing ignores the gender spectrum that goes beyond two gender categories.

We have lasting gendered associations with certain occupations that have tended to be male or

female dominated, which erase the presence of individuals actually working in these fields.

Think about positions such as a nurse, welder, or teacher. What gender is usually associated with

each occupation? Why? As we make these associations, our communication can be impacted.

Other words reflect the general masculine bias present in English. The following word pairs

show the gender-biased term followed by an unbiased term: waitress/server, chairman / chair or

chairperson, mankind/people, cameraman / camera operator, mailman / postal worker,

sportsmanship / fair play. Common language practices also tend to infantilize women but not

men, when, for example, women are referred to as chicks, girls, or babes. Since there is no

linguistic equivalent that indicates the marital status of men before their name, using Ms. instead

of Miss or Mrs. helps reduce bias.

Nonverbal Communication and Gender

Ever heard of the theory that genders are from entirely different planets? Gender and

communication scholar Kathryn Dindia contests the notion that men and women are from

different planets and instead uses another analogy. She says men are from South Dakota and

women are from North Dakota. Although the states border each other and are similar in many

ways, state pride and in-group identifications lead the people of South Dakota to perceive

themselves to be different from the people of North Dakota and vice versa. But if we expand our

perspective and take the position of someone from California or Illinois, North Dakotans and

South Dakotans are pretty much alike (Anderson, 1999). This comparison is intended to point

out that in our daily lives we do experience men and women to be fairly different, but when we

look at the differences between men and women compared to the differences between humans

and other creatures, men and women are much more similar than different. For example, in terms

of nonverbal communication, men and women all over the world make similar facial expressions

and can recognize those facial expressions in one another. We use similar eye contact patterns,

gestures, and, within cultural groups, have similar notions of the use of time and space. In this


space, we’ll examine differences in gender through nonverbal communication. Each of these

examples emphasize the differences, but keep in mind that research can be very different from

our own experiences. These sections will use the gender binary of “women and men,” which is

reflected in this body of research.

Image by Pexels from Pixabay


Although men and women are mostly similar in terms of nonverbal communication, we can gain

a better understanding of the role that gender plays in influencing our social realities by

exploring some of the channel-specific differences (Anderson, 1999). Within the category of

kinesics, there are some gender differences in how men and women use gestures, posture, eye

contact, and facial expressions.


• Women use more gestures in regular conversation than do men, but men tend to use

larger gestures than women when they do use them.

• Men are, however, more likely to use physical adaptors like restless foot and hand

movements, probably because girls are socialized to avoid such movements because they

are not “ladylike.”


• Men are more likely to lean in during an interaction than are women.

• Women are more likely to have a face-to-face body orientation while interacting than are



Women’s tendency to use a face-to-face body orientation influences the general conclusion that

women are better at sending and receiving nonverbal messages than men. Women’s more direct

visual engagement during interactions allows them to take in more nonverbal cues, which allows

them to better reflect on and more accurately learn from experience what particular nonverbal

cues mean in what contexts.

Eye Contact

• In general, women make more eye contact than men. As we learned, women use face-to-

face body orientations in conversations more often than men, which likely facilitates

more sustained eye contact.

• Overall, women tend to do more looking and get looked at more than men.

Facial Expressions

• Women reveal emotion through facial expressions more frequently and more accurately

than men.

• Men are more likely than women to exhibit angry facial expressions.

Men are often socialized to believe it is important to hide their emotions. This is especially

evident in the case of smiling, with women smiling more than men. This also contributes to the

stereotype of the more emotionally aware and nurturing woman, since people tend to like and

view as warmer others who show positive emotion. Gender socialization plays a role in facial

displays as girls are typically rewarded for emotional displays, especially positive ones, and boys

are rewarded when they conceal emotions—for instance, when they are told to “suck it up,”

“take it like a man,” or “show sportsmanship” by not gloating or celebrating openly.


• Although it is often assumed that men touch women more than women touch men, this

hasn’t been a consistent research finding. In fact, differences in touch in cross-gender

interactions are very small.

• Women do engage in more touching when interacting with same- gender conversational

partners than do men.

• In general, men tend to read more sexual intent into touch than do women, who often

underinterpret sexual intent (Anderson, 1999).

There is a touch taboo for men in the United States. In fact, research supports the claim that

men’s aversion to same-gender touching is higher in the United States than in other cultures,

which shows that this taboo is culturally relative. For example, seeing two adult men holding

hands in public in Saudi Arabia would signal that the men are close friends and equals, but it

wouldn’t signal that they are sexually attracted to each other (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). The

touch taboo also extends to cross-gender interactions in certain contexts. It’s important to be

aware of the potential interpretations of touch, especially as they relate to sexual and aggressive




• Women are socialized to use more vocal variety, which adds to the stereotype that

women are more expressive than men.

• In terms of pitch, women tend more than men to end their sentences with an upward

inflection of pitch, which implies a lack of certainty, even when there isn’t.

A biological difference between men and women involves vocal pitch, with men’s voices being

lower pitched and women’s being higher. Varying degrees of importance and social meaning are

then placed on these biological differences, which lead some men and women to consciously or

unconsciously exaggerate the difference. Men may speak in a lower register than they would

naturally and women may speak in more soft, breathy tones to accentuate the pitch differences.

These ways of speaking often start as a conscious choice after adolescence to better fit into

socially and culturally proscribed gender performances, but they can become so engrained that

people spend the rest of their lives speaking in a voice that is a modified version of their natural



• Men are implicitly socialized to take up as much space as possible, and women are

explicitly socialized to take up less space.

• In terms of interpersonal distance, research shows that women interact in closer

proximity to one another than do men.

• Men do not respond as well as women in situations involving crowding. High-density

environments evoke more negative feelings from men, which can even lead to physical

violence in very crowded settings.

Men are generally larger than women, which is a biological difference that gains social and

cultural meaning when certain behaviors and norms are associated with it. For example, women

are told to sit in a “ladylike” way, which usually means to cross and/or close their legs and keep

their limbs close to their body. Men, on the other hand, sprawl out in casual, professional, and

formal situations without their use of space being reprimanded or even noticed in many cases.

If you’ll recall our earlier discussion of personal space, we identified two subzones within the

personal zone that extends from 1.5 to 4 feet from our body. Men seem to be more comfortable

with casual and social interactions that are in the outer subzone, which is 2.5 to 4 feet away,

meaning men prefer to interact at an arm’s length from another person. This also plays into the

stereotypes of women as more intimate and nurturing and men as more distant and less intimate.


• Men and women present themselves differently, with women, in general, accentuating

their physical attractiveness more and men accentuating signs of their status and wealth


• Men and women may engage in self- presentation that exaggerates existing biological

differences between male and female bodies.


Men’s displays of intimacy are often different from women’s due to gender socialization that

encourages females’ expressions of intimacy and discourages males’. © Thinkstock

Most people want to present themselves in ways that accentuate their attractiveness, at least in

some situations where impression management is important to fulfill certain instrumental,

relational, or identity needs. Gender socialization over many years has influenced how we

present ourselves in terms of attractiveness. Research shows that women’s physical

attractiveness is more important to men than men’s physical attractiveness is to women. Women

do take physical attractiveness into account, but a man’s social status and wealth has been shown

to be more important.

Men and women also exaggerate biological and socially based sex and gender differences on

their own. In terms of biology, men and women’s bodies are generally different, which

contributes to the nonverbal area related to personal appearance. Many men and women choose

clothing that accentuates these bodily differences. For example, women may accentuate their

curves with specific clothing choices and men may accentuate their size—for example, by

wearing a suit with shoulder padding to enhance the appearance of broad shoulders. These

choices vary in terms of the level of consciousness at which they are made. Men are also hairier

than women, and although it isn’t always the case and grooming varies by culture, many women

shave their legs and remove body hair while men may grow beards or go to great lengths to

reverse baldness to accentuate these differences. Of course, the more recent trend of

“manscaping” now has some men trimming or removing body hair from their chests, arms,

and/or legs.

Listening and Gender


Research on gender and listening has produced mixed results. As we’ve already learned, much of

the research on gender differences and communication has been influenced by gender

stereotypes and falsely connected to biological differences. More recent research has found that

people communicate in ways that conform to gender stereotypes in some situations and not in

others, which shows that our communication is more influenced by societal expectations than by

innate or gendered “hard-wiring.” For example, through socialization, men are generally

discouraged from expressing emotions in public. A woman sharing an emotional experience with

a man may perceive the man’s lack of emotional reaction as a sign of inattentiveness, especially

if he typically shows more emotion during private interactions. The man, however, may be

listening but withholding nonverbal expressiveness because of social norms. He may not realize

that withholding those expressions could be seen as a lack of empathetic or active listening.

Researchers also dispelled the belief that men interrupt more than women do, finding that men

and women interrupt each other with similar frequency in cross-gender encounters (Dindia,

1987). So men may interrupt each other more in same-gender interactions as a conscious or

subconscious attempt to establish dominance because such behaviors are expected, as men are

generally socialized to be more competitive than women. However, this type of competitive

interrupting isn’t as present in cross-gender interactions because the contexts have shifted.

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Communication in the Real World: An Introduction to Communication Studies by University of

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Chapter 5 Key Takeaways and Exercises

Key Takeaways

• There are differences and associations among gender, sex, gender identity, and sexual


• Developmental intergroup theory considers how adults’ heavy focus on gender leads

children to pay attention to gender as a key course of information.

• Gender schema theory argues that children are active learners who essentially socialize

themselves by organizing others’ behavior, activities, and attributes into gender

categories known as schemas.

• Social learning theory argues that gender roles are learned through reinforcement,

punishment, and modeling.

• Though the Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states, there are

still issues with the acceptance and fair treatment of individuals who identify as


• Research has shown that there are nonverbal communication differences between men

and women. However, there is a certain extend to which these are based on social



1. Consider your own gender narrative. Break down the concepts of gender, sex, gender
identity, and sexual orientation in terms of your lived experiences. What major events

caused you to consider your gender identity? What messages did you receive about

gender throughout your life?

2. Examine advertisements from a variety of decades and compare them to current
advertising messages. Are there areas where marketing continues to gender products and

ideas? How so? Is this trend changing?

3. Brainstorm additional forms of gender discrimination aside from sexual harassment.
Have you seen or experienced gender discrimination personally?


Chapter 5 References

• Andersen, P. A. (1999). Nonverbal communication: Forms and functions. Mountain

View, CA: Mayfield.

• Best, D. L. (2001). Gender concepts: Convergence in cross-cultural research and

methodologies. Cross-Cultural Research: The Journal of Comparative Social Science,

35(1), 23–43. doi: 10.1177/106939710103500102

• Bigler, R. S., & Liben, L. S. (2007). Developmental intergroup theory: Explaining and

reducing children’s social stereotyping and prejudice. Current Directions in

Psychological Science, 16(3), 162–166. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8721.2007.00496.x

• Chang, A. Sandhofer, C., & Brown, C. S. (2011). Gender biases in early number

exposure to preschool-aged children. Journal of Language and Social Psychology. doi:


• Dindia, K. (1987). The effect of sex of subject and sex of partner on

interruptions. Human Communication Research, 13(3), 345–71.

• Else-Quest, N. M., Hyde, J. S., Goldsmith, H. H., & Van Hulle, C. A. (2006). Gender

differences in temperament: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 132(1), 33–72. doi:


• Glick, P., & Fiske, S. T. (2001). An ambivalent alliance: Hostile and benevolent sexism

as complementary justifications for gender inequality. American Psychologist, 56(2),

109–118. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.56.2.109

• Hyde, J. S. (2005). The gender similarities hypothesis. American Psychologist, 60(6),

581–592. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.60.6.581

• Leaper, C., & Smith, T. E. (2004). A meta-analytic review of gender variations in

children’s language use: Talkativeness, affiliative speech, and assertive

speech. Developmental Psychology, 40(6), 993–1027. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.40.6.993

• Lytton, H., & Romney, D. M. (1991). Parents’ differential socialization of boys and girls:

A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 109(2), 267–296. doi: 10.1037/0033-


• Maccoby, E. E. (1998). The two sexes: Growing up apart, coming together. Cambridge,

MA: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press.

• Martin, J. N. and Nakayama, T. K. (2010). Intercultural communication in contexts (5th

ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

• Martin, C. L., Ruble, D. N., & Szkrybalo, J. (2002). Cognitive theories of early gender

development. Psychological Bulletin, 128(6), 903–933. doi: 10.1037/0033-


• Pettys, T. E. (2015). Weddings, Whiter Teeth, Judicial-Campaign Speech, and More:

Civil Cases in the Supreme Court’s 2014-2015 Term. Court Review, 51(3), 94–104.

Retrieved from


• Tzuriel, D., & Egozi, G. (2010). Gender differences in spatial ability of young children:

The effects of training and processing strategies. Child Development, 81(5), 1417–1430.

doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01482.x


• Wood, W., & Eagly, A. H. (2002). A cross-cultural analysis of the behavior of women

and men: Implications for the origins of sex differences. Psychological Bulletin, 128(5),

699–727. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.128.5.699


Chapter 6.1 What is Culture?

“Please DON’T eat with your left hand!”

I glanced around the table, entirely confused and embarrassed. The faces stared back at me with

a mixture of annoyance and sympathy. I was being rude by using my left hand to eat. What do I

do? Should I run out of the dining room? Should I hang my head in disgrace? My hostess

reminded me to only eat with my right hand prior to dinner, but I forgot entirely. I took a deep

breath and apologized. I then placed my left hand firmly in my lap to remind myself to eat

only with my right hand.

Take a moment to consider the culture(s) in which you belong. What are the rules? When did

you learn these rules? What unique aspect of your culture do others misunderstand? Our cultural

identity is an essential part of we interact with our world. Culture impacts our approach to

communication in numerous ways. Many of our verbal and nonverbal communication skills rely

on our cultural orientation. In the example above, eating with your left hand in the United States

is not seen as disrespectful. However, for some cultures, such as India, eating with your left hand

is considered bad manners. In some cultures, smiling can be seen as an endearing trait or while in

another as a way to cover up a feeling of shame. In this chapter, we’ll explore the impact of

culture on communication.

Definitions of culture cover a wide range and variety of perspectives. What may be true on one

side the world is completely different on the opposite side of the globe. Ask five people from the

various parts of your life including friends, family, and co-workers, and you’ll find varying

definitions. Some individuals will discuss rituals, others might mention food, and some will

discuss language and religion. Culture can encompass many physical aspects of our lives:

language, geography, clothes, ethnicity, and music. There are also so many aspects of culture

that intrinsic, or part of our internal systems of beliefs and values. The iceberg metaphor is a

common way of explaining the complex nature of culture. The “tip of the iceberg” is everything

that you can see about a person: their clothing, language, and nonverbal behaviors. Yet, as we

think about the iceberg, we’re only seeing about 10% of the object. 90% of it is below the

waterline. Similar to culture, we are unaware of someone’s values or beliefs until they are



Image 6.1. We only see the tip of the ice berg. 90% of the iceberg is below the water level.

“Ice berg in the waters near remote Devon Island”by Ocean Networks Canada is licensed under


Using the ice berg metaphor, we can begin to understand why situations of power, conflict, and

deception are far more complex when intercultural elements are present. We are not always

aware of a value or tradition that could be driving a person’s behavior. Humans function not only

from their understanding of self and their perspectives, but also from the lens of cultural beliefs,

values, and norms (which we define below). Edgar Schein (2010) calls these lenses “layers” that

impact the way we navigate our world, make decision, and even handle conflict, “Culture is both

a ‘here and now’ dynamic phenomenon and a coercive background structure that influences us in

multiple ways” (p. 3). Through culture, we are able to interpret the phenomena that occurs to and

around us. Let’s look at how these layers might impact our view of Colorado:

Value: Coloradans value the beauty of our mountain ranges, hiking trails, and natural

resources. Removing rocks or wild flowers as souvenirs from a trail can lead to long-lasting


Belief: Coloradans believe in respecting and conserving our natural resources. (We have even

created laws to protect our parks and trails).

Norm: The norm is not picking up rocks or wild flowers during hikes. When we see someone

breaking this norm, we might become physically upset or question why they do not know the


In this example, a Colorado resident is much more aware of the dangers of harming trails than

someone from another state might be. What other norms, values, and beliefs can you think of


that are unique to Colorado? To other states? The ways in which we communicate our values,

beliefs, and norms assists us in making decisions about situations, manage how to speak with

someone, cause us to react in a certain way, and can even lead to conflict at times.


A belief is a propositional attitude, a settled way of thinking. Since a proposition is a

statement, beliefs when expressed (at least in English) generally take the form of declarative

sentences. As Schwitzgebel (2015) has pointed out, the vast majority of our beliefs are actually

quite mundane. We rarely bother to express them at all, and we certainly never question

them. Here are a couple of examples of some pretty mundane beliefs:

• All people have heads.

• The hand on the end of my arm is my hand (not someone else’s).

Mundane beliefs are, for the most part, universally shared by all normally functioning people. Of

course, not all beliefs are universally shared. Some beliefs are purely personal. Mary may

believe, with good reason, that eggs give her indigestion. George may believe, without very good

evidence, that the best way to guarantee rain is to wash his car. Personal beliefs may be well

founded or not so well founded. At any rate, mundane beliefs and purely personal beliefs are of

no particular cross-cultural interest.

Of greater interest for students of culture are the beliefs (and systems of beliefs) that are widely

shared among members of particular communities of people. While mundane beliefs may be

universally shared across most cultures, culturally shared beliefs tend to have boundaries. The

members of one group may consider their own, shared cultural beliefs as self-evidently true,

while members of other groups might consider the same beliefs as questionable, if not strange

and arbitrary. Culturally relevant beliefs govern every conceivable aspect of social life: religious,

political, economic, and domestic to mention only a few. (This categorization of beliefs is casual

at best; it is not meant to exhaust all the possible ways the word belief is used in everyday



Cultural values are closely associated with both the beliefs and norms of a cultural

community. Values can be defined as the abstract concepts or standards that represent the ideals

of a group. They point to what the group most regards as right, good, beautiful, desirable, etc.

Values are often identified in discourse by means of words or phrases, e.g., “freedom,”

“equality,” “filial piety,” “respect for elders.” Values, though, go hand in hand with beliefs.

Think of a value, when articulated, as a short hand way of referring to a belief. But of course, a

value is hardly a value unless it is acted upon. In other words, we generally think of a value as a

guide to conduct.

What purpose do values serve? – we might want to ask. For one thing, shared cultural values

may help promote group cohesion. They encourage group members to behave in ways that the


group considers appropriate, proper, honorable, praiseworthy, and the like. As is true also with

beliefs and norms though, not everyone necessarily adheres to the widely shared values of a

culture to the same degree, and sometimes not at all. In fact, some cultural values may even be in

conflict with other values.

Cross-cultural comparisons of values using questionnaires have been particularly popular with

social scientists for well over a half-century. Later in our explorations, we will examine several

different frameworks that social scientists have proposed for studying differences in values

across cultures.


Norms are the expectations or rules, formal or informal, about how one should behave in a

particular social situation. Sociologists since the time of William Graham Sumner (1906) have

generally distinguished two different types of norms: folkways and mores. Folkways are a loose

collection of usual or customary ways in which the members of a particular cultural community

behave. Examples include: how people greet one another, how they dress, what they eat, how

they prepare it, and how they eat it, how they handle inter-personal conflict, etc. Mores

(pronounced “more-rays”) are stricter than folkways. They are the standards of moral conduct

and ethical behavior that the people in a cultural community expect of one another. They include

such things as rules against killing, rules about who can or cannot have sex with whom, and so


The mores of a society are enforced in various ways. The most important mores are upheld by

means of laws, which are explicitly stated rules. People who violate laws may have to pay a

penalty, for example, going to jail, or paying a monetary fine. Other mores may not be strictly

against the law but are nevertheless strongly endorsed by a society. Such mores may be upheld

mainly by means of social sanctions, which are ways of communicating disapproval or putting

pressure on people who violate a community’s mores. For example, people who violate mores

for which there are no formal laws may find that the people of a community make life

uncomfortable for them. The community may publicly condemn the person (“shaming”) or avoid

interacting with the person (“shunning”).

One way to look at the difference between folkways and mores is to say that folkways reflect

what a cultural community regards as appropriate or inappropriate, polite or rude. Mores,

however, reflect what a community considers as morally or ethically right or wrong.

We apply our cultural lenses to normalize behavior, acknowledge a difference, understand

unspoken rules, or make a judgement. This process of interpretation and reaction brings us to

researcher Stuart Hall, whose work on cultural studies carefully considered the process of human

communication. This work causes us to question:

1. Does culture influence our communication?
2. Does communication influence culture?

With these elements and questions in mind, how do we define culture?


Defining Culture

For decades, multiple disciplines developed (and continue to develop) numerous working

definitions of culture. Academic interest in culture flourished in the 20th century and still

continues today. Scholars who try to define the subject often begin with the classic work of

Kroeber and Kluckhohn who in 1952 reviewed over 160 definitions from the literature of their

day. And as if 160 definitions were not enough, Kroeber and Kluckhohn went on to offer their


Culture consists of patterns … of … behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting

the distinctive achievement of human groups, including their embodiments in artifacts; the

essential core of culture consists of traditional, … historical … ideas and especially their

attached values; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on

the other as conditioning elements of further action. (Kroeber & Kluckhohn, 1952: 181)

Since Kroeber and Kluckhohn, scholars have continued to revise old definitions and invent new

ones. Faulkner, Baldwin, Lindsley, and Hecht’s (2006) survey identified 313 definitions in the

scholarly literature comprising seven distinct themes that included definitions framed in terms of:

1. Structure/pattern – culture as a system or framework of elements (e.g., ideas, behavior,
symbols, or any combination of these or other elements)

2. Function – culture as a means for achieving some end
3. Process – culture as an ongoing process of social construction
4. Product – culture as a collection of artifacts (with or without deliberate symbolic intent)
5. Refinement – culture as individual or group cultivation to higher intellect or morality
6. Group membership – culture as signifying a place or group of people, including a focus

on belonging to a place or group

7. Power or ideology – culture as an expression of group-based domination and power (pp.

Given so many themes, you might feel like agreeing with Jahoda (2012) who complained that:

more than half a century after Kroeber and Kluckhohn, and a literature that could easily fill a

sizeable library, the most striking feature of these definitions is their diversity. (p. 299)

But perhaps this laundry list of themes need not be confusing. Perhaps they are not even as

inconsistent as they might seem. I am reminded of the parable of the blind men and the elephant.

Six blind men confronting an elephant for the first time, came away from the experience with six

different descriptions owing to their different angles of approach. One blind man, reaching up to

touch the animal’s broad side, concluded that the elephant was like a wall. Another man running

into a leg, decided that an elephant was like a tree. A third man seizing the elephant’s trunk,

proclaimed the elephant to be a snake, while the fourth man grasping the tail, declared the

elephant to be more like a rope. Meanwhile, a fifth man grasping the ear was sure the elephant

was like a fan, while the sixth man encountering a tusk was equally sure the elephant was a

spear. Only by bringing all of the separate parts of the elephant together could anyone hope to


acquire a complete and coherent impression of an elephant. Perhaps culture is a bit like this. Our

concept of it is enriched when we are able to see it from many different angles.

Image 6.2 Blind monks examining an elephant by Itcho Hanabusa (1652-1724)

“Blind monks examining an elephant” from Wikimedia Commons is licensed under Public


Culture is a dynamic force that is always changing and growing, especially as more technology

connects humans around the globe. Therefore, the definition used for this book takes a view of

culture grounded in how humans perceive and interact with their world, as defined by Ting-

Toomey (1999):

Culture refers to “a learned meaning system that consists of patterns of traditions, beliefs,

values, norms, and symbols that are passed on from one generation to the next and are

shared to varying degrees by interacting members of a community” (p.10)

In this definition, culture is a learned meaning system that helps us share identities, build

communities, learn the meanings of right and wrong, understand potential consequences.

We are communicating symbol systems to create a sense of reality. To this point, culture has

been discussed as a part of your way of navigating the world. You use culture as a lens when

connecting with family, developing and forming friendships, in the workplace, when ordering a

cup of coffee, and even when playing video games or a table top game. Culture is a central part

of you.


So now we branch out to looking about communicating between cultures, or intercultural

communication. Within intercultural communication, conflict, argument, miscommunication,

and gaining knowledge can all occur depending on how aware and well we know our own

culture, how aware and well we know the other party’s culture, and our level of awareness of

differences. For example, imagine a friend has invited you to a party that starts at 7:00 p.m. Well,

based on your upbringing, you were always taught to arrive to a party at least fifteen minutes

early. You decide to arrive at your friend’s house at 6:45 p.m. on the dot to be respectful. When

you arrive on the doorstep, your friend is astonished and stressed that you’ve arrived so early.

She had no idea you would arrive before 7:15 p.m., which for her culturally, was the appropriate

time. We can encounter these situations at any moment. However, there are other complexities of

culture that impact the way we communicate in interpersonal settings. Next, we seek to gain a

greater understanding of how culture impacts communication.

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Chapter 6.2 Culture, Identity and Communication

As our world continues to change and grow, access to technology creates more possibilities to

learn about people who are culturally different from ourselves. The surprising evolution of

technology over the past thirty years is creating the possibility to communicate with someone

culturally different from you, without you ever having to leave your house. Many can connect to

culturally diverse people through our work online, when participating in chat rooms, adding

comments to articles and stories, participating in feedback and conversation in apps such as

Imgur and reddit, as well as through online gaming. How do these cultural differences arise?

Read through the following example of two friends having a conversation in a coffee shop.

Consider the viewpoints of each character:

Anna: Marriage needs to be about love. IF you love someone, care about them, and they are

your best friend, there is so much good that can come from those things. But if you never find

anyone you love, that is okay too. You can live a perfectly fine single life.

Indu: That is entirely wrong, Anna. Marriage is a sacramental union in the Hindu faith.

Arranged marriages are a vital part of the central fabric of my culture. Their historic

significance is well known. Marriage is about an alliance between two families and it is the duty

of the parents to arrange the marriage. One could be considered unholy and incomplete by not


Anna: But that completely leaves out love. That leaves out the possibility to create a meaningful

relationship with a partner that could last a life time.

Indu: We still create lasting partnerships that span a life time. They are fostered and supported

in the beginning by our parents. We have several pre-wedding ceremonies that help the couple

and their families bond.

Anna: You can’t love someone you’ve just met or someone your parents force on you.

Indu: The only way to have a successful marriage is through an arranged marriage. That’s why

so many marriages of the West fail.

What is happening in this scenario in terms of norms, values, and beliefs? What assumptions are

being made? As we learn about our culture(s) from childhood on, we learn to function within

these norms, values, and beliefs. They become our North Star – guiding us to understand our

world in different ways. However, these layers can also cause us to see our own culture as

having more value than another, which is called ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism runs on a scale

of how strong to how weak we evaluate other cultures based on our own norms, values, and

beliefs. In the example above, both Indu and Anna are using their own culture as the compass the

judge marriage. However, neither individual is wrong. There are different perspectives. Gaining

awareness of our own cultural biases is difficult. We are not always aware of how powerful a

norm, value, or belief may be.


As cultures interact, we also need to keep in mind other terms that explain cultural lenses and

experiences. An individual might have very different experiences with cultures:

I grew up in a larger, dominant culture, but also associate with a smaller group that exists

within or alongside the dominant culture. I might express elements of both. For example, I live in

a large city with one culture, but also exist within my religious Muslim community. This

experience causes me to relate differently to the larger, dominant culture.

In this example, an individual is experiencing two aspects of culture and identity: co-culture and

intersectionality. Their co-culture exists alongside the larger dominant culture, but they

have experiences of both that they can express through their communication

skills. Intersectionality is a term that refers to an individuals’ intersecting identities.

Through these experiences, a person can express their norms, values, and beliefs in a variety of

ways that are driven by and a can impact their identity. Different parts of our identities can lead

to varying degrees of advantages throughout society.

We all have a personal narrative, a way we put the puzzle pieces of our lives together to make a

coherent story out of the sometimes disparate elements and events. That narrative is built from

our interpretations of personal experiences including family dynamics, religious practices,

interactions with friends, or major life events. When we encounter new ideas, new people, new

situations, we try to fit them into that narrative. Chimamanda Adichie, the Nigerian novelist,

talks about the power of the single story. It’s a natural human tendency to make order out of

complexity by simplifying. We feel more comfortable if we can put people and ideas into already

established categories.

In conversations, relationships, and interactions, this can lead to stereotyping. We may not have

enough knowledge of a person or of that person’s culture to create an informed picture. In such

cases we fall back on the little information we might have. If I’ve been to Africa or have learned

about Africa, for example, I can distinguish between Nigerians, Ivoirians, Kenyans, South

Africans, etc. But if I don’t have that knowledge, I fall back on clichés and stereotypes. If I am a

US citizen, I may make associations with Ebola, HIV, hunger, or refugees. Where do these

impressions come from? It may be from our friends or family, or from school, but most likely it’s

from media reports. In most of the Western world, news is reported from Africa only if there are

natural disasters, wars, epidemics, or other catastrophic events. This is why it is so important to

be critical consumers of media, to find ways to enlarge not shrink our views. Traditional print

media such as the Economist, the New York Times, or the Guardian (just to name a sampling of

English-speaking media) often run substantial stories on international events, in contrast to most

local television stations and newspapers. Many alternative new sources have become available

online in recent years, such as Global Voices or Vice News.

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Chapter 6.3 Cultural Taxonomies

In the academic study of intercultural communication, cultures are often characterized as

belonging to particular categories, often referred to as taxonomies (i.e., a type of classification

scheme). Many of the characteristics used go back to work done by Geert Hofstede in the 1970’s,

who studied the cultural dimensions of workers for IBM in a variety of countries (1980). The

salient category often used to characterize and contrast cultures is individualism versus

collectivism. Cultures labeled as individualistic (most often Western countries including

those in North America and Northern Europe) are seen as emphasizing the rights of the

individual to self-determination, with children being brought up to be assertive and

distinctive. In contrast, collectivistic cultures (seen as prevalent in Africa, Asia, Latin

America, and the Middle East) emphasize group identity and conformity, with children

expected to be obedient and respectful. While such distinctions can be useful in describing

general cultural traditions and patterns of behavior, they are problematic when applied to

individuals. Individual identities in today’s world tend to be complex, constructed from a variety

of sources. Individuals may belong to a ethnic group, whose worldview, values, and behavior are

quite different from those represented by the mainstream culture. Political boundaries do not

define who we are. One might consider in that regard groups which cross political boundaries,

such as the Kurds, Romani, or Basques. In fact, in today’s world the coherence of nation-states is

increasingly porous, given changing demographics, wide-spread immigration, and the growth of

social media.

There are a number of other cultural dimensions often used in the field of intercultural

communication, most of which derive from the work of Hall and Hofstede. The concept of

power distance describes the importance attributed to hierarchies in a given culture, the

extent to which individuals are grouped according to birth, status or position of power.

This involves as well the perception within a culture regarding how easy one feels it is to

communicate with or approach a person higher in hierarchy. The higher the power distance, the

less more reluctant one may feel in approaching a person senior in hierarchy. Individualistic

cultures are typically seen as having a small power distance, meaning that they strive for equality

in society and within families. In contrast, in countries with a large power distance, inequality

among people is seen as expected and desired.

Time orientation is another category often used. Polychronic (“P-time”) cultures tend to be

less concerned with being on time for events, and individuals deal comfortably with more

than one task or person at a time. A monochronic orientation (“M-time”), on the other

hand, shows a preference for being punctual and not having more than one task or person

to focus on at a time.

A third concept is uncertainty avoidance. Uncertainty avoidance refers to the degree to which

members of a particular culture feel threatened by uncertain or unknown situations. Those

with a strong uncertainty avoidance prefer predictability and tend to have clear rules of behavior.

Masculinity versus its opposite, Femininity, again as a societal, not as an individual

characteristic, refers to the distribution of values between the genders which is another

fundamental issue for any society, to which a range of solutions can be found. The IBM


studies revealed that (a) women’s values differ less among societies than men’s values; (b) men’s

values from one country to another contain a dimension from very assertive and competitive and

maximally different from women’s values on the one side, to modest and caring and similar to

women’s values on the other. The assertive pole has been called ‘masculine’ and the modest,

caring pole ‘feminine’. The women in feminine countries have the same modest, caring values as

the men; in the masculine countries they are somewhat assertive and competitive, but not as

much as the men, so that these countries show a gap between men’s values and women’s values.

In masculine cultures there is often a taboo around this dimension (Hofstede et al., 1998).

Long-term orientation versus short-term orientation is how a society views the past,

present, and future. Does society encourage individuals to save for future investments or spend

right now? Are traditions honored or can traditions be adaptable? A long-term oriented culture

sees traditions as adaptable to changed circumstances, thrift and perseverance are important

goals, maintaining funds for investment and having a large savings quote, and family life as

guided by shared tasks. Hofstede (2011) summarizes, “Long-term oriented are East Asian

countries, followed by Eastern- and Central Europe. A medium term orientation is found in

South- and North-European and South Asian countries. Short-term oriented are U.S.A. and

Australia, Latin American, African and Muslim countries” (p. 15).

Cultures can also express differences in their levels of indulgence versus restraint. The

differences lie within how much a human within the society is allowed to pursue gratification or

must restrain from gratification. Is the focus about enjoying life and pursuing fun or maintaining

strict social norms and rules.

You can explore Hofstede’s work and the cultural dimensions on your own using the Cultural

Dimensions tool at

Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory. Comparison of 4 countries: US, China, Germany and



“Hofstede Cultural Dimensions” graph licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0


The Danger of Cultural Taxonomies

Contemporary scholars of intercultural communication urge caution in using these categories, as

they tend to “present people’s individual behavior as entirely defined and constrained by the

culture in which they live so that the stereotype becomes the essence of who they are” (Holliday,

2010, p. 4). Critics like Holliday describe the use of Hofstede’s categories as essentialism, that

is, assuming that people and things have ‘natural’ characteristics that are inherent and

unchanging. That may translate into defining the essence of individuals in terms of their

national origins. If one is from Mexico (a culture designated as polychronic), for example, an

essentialist view would be to assume that person will be late for meetings all the time, no matter

the context. Inherent in such an assumption is that individuals are unable to adapt to others’

norms of behavior. The term reductionism is used in similar fashion, referring to the

tendency to explain an object by reducing it to a different, usually simpler, level. When

dealing with people this means that identities are being reduced to a predetermined set of

characteristics, associated with ethnic or cultural stereotypes. Defining individual characteristics

through associations with national cultures denies individual free will. It assumes that we don’t

develop unique individual personalities as we grow. Many people living in a “monochronic”

society are often habitually late. Entrepreneurs (and others) in China (a “high uncertainty

avoidance” culture) often take risks to make their businesses successful. No matter what kind of

culture we live in, we can probably all point to individuals in our culture who have the

characteristics of “individualism” and others who tend towards “collectivism”.

Holliday and others have pointed out that most of the cultural categories used in intercultural

communication were created from a Western perspective and tend to skew accordingly the

values attached to the different labels (Holliday, 1999; Piller, 2017). Individualism, for example,

is seen as inherently positive, with attributes attributed to it which are valued in Western

cultures, namely initiative, assertiveness, and ambition. Similarly, cultures with a large power

distance are seen as undemocratic, hence inferior, and those with high uncertainty avoidance are

regarded as adverse to risk-taking and, therefore, inhospitable to creativity and personal

initiative. Holliday emphasizes the importance of allowing other cultures to define themselves,

advocating a decentered perspective. One should be aware of conventional cultural descriptions,

but in encountering someone put them aside to the extent possible and focus on the other as an

individual, whose identity may be quite complex, derived from a variety of influences. He

emphasizes “bracketing” away the cultural stereotypes, removing a priori assumptions, in order

to be able to judge others individually. Of course, this necessitates on the one hand, being aware

of one’s own preconceptions. On the other hand, it contradicts the basic human tendency of

putting unknowns into familiar categories.

Holliday advocates moving away from the traditional concept of “culture”, identified with

largely homogeneous nation-states to that of small cultures. He argues, as do others, that the

commonly used characterizations of national cultures are a product of 19th century nationalism;

as such, the concept is associated with colonialism and the devaluing of non-European cultures

(see Jackson, 2010). Holiday also maintains that the “large culture” paradigm makes less sense in


a world that is “becoming an increasingly cosmopolitan, multi-cultural place where cultures are

less likely to appear as large coherent geographical entities” (1999, p. 244). Instead of the fixed

and timeless concept of culture related to nation-states, small cultures are often formed on the

fly, by organized or impromptu social groupings or work-related groups. They can easily cut

across national borders.

In contrast to large cultures which are often presented as behavior-defining, small cultures

represent only one aspect of an individual’s identity. People align themselves to different cultures

at different times. The small culture concept is similar to the idea of “community of interest” or

“affinity spaces”. It is clear that if we envision culture from the perspective of small cultures, the

kind of broad-stroke comparison of differences among cultures, as often emphasized in

undergraduate courses on intercultural communication, is problematic.

One of the reasons identities are complex today is the pervasive influence of modern media,

which crosses cultural and linguistic boundaries. Participation in social media can be such a

central aspect of one’s life as to have a determining effect on worldview, values, and behaviors.

Individuals can become members of online communities which acquire over time more

importance than national characteristics, religious affiliations, or even families. Such

relationships may be virtual, but they are just as real – and can be just as strong – as in-person


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Chapter 6.4 Culture and Communication

Verbal Communication

Communication Accommodation and Code-Switching

Communication accommodation theory is a theory that explores why and how people

modify their communication to fit situational, social, cultural, and relational contexts

(Giles, Taylor, & Bourhis, 1973). Within communication accommodation, conversational

partners may use convergence, meaning a person makes his or her communication more like

another person’s. People who are accommodating in their communication style are seen as more

competent, which illustrates the benefits of communicative flexibility. In order to be flexible, of

course, people have to be aware of and monitor their own and others’ communication patterns.

Conversely, conversational partners may use divergence, meaning a person uses communication

to emphasize the differences between his or her conversational partner and his or herself.

Convergence and divergence can take place within the same conversation and may be used by

one or both conversational partners. Convergence functions to make others feel at ease, to

increase understanding, and to enhance social bonds. Divergence may be used to

intentionally make another person feel unwelcome or perhaps to highlight a personal,

group, or cultural identity. For example, African American women use certain verbal

communication patterns when communicating with other African American women as a way to

highlight their racial identity and create group solidarity. In situations where multiple races

interact, the women usually don’t use those same patterns, instead accommodating the language

patterns of the larger group. While communication accommodation might involve anything from

adjusting how fast or slow you talk to how long you speak during each turn, code-switching

refers to changes in accent, dialect, or language (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). There are many

reasons that people might code-switch. Regarding accents, some people hire vocal coaches or

speech-language pathologists to help them alter their accent. If a Southern person thinks their

accent is leading others to form unfavorable impressions, they can consciously change their

accent with much practice and effort. Once their ability to speak without their Southern accent is

honed, they may be able to switch very quickly between their native accent when speaking with

friends and family and their modified accent when speaking in professional settings.

Additionally, people who work or live in multilingual settings may code-switch many times

throughout the day, or even within a single conversation. Increasing outsourcing and

globalization have produced heightened pressures for code-switching. Call center workers in

India have faced strong negative reactions from British and American customers who insist on

“speaking to someone who speaks English.” Although many Indians learn English in schools as

a result of British colonization, their accents prove to be off-putting to people who want to get

their cable package changed or book an airline ticket. Now some Indian call center workers are

going through intense training to be able to code-switch and accommodate the speaking style of

their customers. What is being called the “Anglo-Americanization of India” entails “accent-

neutralization,” lessons on American culture (using things like Sex and the City DVDs), and the

use of Anglo-American-sounding names like Sean and Peggy (Pal, 2004). As our interactions


continue to occur in more multinational contexts, the expectations for code-switching and

accommodation are sure to increase. It is important for us to consider the intersection of culture

and power and think critically about the ways in which expectations for code-switching may be

based on cultural biases.

Language and Cultural Bias

In the previous example about code-switching and communication accommodation in Indian call

centers, the move toward accent neutralization is a response to the “racist abuse” these workers

receive from customers (Nadeem, 2012). Anger in Western countries about job losses and

economic uncertainty has increased the amount of racially targeted verbal attacks on

international call center employees. It was recently reported that more call center workers are

now quitting their jobs as a result of the verbal abuse and that 25 percent of workers who have

recently quit say such abuse was a major source of stress (Gentleman, 2005). Such verbal attacks

are not new; they represent a common but negative way that cultural bias explicitly manifests in

our language use.

Cultural bias is a skewed way of viewing or talking about a group that is typically negative. Bias

has a way of creeping into our daily language use, often under our awareness. Culturally biased

language can make reference to one or more cultural identities, including race, gender, age,

sexual orientation, and ability. There are other sociocultural identities that can be the subject of

biased language, but we will focus our discussion on these five. Much biased language is based

on stereotypes and myths that influence the words we use. Bias is both intentional and

unintentional, but as we’ve already discussed, we have to be accountable for what we say even if

we didn’t “intend” a particular meaning—remember, meaning is generated; it doesn’t exist

inside our thoughts or words. We will discuss specific ways in which cultural bias manifests in

our language and ways to become more aware of bias. Becoming aware of and addressing

cultural bias is not the same thing as engaging in “political correctness.” Political correctness

takes awareness to the extreme but doesn’t do much to address cultural bias aside from make

people feel like they are walking on eggshells. That kind of pressure can lead people to avoid

discussions about cultural identities or avoid people with different cultural identities. Our goal is

not to eliminate all cultural bias from verbal communication or to never offend anyone,

intentionally or otherwise. Instead, we will continue to use guidelines for ethical communication

that we have already discussed and strive to increase our competence.


People sometimes use euphemisms for race that illustrate bias because the terms are usually

implicitly compared to the dominant group (Publication Manual of the American Psychological

Association, 2010). For example, referring to a person as “urban” or a neighborhood as “inner

city” can be an accurate descriptor, but when such words are used as a substitute for racial

identity, they illustrate cultural biases that equate certain races with cities and poverty. Using

adjectives like articulate or well-dressed in statements like “My black coworker is articulate”


reinforces negative stereotypes even though these words are typically viewed as positive. Terms

like nonwhite set up whiteness as the norm, which implies that white people are the norm against

which all other races should be compared. Biased language also reduces the diversity within

certain racial groups—for example, referring to anyone who looks like they are of Asian descent

as Chinese or everyone who “looks” Latino/a as Mexicans. Some people with racial identities

other than white, including people who are multiracial, use the label person/people of color to

indicate solidarity among groups, but it is likely that they still prefer a more specific label when

referring to an individual or referencing a specific racial group.

Nonverbal Communication

As with other aspects of communication, norms for nonverbal communication vary from country

to country and also among cultures within a particular country. We’ve already learned that some

nonverbal communication behaviors appear to be somewhat innate because they are universally

recognized. Two such universal signals are the “eyebrow flash” of recognition when we see

someone we know and the open hand and the palm up gesture that signals a person would like

something or needs help (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). Smiling is also a universal nonverbal

behavior, but the triggers that lead a person to smile vary from culture to culture. The expansion

of media, particularly from the United States and other Western countries around the world, is

leading to more nonverbal similarities among cultures, but the biggest cultural differences in

nonverbal communication occur within the categories of eye contact, touch, and personal space

(Pease & Pease, 2004). Next, we will overview some interesting and instructive differences

within several channels of nonverbal communication that we have discussed so far. As you read,

remember that these are not absolute, in that nonverbal communication like other forms of

communication is influenced by context and varies among individuals within a particular cultural

group as well.


Cultural variations in the way we gesture, use head movements, and use eye contact fall under

the nonverbal category of kinesics.


Emblems are gestures that correspond to a word and an agreed-on meaning. When we use our

fingers to count, we are using emblematic gestures, but even our way of counting varies among

cultures (Pease & Pease, 2004). I could fairly accurately separate British people and US

Americans from French, Greek, and German people based on a simple and common gesture.

Let’s try this exercise: First, display with your hand the number five. Second, keeping the five

displayed, change it to a two. If you are from the United States or Britain you are probably

holding up your index finder and your middle finger. If you are from another European country

you are probably holding up your thumb and index finger. While Americans and Brits start

counting on their index finger and end with five on their thumb, other Europeans start counting

on their thumb and end with five on their pinky finger.


This common gesture for “five” or as a signal to get someone’s attention is called a moutza in

Greece and is an insult gesture that means you want to rub excrement in someone’s face. See

example in Note 4.38 “Video Clip 4.1”. © Thinkstock

How you use your hands can also get you into trouble if you’re unaware of cultural differences

(Pease & Pease, 2004). For example, the “thumbs up” gesture, as we just learned, can mean

“one” in mainland Europe, but it also means “up yours” in Greece (when thrust forward) and is

recognized as a signal for hitchhiking or “good,” “good job / way to go,” or “OK” in many other

cultures. Two hands up with the palms out can signal “ten” in many Western countries and is

recognized as a signal for “I’m telling the truth” or “I surrender” in many cultures. The same

gesture, however, means “up yours twice” in Greece. So using that familiar gesture to say you

surrender might actually end up escalating rather than ending a conflict if used in Greece.

You can take a cross-cultural awareness quiz to learn some more interesting cultural variations in

gestures at the following link: resources/quiz/gestures.php.


Video Clip 4.1

The following video discusses some of the challenges of being a World Cup referee, pay

particular attention to the remarks on how eye contact, body language, and gestures are used to

communicate across language barriers.

What It Takes To Be A World Cup Referee (YouTube Video)


© Business Insider (2018)

Head Movements

Bowing is a nonverbal greeting ritual that is more common in Asian cultures than Western

cultures, but the head nod, which is a common form of acknowledgement in many cultures, is

actually an abbreviated bow. Japan is considered a noncontact culture, which refers to

cultural groups in which people stand farther apart while talking, make less eye contact,

and touch less during regular interactions. Because of this, bowing is the preferred nonverbal

greeting over handshaking. Bows vary based on status, with higher status people bowing the

least. For example, in order to indicate the status of another person, a Japanese businessperson

may bow deeply. An interesting ritual associated with the bow is the exchange of business cards

when greeting someone in Japan. This exchange allows each person to view the other’s

occupation and title, which provides useful information about the other’s status and determines

who should bow more. Since bowing gives each person a good view of the other person’s shoes,

it is very important to have clean shoes that are in good condition, since they play an important

part of initial impression formation.

Eye Contact

In some cultures, avoiding eye contact is considered a sign of respect. Such eye contact aversion,

however, could be seen as a sign that the other person is being deceptive, is bored, or is being

rude. Some Native American nations teach that people should avoid eye contact with elders,

teachers, and other people with status. This can create issues in classrooms when teachers are

unaware of this norm and may consider a Native American student’s lack of eye contact as a sign

of insubordination or lack of engagement, which could lead to false impressions that the student

is a troublemaker or less intelligent.


Touch behaviors are important during initial interactions, and cultural differences in these

nonverbal practices can lead to miscommunication and misunderstanding. Shaking hands as a

typical touch greeting, for example, varies among cultures (Pease & Pease, 2004). It is customary

for British, Australian, German, and US American colleagues to shake hands when seeing each

other for the first time and then to shake again when departing company. In the United States, the

colleagues do not normally shake hands again if they see each other again later in the day, but

European colleagues may shake hands with each other several times a day. Once a certain level


of familiarity and closeness is reached, US American colleagues will likely not even shake hands

daily unless engaging in some more formal interaction, but many European colleagues will

continue to shake each time they see each other. Some French business people have been known

to spend up to thirty minutes a day shaking hands. The squeezes and up-and-down shakes used

during handshakes are often called “pumps,” and the number of pumps used in a handshake also

varies among cultures. Although the Germans and French shake hands more often throughout the

day, they typically only give one or two pumps and then hold the shake for a couple seconds

before letting go. Brits tend to give three to five pumps, and US Americans tend to give five to

seven pumps. This can be humorous to watch at a multinational business event, but it also affects

the initial impressions people make of each other. A US American may think that a German is

being unfriendly or distant because of his or her single hand pump, while a German may think

that a US American is overdoing it with seven.

Contact cultures are cultural groups in which people stand closer together, engage in more

eye contact, touch more frequently, and speak more loudly. Italians are especially known for

their vibrant nonverbal communication in terms of gestures, volume, eye contact, and touching,

which not surprisingly places them in the contact culture category. Italians use hand motions and

touching to regulate the flow of conversations, and when non-Italians don’t know how to mirror

an Italian’s nonverbals they may not get to contribute much to the conversation, which likely

feeds into the stereotype of Italians as domineering in conversations or overexpressive. For

example, Italians speak with their hands raised as a way to signal that they are holding the floor

for their conversational turn. If their conversational partner starts to raise his or her hands, the

Italian might gently touch the other person and keep on talking. Conversational partners often

interpret this as a sign of affection or of the Italian’s passion for what he or she is saying. In fact,

it is a touch intended to keep the partner from raising his or her hands, which would signal that

the Italian’s conversational turn is over and the other person now has the floor. It has been

suggested that in order to get a conversational turn, you must physically grab their hands in

midair and pull them down. While this would seem very invasive and rude to northern Europeans

and US Americans, it is a nonverbal norm in Italian culture and may be the only way to get to

contribute to a conversation (Pease & Pease, 2004).


The volume at which we speak is influenced by specific contexts and is more generally

influenced by our culture. In European countries like France, England, Sweden, and Germany, it

is not uncommon to find restaurants that have small tables very close together. In many cases,

two people dining together may be sitting at a table that is actually touching the table of another

pair of diners. Most US Americans would consider this a violation of personal space, and

Europeans often perceive US Americans to be rude in such contexts because they do not control

the volume of their conversations more. Since personal space is usually more plentiful in the

United States, Americans are used to speaking at a level that is considered loud to many cultures

that are used to less personal space.



Cultural norms for personal space vary much more than some other nonverbal communication

channels such as facial expressions, which have more universal similarity and recognizability.

We’ve already learned that contact and noncontact cultures differ in their preferences for touch

and interpersonal distance. Countries in South America and southern Europe exhibit

characteristics of contact cultures, while countries in northern Europe and Southeast Asia exhibit

noncontact cultural characteristics. Because of the different comfort levels with personal space, a

Guatemalan and a Canadian might come away with differing impressions of each other because

of proxemic differences. The Guatemalan may feel the Canadian is standoffish, and the Canadian

may feel the Guatemalan is pushy or aggressive.


The United States and many northern and western European countries have a

monochronic orientation to time, meaning time is seen as a commodity that can be

budgeted, saved, spent, and wasted. Events are to be scheduled in advance and have set

beginning and ending times. Countries like Spain and Mexico have a

polychronic orientation to time. Appointments may be scheduled at overlapping times, making

an “orderly” schedule impossible. People may also miss appointments or deadlines without

offering an apology, which would be considered very rude by a person with a monochronic

orientation to time. People from cultures with a monochronic orientation to time are frustrated

when people from polychromic cultures cancel appointments or close businesses for family

obligations. Conversely, people from polychromic cultures feel that US Americans, for example,

follow their schedules at the expense of personal relationships (Martin & Nakayama, 2010).


Some cultures place more importance on listening than other cultures. In general, collectivistic

cultures tend to value listening more than individualistic cultures that are more speaker oriented.

The value placed on verbal and nonverbal meaning also varies by culture and influences how we

communicate and listen. A low-context communication style is one in which much of the

meaning generated within an interaction comes from the verbal communication used

rather than nonverbal or contextual cues. Conversely, much of the meaning generated by

a high-context communication style comes from nonverbal and contextual cues (Lustig &

Koester, 2006). For example, US Americans of European descent generally use a low-context

communication style, while people in East Asian and Latin American cultures use a high-context

communication style.

Contextual communication styles affect listening in many ways. Cultures with a high-context

orientation generally use less verbal communication and value silence as a form of

communication, which requires listeners to pay close attention to nonverbal signals and consider

contextual influences on a message. Cultures with a low-context orientation must use more

verbal communication and provide explicit details, since listeners aren’t expected to derive

meaning from the context. Note that people from low-context cultures may feel frustrated by the

ambiguity of speakers from high-context cultures, while speakers from high-context cultures


may feel overwhelmed or even insulted by the level of detail used by low-context

communicators. Cultures with a low-context communication style also tend to have a

monochronic orientation toward time, while high-context cultures have a polychronic time

orientation, which also affects listening.

Cultures that favor a structured and commodified orientation toward time are said to be

monochronic, while cultures that favor a more flexible orientation are polychronic. Monochronic

cultures like the United States value time and action-oriented listening styles, especially in

professional contexts, because time is seen as a commodity that is scarce and must be managed

(McCornack, 2007). This is evidenced by leaders in businesses and organizations who often

request “executive summaries” that only focus on the most relevant information and who use

statements like “Get to the point.” Polychronic cultures value people and content- oriented

listening styles, which makes sense when we consider that polychronic cultures also tend to be

more collectivistic and use a high-context communication style. In collectivistic cultures, indirect

communication is preferred in cases where direct communication would be considered a threat to

the other person’s face (desired public image). For example, flatly turning down a business offer

would be too direct, so a person might reply with a “maybe” instead of a “no.” The person

making the proposal, however, would be able to draw on contextual clues that they implicitly

learned through socialization to interpret the “maybe” as a “no.”

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Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0

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Chapter 6.5 Strengthening Our Intercultural

Communication Skills

Intercultural communication competence (ICC) is the ability to communicate effectively

and appropriately in various cultural contexts. There are numerous components of ICC. Some

key components include motivation, self- and other knowledge, and tolerance for uncertainty.

The following are ways to strengthen our intercultural competence:

• Strive to encounter others in an attitude of openness and a spirit of curiosity. Seek to

understand rather than to predict. To the extent possible, suspend judgment for as long as

you can, forming an image of the other person gradually through conversing. Active

listening helps, i.e., focusing intently on the words and body language of the other


• Don’t apply culturally differentiating labels to individuals. Generalizations about norms

of behavior are misplaced when we are dealing one-on-one with an individual. Because

they are widespread, it’s good to know about the categories (i.e. “individualism” vs.

“collectivism”) used to differentiate national cultures, but it’s important to keep in mind

that they represent broadstroke generalizations, which can in no way be applicable to

every individual from that culture.

• Beware of unexamined assumptions. You are likely to have gleaned information about

different cultures from local new sources or from friends or family or from what you may

have learned in school. You should be cautious with such “received wisdom”, which may

rely on stereotypes and outdated information. It’s important to learn what sources to trust

– both in person and online. Equally important is a willingness to be open to different

points of view.

• Be alert to your personal filter bubble. You should not assume that you are receiving

neutral results from search requests or getting balanced views from online news

providers. They may be feeding you what they assume you want, namely more of the

same. Try using a different web browser or logging out of your Google or other accounts,

to see if suggested links change.

How do we go about utilizing these recommendations? Well, we must examine our own

motivation for communicating with people from other cultures must be

considered. Motivation refers to the root of a person’s desire to foster intercultural relationships

and can be intrinsic or extrinsic (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). Put simply, if a person isn’t

motivated to communicate with people from different cultures, then the components of ICC

discussed next don’t really matter. If a person has a healthy curiosity that drives him or her

toward intercultural encounters in order to learn more about self and others, then there is a

foundation from which to build additional competence-relevant attitudes and skills. This intrinsic

motivation makes intercultural communication a voluntary, rewarding, and lifelong learning

process. Motivation can also be extrinsic, meaning that the desire for intercultural

communication is driven by an outside reward like money, power, or recognition. While both

types of motivation can contribute to ICC, context may further enhance or impede a person’s

motivation to communicate across cultures.


Members of dominant groups are often less motivated, intrinsically and extrinsically, toward

intercultural communication than members of nondominant groups, because they don’t see the

incentives for doing so. Having more power in communication encounters can create an

unbalanced situation where the individual from the nondominant group is expected to exhibit

competence, or the ability to adapt to the communication behaviors and attitudes of the other.

Even in situations where extrinsic rewards like securing an overseas business investment are at

stake, it is likely that the foreign investor is much more accustomed to adapting to United States

business customs and communication than vice versa. This expectation that others will adapt to

our communication can be unconscious, but later ICC skills we will learn will help bring it to


The unbalanced situation I just described is a daily reality for many individuals with

nondominant identities. Their motivation toward intercultural communication may be driven by

survival in terms of functioning effectively in dominant contexts. Recall the phenomenon known

as code-switching discussed earlier, in which individuals from nondominant groups adapt their

communication to fit in with the dominant group. In such instances, African Americans may

“talk white” by conforming to what is called “standard English,” women in corporate

environments may adapt masculine communication patterns, people who are gay or lesbian may

self-censor and avoid discussing their same-gender partners with coworkers, and people with

nonvisible disabilities may not disclose them in order to avoid judgment.

While intrinsic motivation captures an idealistic view of intercultural communication as

rewarding in its own right, many contexts create extrinsic motivation. In either case, there is a

risk that an individual’s motivation can still lead to incompetent communication. For example, it

would be exploitative for an extrinsically motivated person to pursue intercultural

communication solely for an external reward and then abandon the intercultural relationship once

the reward is attained. These situations highlight the relational aspect of ICC, meaning that the

motivation of all parties should be considered. Motivation alone cannot create ICC.

Knowledge supplements motivation and is an important part of building ICC. Knowledge

includes self- and other-awareness, mindfulness, and cognitive flexibility. Building knowledge

of our own cultures, identities, and communication patterns takes more than passive experience

(Martin & Nakayama). We learn who we are through our interactions with others. Developing

cultural self-awareness often requires us to get out of our comfort zones. Listening to people who

are different from us is a key component of developing self-knowledge. This may be

uncomfortable, because we may realize that people think of our identities differently than we


The most effective way to develop other-knowledge is by direct and thoughtful encounters with

other cultures. However, people may not readily have these opportunities for a variety of

reasons. Despite the overall diversity in the United States, many people still only interact with

people who are similar to them. Even in a racially diverse educational setting, for example,

people often group off with people of their own race. While a heterosexual person may have a

gay or lesbian friend or relative, they likely spend most of their time with other heterosexuals.

Unless you interact with people with disabilities as part of your job or have a person with a

disability in your friend or family group, you likely spend most of your time interacting with


able-bodied people. Living in a rural area may limit your ability to interact with a range of

cultures, and most people do not travel internationally regularly. Because of this, we may have to

make a determined effort to interact with other cultures or rely on educational sources like

college classes, books, or documentaries. Learning another language is also a good way to learn

about a culture, because you can then read the news or watch movies in the native language,

which can offer insights that are lost in translation. It is important to note though that we must

evaluate the credibility of the source of our knowledge, whether it is a book, person, or other

source. Also, knowledge of another language does not automatically equate to ICC.

Developing self- and other-knowledge is an ongoing process that will continue to adapt and grow

as we encounter new experiences. Mindfulness and cognitive complexity will help as we

continue to build our ICC (Pusch, 2009). Mindfulness is a state of self- and other-monitoring

that informs later reflection on communication interactions. As mindful communicators we

should ask questions that focus on the interactive process like “How is our communication

going? What are my reactions? What are their reactions?” Being able to adapt our

communication in the moment based on our answers to these questions is a skill that comes with

a high level of ICC. Reflecting on the communication encounter later to see what can be learned

is also a way to build ICC. We should then be able to incorporate what we learned into our

communication frameworks, which requires cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility refers to

the ability to continually supplement and revise existing knowledge to create new categories

rather than forcing new knowledge into old categories. Cognitive flexibility helps prevent our

knowledge from becoming stale and also prevents the formation of stereotypes and can

help us avoid prejudging an encounter or jumping to conclusions. In summary, to be better

intercultural communicators, we should know much about others and ourselves and be able to

reflect on and adapt our knowledge as we gain new experiences.

Motivation and knowledge can inform us as we gain new experiences, but how we feel in the

moment of intercultural encounters is also important. Tolerance for uncertainty refers to an

individual’s attitude about and level of comfort in uncertain situations (Martin & Nakayama,

2010). Some people perform better in uncertain situations than others, and intercultural

encounters often bring up uncertainty. Whether communicating with someone of a different

gender, race, or nationality, we are often wondering what we should or shouldn’t do or say.

Situations of uncertainty most often become clearer as they progress, but the anxiety that an

individual with a low tolerance for uncertainty feels may lead them to leave the situation or

otherwise communicate in a less competent manner. Individuals with a high tolerance for

uncertainty may exhibit more patience, waiting on new information to become available or

seeking out information, which may then increase the understanding of the situation and lead to a

more successful outcome (Pusch, 2009). Individuals who are intrinsically motivated toward

intercultural communication may have a higher tolerance for uncertainty, in that their curiosity

leads them to engage with others who are different because they find the self- and other-

knowledge gained rewarding.

Creative Commons Licenses


Communication in the Real World: An Introduction to Communication Studies by University of

Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0

International License, except where otherwise noted.

Language and Culture in Context by R. Godwin-Jones is licensed under Creative Commons BY



Chapter 6 Key Takeaways and Exercises

Key Takeaways

• Studying intercultural communication, communication between people with differing

cultural identities, can help us gain more self-awareness and be better able to

communicate in a world with changing demographics and technologies.

• Intercultural relationships face some challenges in negotiating the dialectic between

similarities and differences but can also produce rewards in terms of fostering self- and

other awareness.

• Studying intercultural communication, communication between people with differing

cultural identities, can help us gain more self-awareness and be better able to

communicate in a world with changing demographics and technologies.

• The cultural taxonomies can be a helpful way to view how an individual approaches

interpersonal communication. However, we do have to be wary of organizing individuals

into categories that might not apply to their lived experiences.

• Intersectionality helps us understand the varying, intersecting identities we and others

contain. Seeking to understand others helps us strengthen ourselves as competent

intercultural communicators.


1. List some of your personal, social, and cultural identities. Are there any that relate? If so,
how? For your cultural identities, which ones are dominant and which ones are

nondominant? What would a person who looked at this list be able to tell about you?

2. After watching the Chimamanda Adichie TED talk (“The dangers of a single story”):
What does she mean by a “single story”? What would be other ways to describe this

phenomenon? Have you had personal experiences that parallel those of Adichie?

3. Identify an intercultural encounter in which you did not communicate as competently as
you would have liked. What concept(s) from the chapter would have helped you in this

situation and how?


Chapter 6 References

Faulkner, S. L., Baldwin, J. R., Lindsley, S. L. & Hecht, M. L. (2006). Redefining culture:

Perspectives across the disciplines. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Gentleman, A. (2005). Indiana call staff quit over abuse on the line. The Guardian. Retrieved


Giles, H., Taylor, D. M., and Bourhis, R. (1973). Toward a theory of interpersonal

accommodation through language: Some Canadian data. Language and Society, 2(2), 177–92.

Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture’s consequences: International differences in work-related values.

Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications

Hofstede, G. (2011). Dimensionalizing cultures: The Hofstede model in context. Online

Readings in Psychology and Culture, 2(1).

Holliday, A. (1999) Small cultures. Applied Linguistics, 20(2), 237–264.

Jackson, J. (2014). Introducing language and intercultural communication. London, U.K.:


Jahoda, G. (2012). Critical reflections on some recent definitions of ‘‘culture.’’ Culture &

Psychology, 18(3), 289–303.

Kroeber, A. L., & Kluckhohn, C. (1952). Culture: A critical review of concepts and

definitions.Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum.

Lustig, M. W. and Koester, J. (2006). Intercultural competence: Interpersonal communication

across cultures (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Martin, J. N. and Nakayama, T. (2010). Intercultural communication in contexts (5th ed).

Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

McCornack, S. (2007). Reflect and relate: An introduction to interpersonal communication.

Boston, MA: Bedford/St Martin’s.

Nadeem, S. (2011). Accent neutralisation and a crisis of identity in India’s call centres. Retrieved



Pal, A. (2004). Indian by day, American by night. Retrieved


Pease, A. and Pease, B. (2004). The definitive book of body language. New York, NY: Bantam


Piller, I. (2017). Intercultural communication: A critical introduction. Edinburgh, U.K.:

University Press.

Schein, E. H. (2010). Organizational culture and leadership (4th ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-

Bass. Retrieved



Schwitzgebel, E. (2015). Belief. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.) The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy.

Retrieved from

Sumner, W. G. (1906/1940). Folkways: A study of the sociological importance of usages,

manners, customs, mores, and morals. Boston: Ginn and Company.

Ting-Toomey, S. (1991). Intimacy expressions in three cultures: France, Japan,and the United

States.International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 15,29-46.


Chapter 7.1 Language Introduction

Have you ever gotten lost because someone gave you directions that didn’t make sense to you?

Have you ever puzzled over the instructions for how to put something like a bookshelf or grill

together? When people don’t use words well, there are consequences that range from mild

annoyance to legal actions. When people do use words well, they can be inspiring and make us

better people. In this chapter, we will learn how to use words well by using words clearly, using

words affectively, and using words ethically. We’ll also explore the function of language and

impacts our language can have.

Chapter 7.2 Using Words Well

Using Words Clearly

The level of clarity with which we speak varies depending on whom we talk to, the situation

we’re in, and our own intentions and motives. We sometimes make a deliberate effort to speak as

clearly as possible. We can indicate this concern for clarity nonverbally by slowing our rate and

increasing our volume or verbally by saying, “Frankly…” or “Let me be clear…” Sometimes it

can be difficult to speak clearly—for example, when we are speaking about something with

which we are unfamiliar. Emotions and distractions can also interfere with our clarity. Being

aware of the varying levels of abstraction within language can help us create clearer and more

“whole” messages.

Level of Abstraction

The ladder of abstraction is a model used to illustrate how language can range from

concrete to abstract. As we follow a concept up the ladder of abstraction, more and more of the

“essence” of the original object is lost or left out, which leaves more room for interpretation,

which can lead to misunderstanding. This process of abstracting, of leaving things out, allows us

to communicate more effectively because it serves as a shorthand that keeps us from having a

completely unmanageable language filled with millions of words—each referring to one specific

thing (Hayakawa & Hayakawa, 1990). But it requires us to use context and often other words to

generate shared meaning. Some words are more directly related to a concept or idea than others.

If I asked you to go take a picture of a book, you could do that. If I asked you to go and take a

picture of “work,” you couldn’t because work is an abstract word that was developed to refer to

any number of possibilities from the act of writing a book, to repairing an air conditioner, to

fertilizing an organic garden. You could take a picture of any of those things, but you can’t take a

picture of “work.”


Figure 3.2 Ladder of Abstraction

Source: Adapted from S. I. Hayakawa and Alan R. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action,

5th ed. (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1990), 85.

You can see the semanticist S. I. Hayakawa’s classic example of the abstraction ladder with

“Bessie the cow” in Figure 3.2. At the lowest level, we have something that is very concrete. At

this level we are actually in the moment of experiencing the stimuli that is coming in through our

senses. We perceive the actual “thing,” which is the “cow” in front of us (either in person or as

an image). This is concrete, because it is unmediated, meaning it is actually the moment of

experience. As we move up a level, we give the experience a name—we are looking at “Bessie.”

So now, instead of the direct experience with the “thing” in front of us, we have given the thing a

name, which takes us one step away from the direct experience to the use of a more abstract

symbol. Now we can talk and think about Bessie even when we aren’t directly experiencing her.

At the next level, the word cow now lumps Bessie in with other bovine creatures that share

similar characteristics. As we go on up the ladder, cow becomes livestock, livestock becomes an


asset, and then an asset becomes wealth. Note that it becomes increasingly difficult to define the

meaning of the symbol as we go up the ladder and how with each step we lose more of the

characteristics of the original concrete experience.

When shared referents are important, we should try to use language that is lower on the ladder of

abstraction. Being intentionally concrete is useful when giving directions, for example, and can

help prevent misunderstanding. We sometimes intentionally use abstract language. Since abstract

language is often unclear or vague, we can use it as a means of testing out a potential topic (like

asking a favor), offering negative feedback indirectly (to avoid hurting someone’s feelings or to

hint), or avoiding the specifics of a topic.

Definitions and Clarity

Knowing more about the role that abstraction plays in the generation of meaning can help us

better describe and define the words we use. As we learned earlier, denotative definitions are

those found in the dictionary—the official or agreed-on definition. Since definitions are

composed of other words, people who compile dictionaries take for granted that there is a certain

amount of familiarity with the words they use to define another word—otherwise we would just

be going in circles. One challenge we face when defining words is our tendency to go up the

ladder of abstraction rather than down (Hayakawa & Hayakawa, 1990). For example, if I asked

you to define the word blue, you’d likely say it’s a color. If I asked you what a color is, you’d tell

me it’s a tint or characteristic of the appearance of a particular thing. To define more clearly, by

going down the ladder of abstraction, you could say, “It’s the color of Frank Sinatra’s eyes,” or

“It’s what the sky looks like on a clear day.” People often come to understanding more quickly

when a definition is descriptive and/or ties into their personal experiences. Definitions aren’t

useless, but they are usually best when paired with examples. You’ll notice that I include many

key terms and definitions in this book, but knowing some of the challenges of generating

meaning through language, I also include many examples and narratives that come from real life.

Jargon refers to specialized words used by a certain group or profession. Since jargon is

specialized, it is often difficult to relate to a diverse audience and should therefore be limited

when speaking to people from outside the group—or at least be clearly defined when it is used.

Creating Whole Messages

Earlier we learned about the four types of expressions, which are observations, thoughts,

feelings, and needs. Whole messages include all the relevant types of expressions needed to

most effectively communicate in a given situation, including what you see, what you think,

what you feel, and what you need (McKay, Davis, & Fanning, 1995). Partial messages are

missing a relevant type of expression and can lead to misunderstanding and conflict. Whole

messages help keep lines of communication open, which can help build solid relationships.

On the other hand, people can often figure out a message is partial even if they can’t readily

identify what is left out. For example, if Roscoe says to Rachel, “I don’t trust Bob anymore,”

Rachel may be turned off or angered by Roscoe’s conclusion (an expression of thought) about

their mutual friend. However, if Roscoe recounted his observation of Bob’s behavior, how that


behavior made him feel, and what he needs from Rachel in this situation, she will be better able

to respond.

While partial messages lack relevant expressions needed to clearly communicate,

contaminated messages include mixed or misleading expressions (McKay, Davis, & Fanning,

1995). For example, if Alyssa says to her college-aged daughter, “It looks like you wasted

another semester,” she has contaminated observations, feelings, and thoughts. Although the

message appears to be an observation, there are underlying messages that are better brought to

the surface. To decontaminate her message, and make it more whole and less alienating, Alyssa

could more clearly express herself by saying, “Your dad and I talked, and he said you told him

you failed your sociology class and are thinking about changing your major” (observation). “I

think you’re hurting your chances of graduating on time and getting started on your career”

(thought). “I feel anxious because you and I are both taking out loans to pay for your education”


Messages in which needs are contaminated with observations or feelings can be confusing. For

example, if Shea says to Eagan, “You’re so lucky that you don’t have to worry about losing your

scholarship over this stupid biology final,” it seems like he’s expressing an observation, but it’s

really a thought, with an underlying feeling and need. To make the message more whole, Shea

could bring the need and feeling to the surface: “I noticed you did really well on the last exam in

our biology class” (observation). “I’m really stressed about the exam next week and the

possibility of losing my scholarship if I fail it” (feeling). “Would you be willing to put together a

study group with me?” (need). More clarity in language is important, but as we already know,

communication isn’t just about exchanging information—the words we use also influence our

emotions and relationships.

Evocative Language

Vivid language captures people’s attention and their imagination by conveying emotions and

action. Think of the array of mental images that a poem or a well-told story from a friend can

conjure up. Evocative language can also lead us to have physical reactions. Words like shiver

and heartbroken can lead people to remember previous physical sensations related to the word.

As a speaker, there may be times when evoking a positive or negative reaction could be

beneficial. Evoking a sense of calm could help you talk a friend through troubling health news.

Evoking a sense of agitation and anger could help you motivate an audience to action. When we

are conversing with a friend or speaking to an audience, we are primarily engaging others’ visual

and auditory senses. Evocative language can help your conversational partner or audience

members feel, smell, or taste something as well as hear it and see it. Good writers know how to

use words effectively and affectively. A well- written story, whether it is a book or screenplay,

will contain all the previous elements. The rich fantasy worlds conceived in Star Trek, The Lord

of the Rings, Twilight, and Harry Potter show the power of figurative and evocative language to

capture our attention and our imagination.

Some words are so evocative that their usage violates the social norms of appropriate

conversations. Although we could use such words to intentionally shock people, we can also use

euphemisms, or less evocative synonyms for or indirect references to words or ideas that are


deemed inappropriate to discuss directly. We have many euphemisms for things like excretory

acts, sex, and death (Allan & Burridge, 2006). While euphemisms can be socially useful and

creative, they can also lead to misunderstanding and problems in cases where more direct

communication is warranted despite social conventions.

Polarizing Language

Philosophers of language have long noted our tendency to verbally represent the world in very

narrow ways when we feel threatened (Hayakawa & Hayakawa, 1990). This misrepresents

reality and closes off dialogue. Although in our everyday talk we describe things in nuanced and

measured ways, quarrels and controversies often narrow our vision, which is reflected in our

vocabulary. In order to maintain a civil discourse in which people interact ethically and

competently, it has been suggested that we keep an open mind and an open vocabulary.

One feature of communicative incivility is polarizing language, which refers to language that

presents people, ideas, or situations as polar opposites. Such language exaggerates differences

and overgeneralizes. Things aren’t simply black or white, right or wrong, or good or bad. Being

able to only see two values and clearly accepting one and rejecting another doesn’t indicate

sophisticated or critical thinking. We don’t have to accept every viewpoint as right and valid, and

we can still hold strongly to our own beliefs and defend them without ignoring other possibilities

or rejecting or alienating others. A citizen who says, “All cops are corrupt,” is just as wrong as

the cop who says, “All drug users are scum.” In avoiding polarizing language we keep a more

open mind, which may lead us to learn something new. A citizen may have a personal story

about a negative encounter with a police officer that could enlighten us on his or her perspective,

but the statement also falsely overgeneralizes that experience. Avoiding polarizing language can

help us avoid polarized thinking, and the new information we learn may allow us to better

understand and advocate for our position. Avoiding sweeping generalizations allows us to speak

more clearly and hopefully avoid defensive reactions from others that result from such blanket



Scholars have identified two main types of swearing: social swearing and annoyance swearing

(Baruch & Jenkins, 2007). People engage in social swearing to create social bonds or for

impression management (to seem cool or attractive). This type of swearing is typically

viewed as male dominated, but some research studies have shown that the differences in

frequency and use of swearing by men and women aren’t as vast as perceived. Nevertheless,

there is generally more of a social taboo against women swearing than men, but as you already

know, communication is contextual. Annoyance swearing provides a sense of relief, as people

use it to manage stress and tension, which can be a preferred alternative to physical

aggression. In some cases, swearing can be cathartic, allowing a person to release emotions that

might otherwise lead to more aggressive or violent actions.

In the past few decades, the amount of profanity used in regular conversations and on television

shows and movies has increased. This rise has been connected to a variety of factors, including


increasing social informality since the 1960s and a decrease in the centrality of

traditional/conservative religious views in many Western cultures (Baruch & Jenkins, 2007). As

a result of these changes, the shock value that swearing once had is lessening, and this

desensitization has contributed to its spread. You have probably even noticed in your lifetime

that the amount of swearing on television has increased, and in June of 2012 the Supreme Court

stripped the Federal Communications Commission of some of its authority to fine broadcasters

for obscenities (Liptak, 2012). There has also been a reaction, or backlash, to this spread, which

is most publicly evidenced by the website, book, and other materials produced by O’Connor’s

(2012) Cuss Control Academy ( Although swearing is often viewed

as negative and uncivil, some scholars argue for its positive effects (Baruch & Jenkins,

2007). Specifically, swearing can help people to better express their feelings and to develop

social bonds. In fact, swearing is typically associated more with the emotional part of the brain

than the verbal part of the brain, as evidenced by people who suffer trauma to the verbal part of

their brain and lose all other language function but are still able to swear (Allan & Burridge,



The complexity of our verbal language system allows us to present inferences as facts and mask

judgments within seemingly objective or oblique language. As an ethical speaker and a critical

listener, it is important to be able to distinguish between facts, inferences, and judgments

(Hayakawa & Hayakawa, 1990). Inferences are conclusions based on thoughts or speculation,

but not direct observation. Facts are conclusions based on direct observation or group consensus.

Judgments are expressions of approval or disapproval that are subjective and not verifiable.

Linguists have noted that a frequent source of miscommunication is inference- observation

confusion, or the misperception of an inference (conclusion based on limited information)

as an observation (an observed or agreed-on fact) (Haney, 1992). We can see the possibility

for such confusion in the following example: If a student posts on a professor-rating site the

statement “This professor grades unfairly and plays favorites,” then they are presenting an

inference and a judgment that could easily be interpreted as a fact. Using some of the strategies

discussed earlier for speaking clearly can help present information in a more ethical way—for

example, by using concrete and descriptive language and owning emotions and thoughts through

the use of “I language.” To help clarify the message and be more accountable, the student could

say, “I worked for three days straight on my final paper and only got a C,” which we will assume

is a statement of fact. This could then be followed up with “But my friend told me she only

worked on hers the day before it was due and she got an A. I think that’s unfair and I feel like my

efforts aren’t recognized by the professor.” Of the last two statements, the first states what may

be a fact (note, however, that the information is secondhand rather than directly observed) and

the second states an inferred conclusion and expresses an owned thought and feeling. Sometimes

people don’t want to mark their statements as inferences because they want to believe them as

facts. In this case, the student may have attributed her grade to the professor’s “unfairness” to

cover up or avoid thoughts that her friend may be a better student in this subject area, a better

writer, or a better student in general. Distinguishing between facts, inferences, and judgments,

however, allows your listeners to better understand your message and judge the merits of it,

which makes us more accountable and therefore more ethical speakers.


Chapter 7.3 Functions of Language

Verbal communication helps us meet various needs through our ability to express ourselves. In

terms of instrumental needs, we use verbal communication to ask questions that provide us with

specific information. We also use verbal communication to describe things, people, and ideas. It

is also through our verbal expressions that our personal relationships are formed. At its essence,

language is expressive. Verbal expressions help us communicate our observations, thoughts,

feelings, and needs (McKay, Davis, & Fanning, 1995). Through our expressions, we can see

how language functions in ways that support us in navigating our world, relationships, conflicts,

and identity.

Expressing Thoughts

When we express thoughts, we draw conclusions based on what we have experienced. In the

perception process, this is similar to the interpretation step. We take various observations and

evaluate and interpret them to assign them meaning (a conclusion). Whereas our observations are

based on sensory information (what we saw, what we read, what we heard), thoughts are

connected to our beliefs (what we think is true/false), attitudes (what we like and dislike), and

values (what we think is right/wrong or good/bad). Sometimes people intentionally or

unintentionally express thoughts as if they were feelings. For example, when people say, “I feel

like you’re too strict with your attendance policy,” they aren’t really expressing a feeling; they

are expressing a judgment about the other person (a thought).

Expressing Feelings

When we express feelings, we communicate our emotions. Expressing feelings is a difficult part

of verbal communication, because there are many social norms about how, why, when, where,

and to whom we express our emotions. Norms for emotional expression also vary based on

nationality and other cultural identities and characteristics such as age and gender. In terms of

age, young children are typically freer to express positive and negative emotions in public.

Gendered elements intersect with age as boys grow older and are socialized into a norm of

emotional restraint. Although individual men vary in the degree to which they are emotionally

expressive, there is still a prevailing social norm that encourages and even expects women to be

more emotionally expressive than men.

Expressing feelings can be uncomfortable for those listening. Some people are generally not

good at or comfortable with receiving and processing other people’s feelings. Even those with

good empathetic listening skills can be positively or negatively affected by others’ emotions.

Expressions of anger can be especially difficult to manage because they represent a threat to the

face and self-esteem of others. Despite the fact that expressing feelings is more complicated than

other forms of expression, emotion sharing is an important part of how we create social bonds

and empathize with others, and it can be improved.

In order to verbally express our emotions, it is important that we develop an emotional

vocabulary. The more specific we can be when we are verbally communicating our emotions, the


less ambiguous our emotions will be for the person decoding our message. As we expand our

emotional vocabulary, we are able to convey the intensity of the emotion we’re feeling whether it

is mild, moderate, or intense. For example, happy is mild, delighted is moderate, and ecstatic is

intense; ignored is mild, rejected is moderate, and abandoned is intense (Hargie, 2011).

Expressing feelings is often the most difficult form of verbal expression. © Thinkstock

In a time when so much of our communication is electronically mediated, it is likely that we will

communicate emotions through the written word in an e-mail, text, or instant message. We may

also still use pen and paper when sending someone a thank-you note, a birthday card, or a

sympathy card. Communicating emotions through the written (or typed) word can have

advantages such as time to compose your thoughts and convey the details of what you’re feeling.

There are also disadvantages in that important context and nonverbal communication can’t be

included. Things like facial expressions and tone of voice offer much insight into emotions that

may not be expressed verbally. There is also a lack of immediate feedback. Sometimes people


respond immediately to a text or e-mail, but think about how frustrating it is when you text

someone and they don’t get back to you right away. If you’re in need of emotional support or

want validation of an emotional message you just sent, waiting for a response could end up

negatively affecting your emotional state.

Expressing Needs

When we express needs, we are communicating in an instrumental way to help us get things

done. Since we almost always know our needs more than others do, it’s important for us to be

able to convey those needs to others. Expressing needs can help us get a project done at work or

help us navigate the changes of a long-term romantic partnership. Not expressing needs can lead

to feelings of abandonment, frustration, or resentment. For example, if one romantic partner

expresses the following thought “I think we’re moving too quickly in our relationship” but

doesn’t also express a need, the other person in the relationship doesn’t have a guide for what to

do in response to the expressed thought. Stating, “I need to spend some time with my hometown

friends this weekend. Would you mind if I went home by myself?” would likely make the

expression more effective. Be cautious of letting evaluations or judgments sneak into your

expressions of need. Saying “I need you to stop suffocating me!” really expresses a thought-

feeling mixture more than a need.

Table 3.1 Four Types of Verbal Expressions

Type Description Example

Observation Report of sensory experiences or


“Pauline asked me to bring this file to


Thought Conclusion about or judgment of

experiences and observations

“Students today have much less respect

for authority.”

Feeling Communicating emotions “I feel at peace when we’re together.”

Need Stating wants or requesting help

or support

“I’m saving money for summer vacation.

Is it OK if we skip our regular night out

this week?”

Source: Adapted from Matthew McKay, Martha Davis, and Patrick Fanning, Messages:

Communication Skills Book, 2nd ed. (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 1995), 34–36.

Language Is Relational

We use verbal communication to initiate, maintain, and terminate our interpersonal relationships.

The first few exchanges with a potential romantic partner or friend help us size the other person

up and figure out if we want to pursue a relationship or not. We then use verbal communication

to remind others how we feel about them and to check in with them—engaging in relationship

maintenance through language use. When negative feelings arrive and persist, or for many other

reasons, we often use verbal communication to end a relationship.

Language Can Bring Us Together


Interpersonally, verbal communication is key to bringing people together and maintaining

relationships. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, our use of words like I, you, we, our, and

us affect our relationships. “We language” includes the words we, our, and us and can be used to

promote a feeling of inclusiveness. “I language” can be useful when expressing thoughts, needs,

and feelings because it leads us to “own” our expressions and avoid the tendency to mistakenly

attribute the cause of our thoughts, needs, and feelings to others. Communicating emotions using

“I language” may also facilitate emotion sharing by not making our conversational partner feel at

fault or defensive. For example, instead of saying, “You’re making me crazy!” you could say,

“I’m starting to feel really anxious because we can’t make a decision about this.” Conversely,

“you language” can lead people to become defensive and feel attacked, which could be divisive

and result in feelings of interpersonal separation.

Aside from the specific words that we use, the frequency of communication impacts

relationships. Of course, the content of what is said is important, but research shows that

romantic partners who communicate frequently with each other and with mutual friends and

family members experience less stress and uncertainty in their relationship and are more likely to

stay together (McCornack, 2007). When frequent communication combines with supportive

messages, which are messages communicated in an open, honest, and non-confrontational

way, people are sure to come together.

Verbal communication brings people together and helps maintain satisfying relationships. ©


At the interpersonal level, unsupportive messages can make others respond defensively,

which can lead to feelings of separation and actual separation or dissolution of a

relationship. It’s impossible to be supportive in our communication all the time, but consistently

unsupportive messages can hurt others’ self-esteem, escalate conflict, and lead to defensiveness.

People who regularly use unsupportive messages may create a toxic win/lose climate in a


relationship. Six verbal tactics that can lead to feelings of defensiveness and separation are

global labels, sarcasm, dragging up the past, negative comparisons, judgmental “you” messages,

and threats (McKay, Davis, & Fanning, 1995).

Common Types of Unsupportive Messages

1. Global labels. “You’re a liar.” Labeling someone irresponsible, untrustworthy, selfish, or
lazy calls his or her whole identity as a person into question. Such sweeping judgments

and generalizations are sure to only escalate a negative situation.

2. Sarcasm. “No, you didn’t miss anything in class on Wednesday. We just sat here and
looked at each other.” Even though sarcasm is often disguised as humor, it usually

represents passive-aggressive behavior through which a person indirectly communicates

negative feelings.

3. Dragging up the past. “I should have known not to trust you when you never paid me
back that $100 I let you borrow.” Bringing up negative past experiences is a tactic used

by people when they don’t want to discuss a current situation. Sometimes people have

built up negative feelings that are suddenly let out by a seemingly small thing in the


4. Negative comparisons. “Jade graduated from college without any credit card debt. I
guess you’re just not as responsible as her.” Holding a person up to the supposed

standards or characteristics of another person can lead to feelings of inferiority and

resentment. Parents and teachers may unfairly compare children to their siblings.

5. Judgmental “you” messages. “You’re never going to be able to hold down a job.”
Accusatory messages are usually generalized overstatements about another person that go

beyond labeling but still do not describe specific behavior in a productive way.

6. Threats. “If you don’t stop texting back and forth with your ex, both of you are going to
regret it.” Threatening someone with violence or some other negative consequence

usually signals the end of productive communication. Aside from the potential legal

consequences, threats usually overcompensate for a person’s insecurity.


Chapter 7 Key Takeaways and Exercises


• Language helps us express observations (reports on sensory information), thoughts

(conclusions and judgments based on observations or ideas), feelings, and needs.

• Language is powerful in that it expresses our identities through labels used by and on us,

affects our credibility based on how we support our ideas, serves as a means of control,

and performs actions when spoken by certain people in certain contexts.

• The productivity and limitlessness of language creates the possibility for countless word

games and humorous uses of language.

• Language is relational and can be used to bring people together through a shared reality

but can separate people through unsupportive and divisive messages.


1. Based on what you are doing and how you are feeling at this moment, write one of each
of the four types of expressions—an observation, a thought, a feeling, and a need.

2. Getting integrated: A key function of verbal communication is expressing our identities.
Identify labels or other words that are important for your identity in each of the following

contexts: academic, professional, personal, and civic. (Examples include honors student

for academic, trainee for professional, girlfriend for personal, and independent for civic.)

3. Review the types of unsupportive messages discussed earlier. Which of them do you
think has the potential to separate people the most? Why? Which one do you have the

most difficulty avoiding (directing toward others)? Why?


Chapter 7 References

Allan, K. and Burridge, K. (2006). Forbidden words: Taboo and the censoring of language, 31–


Baruch, Y. and Jenkins, S. (2007). Swearing at work and permissive leadership culture: When

anti-social becomes social and incivility is acceptable. Leadership and Organization

Development Journal, 28(6), 495–96.

Brooks, D. J. and Greer, J. G. (2007). Beyond negativity: The effects of incivility on the

electorate. American Journal of Political Science, 51(1), 1–16.

Cammaerts, B. (2009). Radical pluralism and free speech in online public spaces: The case of

North Belgian extreme right discourses. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 12(6), 555–


Carpenter, R. H. (1999). Choosing powerful words: Eloquence that works. Needham Heights,

MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Dahlberg, L. (2007). Rethinking the fragmentation of the cyberpublic: From consensus to

contestation. New Media & Society, 9(5), 827–47.

Haney, W. V. (1992). Communication and interpersonal relations (6th ed.). Homewood, IL:


Hayakawa, S. I. and Hayakawa, A. R. (1990). Language in thought and action (5th ed.). San

Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace.

Kingwell, M. (1995). A civil tongue: Justice, dialogue, and the politics of pluralism. University

Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago


Liptak, A. (2012). Supreme court rejects F.C.C. fines for indecency. Retrieved



McKay, M., Davis, M., and Fanning, P. (1995). Messages: Communication skills book (2nd ed.).

Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Miller, R. S. (2001). Breaches of propriety. In R. Kowalski (Ed.) Behaving badly: Aversive

behaviors in interpersonal relationships (p. 42). Washington, DC: American Psychological



National Communication Association (2012). NCA credo for ethical communication. Retrieved

from %20credo.

O’Connor, J.V. (2012) Cuss control academy. Retrieved from

Olbricht, T. H. (1968). Informative speaking. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman

Sobieraj, S. and Berry, J. (2011). From incivility to outrage: Political discourse in blogs, talk

radio, and cable news. Political Communication, 28, 19–41.

Yaguello, M. (1998). Language through the looking glass: Exploring language and linguistics.

New York, NY: Oxford University Press.


“Getting Plugged In”

Is “Textese” Hurting Our Verbal Communication?

Textese, also called text-message-ese and txt talk, among other things, has been called a “new

dialect” of English that mixes letters and numbers, abbreviates words, and drops vowels and

punctuation to create concise words and statements. Although this “dialect” has primarily been

relegated to the screens of smartphones and other text-capable devices, it has slowly been

creeping into our spoken language (Huang, 2011). Some critics say textese is “destroying”

language by “pillaging punctuation” and “savaging our sentences” (Humphrys, 2012). A

relatively straightforward tks for “thanks” or u for “you” has now given way to textese sentences

like IMHO U R GR8. If you translated that into “In my humble opinion, you are great,” then you

are fluent in textese. Although teachers and parents seem convinced that this type of

communicating will eventually turn our language into emoticons and abbreviations, some

scholars aren’t. David Crystal, a well-known language expert, says that such changes to the

English language aren’t new and that texting can actually have positive effects. He points out

that Shakespeare also abbreviated many words, played with the rules of language, and made up

several thousand words, and he is not considered an abuser of language. He also cites research

that found, using experimental data, that children who texted more scored higher on reading and

vocabulary tests. Crystal points out that in order to play with language, you must first have some

understanding of the rules of language (Huang, 2011).

1. What effects, if any, do you think textese has had on your non- text-message

2. Overall do you think textese and other forms of computer- mediated communication have
affected our communication? Try to identify one potential positive and negative influence

that textese has had on our verbal communication.


Chapter 8.1 – Nonverbal Communication

When we think about communication, we most often focus on how we exchange information

using words. While verbal communication is important, humans relied on nonverbal

communication for thousands of years before we developed the capability to communicate with

words. Nonverbal communication is a process of generating meaning using behavior other

than words. Rather than thinking of nonverbal communication as the opposite of or as separate

from verbal communication, it’s more accurate to view them as operating side by side—as part

of the same system. Yet, as part of the same system, they still have important differences,

including how the brain processes them. For instance, nonverbal communication is typically

governed by the right side of the brain and verbal, the left (Andersen, 1999). This hemispheric

distinction has been clearly evidenced, as people who suffer trauma to the right hemisphere (or

nonverbal side) of their brain lose the ability to recognize facial expressions, but can still process

verbal communication. Conversely, people who damage their left hemisphere (verbal) of the

brain lose the ability to speak, read, and understand language. Interestingly, a person with

damage to the left hemisphere (verbal) of the brain can often still sing since the creation, rather

than the reading, of music is governed by the right brain. In terms of composition, nonverbal

communication does differ from verbal communication. There are rules of grammar that

structure our verbal communication, but no such official rules guide or govern our use of

nonverbal signals. Likewise, there aren’t dictionaries and thesauruses of nonverbal

communication like there are with verbal symbols. These are just some of the characteristics that

differentiate verbal communication from nonverbal, and in the remainder of this chapter we will

discuss in more detail the principles, functions, and types of nonverbal communication along

with some guidance on how to improve our nonverbal communication competence.


8.2 – Principles and Functions of Nonverbal Communication

Oral communication only relies on one channel because spoken language is transmitted through

sound and picked up by our ears. Nonverbal communication can be taken in by all five of our


To further define nonverbal communication, we need to distinguish between vocal and verbal

aspects of communication. Verbal and nonverbal communication include both vocal and

nonvocal elements. Table 8.1″Vocal and Nonvocal Elements of Communication” shows the

relationship among vocal, nonvocal, verbal, and nonverbal aspects of communication. A vocal

element of verbal communication is spoken words—for example: “Come back here.” A vocal

element of nonverbal communication is paralanguage, which is the vocalized, but not verbal,

part of a spoken message, such as speaking rate, volume, and pitch. For example, “Come

back HERE!” spoken slowly with the emphasis on the last word to indicate specific location.

Nonvocal elements of verbal communication include the use of unspoken symbols to convey

meaning. Writing and American Sign Language (ASL) are nonvocal examples of verbal

communication and are not considered nonverbal communication. Nonvocal elements of

nonverbal communication include body language such as gestures, facial expressions, and eye

contact. Gestures are nonvocal and nonverbal since most of them do not refer to a specific word

like a written or signed symbol does.

Table 8.1 Vocal and Nonvocal Elements of Communication

Vocal or




Nonverbal Communication

Vocal Spoken words Paralanguage (pitch, volume, speaking rate, etc.)

Nonvocal Writing, sign


Body language (gestures, facial expressions, eye

contact, etc.)

Source: Adapted from Owen Hargie, Skilled Interpersonal Interaction: Research, Theory, and

Practice (London: Routledge, 2011), 45.

Principles of Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication has a distinct history and serves separate evolutionary functions from

verbal communication. For example, nonverbal communication is primarily biologically based

while verbal communication is primarily culturally based. This is evidenced by the fact that

some nonverbal communication has the same meaning across cultures while no verbal

communication systems share that same universal recognition (Andersen, 1999). Nonverbal

communication also evolved earlier than verbal communication and served an early and

important survival function that helped humans later develop verbal communication. While some

of our nonverbal communication abilities, like our sense of smell, lost strength as our verbal

capacities increased, other abilities like paralanguage and movement have grown alongside

verbal complexity. The fact that nonverbal communication is processed by an older part of our

brain makes it more instinctual and involuntary than verbal communication. There are four key


principles of nonverbal communication: 1) takes on more meaning, 2) is more involuntary, 3)

more ambiguous, and 4) more credible than verbal language.

Nonverbal Communication Conveys Important

Interpersonal and Emotional Messages

You’ve probably heard that more meaning is generated from nonverbal communication than

from verbal. Some studies have claimed that 90 percent of our meaning is derived from

nonverbal signals, but more recent and reliable findings claim that it is closer to 65

percent (Guerrero & Floyd, 2006). We may rely more on nonverbal signals in situations where

verbal and nonverbal messages conflict as well as in situations where emotional or relational

communication is taking place (Hargie, 2011). For example, when someone asks a question and

we’re not sure about the “angle” they are taking, we may hone in on nonverbal cues to fill in the

meaning. For example, the question “What are you doing tonight?” could mean any number of

things. Therefore, we could rely on posture, tone of voice, and eye contact to see if the person is

just curious, suspicious, or hinting that they would like company for the evening. We also put

more weight on nonverbal communication when determining a person’s credibility. For example,

if a child tries to convince their parent that they did not make the mess in the kitchen while

avoiding eye contact and fidgeting, they will likely be viewed as telling a fib. Conversely, in

some situations, verbal communication might carry more meaning than nonverbal

communication where information exchange is the focus like a financial briefing at work.

Despite this exception, a key principle is that nonverbal communication often takes on more

meaning in interpersonal and/or emotional exchanges.

About 65 percent of the meaning we derive during interactions comes from nonverbal

communication. © Thinkstock


Nonverbal Communication Is More Involuntary than


There are some instances in which we verbally communicate involuntarily. These types of

exclamations are often verbal responses to a surprising stimulus. For example, we say “owww!”

when we stub our toe or scream “stop!” when we see someone heading toward danger.

Involuntary nonverbal signals are much more common, and although most nonverbal

communication isn’t completely involuntary, it is more below our consciousness than verbal

communication and therefore more difficult to control.

The involuntary nature of much nonverbal communication makes it more difficult to control or

“fake.” This means you can consciously smile a little and shake hands with someone when you

first see them, but it’s difficult to fake that you’re “happy” to meet someone. Nonverbal

communication leaks out in ways that expose our underlying thoughts or feelings. Spokespeople,

lawyers, or other public representatives who are the “face” of a politician, celebrity, corporation,

or organization must learn to control their facial expressions and other nonverbal communication

so they can effectively convey the message of their employer without having their personal

thoughts and feelings leak through. Poker players, therapists, police officers, doctors, teachers,

and actors are also in professions that often require them to have more awareness of, and control,

over their nonverbal communication.

Have you ever tried to conceal your surprise, suppress your anger, or act joyful even when you

weren’t? Most people whose careers don’t involve conscious manipulation of nonverbal signals

find it difficult to control or suppress them. While we can consciously decide to stop sending

verbal messages, our nonverbal communication always has the potential of generating meaning

for another person. The teenager who decides to shut out a parent and not communicate with

them still sends a message with his “blank” stare (still a facial expression) and staring out a

window to avoid eye contact (still a gesture). In this sense, nonverbal communication is

“irrepressible” (Andersen, 1999). This can also be described as you can’t not communicate. Even

the quiet blank stare of a teenage sends a message.


“Looking Out” by KnownColor is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Nonverbal Communication Is More Ambiguous

While the symbolic and abstract nature of language can lead to misunderstandings, nonverbal

communication is even more ambiguous. As with verbal communication, most of our nonverbal

signals can be linked to multiple meanings, but unlike words, many nonverbal signals do not

have any one specific meaning. If you’ve ever had someone wink at you and didn’t know why,

you’ve probably experienced this uncertainty. Did they wink to express their affection for you,

their pleasure with something you just did, or because you shared some inside joke?

Just as we look at context clues in a sentence, or paragraph, to derive meaning from a particular

word, we can look for context clues (physical environment, relationship to person, and

accompanying language) to make sense of a particular nonverbal cue. Unlike verbal

communication, however, nonverbal communication doesn’t have explicit rules of grammar that

bring structure, order, and agreed-on patterns of usage. Instead, we implicitly learn norms of

nonverbal communication, which leads to greater variance. In general, we exhibit more

idiosyncrasies in our usage of nonverbal communication than we do with verbal communication,

which also increases the ambiguity of nonverbal communication.


“The Explanation!” by Chris Hunkeler is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Nonverbal Communication Is More Credible

Although we can rely on verbal communication to fill in the blanks sometimes left by nonverbal

expressions, we often put more trust into what people “do” over what they “say”. This is

especially true in times of stress or danger when our behaviors become more instinctual and we

rely on older systems of thinking that evolved before our ability to speak and write which can be

called innateness (intuitive feelings) (Andersen, 1999). Innateness determines how genuine we

feel the nonverbal communication was communicated. An example of the innateness of

nonverbal signals can be found in children who have been blind since birth but still exhibit the

same facial expressions as other children. In short, the involuntary nature of nonverbal

communication makes it less easy to fake, which makes it seem more genuine, honest and



“Two men talking on a bench in Glasgow by the River Clyde” by is

licensed under CC BY 2.0

Functions of Nonverbal Communication

A primary function of nonverbal communication is to convey meaning by reinforcing,

substituting for, or contradicting verbal communication. Nonverbal communication is also used

to influence others and regulate conversational flow. Perhaps even more important are the ways

in which nonverbal communication functions as a central part of relational communication and

identity expression.

Nonverbal Communication Conveys Meaning

Nonverbal communication conveys meaning by reinforcing, substituting for, or contradicting

verbal communication. As we’ve already learned, verbal and nonverbal communication are two

parts of the same system that often work side by side, helping us generate meaning. In terms of

reinforcing verbal communication, gestures can help describe a space or shape that another

person is unfamiliar with in ways that words alone cannot. Gestures also reinforce basic

meaning—for example, pointing to the door when you tell someone to leave. Facial expressions


reinforce the emotional states we convey through verbal communication. For example, smiling

while telling a funny story better conveys your emotions (Hargie, 2011). Vocal variation can help

us emphasize a particular part of a message, which helps reinforce a word or sentence’s meaning.

For example, saying “What did she say?” conveys a different meaning than “What did she say?”

Nonverbal communication can substitute for verbal communication in a variety of ways.

Nonverbal communication can convey much meaning when verbal communication isn’t

effective because of language barriers. Language barriers are present when a person hasn’t yet

learned to speak or loses the ability to speak. For example, babies who have not yet developed

language skills make facial expressions, at a few months old, that are similar to those of adults

and therefore can generate meaning (Oster, Hegley, & Nagel, 1992). Further, nonverbal

communication can be used in cross-cultural encounters where different languages are spoken to

help find a hotel or a place to eat. Although it’s always a good idea to learn some of the local

language when you travel, gestures such as pointing or demonstrating the size or shape of

something may suffice in basic interactions.

“explanation” by Hjem is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Nonverbal communication is also useful in a quiet situation where verbal communication would

be disturbing. For example, you may use a gesture to signal to a friend that you’re ready to leave

the library. Crowded or loud places can also impede verbal communication and lead people to

rely more on nonverbal messages. Getting a server or bartender’s attention with a hand gesture is

definitely more polite than yelling “Hey you!” Finally, there are just times when we know it’s


better not to say something aloud. If you want to point out a person’s unusual outfit or signal to a

friend that you think his or her date is a loser, you’re probably more likely to do that


Last, nonverbal communication can convey meaning by contradicting verbal communication. As

we learned earlier, we often perceive nonverbal communication to be more credible than verbal

communication. This is especially true when we receive mixed messages, or messages in which

verbal and nonverbal signals contradict each other. For example, a person may say, “You

can’t do anything right!” in a mean tone but follow that up with a wink, which could indicate the

person is teasing or joking. Mixed messages lead to uncertainty and confusion on the part of

receivers, which leads us to look for more information to try to determine which message is more

credible. If we are unable to resolve the discrepancy, we are likely to react negatively and

potentially withdraw from the interaction (Hargie, 2011). Persistent mixed messages can lead to

relational distress and hurt a person’s credibility in professional settings.

Nonverbal Communication Influences Others

Nonverbal communication can be used to influence people in a variety of ways, but the most

common way is through deception. Deception is typically thought of as the intentional act of

altering information to influence another person, which means that it extends beyond lying to

include concealing, omitting, or exaggerating information. While verbal communication is to

blame for the content of the deception, nonverbal communication partners with the language

through deceptive acts to be more convincing. Since most of us intuitively believe that nonverbal

communication is more credible than verbal communication, we often intentionally try to control

our nonverbal communication when we are engaging in deception. Likewise, we try to evaluate

other people’s nonverbal communication to determine the truth of their messages.


We send mixed messages when our verbal and nonverbal communication contradict each other.

If this woman said she was excited about seeing you, would you believe her? © Thinkstock

Deception isn’t always malevolent, mean, or hurtful. Deception obviously has negative

connotations, but people engage in deception for many reasons, including to excuse our own

mistakes, to be polite to others, to protect a loved one or to influence others’ behaviors or


The fact that deception served an important evolutionary purpose helps explain its prevalence

among humans today. Other animals engage in nonverbal deception that helps them attract

mates, hide from predators, and trap prey (Andersen, 1999). To put it bluntly, the better at

deception a creature is, the more likely it is to survive. So, over time, the humans that were better


liars were the ones that got their genes passed on. But the fact that lying played a part in our

survival as a species doesn’t give us a license to lie either, particularly in a malicious manner.

Aside from deception, we can also use eye contact and proximity to get someone to move or

leave an area. For example, hungry diners waiting to snag a table in a crowded restaurant send

messages to the people who have already eaten and paid that it’s time to go. People on

competition reality television shows like Survivor and Big Brother play what they’ve come to

term a “social game.” The social aspects of the game involve the manipulation of verbal and

nonverbal cues to send very strategic messages about their alliances. Nonverbal cues such as

length of conversational turn, volume, posture, touch, eye contact, and choices of clothing and

accessories can become part of a player’s social game strategy as well.

Although reality television isn’t a reflection of real life, people still engage in competition and

strategically change their communication to influence others, making it important to be aware of

how we nonverbally influence others and how they may try to influence us.

Nonverbal Communication Regulates Conversational Flow

Conversational interaction has been likened to a dance, where each person has to make moves

and take turns without stepping on the other’s toes. Nonverbal communication helps us regulate

our conversations so we don’t end up constantly interrupting each other or waiting in awkward

silences between speaker turns. Pitch, which is a part of vocalics, helps us cue others into our

conversational intentions. A rising pitch typically indicates a question and a falling pitch

indicates the end of a thought or the end of a conversational turn. We also signal our turn is

coming to an end by stopping hand gestures and shifting our eye contact to the person who we

think will speak next (Hargie, 2011). Conversely, we can “hold the floor” with nonverbal signals

even when we’re not exactly sure what we’re going to say next. Repeating a hand gesture or

using one or more verbal fillers can extend our turn even though we are not verbally

communicating at the moment.


“iTaNGO information session Geelong” by Infoxchange Not-For-Profit Organisation is licensed

under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Nonverbal Communication Affects Relationships

To successfully relate to other people, we must possess some skill at encoding and decoding

nonverbal communication. The nonverbal messages we send and receive influence our

relationships. These can be positive, or negative, to bring people together, or push them apart.

Nonverbal communication in the form of tie signs, immediacy behaviors, and expressions of

emotion are just three of many examples that illustrate how nonverbal communication affects our


Tie signs are nonverbal cues that communicate intimacy and signal the connection between

two people. These relational indicators can be objects such as wedding rings or tattoos that are

symbolic of another person or the relationship, actions such as sharing the same drinking glass,

or touch behaviors such as hand-holding (Afifi & Johnson, 2005). Touch behaviors are the most

frequently studied tie signs and can communicate much about a relationship based on the area

being touched, the length of time, and the intensity of the touch. Kisses and hugs, for example,

are considered tie signs. A kiss on the cheek is different from a kiss on the mouth just like a full


embrace hug is different from a half embrace hug. If you consider yourself a “people watcher,”

take note of the various tie signs you see people use and what they might say about the


“Big kiss” by Jerzil is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Immediacy behaviors play a central role in bringing people together and have been identified by

some scholars as the most important function of nonverbal communication (Andersen &

Andersen, 2005). Immediacy behaviors are verbal and nonverbal behaviors that lessen real,

or perceived, physical and psychological distance between communicators and include

things like smiling, nodding, making eye contact, and occasionally engaging in social, polite,

or professional touch (Riggio, 1992). Immediacy behaviors are a good way of creating rapport,

or a friendly and positive connection between people. Skilled nonverbal communicators are more

likely to be able to create rapport with others due to attention-getting expressiveness, warm

initial greetings, and an ability to get “in tune” with others, which conveys empathy (Comadena,

Hunt, & Simonds, 2007). These skills are important to help initiate and maintain relationships.

While verbal communication is our primary tool for solving problems and providing detailed

instructions, nonverbal communication is our primary tool for communicating emotions. This

makes sense when we remember that nonverbal communication emerged before verbal

communication and was the channel through which we expressed anger, fear, and love for

thousands of years of human history (Andersen, 1999). Touch and facial expressions are two

primary ways we express emotions nonverbally. Love is an emotion that we express nonverbally

that forms the basis of our close relationships. Although no single facial expression for love has

been identified, it is expressed through prolonged eye contact, close interpersonal distances,

increased touch, increased time spent together etc. Given many people’s limited emotional

vocabulary, nonverbal expressions of emotion are central to our relationships.


Nonverbal Communication Expresses Our Identities

Nonverbal communication expresses who we are. Our identities (the groups to which we belong,

our cultures, our hobbies and interests, etc.) are conveyed nonverbally through the way we

decorate our homes, workspaces, the clothes we wear, the way we carry ourselves, and even the

accents and tones of our voices. Our physical bodies give others impressions about who we are,

and some of these features are more under our control than others. Height, for example, has been

shown to influence how people are treated and perceived in various contexts. Our level of

attractiveness also influences our identities and how people perceive us. Although we can

temporarily alter our height or looks—for example, with different shoes or different color contact

lenses—we can only permanently alter these features using more invasive and costly measures

such as cosmetic surgery. We have more control over some other aspects of nonverbal

communication in terms of how we communicate our identities. For example, the way we carry

and present ourselves through posture, eye contact, and tone of voice can be altered to present

ourselves as warm or distant depending on the context.

Aside from our physical body, artifacts, which are the objects and possessions that surround

us, also communicate our identities. Examples of artifacts include our clothes, jewelry, and space

decorations. In all the previous examples, implicit norms or explicit rules can affect how we

nonverbally present ourselves. For example, in a particular workplace it may be a norm (implicit)

for people in management positions to dress casually, or it may be a rule (explicit) that different

levels of employees wear different uniforms or follow particular dress codes. We can also use

nonverbal communication to express identity characteristics that do not match up with who we

actually think we are. Several research studies have been conducted on the outcome of

defendants who wore glasses in a court hearing to appear more credible (Merry, 2013).

“The man, the glasses” by waldopepper is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0


Chapter 8.3 Types of Nonverbal Communication

Just as verbal language is broken up into various categories, there are also different types of

nonverbal communication. As we learn about each type of nonverbal signal, keep in mind that

nonverbals often work in concert with each other, combining to repeat, modify, or contradict the

verbal message being sent.

Nonverbal Communication Channels and Definitions

10 Nonverbal



Kinesics “Movement” and refers to the study of hand, arm, body, and face

movements such as gestures, head movement/posture, eye contact and

facial expressions.

Gestures There are three main types of gestures: adaptors, emblems, and


Eye contact Oculesics, which comes from the Latin word oculus, meaning “eye”.



Expressions from a human face that display feelings and emotions. Basic

facial expressions are recognizable by humans all over the world.

Haptics The study of communication by touch.

Vocalics The study of paralanguage, which includes the vocal qualities that go

along with verbal messages, such as pitch, volume, rate, vocal quality, and

verbal fillers

Proxemics The study of how space and distance influence communication.

Chronemics The study of how time affects communication



Our physical characteristics and the artifacts with which we adorn and

surround ourselves

Olfactory Relating to the sense of smell.


The word kinesics comes from the root word kinesis, which means “movement,” and refers

to the study of hand, arm, body, and face movements. Specifically, this section will outline

the use of gestures, head movements and posture, eye contact, and facial expressions as

nonverbal communication.


There are three main types of gestures: adaptors, emblems, and illustrators (Andersen, 1999).

Since many gestures send messages about your emotional state and are often spontaneous or

subconscious, it is important to raise your awareness of them and monitor them.



Adaptors are touching behaviors and movements that indicate internal states typically related to

arousal or anxiety. Adaptors can be targeted toward the self, objects, or others. In regular social

situations, adaptors result from uneasiness, anxiety, or a general sense that we are not in control

of our surroundings. Be aware that adaptors can hurt your credibility in more formal interactions

such as clenched hands may signal aggression/anger or nail biting and fidgeting may signal

nervousness. Figure out what your common adaptors are and monitor them so you can avoid

creating unfavorable impressions.

• Self-adaptors can include self-touching behaviors such as scratching, twirling hair,

fidgeting with fingers, coughs or throat-clearing sounds.

• Object adaptors can signal boredom as people play with the straw in their drink, peel the

label off a bottle of water or fiddle with smartphones to help ease anxiety.

• Other-adaptors can involve adjusting or grooming other such as picking lint off

someone’s sweater, fixing a crooked tie, tucking a shirt tag in, or patting down a flyaway


“Posch Tie” by Kristen Kiriako is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0



Emblems are gestures that have a specific agreed-on meaning. (Emblems are different from

American Sign Language (ASL) which is a formal language system that is explicitly taught to a

group of people.) Example of emblems can be:

• a hitchhiker’s raised thumb

• the “OK” sign with thumb and index finger connected in a circle with the other three

fingers sticking up

• the raised middle finger when angry

Emblems can be still or in motion. For example, circling the index finger around at the side of

your head says “He or she is crazy,” rolling your hands over and over in front of you says “Move

on,” or a thumbs up to indicate something good.

“Black Girl Eating Grilled Cheese Sandwich Thumbs Up May 22, 2012 1” by stevendepolo is

licensed under CC BY 2.0


Illustrators are the most common type of gesture and are used to illustrate the verbal message

they accompany. Unlike emblems, illustrators do not typically have meaning on their own and

are used more subconsciously than emblems. Although we are never explicitly taught how to use


illustrative gestures, we do it automatically. Think about how you gesture when having an

animated phone conversation. Even though the other person can’t see you, you might use hand

gestures to indicate the size or shape of an object you are talking about. A fun example of an

illustrator is telling a friend about the fish you caught over the weekend. The verbal story is

accompanied with hand gestures indicating the size (and length) of the fish. The fun part is that

the fish size is often exaggerated as being bigger than reality in the retelling of the story.

Illustrators make our verbal communication more engaging. It is often recommended for people

doing phone interviews to gesture as they speak, even though others can’t see their gestures,

because it will make their words sound more engaging.

“Emphasis” by Vicious Bits is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Head Movements and Posture


Head movements and posture are grouped together because they are often both used to

acknowledge others and communicate interest. In terms of head movements, a head nod is a

universal sign of acknowledgement in cultures where the formal bow is no longer used as a

greeting. An innate and universal head movement is the head moving side to side to signal “no.”

This nonverbal signal begins at birth, even before a baby has the ability to know that it has a

corresponding meaning. Babies shake their head from side to side to reject their mother’s breast

and later shake their head to reject baby food.

“_DSC5998” by clvrmnky is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Eye Contact

While eye behaviors are often studied under the category of kinesics, they have their own branch

of nonverbal studies called oculesics, which comes from the Latin word oculus, meaning

“eye.” The face and eyes are the main point of focus during communication (Andersen, 1999). In

fact, certain eye behaviors have become tied to personality traits or emotional states, as

illustrated in phrases like “hungry eyes,” “evil eyes,” and “bedroom eyes.” To better understand

oculesics, we will discuss the characteristics and functions of eye contact and pupil dilation.

Eye contact serves four communicative functions.


1. Regulating interaction – We use eye contact to signal to others that we are ready to
speak or we use it to cue others to speak. I’m sure we’ve all been in that awkward

situation where a teacher asks a question and no one else offers a response. Then the

teacher looks directly at us as if to say, “What do you think?” In that case, the teacher’s

eye contact is used to cue us to respond. Additionally, eye contact changes as we shift

from speaker to listener. US Americans typically shift eye contact while speaking—

looking away from the listener and then looking back at his or her face every few

seconds. Toward the end of our speaking turn, we make more direct eye contact with our

listener to indicate that we are finishing up. On the flip side, while listening, we tend to

make more sustained eye contact with the speaker (Martin & Nakayama, 2010).

2. Monitoring interaction – Eye contact is also used to monitor interaction by taking in
feedback and to send information. Our eyes bring in the visual information we need to

interpret people’s movements, gestures, and eye contact. For example, a speaker can use

his or her eye contact to determine if an audience is engaged, confused, or bored and then

adapt his or her message accordingly.

3. Conveying information – Our eyes also send information to others. People know not to
interrupt when we are in deep thought because we naturally look away from others when

we are processing information. Furthermore, making eye contact as an active listener

indicates that we are paying attention and are interested in what another person is saying.

4. Establishing interpersonal connections – Eye contact can also be used to intimidate
others. We have social norms, which vary depending on the setting and the person, about

how much eye contact we make with people. Staring at another person in some contexts

could communicate intimidation, while in other contexts it could communicate flirtation.

Eye contact is a key immediacy behavior, and it signals to others that we are available for

communication. Once communication begins, eye contact helps establish rapport or

connection. On the flip side, we can also avoid eye contact to signal that we do not want

to make a connection with others or in an act of civil inattention. For example, in a public

setting like an airport or a gym where people often make small talk, we can avoid making

eye contact with others to indicate that we do not want to engage. Interestingly, another

person could use eye contact to try to coax you into speaking, though. For example, when

someone continues to stare at you, you might eventually give in, become curious, or

become irritated and say, “Can I help you with something?” Further, eye contact

avoidance can be used positively as a face-saving strategy. The notion of civil

inattention refers to a social norm that leads us to avoid making eye contact with

people in situations that deviate from expected social norms, such as witnessing

someone fall or being in close proximity to a stranger expressing negative emotions

(like crying). Last, we also use civil inattention when we avoid making eye contact with

others in crowded spaces like elevators or lines at an amusement park (Goffman, 2010).


“g2” by jennykarinaflores is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Facial Expressions

Our faces are the most expressive part of our bodies. Think of how photos are often intended to

capture a particular moment. We can interpret much of the meaning in that moment, from the

human face captured, simply based on their expressions. There has been a good bit of research

that supports the universality of a core group of facial expressions: happiness, sadness, fear,

anger, and disgust. The first four are especially identifiable across cultures (Andersen, 1999).

However, the triggers for these expressions, as well as the cultural and social norms that

influence their displays, are still culturally diverse.

If you’ve spent much time with babies you know that they’re capable of expressing happiness,

sadness, fear, and anger. Getting to see the pure and innate expressions of joy and surprise on a

baby’s face is what makes playing peek-a-boo so entertaining for adults. As we get older, we

learn and begin to follow display rules for facial expressions based on the norms of our

culture. You can use facial expressions to manage your expressions of emotions to intensify what

you’re feeling, to diminish what you’re feeling, to cover up what you’re feeling, to express a

different emotion than you’re feeling, and/or to simulate an emotion that you’re not feeling

(Metts & Planlap, 2002). Consider the facial expressions you display when hearing, at work, that

you did not get the job you wanted while or when getting turned down after asking someone out.


You have the ability to cover up what you are feeling and express a different emotion via facial


Although facial expressions are typically viewed as innate and several are universally

recognizable, they are not always connected to an emotional or internal biological stimulus; they

can actually serve a more social purpose. For example, social smiles. Most of social smiles we

produce are primarily made for others and are not just an involuntary reflection of an internal

emotional state (Andersen, 1999). These social smiles are different from more genuine smiles.

People often perceive smiles as more genuine when the other person smiles “with their eyes.”

This particular type of smile is difficult, if not impossible, to fake because the muscles around

the eye that are activated when we spontaneously or genuinely smile are not under our voluntary

control. It is the involuntary and spontaneous contraction of these muscles that moves the skin

around our cheeks, eyes, and nose to create a smile that’s distinct from a fake or polite

smile (Evans, 2001). People are able to distinguish the difference between these smiles, which is

why photographers often engage in cheesy joking with adults, or use props with children, to

induce a genuine smile before they snap a picture.

Our faces are the most expressive part of our body and can communicate an array of different

emotions. © Thinkstock


Smiles are especially powerful as an immediacy behavior and a rapport-building tool. Smiles can

help to disarm a potentially hostile person or deescalate conflict. When I have a problem or

complaint in a customer service situation, I always make sure to smile before I begin talking to

help minimize my own annoyance and set a more positive tone for the interaction. This can also

lend itself to the power of emotional contagion, or the spread of emotion from one person to

another. Since facial expressions are key for emotional communication, you may be able to

strategically use your facial expressions to cheer someone up or create a more serious tone if the

situation needs to be more formal.


Think of how touch has the power to comfort someone in a moment of sorrow, like holding

hands or a hug, when words alone are not enough. On the flip side, the positive power of touch is

countered by the potential for touch to be threatening because of its connection to pain and

violence. To learn more about the power of touch, we turn to haptics, which refers to the study

of communication by touch. We probably get more explicit advice and instruction on how to

use touch than any other form of nonverbal communication. Touch is necessary for human social

development. It can be seen as welcoming, threatening, or persuasive. Research projects have

found the following:

• students evaluated a library and its staff more favorably if the librarian briefly touched

the patron while returning his or her library card,

• female restaurant servers received larger tips when they touched patrons,

• people were more likely to sign a petition when the petitioner touched them during their

interaction. (Andersen, 1999, p. 46)

Touch has five forms which include functional-professional, social-polite, friendship-warmth,

love-intimacy, and sexual-arousal touch (Heslin & Apler, 1983).

Functional-professional level

Functional-professional level touch is related to a goal or part of a routine professional

interaction, which makes it less threatening and more expected. For example, we let barbers,

hairstylists, doctors, nurses, tattoo artists, and security screeners touch us in ways that would

otherwise be seen as intimate or inappropriate if not in a professional context.

Social-polite level

Social- polite level touch is socially sanctioned touching behaviors that help initiate

interactions and show that others are included and respected. A handshake, a pat on the arm,

and a pat on the shoulder are examples of social-polite touching.

Friendship- warmth level

Friendship-warmth level touch interactions are important because they serve a relational

maintenance purpose and communicate closeness, liking, care, and concern. The types of


touching vary greatly from more formal and ritualized to more intimate, which means friends

must sometimes negotiate their own comfort level with various types of touch. In a friendship,

for example, too much touch can signal sexual or romantic interest, and too little touch can signal

distance or unfriendliness.

Love-intimacy level

Love-intimacy level touch is more personal and is typically only exchanged between

significant others, such as best friends, close family members, and romantic partners.

Touching faces, holding hands, and full frontal embraces are examples of touch at this level.

Sexual-arousal level

Sexual-arousal level touch is specific to romantic partners in the lovemaking act.

Touch is particularly interesting on a first date. One of my interpersonal communication

professors admitted that she enjoyed going to restaurants to observe “first-date behavior” and

boasted that she could predict whether or not there was going to be a second date based on the

couple’s nonverbal communication. What sort of touching behaviors would indicate a good or

bad first date?

On a first date, it is less likely that you will see couples sitting “school-bus style” (sharing the

same side of a table or booth) or touching for an extended time. © Thinkstock

During a first date, quick fleeting touches give an indication of interest (Andersen, 1999). In

general, the presence or absence of touching cues us into people’s emotions. So as the daters sit

across from each other, one person may lightly tap the other’s arm after they said something

funny. If the daters are sitting side by side, one person may cross their legs and lean toward the

other person so that their knees occasionally touch. Touching behavior, as a way to express


feelings, is often reciprocal. A light touch from one dater will be followed by a light touch from

the other to indicate that the first touch was OK. While verbal communication could also be used

to indicate romantic interest, many people feel too vulnerable at this early stage in a relationship

to put something out there in words. If your date advances a touch and you are not interested,

you would be likely to respond with nonverbal communication like scooting back, crossing your

arms, or simply not acknowledging the touch in a common politeness ritual.

Hugging is also another powerful topic to explore as it relates to touch behaviors. A hug can be

comforting, welcoming or even obligatory, meaning that you do it because you feel like you

have to, not because you want to. A limp, weak, or retreating hug may communicate anger,

ambivalence, or annoyance. Think of other types of hugs and how you hug different people such

as the crisscross hug among friends, the neck-waist hug with intimate partners like a “slow dance

hug”, and the engulfing hug AKA the bear hug to someone you have not seen in a long time

(Floyd, 2006). Interestingly, it was video footage of former-president Bill Clinton hugging

Monica Lewinsky that caused allegations that they had an affair.

Last, there are also types of touch to avoid (Andersen, 1999):

• Avoid touching strangers unless being introduced or offering assistance.

• Avoid hurtful touches and apologize if they occur, even if accidentally.

• Avoid startling/surprising another person with your touch.

• Avoid interrupting touches such as hugging someone while they are talking to someone


• Avoid moving people out of the way with only touch—pair your touch with a verbal

message like “excuse me.”

• Avoid overly aggressive touch, especially when disguised as playful touch (e.g.,

horseplay taken too far).

• Avoid combining touch with negative criticism; a hand on the shoulder during a critical

statement can increase a person’s defensiveness and seem condescending or aggressive.


Vocalics is the study of paralanguage, which includes the vocal qualities that go along with

verbal messages, such as pitch, volume, rate, vocal quality, and verbal fillers (Andersen,



“Detroit” by bjmccray is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

• Pitch helps convey meaning, regulate conversational flow, and communicate the

intensity of a message. Even babies recognize a sentence with a higher pitched ending as

a question. We also learn that greetings have a rising emphasis and farewells have falling

emphasis. Of course, no one ever tells us these things explicitly; we learn them through

observation and practice. We do not pick up on some more subtle and/or complex

patterns of paralanguage involving pitch until we are older. Children, for example, have a

difficult time perceiving sarcasm. Sarcasm is usually conveyed through paralinguistic

characteristics like pitch and tone rather than the actual words being spoken therefore

messages may be interpreted literally (Andersen, 1999).

• Paralanguage provides important context for the verbal content of speech. For

example, volume helps communicate intensity. A louder voice is usually thought of as

more intense, although a soft voice combined with a certain tone and facial expression

can be just as intense. We typically adjust our volume based on our setting, the distance

between people, and the relationship. In our age of online communication, TYPING IN

ALL CAPS is usually seen as offensive, as it is equated with yelling. A voice at a low

volume, or a whisper, can be very appropriate when sending a covert message or flirting

with a romantic partner.

• Speaking rate refers to how fast or slow a person speaks and can lead others to form

impressions about our emotional state, credibility, and intelligence. As with volume,

variations in speaking rate can interfere with the ability of others to receive and

understand verbal messages. A slow speaker could bore others and lead their attention to

wander. A fast speaker may be difficult to follow. Speaking a little faster than the average

120–150 words a minute, however, can be beneficial, as people tend to find speakers

whose rate is above average more credible and intelligent (Buller & Burgoon, 1986).

When speaking at a faster-than-normal rate, it is important that a speaker also clearly

articulate and pronounce his or her words. Boomhauer, a character on the show King of


the Hill, is an example of a speaker whose fast rate of speech combines with a lack of

articulation and pronunciation to create a stream of words that only he can understand.

• Our tone of voice can be controlled somewhat with pitch, volume, and emphasis, but

each voice has a distinct quality known as a vocal signature. Voices vary in terms of

resonance, pitch, and tone, and some voices are more pleasing than others. People

typically find pleasing voices that employ vocal variety and are not monotone, are lower

pitched (particularly for males), and do not exhibit particular regional accents. Many

people perceive nasal voices negatively and assign negative personality characteristics to

them (Andersen, 1999). Think about people who have very distinct voices. Whether they

are a public figure like President Bill Clinton, a celebrity like Snooki from the Jersey

Shore, or a fictional character like Peter Griffin from Family Guy, some people’s voices

stick with us and make a favorable, or unfavorable impression.

• Verbal fillers are sounds that fill gaps in our speech as we think about what to say

next. They are considered a part of nonverbal communication because they are not like

typical words that stand in for a specific meaning or meanings. Verbal fillers such as

“um,” “uh,” “like,” and “ah” are common in regular conversation and are not typically

disruptive. As we learned earlier, the use of verbal fillers can help a person “keep the

floor” during a conversation if they need to pause for a moment to think before


Vocalics also employ various communicative functions such as repetition, complementing,

accenting, substituting, regulating and contradicting.

• Repetition. Vocalic cues reinforce other verbal and nonverbal cues (e.g., saying “I’m not

sure” with an uncertain tone).

• Complementing. Vocalic cues elaborate on or modify verbal and nonverbal meaning

(e.g., the pitch and volume used to say “I love sweet potatoes” would add context to the

meaning of the sentence, such as the degree to which the person loves sweet potatoes or

the use of sarcasm).

• Accenting. Vocalic cues allow us to emphasize particular parts of a message, which

helps determine meaning (e.g., “She is my friend,” or “She is my friend,” or “She is

my friend”).

• Substituting. Vocalic cues can take the place of other verbal or nonverbal cues (e.g.,

saying “uh huh” instead of “I am listening and understand what you’re saying”).

• Regulating. Vocalic cues help regulate the flow of conversations (e.g., falling pitch and

slowing rate of speaking usually indicate the end of a speaking turn).

• Contradicting. Vocalic cues may contradict other verbal or nonverbal signals (e.g., a

person could say “I’m fine” in a quick, short tone that indicates otherwise).


Proxemics refers to the study of how space and distance influence communication. We only

need look at the ways in which space shows up in common metaphors. For example, when we

are content with someone, we say we are “close” to them. However, when we lose connection

with someone, we may say they are “distant.” In general, space influences how people

communicate and behave. Smaller spaces with a large number of people often lead to breaches of


our personal space bubbles like at a crowded concert or on a train during rush hour. Unexpected

breaches of personal space can lead to negative reactions, especially if we feel someone has

violated our space voluntarily. Additionally, research has shown that crowding can lead to

criminal or delinquent behavior, known as a “mob mentality” (Andersen, 1999). To better

understand how proxemics functions in nonverbal communication, we will more closely examine

the proxemic distances associated with personal space and the concept of territoriality.


We all have varying definitions of what our “personal space” is, and these definitions are

contextual and depend on the situation and the relationship. Although our bubbles are invisible,

people are socialized into the norms of personal space within their cultural group. Scholars have

identified four zones for US Americans, which are public, social, personal, and intimate distance

(Hall, 1968).

“IMG_2849” by kira cronin is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0



Public Space (12 Feet or More)

Public space starts about twelve feet from a person and extends out from there. This is the least

personal of the four zones and would typically be used when a person is engaging in a formal

speech and is removed from the audience to allow the audience to see or when a high-profile

person like a celebrity, or music artist, maintains a distance as a sign of power and also for

security reasons. In terms of regular interaction, we are often not obligated, or even expected, to

acknowledge and interact with people who enter our public zone. It would be difficult to have a

deep conversation with someone at this level because you have to speak louder and don’t have

the physical closeness that is often needed to promote rapport.

Social Space (4–12 Feet)

Communication that occurs in the social zone, which is four to twelve feet away from our body,

is typically in the context of a professional or casual interaction. This distance is preferred in

many professional settings because it reduces the suspicion of any impropriety. The expression

“keep someone at an arm’s length” means that someone is kept out of the personal space and


kept in the social/professional space. Students in large lecture classes should consider sitting

within the social zone of the professor, since students who sit within this zone are more likely to

be remembered by the professor, be acknowledged in class, and retain more information because

they are close enough to take in important nonverbal and visual cues.

PPCC Professor Experience

I have observed students who come talk to me after class typically stand about four to five feet

away when they speak, which keeps them in the outer part of the social zone. When students

have more personal information to discuss, they will come closer to me, which brings them into

the inner part of the social zone.

Personal Space (1.5–4 Feet)

Personal space is reserved for friends, close acquaintances, and significant others. Much of our

communication occurs in the personal zone, which is what we typically think of as our “personal

space bubble” and extends from 1.5 feet to 4 feet away from our body. Even though we are

getting closer to the physical body of another person, we may use verbal communication at this

point to signal that our presence in this zone is friendly and not intimate.

Intimate Space

As we breach the invisible line that is 1.5 feet from our body, we enter the intimate zone, which

is reserved for only the closest friends, family, and romantic/intimate partners. It is impossible to

completely ignore people when they are in this space, even if we are trying to pretend that we’re

ignoring them. A breach of this space can be comforting in some contexts while annoying or

frightening in others. We have already discussed the importance of touch in nonverbal

communication, and in order for that much-needed touch to occur, people have to enter our

intimate space. Being close to someone and feeling their physical presence can be very

comforting when words fail. There are also social norms regarding the amount of this type of

closeness that can be displayed in public also called PDAs (public displays of affection).

So what happens when our space is violated? Although these zones are well established in

research for personal space preferences of Americans, individuals vary in terms of their reactions

to people entering certain zones. Determining what constitutes a “violation” of space is both

subjective and contextual. For example, another person’s presence in our social or public zones

doesn’t typically arouse suspicion or negative communicative reactions. However, many

situations lead to our personal and intimate space being breached by others against our will.

These breaches are more likely to be upsetting, even when they are expected. We’ve all had to

get into a crowded elevator or wait in a long line. In such situations, we may rely on some verbal

communication to reduce immediacy and indicate that we are not interested in closeness and are

aware that a breach has occurred. Some might make comments about the crowd, saying, “We’re

really packed in here like sardines,” to use humor to indicate that they are pleasant but also

uncomfortable with the breach like any “normal” person would be. When breaches of personal

space occur, it is a social norm to make nonverbal adjustments such as lowering our level of

immediacy, changing our body orientations, and using objects to separate ourselves from others.


To reduce immediacy, we engage in civil inattention and reduce the amount of eye contact we

make with others. We also shift the front of our body away from others since it has most of our

sensory inputs and also allows access to body parts that are considered vulnerable, such as the

stomach, face, and genitals (Andersen, 1999). When we can’t shift our bodies, we often use

coats, bags, books, or our hands to physically separate or block off the front of our bodies from

others. Although pets and children are often granted more leeway to breach other people’s space,

since they are still learning social norms and rules, as a pet owner, parent, or temporary

caretaker, be aware of this possibility and try to prevent such breaches or correct them when they



Territoriality is an innate drive to take up and defend spaces. This drive is shared by many

creatures and entities, ranging from packs of animals to individual humans to nations. Whether

it’s a gang territory, your preferred place to sit in a restaurant, your usual desk in the classroom,

or the seat you’ve marked to save while getting concessions at a sporting event, we claim certain

spaces as our own. There are three main divisions for territory: primary, secondary, and

public (Hargie, 2011).

“2017/365/283 Airport Diner.” by kenbauer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Primary Territory

Sometimes our claim to a space is official. These spaces are known as our primary territories

because they are marked or understood to be exclusively ours and under our control. A person’s

house, yard, room, desk, side of the bed, or shelf in the medicine cabinet could be considered

primary territories.


Secondary Territory

Secondary territory don’t belong to us and aren’t exclusively under our control. However,

these spaces are associated with us, which may lead us to assume that the space will be open and

available to us when we need it without us taking any further steps to reserve it. This happens in

classrooms regularly. Students often sit in the same desk or at least same general area as they did

on the first day of class. There may be some small adjustments during the first couple of weeks,

but by a month into the semester, established seating takes place. When someone else takes a

student’s regular desk, they are typically annoyed.

PPCC Professor Experience

I do classroom observations for the graduate teaching assistants I supervise, which means I come

into the classroom toward the middle of the semester and take a seat in the back to evaluate the

class session. Although I don’t intend to take someone’s seat, on more than one occasion, I’ve

been met by the confused or even glaring eyes of a student whose routine is suddenly interrupted

when they see me sitting in “their seat.”

Public Territory

Public territories are open to all people. People are allowed to mark public territory and use it

for a limited period of time, but space is often up for grabs, which makes public space difficult to

manage for some people and can lead to conflict. To avoid this type of situation, people use a

variety of objects that are typically recognized by others as nonverbal cues that mark a place as

temporarily reserved—for example, jackets, bags, papers, or a drink. There is some ambiguity in

the use of markers, though. A half-empty cup of coffee may be seen as trash and thrown away,

which would be an annoying surprise to a person who left it to mark his or her table while

visiting the restroom. People have to decide how much value they want their marker to have.

Obviously, leaving a laptop on a table indicates that the table is occupied, but it could also lead

to the laptop getting stolen. A pencil, on the other hand, could just be moved out of the way and

the space usurped.


Chronemics refers to the study of how time affects communication. Time can be classified

into several different categories, including biological, personal, physical, and cultural

time (Andersen, 1999). Biological time refers to the rhythms of living things. Humans follow a

circadian rhythm, meaning that we are on a daily cycle that influences when we eat, sleep, and

wake. When our natural rhythms are disturbed, by all-nighters, jet lag, or other scheduling

abnormalities, our physical and mental health and our communication competence and personal

relationships can suffer. Keep biological time in mind as you communicate with others.

Remember that early morning conversations may require more preparation to get yourself awake

enough to communicate well and a more patient or energetic delivery to accommodate others

who may still be getting warmed up for their day.


Personal time refers to the ways in which individuals experience time. The way we experience

time varies based on our mood, our interest level, and other factors. Think about how quickly

time passes when you are interested in and therefore engaged in something. Individuals also vary

based on whether or not they are future or past oriented. People with past-time orientations may

want to reminisce about the past, reunite with old friends, and put considerable time into

preserving memories and keepsakes in scrapbooks and photo albums. People with future-time

orientations may spend the same amount of time making career and personal plans, writing out

to-do lists, or researching future vacations, or what videogame they’re going to play next.

Physical time refers to the fixed cycles of days, years, and seasons. Physical time, especially

seasons, can affect our mood and psychological states. Some people experience seasonal

affective disorder that leads them to experience emotional distress and anxiety during the

changes of seasons, primarily from warm and bright to dark and cold (summer to fall and


Cultural time refers to how a large group of people view time. Polychronic people do not view

time as a linear progression that needs to be divided into small units and scheduled in advance.

Polychronic people keep more flexible schedules and may engage in several activities at once.

Monochronic people tend to schedule their time more rigidly and do one thing at a time. A

polychronic or monochronic orientation to time influences our social realities and how we

interact with others.

Quality time is an important part of interpersonal relationships, and sometimes time has to be

budgeted so that it can be saved and spent with certain people or on certain occasions—like date

nights for couples or family time for parents and children or other relatives.

Additionally, the way we use time depends in some ways on our status. For example, doctors can

make their patients wait for extended periods of time, and executives and celebrities may run

consistently behind schedule, making others wait for them. Promptness and the amount of time

that is socially acceptable for lateness and waiting varies among individuals and contexts.

Chronemics also covers the amount of time we spend talking. We all know how annoying it can

be when a person dominates a conversation or when we can’t get a person to contribute

anything. In terms of talk time and turn taking, research shows that people who take a little

longer with their turn, holding the floor slightly longer than normal, are actually seen as more

credible than people who talk too much or too little. (Andersen, 1999)

Last, our lateness or promptness can send messages about our professionalism, dependability, or

other personality traits. Formal time usually applies to professional situations in which we

are expected to be on time or even a few minutes early. You generally wouldn’t want to be

late for work, a job interview, a medical appointment, and so on. Informal time applies to

casual and interpersonal situations in which there is much more variation in terms of

expectations for promptness. For example, people often arrive to dinner parties about thirty

minutes after the announced time which can also be called “arriving fashionably late”.


“Old Time.” by Josh Clayton. is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Personal Presentation: Physical Characteristics and


Personal presentation involves two components: our physical characteristics and the artifacts

with which we adorn and surround ourselves. Physical characteristics include body shape,

height, weight, attractiveness, and other physical features of our bodies. We do not have as

much control over how these nonverbal cues are encoded as we do with many other aspects of

nonverbal communication. These characteristics play a large role in initial impression formation

even though we know we “shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.” Although ideals of

attractiveness vary among cultures and individuals, research consistently indicates that people

who are deemed attractive based on physical characteristics have distinct advantages in many

aspects of life. This fact, along with media images that project often unrealistic ideals of beauty,

have contributed to booming health and beauty, dieting, gym, and plastic surgery industries.

While there have been some controversial reality shows that seek to transform people’s physical

characteristics, like Extreme Makeover and The Biggest Loser, the relative ease with which we

can change the artifacts that send nonverbal cues about us has led to many more style and space

makeover shows. Have you ever tried to consciously change your “look?”

Clothes, jewelry, visible body art, hairstyles, and other political, social, and cultural

symbols send messages to others about who we are are the artifacts that we choose to

express ourselves. In the United States, body piercings and tattoos have been shifting from

subcultural to mainstream over the past few decades. The physical location, size, and number of

tattoos and piercings play a large role in whether or not they are deemed appropriate for

professional contexts, and many people with tattoos and/or piercings make conscious choices

about where they display their body art. Hair also sends messages whether it is on our heads or


our bodies. Men with short hair are generally judged to be more conservative than men with long

hair, but men with shaved heads may be seen as aggressive. Whether a person has a part in their

hair, a mohawk, faux-hawk, ponytail, curls, or bright pink hair also sends nonverbal signals to


Jewelry can also send messages with varying degrees of direct meaning. A ring on the “ring

finger” of a person’s left hand typically indicates that they are married or in an otherwise

committed relationship. People also adorn their clothes, body, or belongings with religious or

cultural symbols, like a cross to indicate a person’s Christian faith or a rainbow flag to indicate

that a person is LGBTQ+ or an ally. People now wear various types of rubber bracelets, which

have become a popular form of social cause marketing, to indicate that they identify with the

“Livestrong” movement or support breast cancer awareness and research.

The objects that surround us send nonverbal cues that may influence how people perceive us.

What impression does a messy, crowded office make? © Thinkstock

Last, the environment in which we interact affects our verbal and nonverbal communication.

This is included because we can often manipulate the nonverbal environment similar to how we

would manipulate our gestures or tone of voice to suit our communicative needs. The books we

have in our bookcase, the color of our walls, the pictures hanging on those walls all send

particular messages and can easily be changed. The placement of objects and furniture in a

physical space can help create a formal, friendly, or intimate climate. In terms of formality, we

can also use nonverbal communication to convey dominance and status, which helps define and

negotiate power as well as the roles within relationships. Fancy cars, large offices and expensive

watches can serve as symbols that distinguish a CEO from an entry-level employee. An office

with ambient lighting, a candy bowl filled with candy to share, and a comfy chair can help

facilitate interactions between a student and professor. In summary, whether we know it or not,

our physical characteristics and the artifacts that surround us communicate much.



“sniff” by _Andrish_ is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The study of scent, or olfactics, is really interesting. Odors have the ability to evoke past

events (Zucco, Herz & Schaal, 2012). Consider how you might smell a home baked cookie and

immediately think of your grandmother who used the make those cookies with hot tea for you

during the holidays or smelling a perfume/cologne and remembering your first love. These are

memories of past events that are remembered from the smell. But some scents can be

overpowering such as the over use of perfume/cologne that might give someone sitting close by

a headache. The stereotype of young teen boys overusing Axe spray is often used when

describing overuse of scent. Nursing students also learn in their studies about the powerful

importance of odors and their patients. Those who are ill or healing often have a high sensitivity

to perfumes/colognes so it is best practice not to use these scents, or very little, out of respect in

patient care.

Last, olfactory cues assist in mate selection. Men and women value the sense of smell when

selecting a mate (White & Cunningham, 2017). In fact, studies have reported that scent helps

deter reproduction with kin as the scent is not deemed attractive to the other partner. Scent can be

derived from our breath, body odor, hair products and more. In American culture, we market

scents such as unique smelling deodorants, a variety of gum flavors to make our breath smell

fresh and even hair products to make our hair smell clean. All of these can be used as a tool in

mate attraction or just as a personal preference. However, they call convey a nonverbal message

about us.


Chapter 8.4 Nonverbal Communication Competence

As we age, we internalize social and cultural norms related to sending (encoding) and

interpreting (decoding) nonverbal communication. In terms of sending, the tendency of

children to send unmonitored nonverbal signals reduces as we get older and begin to monitor and

perhaps censor or mask them (Andersen, 1999). Likewise, as we become more experienced

communicators we tend to think that we become better at interpreting nonverbal messages. In

this section we will discuss some strategies for effectively encoding and decoding nonverbal

messages. As we’ve already learned, we receive little, if any, official instruction in nonverbal

communication, but you can think of this chapter as a training manual to help improve your own

nonverbal communication competence. As with all aspects of communication, improving your

nonverbal communication takes commitment and continued effort. However, research shows that

education and training in nonverbal communication can lead to quick gains in knowledge and

skill (Riggio, 1992). Additionally, once the initial effort is put into improving your nonverbal

encoding and decoding skills and those new skills are put into practice, people are encouraged by

the positive reactions from others. Remember that people enjoy interacting with others who are

skilled at nonverbal encoding and decoding, which will be evident in their reactions, providing

further motivation and encouragement to hone your skills.

Guidelines for Sending Nonverbal Messages

First impressions matter and nonverbal cues account for much of the content from which we

form initial impressions. It is important to know that people make judgments about our identities

and skills after only brief exposure. Our competence regarding and awareness of nonverbal

communication can help determine how an interaction will proceed and, in fact, whether it will

take place at all. People who are skilled at encoding nonverbal messages are more favorably

evaluated after initial encounters. This is likely due to the fact that people who are more

nonverbally expressive are also more attention getting and engaging and make people feel more

welcome and warm due to increased immediacy behaviors, all of which enhance perceptions of



“Tiffany Makes a Point” by eschipul is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Understand That Nonverbal Communication Affects Our


Nonverbal communication affects our own and others’ behaviors. Changing our nonverbal

signals can affect our thoughts and emotions. Knowing this allows us to have more control over

the trajectory of our communication, possibly allowing us to intervene in a negative cycle. For

example, if you are waiting in line to get your driver’s license renewed and the agents in front of

you are moving slower than you’d like. On top of the slow line, the man in front of you doesn’t

have his materials organized and is asking unnecessary questions. You might start to exhibit

nonverbal clusters that signal frustration by crossing your arms combined with wrapping your

fingers tightly around one bicep and occasionally squeezing. The bicep squeeze is a self-touch

adaptor that results from anxiety and stress. The longer you stand like that, the more frustrated

and defensive you will become. The nonverbal cluster reinforces and heightens your feelings.

Increased awareness about these cycles can help you make conscious moves to change your

nonverbal communication and, subsequently, your cognitive and emotional states (McKay,

Davis, & Fanning, 1995).


“Crossed arms” by Carlos Ebert is licensed under CC BY 2.0

As your nonverbal encoding competence increases, you can strategically manipulate your

behaviors. Restaurant servers get pretty good at knowing what tables to engage with and

“schmooze” a little more to get a better tip. Bartenders, car salespeople, realtors, exotic dancers,

and many others who work in a service/sales develop a capacity to know that part of “sealing the

deal” is by making people feel liked, valued, and important. The strategic use of nonverbal

communication to convey these messages is largely accepted and expected in our society. As

customers, we often play along because it feels good in the moment to think that the other person

actually cares about us. However, using nonverbals that are intentionally deceptive and

misleading can have negative consequences and cross the line into unethical communication.

As you get better at monitoring and controlling your nonverbal behaviors and understanding how

nonverbal cues affect our interaction, you may show more competence in multiple types of

communication. For example, people who are more skilled at monitoring and controlling

nonverbal displays of emotion report that they are more comfortable public speakers (Riggio,

1992). Since speakers become more nervous when they think that audience members are able to

detect their nervousness based on nonverbal cues, it is logical that confidence in one’s ability to

control those visible cues would result in a lessening of that common fear.

Understand How Nonverbal Communication Creates



Humans have evolved an innate urge to mirror each other’s nonverbal behavior, and although we

aren’t often aware of it, this urge influences our behavior daily (Pease & Pease, 2004). Think, for

example, about how people “fall into formation” when waiting in a line. Our nonverbal

communication works to create an unspoken and subconscious cooperation, as people move and

behave in similar ways. When one person leans to the left the next person in line may also lean to

the left. This shift in posture may continue all the way down the line, until someone else makes

another movement, and the whole line shifts again. This phenomenon is known as mirroring,

which refers to the often subconscious practice of using nonverbal cues in a way that match

those of others around us. Mirroring sends implicit messages to others that say, “Look! I’m just

like you.” Mirroring evolved as an important social function in that it allowed early humans to

more easily fit in with larger groups. Logically, early humans who were more successful at

mirroring were more likely to secure food, shelter, and security. As a result, they passed that

genetic disposition on down the line to us. Consider talking to a friend who is telling you a story

and has their hands clasped in front of them and you suddenly find yourself clasping your hands

as well in a mirrored gesture.

“3 Girls, Barcelona” by enricozara is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Understand How Nonverbal Communication Regulates


The ability to display appropriate turn-taking signals can help ensure that we can hold the floor

when needed in a conversation. This also works when we need to work our way into a


conversation smoothly, without inappropriately interrupting someone or otherwise being seen as

rude. People with nonverbal encoding competence are typically more “in control” of

conversations. This regulating function can be useful in initial encounters when we are trying to

learn more about another person. Further, this is also effective in situations where status

differentials are present, compliance gaining is needed or dominance is a goal. Although close

friends, family, and relational partners can sometimes be an exception, interrupting is generally

considered rude and should be avoided. Even though verbal communication is most often used to

interrupt another person, interruptions are still studied as a part of chronemics because it

interferes with another person’s talk time. Instead of interrupting, you can use nonverbal signals

like leaning in, increasing your eye contact, or using a brief gesture like subtly raising one hand

or the index finger to signal to another person that you’d like to soon take the floor.

“Question” by sk8geek is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


Understand How Nonverbal Communication Relates to


Part of being a good listener involves nonverbal-encoding competence, as nonverbal feedback in

the form of head nods, eye contact, and posture can signal that a listener is paying attention and

the speaker’s message is received and understood. Active listening, for example, combines good

cognitive listening practices with outwardly visible cues that signal to others that we are

listening. We all know from experience which nonverbal signals convey attentiveness and which

convey a lack of attentiveness. Listeners are expected to make more eye contact with the speaker

than the speaker makes with them, so it’s important to “listen with your eyes” by maintaining

eye contact, which signals attentiveness. Listeners should also avoid distracting movements in

the form of self, other, and object adaptors. Being a higher self-monitor can help you catch

nonverbal signals that might signal that you aren’t listening, at which point you could

consciously switch to more active listening signals.

“Talking on the offshore” by ePi.Longo is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Understand How Nonverbal Communication Relates to

Impression Management


The nonverbal messages we encode also help us express our identities and play into impression

management. Impression management is a key part of communicating to achieve identity goals.

Being able to control nonverbal expressions and competently encode them allows us to better

manage our persona and project a desired self to others. Being nonverbally expressive during

initial interactions usually leads to more favorable impressions. So smiling, keeping an attentive

posture, and offering a solid handshake help communicate confidence and enthusiasm that can be

useful on a first date, during a job interview, when visiting family for the holidays, or when

running into an acquaintance at the grocery store. Nonverbal communication can also impact the

impressions you make as a student. Research has also found that students who are more

nonverbally expressive are liked more by their teachers and are more likely to have their requests

met by their teachers (Mottet, Beebe, Raffeld & Paulsel, 2004).


Chapter 8.5 Nonverbal Communication in Context

Nonverbal communication receives less attention than verbal communication as a part of our

everyday lives. Learning more about nonverbal communication and becoming more aware of our

own and others’ use of nonverbal cues can help us be better relational partners and better

professionals. In addition, learning about cultural differences in nonverbal communication is

important for people traveling abroad but also due to our increasingly multinational business

world and the expanding diversity and increased frequency of intercultural communication

within our own borders.

Nonverbal Communication in Relational Contexts

A central, if not primary, function of nonverbal communication is the establishment and

maintenance of interpersonal relationships. Further, people who are skilled at encoding

nonverbal messages have various interpersonal advantages, including being more popular,

having larger social networks consisting of both acquaintances and close friends, and being less

likely to be lonely or socially anxious (Riggio, 1992).

Nonverbal communication increases our expressivity. Other’s generally find expressiveness

attractive and want to pay more attention to things that are expressive. Therefore, this increases

our chances of initiating interpersonal relationships as a result of some initial exchanges of

verbal and nonverbal information through self-disclosures. As the depth of self-disclosure

increases, messages become more meaningful if they are accompanied by matching nonverbal

cues. Impressions formed at this stage of interaction help determine whether or not a relationship

will progress. As relationships progress from basic information exchange to more substantial

emotional connections, nonverbal communication plays a more central role. As we’ve learned,

nonverbal communication conveys much emotional meaning, so the ability to effectively encode

and decode appropriate nonverbal messages sent through facial expressions, gestures, eye

contact, and touch leads to high-quality interactions that are rewarding for the people involved.

Nonverbal communication helps maintain relationships once they have moved beyond the initial

stages by helping us communicate emotions as well as providing social and emotional support.

In terms of communicating emotions, competent communicators know when it is appropriate to

express emotions and when more self-regulation is needed. They also know how to adjust their

emotional expressions to fit various contexts and individuals, which is useful in preventing

emotional imbalances within a relationship. Emotional imbalances occur when one relational

partner expresses too much emotion in a way that becomes a burden for the other person such as

saying “I love you” too soon. Ideally, each person in a relationship is able to express his or her

emotions in a way that isn’t too taxing for the other person. For example, one relational partner

may be going through an extended period of emotional distress, which can become very difficult

for other people in their life. Since people with nonverbal communication competence are more

likely to have larger social support networks, it is also likely that they will be able to spread

around their emotional communication, specifically related to negative emotions, in ways that do

not burden others. Unfortunately, people with less nonverbal skill are likely to have smaller


social networks. As a result, they may end up targeting one or two people for their emotional

communication and could lead to those few people withdrawing from the relationship.

Nonverbal communication allows us to give and request emotional support, which is a key part

of relational communication. © Thinkstock

Expressing the need for support is also an important part of relational maintenance. People who

lack nonverbal encoding skills may send unclear or subtle cues requesting support. These cues

may not be picked up on by others, which can lead to increased feelings of loneliness. Skilled

encoders of nonverbal messages, on the other hand, are able to appropriately communicate the

need for support in recognizable ways. As relationships progress in terms of closeness and

intimacy, nonverbal signals become a shorthand form of communicating. The shorthand form of

communication can be conveyed with a particular look, gesture, tone of voice, or posture. Family

members, romantic couples, close friends, and close colleagues can bond over their familiarity

with each other’s nonverbal behaviors, which creates a shared relational reality that is unique to

the relationship.


“Mason and Friends in DC” by Mason Bird is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Nonverbal Communication in Professional Contexts

Surveys of current professionals and managers have found that most report that nonverbal skills

are important to their jobs (DePaulo, 1992). Although important, there is rarely any training or

instruction related to nonverbal communication. It is also a consistent issue that has been

reported by employees who have mixed messages coming from their managers. Interpreting

contradictory verbal and nonverbal messages is challenging in any context and can have negative

effects on job satisfaction and productivity. Supervisors who give feedback regularly in periodic

performance evaluations find it important to be able to match nonverbal signals with the content

of the message. For example, appropriate nonverbal cues can convey the seriousness of a

complaint, help ease the delivery of constructive criticism, or reinforce positive feedback.

Professionals also need to be aware of how context, status, and power intersect with specific

channels of nonverbal communication. For example, even casual touching of supervisees,

mentees, or employees may be considered condescending or inappropriate in certain situations.

A well-deserved pat on the back is different from an unnecessary hand on the shoulder to say

hello at the start of a business meeting.


In professional contexts, managers and mentors with nonverbal decoding skills can exhibit

sensitivity to others’ nonverbal behavior and better relate to employees and mentees. In general,

interpreting emotions from nonverbal cues can have interpersonal and professional benefits. One

study found that salespeople who were skilled at recognizing emotions through nonverbal cues

sold more products and earned higher salaries (Byron, Terranova, & Nowicki, 2007). Aside from

bringing financial rewards, nonverbal communication also helps create supportive climates.

Bosses, supervisors, and service providers can help create rapport and a positive climate by

consciously mirroring the nonverbal communication of their employees or clients. In addition,

mirroring the nonverbal communication of others during a job interview, during a sales pitch, or

during a performance evaluation can help put the other person at ease and establish rapport.

Much of the mirroring we do is natural, so trying to overcompensate may actually be

detrimental, but engaging in self-monitoring and making small adjustments could be beneficial

(DePaulo, 1992).

You can also use nonverbal communication to bring positive attention to yourself. Being able to

nonverbally encode turn-taking cues allows contributions to conversations at relevant times such

as giving an idea or a piece of information, at just the right time, which helps bring attention to

professional competence. Further, encoding an appropriate amount of professionalism and

enthusiasm during a job interview can also help in impression formation since people make

judgments about others’ personalities based on their nonverbal cues. A person who comes across

as too enthusiastic may be seen as pushy or fake versus a person who comes across as too

relaxed may be seen as unprofessional and unmotivated.


Chapter 8 References

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(Ed.) The Sourcebook of Nonverbal Measures: Going beyond Words (pp. 189-198). Mahwah,

NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Anderson, P. A. (1999). Nonverbal communication: Forms and functions. Mountain View, CA:


Anderson, P. A. and Anderson, J. F. (2005). Measures of perceived nonverbal immediacy. In

Manusov, V. (Ed.) The sourcebook of nonverbal measures: Going beyond words (pp. 113-126).

Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Buller, D. B. and Burgoon, J. K. (1986). The effects of vocalics and nonverbal sensitivity on

compliance. Human Communication Research, 13(1), 126–44.

Byron, K., Terranova, S., and Nowicki, S. (2007). Nonverbal emotion recognition and

salespersons: Linking ability to perceived and actual success. Journal of Applied Social

Psychology, 37 (11), 2600–2619.

Comadena, M. E., Hunt, S. K., and Cheri J. Simonds, C. J. (2007). The effects of teacher clarity,

nonverbal immediacy, and caring on student motivation, affective and cognitive

learning. Communication Research Reports, 24(3), 241.

DePaulo, P. J. (1992). Applications of nonverbal behavior research in marketing and

management. In Feldman, R. (Ed.) Applications of nonverbal behavior theories and research (p.

63). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Evans, D. (2001). Emotion: The science of sentiment. New York: Oxford University Press.

Floyd, K. (2006). Communicating affection: Interpersonal behavior and social context.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goffman, E. (2010). Relations in public: Microstudies of the public order. New Brunswick, NJ:

Transaction Publishers.

Guerrero, L. K. and Floyd, K. (2006). Nonverbal communication in close relationships.

Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Hall, E. T. (1968). Proxemics. Current Anthropology, 9(2), 83–95.

Hargie, O. (2011). Skilled interpersonal interaction: Research, theory, and practice. London:


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(Eds.) Nonverbal interaction (pp. 47-76). London: Sage.


Martin, J. N. and Nakayama, T. K. (2010). Intercultural communication in contexts. Boston,

MA: McGraw-Hill.

McKay, M., Davis, M. and Fanning, P. (1995). Messages: Communication skills book. Oakland,

CA: New Harbinger Publications.

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influence jurors’ perceptions. Journal of Law and Policy, 21(2) (Article 17).

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(Eds.) Handbook of interpersonal communication, (pp. 339-373). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Mottet, T. P., Beebe, S., Raffeld, P.C., and Paulsel, M. L. (2004). The effects of student verbal

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Chapter 8 Key Takeaways and Exercises


• Nonverbal communication is a process of generating meaning using behavior other than

words. Nonverbal communication includes vocal elements, which is referred to as

paralanguage and includes pitch, volume, and rate, and nonvocal elements, which are

usually referred to as body language and includes gestures, facial expressions, and eye

contact, among other things.

• Although verbal communication and nonverbal communication work side by side as part

of a larger language system, there are some important differences between the two. They

are processed by different hemispheres of the brain.

• Nonverbal communication operates on the following principles: conveys more meaning,

more involuntary, often more ambiguous, often more credible than verbal


• Nonverbal communication affects verbal communication in that it can complement,

reinforce, substitute, or contradict verbal messages.

• Nonverbal communication influences others, as it is a key component of deception and

can be used to assert dominance or to engage in compliance gaining.

• Nonverbal communication regulates conversational flow, as it provides important cues

that signal the beginning and end of conversational turns and facilitates the beginning and

end of an interaction.

• Nonverbal communication affects relationships, as it is a primary means through which

we communicate emotions, establish social bonds, and engage in relational maintenance.

• Kinesics refers to body movements and posture and includes the following components:

o Gestures are arm and hand movements and include adaptors like clicking a pen or

scratching your face, emblems like a thumbs-up to say “OK,” and illustrators like

bouncing your hand along with the rhythm of your speaking.

o Head movements and posture include the orientation of movements of our head

and the orientation and positioning of our body and the various meanings they

send. Head movements such as nodding can indicate agreement, disagreement,

and interest, among other things. Posture can indicate assertiveness,

defensiveness, interest, readiness, or intimidation, among other things.

o Eye contact is studied under the category of oculesics and specifically refers to

eye contact with another person’s face, head, and eyes and the patterns of looking

away and back at the other person during interaction. Eye contact provides turn-

taking signals, signals when we are engaged in cognitive activity, and helps

establish rapport and connection, among other things.

o Facial expressions refer to the use of the forehead, brow, and facial muscles

around the nose and mouth to convey meaning. Facial expressions can convey

happiness, sadness, fear, anger, and other emotions.

• Haptics refers to touch behaviors that convey meaning during interactions. Touch

operates at many levels, including functional- professional, social-polite, friendship-

warmth, and love-intimacy.


• Vocalics refers to the vocalized but not verbal aspects of nonverbal communication,

including our speaking rate, pitch, volume, tone of voice, and vocal quality. These

qualities, also known as paralanguage, reinforce the meaning of verbal communication,

allow us to emphasize particular parts of a message, or can contradict verbal messages.

• Proxemics refers to the use of space and distance within communication. US Americans,

in general, have four zones that constitute our personal space: the public zone (12 or more

feet from our body), social zone (4–12 feet from our body), the personal zone (1.5–4 feet

from our body), and the intimate zone (from body contact to 1.5 feet away). Proxemics

also studies territoriality, or how people take up and defend personal space.

• Chronemics refers the study of how time affects communication and includes how

different time cycles affect our communication, including the differences between people

who are past or future oriented and cultural perspectives on time as fixed and measured

(monochronic) or fluid and adaptable (polychronic).

• Personal presentation refers to how the objects we adorn ourselves and our surroundings

with, referred to as artifacts, provide nonverbal cues that others make meaning from and

how our physical environment—for example, the layout of a room and seating positions

and arrangements—influences communication.

• Olfactory communication shares that scent can evoke past memories such as smelling a

first love’s perfume/cologne. Smelling the scent can trigger memories of time spent with

that person.Nonverbal communication expresses our identities, as who we are is

conveyed through the way we set up our living and working spaces, the clothes we wear,

our personal presentation, and the tones in our voices.

• To improve your competence encoding nonverbal messages, increase your awareness of

the messages you are sending and receiving and the contexts in which your

communication is taking place. Since nonverbal communication is multi-channel, it is

important to be aware that nonverbal cues can complement, enhance, or contradict each

other. Also realize that the norms and expectations for sending nonverbal messages,

especially touch and personal space, vary widely between relational and professional


• To improve your competence decoding nonverbal messages, look for multiple nonverbal

cues, avoid putting too much weight on any one cue, and evaluate nonverbal messages in

relation to the context and your previous experiences with the other person. Although we

put more weight on nonverbal communication than verbal when trying to detect

deception, there is no set guide that can allow us to tell whether or not another person is

being deceptive.

• A central function of nonverbal communication is the establishment and maintenance of

interpersonal relationships.

• Nonverbal communication helps initiate relationships through impression management

and self- disclosure and then helps maintain relationships as it aids in emotional

expressions that request and give emotional support.

• Professionals indicate that nonverbal communication is an important part of their jobs.

Organizational leaders can use nonverbal decoding skills to tell when employees are

under stress and in need of support and can then use encoding skills to exhibit nonverbal

sensitivity. Nonverbal signals can aid in impression management in professional settings,

such as in encoding an appropriate amount of enthusiasm and professionalism.


• Although some of our nonverbal signals appear to be more innate and culturally

universal, many others vary considerably among cultures, especially in terms of the use

of space (proxemics), eye contact (oculesics), and touch (haptics). Rather than learning a

list of rules for cultural variations in nonverbal cues, it is better to develop more general

knowledge about how nonverbal norms vary based on cultural values and to view this

knowledge as tools that can be adapted for use in many different cultural contexts.

• In terms of gender, most of the nonverbal differences between men and women are

exaggerations of biological differences onto which we have imposed certain meanings

and values. Men and women’s nonverbal communication, as with other aspects of

communication, is much more similar than different. Research has consistently found,

however, that women gesture, make eye contact, touch and stand close to same-gender

conversational partners, and use positive facial expressions more than men.


1. Getting integrated: To better understand nonverbal communication, try to think of an
example to illustrate each of the four principles discussed in the chapter. Include at least

one example from an academic, professional, civic, and personal context.

2. When someone sends you a mixed message in which the verbal and nonverbal messages
contradict each other, which one do you place more meaning on? Why?

3. Our personal presentation, style of dress, and surroundings such as a dorm room,
apartment, or car send nonverbal messages about our identities. Analyze some of the

nonverbal signals that your personal presentation or environment send. What do they say

about who you are? Do they create the impression that you desire?

4. Provide some examples of how eye contact plays a role in your communication
throughout the day.

5. One of the key functions of vocalics is to add emphasis to our verbal messages to
influence the meaning. Explain the meaning for each of the following statements based

on which word is emphasized: “She is my friend.” “She is my friend.” “She is my


6. Getting integrated: Many people do not think of time as an important part of our
nonverbal communication. Provide an example of how chronemics sends nonverbal

messages in academic settings, professional settings, and personal settings.

7. Consider the use of perfume/cologne. Do you use a scent, or not? What is the reason for
your choice? How does it impact your relationships?

8. Getting integrated: As was indicated earlier, research shows that instruction in nonverbal
communication can lead people to make gains in their nonverbal communication

competence. List some nonverbal skills that you think are important in each of the

following contexts: academic, professional, personal, and civic.

9. Using concepts from this section, analyze your own nonverbal encoding competence.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?

10. To understand how chronemics relates to nonverbal communication norms, answer the
following questions: In what situations is it important to be early? In what situations can

you arrive late? How long would you wait on someone you were meeting for a group

project for a class? A date? A job interview?


11. Identify some nonverbal behaviors that would signal a positive interaction on a first date
and on a job interview. Then identify some nonverbal behaviors that would signal a

negative interaction in each of those contexts.

12. Discuss an experience where you have had some kind of miscommunication or
misunderstanding because of cultural or gender differences in encoding and decoding

nonverbal messages. What did you learn in this chapter that could help you in similar

future interactions?


“Getting Plugged In”


Avatars are computer-generated images that represent users in online environments or are

created to interact with users in online and offline situations. Avatars can be created in the

likeness of humans, animals, aliens, or other nonhuman creatures (Allmendinger, 2010). Avatars

vary in terms of functionality and technical sophistication and can include stationary pictures like

buddy icons, cartoonish but humanlike animations like a Mii character on the Wii, or very

humanlike animations designed to teach or assist people in virtual environments. More recently,

3-D holographic avatars have been put to work helping travelers at airports in Paris and New

York (Strunksy, 2012; Tecca, 2012). Research has shown, though, that humanlike avatars

influence people even when they are not sophisticated in terms of functionality and adaptability

(Baylor, 2011). Avatars are especially motivating and influential when they are similar to the

observer, or user, but more closely represent the person’s ideal self. Appearance has been noted

as one of the most important attributes of an avatar designed to influence or motivate.

Attractiveness, coolness (in terms of clothing and hairstyle), and age were shown to be factors

that increase or decrease the influence an avatar has over users (Baylor, 2011).

People also create their own avatars as self-representations in a variety of online environments

like World of Warcraft. Research shows that the line between reality, and virtual reality, can

become blurry when it comes to avatar design and identification. This can become even more

pronounced when we consider that some users, especially of online role-playing games, spend

about twenty hours a week as their avatar.

Avatars do more than represent people in online worlds; they also affect their behaviors offline.

For example, one study found that people who watched an avatar that looked like them

exercising and losing weight in an online environment exercised more and ate healthier in the

real world (Fox & Bailenson, 2009). Seeing an older version of them online led participants to

form a more concrete social and psychological connection with their future selves, which led

them to invest more money in a retirement account. People’s actions online also mirror the

expectations for certain physical characteristics, even when the user doesn’t exhibit those

characteristics or get to choose them for their avatar. For example, experimental research showed

that people using more attractive avatars were more extroverted and friendly than those with less

attractive avatars, which is also a nonverbal communication pattern that exists among real

people. In summary, people have the ability to self-select physical characteristics and personal

presentation for their avatars in a way that they can’t in their real life. People come to see their

avatars as part of themselves, which opens the possibility for avatars to affect users’ online and

offline communication (Kim, Lee & Kang, 2012).

• Describe an avatar that you have created for yourself. What led you to construct the

avatar the way you did, and how do you think your choices reflect your typical nonverbal

self-presentation? If you haven’t ever constructed an avatar, what would you make your

avatar look like and why?


• In 2009, a man in Japan became the first human to marry an avatar (that we know of).

Although he claims that his avatar is better than any human girlfriend, he has been

criticized as being out of touch with reality. Do you think the boundaries between human

reality and avatar fantasy will continue to fade as we become a more technologically

fused world? How do you feel about interacting more with avatars in customer service

situations like the airport avatar mentioned above? What do you think about having

avatars as mentors, role models, or teachers?


Allmendinger, K. (2010). Social presence in synchronous virtual learning situations: The role of

nonverbal signals displayed by avatars. Educational Psychology Review, 22(1), 42.

Baylor, A. L. (2011). The design of motivational agents and avatars. Educational Technology

Research and Development, 59(2), 291–300.

Fox, J. and Bailenson, J. M. (2009). Virtual self-modeling: The effects of vicarious

reinforcement and identification on exercise behaviors. Media Psychology, 12(1), 1-25.

Kim, C., Lee, S., and Kang, M. (2012). I became an attractive person in the virtual world: Users’

identification with virtual communities and avatars. Computers in Human Behavior, 28(5),


Strunksy, S. (2012). New airport service rep is stiff and phony, but she’s friendly. Retrieved from

Tecca (2012). New York City airports install new, expensive holograms to help you find your

way. Retrieved from



“Getting Critical”



Everyone who has flown over the past ten years has experienced the steady increase in security

screenings. Since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, airports around the world have had

increased security. While passengers have long been subject to pat-downs if they set off the

metal detector or arouse suspicion, recently foiled terrorist plots have made passenger screening

more personal. The “shoe bomber” led to mandatory shoe removal and screening, and the more

recent use of nonmetallic explosives hidden in clothing or in body cavities led to the use of body

scanners that can see through clothing to check for concealed objects (Thomas, 2001). Protests

against and anxiety about the body scanners, more colloquially known as “naked x-ray

machines,” led to the new “enhanced pat-down” techniques for passengers who refuse to go

through the scanners or passengers who are randomly selected or arouse suspicion in other ways.

The strong reactions are expected given what we’ve learned about the power of touch as a form

of nonverbal communication. The new pat-downs routinely involve touching the areas around a

passenger’s breasts and/or genitals with a sliding hand motion. The Transportation Security

Administration (TSA) notes that the areas being examined haven’t changed, but the degree of the

touch has, as screeners now press and rub more firmly but used to use a lighter touch (Kravitz,

2012). Interestingly, police have long been able to use more invasive pat-downs, but only with

probable cause. In the case of random selection at the airport, no probable cause provision has to

be met, giving TSA agents more leeway with touch than police officers. Experts in aviation

security differ in their assessment of the value of the pat-downs and other security procedures.

Several experts have called for a revision of the random selection process in favor of more

targeted screenings. What civil rights organizations critique as racial profiling, consumer rights

activists and some security experts say allows more efficient use of resources and less

inconvenience for the majority of passengers (Thomas, 2011). Although the TSA has made some

changes to security screening procedures and have announced more to come, some passengers

have started a backlash of their own. There have been multiple cases of passengers stripping

down to their underwear or getting completely naked to protest the pat-downs, while several

other passengers have been charged with assault for “groping” TSA agents in retaliation. Footage

of pat-downs of toddlers and grandmothers in wheelchairs and self-uploaded videos of people

recounting their pat-down experiences have gone viral on YouTube.

• What limits, if any, do you think there should be on the use of touch in airport screening


• In June of 2012 a passenger was charged with battery after “groping” a TSA supervisor,

as she claims, to demonstrate the treatment that she had received while being screened.

Do you think that her actions we justified? Why or why not?

• Do you think that more targeted screening, as opposed to random screenings in which

each person has an equal chance of being selected for enhanced pat-downs, is a good

idea? Why? Do you think such targeted screening could be seen as a case of unethical

racial profiling? Why or why not?



Thomas, A. R. (2011). Soft landing: Airline industry strategy, service, and safety. New York,

NY: Apress.

Kravitz, D. (2012). Airport ‘pat-downs’ cause growing passenger backlash. Retrieved from



Chapter 9.1 – Listening Defined

In our sender-oriented society, listening is often overlooked as an important part of the

communication process. Yet research shows that adults spend about 45 percent of their time

listening, which is more than any other communicative activity. In some contexts, we spend even

more time listening than that. On average, workers spend 55 percent of their workday listening,

and managers spend about 63 percent of their day listening (Hargie, 2011).

Listening is a primary means through which we learn new information, which can help us meet

instrumental needs as we learn things that helps us complete certain tasks at work or school and

get things done in general. The act of listening to our relational partners provides support, which

is an important part of relational maintenance and helps us meet our relational needs. Listening

to what others say about us helps us develop an accurate self-concept, which can help us more

strategically communicate for identity needs in order to project to others our desired self.

Overall, improving our listening skills can help us be better students, better relational partners,

and more successful professionals.


Chapter 9.2 Understanding How and Why We Listen

Listening is a learned process. We begin to engage with the listening process long before we

engage in any recognizable verbal or nonverbal communication. It is only after listening for

months as infants that we begin to consciously practice our own forms of expression. In this

section we will learn more about each stage of the listening process, the main types of listening,

and the main listening styles.

The Listening Process

Listening is a process, and as such, doesn’t have a defined start and finish. Like the

communication process, listening has cognitive, behavioral, and relational elements and

doesn’t unfold in a linear, step-by-step fashion. Models of processes are informative in that

they help us visualize specific components, but keep in mind that they do not capture the speed,

overlapping nature, or complexity of the actual process in action.

“so polite” by pohly is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In 1996, Judi Brownell created the HURIER listening model which is a framework to begin

building listening skill. The letters in HURIER represent Hearing, Understanding, Remembering,

Interpreting, Evaluating and Responding (Brownell, 2018).

The HURIER Model

Hearing involves the physiological aspects of the ear processing sound waves, which is a

complex process of sound waves entering the ear and producing sound. Hearing is not the


same as listening. For example, a child entering a family room with a news station on tv might be

able to hear the news anchor speak, but they do not really listen. However, when the news story

covers an upcoming zoo exhibit involving the child’s favorite butterfly pavilion, they are

immediately drawn in and now paying attention. This example expresses selective attention or a

stimulus that allowed the child to focus and listen. The four stimuli that will cause us to pay

attention more readily are repetition, change, novelty, and/or intensity. We tend to find

importance in things that are visually or audibly stimulating along with things that meet our

needs, or interests. Think about how it’s much easier to listen to a lecture on a subject that you

find very interesting.

• Repetition can be a word, or phrase, repeated help capture our attention. (Ex: a

commercial jingle)

• Change can be anything different that the previous stimuli. (Ex: the vocal tone of a

speaker who speaks slower or with pauses to create interest.)

• Novelty can be something new or perhaps something unexpected to capture attention.(Ex:

the grocery store attendant dressed in a clown costume at Halloween.)

• Intensity can be anything loud, dramatic or more than expected. (Ex: a fireworks show or

a motorcycle speeding by) (Brownell, 2018)

Understanding is the ability to grasp what you hear by defining words and phrases heard

along with comparing incoming information to previous knowledge. Essentially, you put

incoming data into some kind of framework to make it meaningful; you become the author of

your own unique version of the listening context. A listener compares incoming information to

previous knowledge, forms relationships between new and old ideas, and creates a personalized

memory file (Brownell, 2018).

Remembering is the ability to recall information. Our ability to recall information is

dependent on some of the physiological limits of how memory works. Overall, our memories are

known to be fallible. We forget about half of what we hear immediately after hearing it. We can

recall 35% of what we heard after 8 hours and only recall 20% of what we heard after 24 hours

(Hargie, 2011). Our memory consists of multiple “storage units,” including sensory storage,

short-term memory, working memory, and long-term memory (Hargie, 2011). Our sensory

storage is very large in terms of capacity but limited in terms of length. We can hold large

amounts of unsorted visual information but only for about 1/10 of a second. By comparison, we

can hold large amounts of unsorted auditory information for longer—up to 4 seconds.

• As stimuli are organized and interpreted, they make their way to short-term memory

where they expire, are forgotten, or they are transferred to long-term memory. Short-

term memory is a mental storage capability that can retain stimuli for twenty

seconds to one minute. Long-term memory is a mental storage capability to which

stimuli in short-term memory can be transferred if they are connected to existing

schema and information can be stored indefinitely. (Hargie, 2011)


• Working memory is a temporarily accessed memory storage space that is activated

during times of high cognitive demand. When using working memory, we can

temporarily store information and process and use it at the same time. This is different

from our typical memory function in that information usually has to make it to long-term

memory before we can apply it to a current situation. People with good working

memories are able to keep recent information in mind, process it and then apply it to

other incoming information. This can be very useful during high-stress situations. A

person in control of a command center like the White House Situation Room should have

a good working memory in order to take in, organize, evaluate, and then immediately use

new information instead of having to wait for that information to make it to long-term

memory and then be retrieved and used.

Although recall is an important part of the listening process, there isn’t a direct correlation

between being good at recalling information and being a good listener. Some people have

excellent memories and recall abilities. They can tell you a very accurate story from many years

earlier. Recall is an important part of the listening process because it is most often used to assess

listening abilities and effectiveness. Many quizzes and tests in school are based on recall and are

often used to assess how well students comprehended information presented in class, which is

seen as an indication of how well they listened. When recall is our only goal, we excel at it.

Experiments have found that people can memorize and later recall a set of faces and names with

near 100 percent recall when sitting in a quiet lab and asked to do so. But throw in external

noise, more visual stimuli, and multiple contextual influences, we can’t remember the name of

the person we were just introduced to one minute earlier. Even in interpersonal encounters, we

rely on recall to test whether or not someone was listening. Imagine that Azam is talking to his

friend Belle, who is sitting across from him in a restaurant.

Azam, annoyed that Belle keeps checking her phone, stops and asks, “Are you listening?”

Belle inevitably replies, “Yes,” since we rarely fess up to our poor listening habits.

Azam replies, “Well, what did I just say?”

Interpreting is the ability to see a situation from the other person’s perspective and then let

their partners know that they have been understood. During the interpreting stage of

listening, we combine the visual and auditory information we receive and try to make meaning

out of that information using schemata. Schemata is an organizational pattern or framework. The

interpreting stage engages cognitive and relational processing as we take in informational,

contextual, and relational cues and try to connect them in meaningful ways to previous

experiences. It is through the interpreting stage that we may begin to understand the stimuli we

have received. When we understand something, we are able to attach meaning by connecting

information to previous experiences. Through the process of comparing new information with

old information, we may also update, or revise, particular schemata if we find the new

information relevant and credible. If we have difficulty interpreting information, meaning we

don’t have previous experience or information in our existing schemata to make sense of it, then

it is difficult to transfer the information into our long-term memory for later recall. In situations

where understanding the information we receive isn’t important or isn’t a goal, this stage may be


fairly short or even skipped. After all, we can move something to our long-term memory by

repetition and then later recall it without ever having understood it. A good example of this

might be earning perfect scores on an anatomy exam because you were able to memorize, and

therefore recall, all the organs in the digestive system. But you might be hard pressed to explain

the significance of most of those organs, meaning you didn’t really get to a level of

understanding, but simply stored the information for later recall.

Evaluating is using our individual perceptual filters to make a judgement on what was

heard. When we evaluate something, we make judgments about its credibility,

completeness, and worth. In terms of credibility, we try to determine the degree to which we

believe a speaker’s statements are correct and/or true. In terms of completeness, we try to “read

between the lines” and evaluate the message in relation to what we know about the topic or

situation being discussed. We evaluate the worth of a message by making a value judgment

about whether we think the message or idea is good/bad, right/wrong, or desirable/undesirable.

All these aspects of evaluating require critical thinking skills, which we aren’t born with, but

develop over time through our own personal development.

Studying communication is a great way to build your critical thinking skills, because you learn

much more about the “taken-for-granted” aspects of how communication works, which gives

you tools to analyze and critique messages, senders, and contexts. Critical thinking and listening

skills also help you take a more proactive role in the communication process rather than being a

passive receiver of messages that may not be credible, complete, or worthwhile. One danger

within the evaluation stage is to focus your evaluative lenses more on the speaker than the

message. This can quickly become a barrier to effective listening if we begin to prejudge a

speaker based on their characteristics rather than on the content of their message.

Responding is the final step of choosing an appropriate response. Responding entails sending

verbal and nonverbal messages that indicate attentiveness and understanding or a lack thereof.

From our earlier discussion of the communication model, you may be able to connect this part of

the listening process to feedback. We all know the signs that indicate whether a person is paying

attention to a message, or not.

We send verbal and nonverbal feedback while another person is talking and after they are

done. Back-channel cues are the verbal and nonverbal signals we send while someone is

talking and can consist of verbal cues like “uh-huh,” “oh,” and “right,” and/or nonverbal

cues like direct eye contact, head nods, and leaning forward. Back-channel cues are

generally a form of positive feedback that indicates others are actively listening. People also

send cues intentionally and unintentionally that indicate they aren’t listening. If another person is

looking away, fidgeting, texting, or turned away, we will likely interpret those responses as not


Paraphrasing is a responding behavior that can also show that you understand what was

communicated. When you paraphrase information, you rephrase the message into your own

words. For example, you might say the following to start off a paraphrased response: “What I

heard you say was…” or “It seems like you’re saying…” You can also ask clarifying questions

to get more information. It is often a good idea to pair a paraphrase with a question to keep a


conversation flowing. For example, you might pose the following paraphrase and question pair:

“It seems like you believe you were treated unfairly. Is that right?” Or you might ask a

standalone question like “What did your boss do that made you think he was ‘playing

favorites?’” Make sure to paraphrase and/or ask questions once a person’s turn is over, because

interrupting can also be interpreted as a sign of not listening. Paraphrasing is also a good tool to

use online, especially since miscommunication can occur due to a lack of nonverbal and other

contextual cues.

Listeners respond to speakers nonverbally during a message using back-channel cues and

verbally after a message using paraphrasing and clarifying questions. © Thinkstock

HURIER Model In Action

So, how do we use the HURIER model in a real way within our daily lives? Brownell answers

that question with a defined set of behaviors below. These very specific behaviors will help your

listening performance and overall effectiveness as a listener (Brownell, 2008).

H – Develop Hearing

• Do not multi-task when listening—focus entirely on the speaker

• Eliminate distractions

• Position yourself where it is easy to hear

• Postpone listening if you cannot concentrate

• Be prepared to listen

U – Increase Understanding

• Ask for clarification when vocabulary or jargon is unfamiliar

• Restate to ensure that you have understood completely


• Ask questions to clarify intentions

• Distinguish details from the speaker’s main points

• Refrain from interrupting the person speaking

R – Improve Remembering

• Quickly identify good reasons to remember what you hear

• Stay calm and focused—stress interferes with memory

• Learn short and long term memory techniques

• Continuously practice to improve your memory

I – Interpret Accurately

• Observe and consider the speaker’s nonverbal cues

• Listen for emotional messages as well as words

• Take the context of the communication into account

• Encourage the speaker

• Recognize and account for individual differences

E – Evaluate Wisely

• Listen to the entire message before responding

• Apply guidelines of sound reasoning in making judgments

• Distinguish emotional from logical appeals

• Recognize the influence of your personal bias and values

• Differentiate between the ideas presented and the person speaking

R – Respond Appropriately

• Be aware of your unintentional nonverbal communication

• Recognize how your response influences the speaker’s decisions

• Distinguish among different types of response—including judgments, empathy, opinions,

and questions

• Expand your behavioral flexibility—make choices based on the needs of the situation

rather than your habits and comfort level.


The HURIER listening process includes hearing, understanding, remembering, interpreting,

evaluating and responding. © Thinkstock

The Importance of Listening

Understanding how listening works provides the foundation we need to explore why we listen,

including various types and styles of listening. In general, listening helps us achieve all the

communication goals (physical, instrumental, relational, and identity). Listening is also

important in academic, professional, and personal contexts.

In terms of academics, poor listening skills were shown to contribute significantly to failure in a

person’s first year of college (Zabava & Wolvin, 1993). In general, students with high scores for

listening ability have greater academic achievement. Interpersonal communication skills

including listening are also highly sought after by potential employers, consistently ranking in

the top ten in national surveys (National Association of Colleges and Employers, 2011.)

Poor listening skills, lack of conciseness, and inability to give constructive feedback have been

identified as potential communication challenges in professional contexts. Even though listening


education is lacking in our society, research has shown that introductory communication courses

provide important skills necessary for functioning in entry-level jobs, including listening,

writing, motivating/ persuading, interpersonal skills, informational interviewing, and small-group

problem solving (DiSalvo, 1980). Training and improvements in listening will continue to pay

off, as employers desire employees with good communication skills, and employees who have

good listening skills are more likely to get promoted.

Listening also has implications for our personal lives and relationships. We shouldn’t

underestimate the power of listening to make someone else feel better and to open our perceptual

field to new sources of information. Empathetic listening can help us expand our social

awareness by learning from other people’s experiences and by helping us take on different

perspectives. Emotional support in the form of empathetic listening and validation during times

of conflict can help relational partners manage common stressors of relationships that may

otherwise lead a partnership to deteriorate (Milardo & Helms-Erikson, 2000). The following list

reviews some of the main functions of listening that are relevant in multiple contexts.


• to focus on messages sent by other people or noises coming from our surroundings;

• to better our understanding of other people’s communication;

• to critically evaluate other people’s messages;

• to monitor nonverbal signals;

• to indicate that we are interested or paying attention;

• to empathize with others and show we care for them (relational maintenance); and

• to engage in negotiation, dialogue, or other exchanges that result in shared understanding

of or agreement on an issue. (Hargie, 2011)

Listening Types

Listening serves many purposes, and different situations require different types of listening. The

type of listening we engage in affects our communication and how others respond to us. For

example, when we listen to empathize with others, our communication will likely be supportive

and open, which will then lead the other person to feel “heard” and hopefully view the

interaction positively (Bodie & Villaume, 2003). The main types of listening we will discuss are

discriminative, informational, critical, and empathetic (Watson, Barker & Weaver, 1995).


“U.S. Delegation at the Human Rights Council High Level Segment” by US Mission Geneva is

licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0


Discriminative listening is a focused and usually instrumental type of listening that is

primarily physiological and occurs mostly at the receiving stage of the listening process.

Here we engage in listening to scan and monitor our surroundings in order to isolate particular

auditory or visual stimuli. For example, we may focus our listening on a dark part of the yard

while walking the dog at night to determine if the noise we just heard presents us with any

danger. Or we may look for a particular nonverbal cue to let us know our conversational partner

received our message (Hargie, 2011). In the absence of a hearing impairment, we have an innate

and physiological ability to engage in discriminative listening. Although this is the most basic

form of listening, it provides the foundation on which more intentional listening skills are built.

This type of listening can be refined and honed. Think of how musicians, singers, and mechanics

exercise specialized discriminative listening to isolate specific aural stimuli and how actors,

detectives, and sculptors discriminate visual cues that allow them to analyze, make meaning

from, or recreate nuanced behavior (Wolvin & Coakley, 1993).


Informational listening entails listening with the goal of comprehending and retaining

information. This type of listening is not evaluative and is common in teaching and learning

contexts ranging from a student listening to an informative speech to an out-of-towner listening

to directions to the nearest gas station. We also use informational listening when we listen to

news reports, voice mail, and briefings at work. Since retention and recall are important

components of informational listening, good concentration and memory skills are key. These


also happen to be skills that many college students struggle with, at least in the first years of

college, but will be expected to have mastered once they get into professional contexts. In many

professional contexts, informational listening is important, especially when receiving

instructions. Most college professors provide detailed instructions and handouts with

assignments so students can review them as needed, but many supervisors and managers will

expect you to take the initiative to remember, or take notes, on vital information. Additionally,

many bosses are not as open to questions, or requests, to repeat themselves as professors are.


Critical listening entails listening with the goal of analyzing or evaluating a message based

on information presented verbally and information that can be inferred from context. A

critical listener evaluates a message and accepts it, rejects it, or decides to withhold judgment

and seek more information. As constant consumers of messages, we need to be able to assess the

credibility of speakers and their messages and identify various persuasive appeals and faulty

logic (known as fallacies). Critical listening is important during persuasive exchanges. People

often disguise inferences as facts. Critical-listening skills are useful when listening to processing

any of the persuasive media messages we receive daily. You can see judges employ critical

listening, with varying degrees of competence, on talent competition shows like Rupaul’s Drag

Race, America’s Got Talent, and The Voice. While the exchanges between judge and contestant

on these shows is expected to be subjective and critical, critical listening is also important when

listening to speakers that have stated or implied objectivity, such as parents, teachers, political

leaders, doctors, and religious leaders. We will learn more about how to improve your critical

thinking skills later in this chapter.


Empathetic listening is the most challenging form of listening and occurs when we try to

understand or experience what a speaker is thinking or feeling. Empathetic listening is

distinct from sympathetic listening. While the word empathy means to “feel into” or “feel with”

another person, sympathy means to “feel for” someone. Sympathy is generally more self-oriented

and distant than empathy (Bruneau, 1993). Empathetic listening is other oriented and should be

genuine. Because of our own centrality in our perceptual world, empathetic listening can be

difficult. It’s often much easier for us to tell our own story or to give advice than it is to really

listen to and empathize with someone else. We should keep in mind that sometimes others just

need to be heard and our feedback isn’t actually desired.


We support others through empathetic listening by trying to “feel with” them.© Thinkstock

Empathetic listening is key for dialogue and helps maintain interpersonal relationships. In order

to reach dialogue, people must have a degree of open-mindedness and a commitment to civility

that allows them to be empathetic while still allowing them to believe in and advocate for their

own position. An excellent example of critical and empathetic listening in action is the

international Truth and Reconciliation movement. The most well-known example of a Truth

and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) occurred in South Africa as a way to address the various

conflicts that occurred during apartheid (Department of Justice and Constitutional Development,

Truth and Reconciliation Commission website, accessed July 13, 2012). The first TRC in the

United States occurred in Greensboro, North Carolina, as a means of processing the events and

aftermath of November 3, 1979, when members of the Ku Klux Klan shot and killed five

members of the Communist Worker’s Party during a daytime confrontation witnessed by news

crews and many bystanders. The goal of such commissions is to allow people to tell their stories,

share their perspectives in an open environment, and be listened to (Greensboro Truth and

Reconciliation Commission website, accessed July 13, 2012). The truth and reconciliation

process seeks to heal relations between opposing sides by uncovering all pertinent facts,

distinguishing truth from lies, and allowing for acknowledgement, appropriate public mourning,

forgiveness and healing. The focus often is on giving victims, witnesses and even perpetrators a

chance to publicly tell their stories without fear of prosecution.


Listening Styles

“Listening” by quinn.anya is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Just as there are different types of listening, there are also different styles of listening. People

may be categorized as one or more of the following listeners: people-oriented, action-oriented,

content-oriented, and time-oriented listeners. Research finds that 40 percent of people have more

than one preferred listening style, and that they choose a style based on the listening situation

(Bodie & Villaume, 2003). Other research finds that people often still revert back to a single

preferred style in times of emotional or cognitive stress, even if they know a different style of

listening would be better (Worthington, 2003). Following a brief overview of each listening

style, we will explore some of their applications, strengths, and weaknesses.

• People-oriented listeners are concerned about the needs and feelings of others. They

may get distracted from a specific task, or the content of a message, in order to address


• Action-oriented listeners prefer well-organized, precise, and accurate information.

They can become frustrated with they perceive communication to be unorganized,

inconsistent, or a speaker to be “long-winded.”

• Content-oriented listeners are analytic and enjoy processing complex messages.

They like in-depth information and like to learn about multiple sides or multiple

perspectives on an issue. Their thoroughness can be difficult to manage if there are time


• Time-oriented listeners are concerned with completing tasks and achieving goals.

They do not like information perceived as irrelevant and like to stick to a timeline. They


may cut people off and make quick decisions (taking short cuts) when they think they

have enough information.


People-oriented listeners are concerned about the emotional states of others and listen with

the purpose of offering support in interpersonal relationships. People-oriented listeners can

be characterized as “supporters” who are caring and understanding. These listeners are sought

out because they are known as people who will “lend an ear.” They may or may not be valued

for the advice they give, but all people often want is a good listener. This type of listening may

be especially valuable in interpersonal communication involving emotional exchanges, as a

person-oriented listener can create a space where people can make themselves vulnerable

without fear of being cut off or judged. People-oriented listeners are likely skilled empathetic

listeners and may find success in supportive fields like counseling, social work, or nursing.

Interestingly, such fields are typically feminized, in that people often associate the characteristics

of people-oriented listeners with roles filled by women.


Action-oriented listeners focus on what action needs to take place in regards to a received

message and try to formulate an organized way to initiate that action. These listeners are

frustrated by disorganization, because it detracts from the possibility of actually doing

something. Action-oriented listeners can be thought of as “builders”—like an engineer, a

construction site foreperson, or a skilled project manager. This style of listening can be very

effective when a task needs to be completed under time, budgetary, or other logistical

constraints. One research study found that people prefer an action-oriented style of listening in

instructional contexts (Imhof, 2004). In other situations, such as interpersonal communication,

action-oriented listeners may not actually be very interested in listening, instead taking a “What

do you want me to do?” approach.


Content-oriented listeners like to listen to complex information and evaluate the content of

a message, often from multiple perspectives, before drawing conclusions. These listeners can

be thought of as “learners,” and they also ask questions to solicit more information to fill out

their understanding of an issue. Content-oriented listeners often enjoy high perceived credibility

because of their thorough, balanced, and objective approach to engaging with information.

Content-oriented listeners are likely skilled informational and critical listeners and may find

success in academic careers in the humanities, social sciences, or sciences. Ideally, judges and

politicians would also possess these characteristics.


Time-oriented listeners are more concerned about time limits and timelines than they are

with the content or senders of a message. These listeners can be thought of as “executives,”

and they tend to actually verbalize the time constraints under which they are operating.


For example, a time-oriented supervisor may say the following to an employee who has just

entered his office and asked to talk: “Sure, I can talk, but I only have about five minutes.” These

listeners may also exhibit nonverbal cues that indicate time and/or attention shortages, such as

looking at a clock, avoiding eye contact, or nonverbally trying to close down an interaction.

Time-oriented listeners are also more likely to interrupt others, which may make them seem

insensitive to emotional/personal needs. People often get action-oriented and time-oriented

listeners confused. Action-oriented listeners would be happy to get to a conclusion or decision

quickly if they perceive that they are acting on well-organized and accurate information. They

would, however, not mind taking longer to reach a conclusion when dealing with a complex

topic, and they would delay making a decision if the information presented to them didn’t meet

their standards of organization. Unlike time-oriented listeners, action-oriented listeners are not as

likely to cut people off (especially if people are presenting relevant information) and are not as

likely to take short cuts.

Time-oriented listeners listen on a schedule, often giving people limits on their availability by

saying, for example, “I only have about five minutes.” © Thinkstock


Chapter 9.3 Environmental and Physical Barriers to


Environmental factors such as lighting, temperature, and furniture affect our ability to listen. A

room that is too dark can make us sleepy, just as a room that is too warm or cool can raise

awareness of our physical discomfort to a point that it is distracting. Some seating arrangements

facilitate listening, while others separate people. In general, listening is easier when listeners can

make direct eye contact with and are in close physical proximity to a speaker. When group

members are allowed to choose a leader, they often choose the person who is sitting at the center

or head of the table (Andersen, 1999). Even though the person may not have demonstrated any

leadership abilities, people subconsciously gravitate toward speakers that are nonverbally

accessible. The ability to effectively see and hear a person increases people’s confidence in their

abilities to receive and process information. Eye contact and physical proximity can still be

affected by noise. Environmental noises such as a whirring air conditioner, barking dogs, or a

ringing fire alarm can obviously interfere with listening despite direct lines of sight and well-

placed furniture.

“IMG_7544 (2)-9” by IRRI Images is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Physiological noise, like environmental noise, can interfere with our ability to process incoming

information. This is considered a physical barrier to effective listening because it emanates from

our physical body. Physiological noise is noise stemming from a physical illness, injury, or

bodily stress. Ailments such as a cold, a broken leg, a headache, or a poison ivy outbreak

can range from annoying to unbearably painful and impact our listening relative to their

intensity. Another type of noise, psychological noise, bridges physical and cognitive barriers to

effective listening. Psychological noise, or noise stemming from our psychological states


including moods and level of arousal, can facilitate or impede listening. Any mood or state

of arousal that is too far above, or below, our regular baseline creates a barrier to message

reception and processing. The generally positive emotional state of being in love can be just as

much of a barrier as feeling hatred. Excited arousal can also distract as much as anxious arousal.

Stress about an upcoming events ranging from losing a job, to having surgery, to wondering

about what to eat for lunch can overshadow incoming messages. Psychological noise is relevant

given that the body and mind are not completely separate. In fact, they can interact in ways that

further interfere with listening. Fatigue, for example, is usually a combination of psychological

and physiological stresses that manifests as stress (psychological noise) and weakness,

sleepiness, and tiredness (physiological noise). Additionally, mental anxiety (psychological

noise) can also manifest itself in our bodies through trembling, sweating, blushing, or even

breaking out in rashes (physiological noise).

Cognitive and Personal Barriers to Listening

Cognitive limits, a lack of listening preparation, disorganized messages, and prejudices can

interfere with listening. Whether you call it multitasking, daydreaming, glazing over, or drifting

off, we all cognitively process other things while receiving messages. If you think of your

listening mind as a wall of ten televisions. You may notice that in some situations, five of the ten

televisions, are tuned into one channel. If that one channel is a lecture being given by your

professor, then you are exerting about half of your cognitive processing abilities on one message.

In another situation, all ten televisions may be on different channels. The fact that we have the

capability to process more than one thing at a time offers some advantages and disadvantages.

But unless we can better understand how our cognitive capacities and personal preferences affect

our listening, we are likely to experience more barriers than benefits.

“Day 278 – TVs” by Karin Beil is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


Our ability to process more information than what comes from one speaker or source creates a

barrier to effective listening. While people speak at a rate of 125 to 175 words per minute, we


can process between 400 and 800 words per minute (Hargie, 2011). This gap between speech

rate and thought rate gives us an opportunity to side-process any number of thoughts that can be

distracting from a more important message. Because of this gap, it is impossible to give one

message our “undivided attention,” but we can occupy other channels in our minds with thoughts

related to the central message. For example, using some of your extra cognitive processing

abilities to repeat, rephrase, or reorganize messages coming from one source allows you to use

that extra capacity in a way that reinforces the primary message.

The difference between speech and thought rate connects to personal barriers to listening, as

personal concerns are often the focus of competing thoughts that can take us away from listening

and challenge our ability to concentrate on others’ messages. Two common barriers to

concentration are self-centeredness and lack of motivation (Brownell, 1993). For example, when

our self-consciousness is raised, we may be too busy thinking about how we look, how we’re

sitting, or what others think of us to be attentive to an incoming message. Additionally, we are

often challenged when presented with messages that we do not find personally relevant. In

general, we employ selective attention, which refers to our tendency to pay attention to the

messages that benefit us in some way and filter others out. So the student who is checking

their favorite social media in class may suddenly switch their attention back to the previously

ignored professor when the following words are spoken: “This will be important for the exam.”

Another common barrier to effective listening is response preparation. Response preparation

refers to our tendency to rehearse what we are going to say next while a speaker is still

talking. Rehearsal of what we will say once a speaker’s turn is over is an important part of

the listening process that takes place between the recalling and evaluation and/or the

evaluation and responding stage. Rehearsal becomes problematic when response preparation

begins as someone is receiving a message and hasn’t had time to engage in interpretation or

recall. In this sense, we are listening with the goal of responding instead of with the goal of

understanding, which can lead us to miss important information that could influence our


Drifting attention is a common barrier to listening. Try to find personal relevance in the message

to help maintain concentration. © Thinkstock


Lack of Listening Preparation

Another barrier to effective listening is a general lack of listening preparation. Unfortunately,

most people have never received any formal training or instruction related to listening. Although

some people think listening skills just develop over time, competent listening is difficult.

Enhancing listening skills takes concerted effort. Even when listening education is available,

people do not embrace it as readily as they do opportunities to enhance their speaking skills.

Listening is often viewed as an annoyance or a chore, or just ignored or minimized as part of the

communication process. In addition, our individualistic society values speaking more than

listening, as it’s the speakers who are sometimes literally in the spotlight. Although listening

competence is a crucial part of social interaction and many of us value others we perceive to be

“good listeners,” listening just doesn’t get the same kind of praise, attention, instruction, or

credibility as speaking. Teachers, parents, and relational partners explicitly convey the

importance of listening through statements like “You better listen to me,” “Listen closely,” and

“Listen up,” but these demands are rarely paired with concrete instruction. So unless you plan on

taking more communication courses in the future, this chapter may be the only instruction you

receive on effective listening.

Bad Messages and/or Speakers

Bad messages and/or speakers also present a barrier to effective listening. Sometimes our trouble

listening originates in the sender such as

• poorly structured messages

• messages that are too vague

• messages too jargon filled

• message too simple

• speaker uses verbal fillers

• speaker uses monotone voice

• speaker uses distracting movements

• speakers has disheveled appearance (Hargie, 2011)

Speakers can employ particular strategies to create listenable messages that take some of the

burden off the listener by tailoring a message to be heard and processed easily.


Oscar Wilde said, “Listening is a very dangerous thing. If one listens one may be convinced.”

Unfortunately, some of our default ways of processing information and perceiving others lead us

to rigid ways of thinking. When we engage in prejudiced listening, we are usually trying to

preserve our ways of thinking and avoid being convinced of something different. This type

of prejudice is a barrier to effective listening, because when we prejudge a person based on his or

her identity or ideas, we usually stop listening in an active and/or ethical way.


We exhibit prejudice in our listening in several ways, some of which are more obvious than

others. For example, we may claim to be in a hurry and only selectively address the parts of a

message that we agree with or that aren’t controversial. We can also operate from a state of

denial where we avoid a subject, or person, altogether so that our views are not challenged.

Prejudices that are based on a person’s identity, such as race, age, occupation, or appearance,

may lead us to assume that we know what he or she will say, essentially closing down the

listening process. Keeping an open mind and engaging in perception checking can help us

identify prejudiced listening and hopefully shift into more competent listening practices.

“« Moi citoyen », réalisation d’un procès reconstitué au tribunal de Versailles” by Département

des Yvelines is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Bad Listening Practices

Physical barriers, cognitive limitations, and perceptual biases exist within all of us, and it is more

realistic to believe that we can become more conscious of and lessen them than to believe that

we can eliminate them. Other “bad listening” practices may be habitual, but they are easier to

address with some concerted effort. These bad listening practices include interrupting, distorted

listening, eavesdropping, aggressive listening, narcissistic listening, and pseudo-listening.


“Milan interrupting a phone call from Brent to himself.” by Terisa Folaron is licensed under CC

BY 2.0


Conversations unfold as a series of turns, and turn taking is negotiated through a complex set of

verbal and nonverbal signals that are consciously and subconsciously received. In this sense,

conversational turn taking has been likened to a dance where communicators try to avoid

stepping on each other’s toes. One of the most frequent glitches in the turn-taking process is

interruption, but not all interruptions are considered “bad listening.” An interruption could be

unintentional if we misread cues and think a person is done speaking only to have him or her

start up again at the same time we do. Sometimes interruptions are more like overlapping

statements that show support (e.g., “I think so too.”) or excitement about the conversation (e.g.,

“That’s so cool!”). Back-channel cues like “uh-huh,” as we learned earlier, also overlap with a

speaker’s message. We may also interrupt out of necessity if we’re engaged in a task with the

other person and need to offer directions (e.g., “Turn left here.”), instructions (e.g., “Will you

whisk the eggs?”), or warnings (e.g., “Look out behind you!”). All these interruptions are not

typically thought of as evidence of bad listening unless they become distracting for the speaker

or are unnecessary.

Unintentional interruptions can still be considered bad listening if they result from mindless

communication. So if you interrupt unintentionally, but because you were only half-listening,

then the interruption is still evidence of bad listening. The speaker may form a negative

impression of you that can’t just be erased by you noting that you didn’t “mean to interrupt.”


Interruptions can also be used as an attempt to dominate a conversation. A person engaging in

this type of interruption may lead the other communicator to try to assert dominance, too,

resulting in a competition to see who can hold the floor the longest or the most often. More than

likely, though, the speaker will form a negative impression of the interrupter and may withdraw

from the conversation.

Distorted Listening

Distorted listening occurs in many ways. Sometimes we just get the order of information wrong,

which can have relatively little negative effects if we are casually recounting a story, annoying

effects if we forget the order of turns (left, right, left or right, left, right?) in our driving

directions, or very negative effects if we recount the events of a crime out of order, which leads

to faulty testimony at a criminal trial. Rationalization is another form of distorted listening

through which we adapt, edit, or skew incoming information to fit our existing schemata. We

may, for example, re-attribute the cause of something to better suit our own beliefs. If a professor

is explaining to a student why he earned a “D” on his final paper, the student could re-attribute

the cause from “I didn’t follow the paper guidelines” to “this professor is an unfair grader.”

Sometimes we actually change the words we hear to make them better fit what we are thinking.

This can easily happen if we join a conversation late, overhear part of a conversation, or are

being a lazy listener and miss important setup and context. Passing along distorted information

can lead to negative consequences ranging from starting a false rumor about someone to passing

along incorrect medical instructions from one health-care provider to the next (Hargie, 2011).

Last, the addition of material to a message is a type of distorted listening that actually goes

against our normal pattern of listening, which involves reducing the amount of information and

losing some meaning as we take it in. The metaphor of “weaving a tall tale” is related to the

practice of distorting through addition. Addition is adding inaccurate or fabricated information to

what was actually heard. Addition of material is also a common feature of gossip. An excellent

example of the result of distorted listening is provided by the character Anthony Crispino

on Saturday Night Live, who passes along distorted news on the “Weekend Update” segment. In

an older episode, he said that President Obama planned on repealing the “Bush haircuts” (instead

of the Bush tax cuts).


Eavesdropping is a bad listening practice that involves a calculated and planned attempt to

secretly listen to a conversation. There is a difference between eavesdropping on and

overhearing a conversation. Many if not most of the interactions we have throughout the day

occur in the presence of other people. However, given that our perceptual fields are usually

focused on the interaction, we are often unaware of the other people around us. We don’t think

about the fact that they could be listening in on our conversation. We usually only become aware

of the fact that other people could be listening in when we’re discussing something private.


“” by EYECCD is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

People eavesdrop for a variety of reasons. People might think another person is talking about

them behind their back or that someone is engaged in illegal or unethical behavior. Sometimes

people eavesdrop to feed the gossip mill or out of curiosity (McCornack, 2007). In any case, this

type of listening is considered bad because it is a violation of people’s privacy. Consequences for

eavesdropping may include an angry reaction if caught, damage to interpersonal relationships, or

being perceived as dishonest and sneaky. Additionally, eavesdropping may lead people to find

out information that is personally upsetting or hurtful, especially if the point of the

eavesdropping is to find out what people are saying behind their back.


Eavesdropping entails intentionally listening in on a conversation that you are not a part of. ©


Aggressive Listening

Aggressive listening is a bad listening practice in which people pay attention in order to

attack something that a speaker says (McCornack, 2007). Aggressive listeners like to ambush

speakers in order to critique their ideas, personality, or other characteristics. Such behavior often

results from built-up frustration within an interpersonal relationship. Unfortunately, the more two

people know each other, the better they will be at aggressive listening. Take the following

exchange between long-term partners:


Aggressive Listening Example

Speaker Conversation

Deb: I’ve been thinking about making a salsa garden next to the side porch. I think it

would be really good to be able to go pick our own tomatoes and peppers and

cilantro to make homemade salsa.

Summer: Really? When are you thinking about doing it?

Deb: Next weekend. Would you like to help?

Summer: I won’t hold my breath. Every time you come up with some “idea of the week”

you get so excited about it. But do you ever follow through with it? No. We’ll be

eating salsa from the store next year, just like we are now.

Although Summer’s initial response to Deb’s idea is seemingly appropriate and positive, she

asks the question because she has already planned her upcoming aggressive response. Summer’s

aggression toward Deb isn’t about a salsa garden; it’s about a building frustration with what

Summer perceives as Deb’s lack of follow-through on her ideas. Aside from engaging in

aggressive listening because of built-up frustration, such listeners may also attack others’ ideas

or mock their feelings because of their own low self-esteem and insecurities.

Narcissistic Listening

Narcissistic listening is a form of self-centered and self-absorbed listening in which listeners

try to make the interaction about them (McCornack, 2007). Narcissistic listeners redirect the

focus of the conversation to them by interrupting or changing the topic. When the focus is taken

off them, narcissistic listeners may give negative feedback by pouting, providing negative

criticism of the speaker or topic, or ignoring the speaker. A common sign of narcissistic listening

is the combination of a “pivot,” when listeners shift the focus of attention back to them, and

“one-upping,” when listeners try to top what previous speakers have said during the interaction.

You can see this narcissistic combination in the following interaction:

• Bryce: “My boss has been really unfair to me lately and hasn’t been letting me work

around my class schedule. I think I may have to quit, but I don’t know where I’ll find

another job.”

• Toby: “Yea, I get it. I’ve been working with the same stupid boss for two years. He

doesn’t even care that I’m trying to get my degree and work at the same time. And you

should hear the way he talks to me in front of the other employees.”

Narcissistic listeners, given their self-centeredness, may actually fool themselves into thinking

that they are listening and actively contributing to a conversation. We all have the urge to share

our own stories during interactions, because other people’s communication triggers our own

memories about related experiences. It is generally more competent to withhold sharing our

stories until the other person has been able to speak and we have given the appropriate support

and response. But we all shift the focus of a conversation back to us occasionally, either because

we don’t know another way to respond or because we are making an attempt at empathy.


Narcissistic listeners consistently interrupt or follow another speaker with statements like “That

reminds me of the time…,” “Well, if I were you…,” and “That’s nothing…” (Nichols, 1995). As

we’ll learn later, matching stories isn’t considered empathetic listening, but occasionally doing it

doesn’t make you a narcissistic listener.


Do you have a friend or family member who repeats stories? If so, then you’ve probably engaged

in pseudo-listening as a politeness strategy. Pseudo-listening is behaving as if you’re paying

attention to a speaker when you’re actually not (McCornack, 2007). Outwardly visible signals

of attentiveness are an important part of the listening process, but when they are just an “act,” the

pseudo-listener is engaging in bad listening behaviors. She or he is not actually going through the

stages of the listening process and will likely not be able to recall the speaker’s message or offer

a competent and relevant response. Although it is a bad listening practice, we all understandably

engage in pseudo-listening from time to time. If a friend needs someone to talk but you’re really

tired or experiencing some other barrier to effective listening, it may be worth engaging in

pseudo- listening as a relational maintenance strategy, especially if the friend just needs a

sounding board and isn’t expecting advice or guidance. We may also pseudo-listen to a romantic

partner or grandfather’s story for the fifteenth time to prevent hurting their feelings. We should

avoid pseudo-listening when possible and should definitely avoid making it a listening habit.

Although we may get away with it in some situations, each time we risk being “found out,”

which could have negative relational consequences.


Chapter 9.4 Improving Listening Competence

Many people admit that they could improve their listening skills. This section will help us do

that. In this section, we will define active listening and the behaviors that go along with it.

Looking back to the types of listening discussed earlier, we will learn specific strategies for

sharpening our critical and empathetic listening skills.

Active Listening

Active listening refers to the process of pairing outwardly visible positive listening

behaviors with positive cognitive listening practices. Active listening can help address many

of the environmental, physical, cognitive, and personal barriers to effective listening that we

discussed earlier. The behaviors associated with active listening can also enhance informational,

critical, and empathetic listening.

“carefully listening” by TEDxUniversityofMacedonia is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


Being an active listener starts before you actually start receiving a message. Active listeners

make strategic choices and take action in order to set up ideal listening conditions. Physical and


environmental noises can often be managed by moving locations or by manipulating the lighting,

temperature, or furniture. When possible, avoid important listening activities during times of

distracting psychological or physiological noise. For example, we often know when we’re going

to be hungry, less awake, or anxious, so advance planning can alleviate the presence of these

barriers. For college students, who often have some flexibility in their class schedules, knowing

when you best listen can help you make strategic choices regarding what class to take when.

Student options are increasing. Some colleges are offering classes in the overnight hours to

accommodate working students or to students who are just “night owls” (Toppo, 2011). Of

course, we don’t always have control over our schedule, in which case we will need to utilize

other effective listening strategies that we will learn more about later in this chapter.

In terms of cognitive barriers to effective listening, we can prime ourselves to listen by analyzing

a listening situation before it begins. For example, you could ask yourself the following


• “What are my goals for listening to this message?”

• “How does this message relate to me / affect my life?”

• “What listening type and style are most appropriate for this message?”

The difference between speech and thought processing rate means listeners’ level of attention

varies while receiving a message. Effective listeners must work to maintain focus as much as

possible and refocus when attention shifts or fades (Wolvin & Coakley, 1993). One way to do

this is to find the motivation to listen. If you can identify intrinsic and or extrinsic motivations

for listening to a particular message, then you will be more likely to remember the information

presented. Ask yourself how a message could impact your life, your career, your intellect, or

your relationships. This can help overcome our tendency toward selective attention. As senders

of messages, we can help listeners by making the relevance of what we’re saying clear and

offering well- organized messages that are tailored for our listeners.

Given that we can process more words per minute than people can speak, we can engage in

internal dialogue, making good use of our intrapersonal communication, to become a better

listener. Three possibilities for internal dialogue include covert coaching, self-reinforcement, and

covert questioning; explanations and examples of each follow (Hargie, 2011).

• Covert coaching involves sending yourself messages containing advice about better

listening, such as “You’re getting distracted by things you have to do after class.

Just focus on what your professor is saying now.”

• Self-reinforcement involves sending yourself affirmative and positive messages:

“You’re being a good active listener. This will help you do well on the next exam.”

• Covert questioning involves asking yourself questions about the content in ways that

focus your attention and reinforce the material: “What is the main idea from that

PowerPoint slide?”

Internal dialogue is a more structured way to engage in active listening, but we can use more

general approaches as well. We can re-sort, re-phrase, and repeat what a speaker says.


• When we re-sort, we can help mentally repair disorganized messages.

• When we re-phrase, we can put messages into our own words in ways that better fit our

cognitive preferences.

• When we repeat, we can help messages transfer from short-term to long-term memory.

Other tools can help with concentration and memory. Mental bracketing refers to the process

of intentionally separating out intrusive or irrelevant thoughts that may distract you from

listening (McCornack, 2007). This requires that we monitor our concentration and attention and

be prepared to let thoughts that aren’t related to a speaker’s message pass through our minds

without us giving them much attention. Mnemonic devices are techniques that can aid in

information recall (Hargie, 2011). Starting in ancient Greece and Rome, educators used these

devices to help people remember information. They work by imposing order and organization on

information. Three main mnemonic devices are acronyms, rhymes, and visualization, and

examples of each follow:

• Acronyms. HOMES—to help remember the Great Lakes (Huron, Ontario, Michigan,

Erie, and Superior).

• Rhyme. “Righty tighty, lefty loosey”—to remember which way most light bulbs, screws,

and other coupling devices turn to make them go in or out.

• Visualization. Imagine seeing a glass of port wine (which is red) and the red navigation

light on a boat to help remember that the red light on a boat is always on the port side,

which will also help you remember that the blue light must be on the starboard side.


From the suggestions discussed previously, you can see that we can prepare for active listening

in advance and engage in certain cognitive strategies to help us listen better. We also engage in

active listening behaviors as we receive and process messages.

“20th Commemoration of the Genocide against the Tutsi – Nyanza Kicukiro, 11 April

2014″ by Kwibuka is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0


Eye contact is a key sign of active listening. Speakers usually interpret a listener’s eye contact as

a signal of attentiveness. While a lack of eye contact may indicate inattentiveness, it can also

signal cognitive processing. When we look away to process new information, we usually do it

unconsciously. Be aware, however, that your conversational partner may interpret this as not

listening. If you really do need to take a moment to think about something, you could indicate

that to the other person by saying, “That’s new information to me. Give me just a second to think

through it.” An occasional head nod and “uh-huh” signal that you are paying attention. However,

when we give these cues as a form of “autopilot” listening, others can usually tell that we are

pseudo-listening, and whether they call us on it, that impression could lead to negative


A more direct way to indicate active listening is to reference previous statements made by the

speaker. Norms of politeness usually call on us to reference a past statement or connect to the

speaker’s current thought before starting a conversational turn. Being able to summarize what

someone said to ensure that the topic has been satisfactorily covered and understood or being

able to segue in such a way that validates what the previous speaker said helps regulate

conversational flow. Asking probing questions is another way to directly indicate listening and to

keep a conversation going, since they encourage and invite a person to speak more.

You can also ask questions that seek clarification and not just elaboration. Speakers should

present complex information at a slower speaking rate than familiar information, but many will

not. Remember that your nonverbal feedback can be useful for a speaker, as it signals that you

are listening but also whether or not you understand. If a speaker fails to read your nonverbal

feedback, you may need to follow up with verbal communication in the form of paraphrased

messages and clarifying questions.

As active listeners, we want to be excited and engaged, but don’t let excitement manifest itself in

interruptions. Being an active listener means knowing when to maintain our role as listener and

resist the urge to take a conversational turn. Research shows that people with higher social status

are more likely to interrupt others, so keep this in mind and be prepared for it if you are speaking

to a high- status person, or try to resist it if you are the high-status person in an interaction

(Hargie, 2011).

Note-taking can also indicate active listening. Translating information through writing into our

own cognitive structures allows us to better interpret information. Of course, note- taking isn’t

always a viable option. It would be fairly awkward to take notes during a first date or a casual

exchange between new coworkers. But in some situations where we wouldn’t normally consider

taking notes, a little awkwardness might be worth it for the sake of understanding and recalling

the information. For example, many people don’t think about taking notes when getting

information from their doctor or banker. But many people would rather someone jot down notes

instead of having to respond to follow-up questions on information that was already clearly

conveyed. To help facilitate your note-taking, you might say something like “Do you mind if I

jot down some notes? This seems important.”


Good note-taking skills allow listeners to stay engaged with a message and aid in recall of

information. © Thinkstock

In summary, active listening is exhibited through verbal and nonverbal cues, including steady

eye contact with the speaker; smiling; slightly raised eyebrows; upright posture; body position

that is leaned in toward the speaker; nonverbal back-channel cues such as head nods; verbal

back-channel cues such as “OK,” “mmhum,” or “oh”; and a lack of distracting mannerisms like

doodling or fidgeting (Hargie, 2011).

Becoming a Better Critical Listener

Critical listening involves evaluating the credibility, completeness, and worth of a speaker’s

message. Some listening scholars note that critical listening represents the deepest level of

listening (Floyd, 1985). Critical listening is also important in a democracy that values free

speech. The US Constitution grants US citizens the right to free speech, and many people duly

protect that right for us. Since people can say just about anything they want, we are surrounded

by countless messages that vary tremendously in terms of their value, degree of ethics, accuracy,

and quality. Therefore, it falls on us to responsibly and critically evaluate the messages we

receive. Some messages are produced by people who are intentionally misleading, ill informed,

or motivated by the potential for personal gain. Sadly, these messages can be received as honest,

credible, or altruistic even though they aren’t. Being able to critically evaluate messages helps us

have more control over and awareness of the influence such people may have on us. In order to

critically evaluate messages, we must enhance our critical-listening skills.

Some critical-listening skills include distinguishing between facts and inferences, evaluating

supporting evidence, discovering your own biases, and listening beyond the message. Part of

being an ethical communicator is being accountable for what we say by distinguishing between

facts and inferences (Hayakawa & Hayakawa, 1990). This is an ideal that is not always met in


practice, so a critical listener should also make these distinctions, since the speaker may not.

Since facts are widely agreed-on conclusions, they can be verified as such through some extra

research. Take care in your research to note the context from which the fact emerged, as speakers

may take a statistic or quote out of context, distorting its meaning. Inferences are not as easy to

evaluate, because they are based on unverifiable thoughts of a speaker or on speculation.

Inferences are usually based at least partially on something that is known, so it is possible to

evaluate whether an inference was made carefully or not. In this sense, you may evaluate an

inference based on several known facts as more credible than an inference based on one fact and

more speculation. Asking a question like “What led you to think this?” is a good way to get

information needed to evaluate the strength of an inference.

Distinguishing among facts and inferences and evaluating the credibility of supporting material

are critical-listening skills that also require good informational-listening skills. In more formal

speaking situations, speakers may cite published or publicly available sources to support their

messages. When speakers verbally cite their sources, you can use the credibility of the source to

help evaluate the credibility of the speaker’s message. For example, a national newspaper would

likely be more credible on a major national event than a tabloid magazine or an anonymous blog.

In regular interactions, people also have sources for their information but are not as likely to note

them within their message. Asking questions like “Where’d you hear that?” or “How do you

know that?” can help get information needed to make critical evaluations.

Discovering your own biases can help you recognize when they interfere with your ability to

fully process a message. Unfortunately, most people aren’t asked to critically reflect on their

identities and their perspectives unless they are in college, and even people who were once

critically reflective in college or elsewhere may no longer be so. Biases are also difficult to

discover, because we don’t see them as biases; we see them as normal or “the way things are.”

Asking yourself “What led you to think this?” and “How do you know that?” can be a good start

toward acknowledging your biases.

Last, to be a better critical listener, think beyond the message. A good critical listener asks the

following questions: What is being said and what is not being said? In whose interests are these

claims being made? Whose voices/ideas are included and excluded? These questions take into

account that speakers intentionally and unintentionally slant, edit, or twist messages to make

them fit particular perspectives or for personal gain. Also ask yourself questions like “What are

the speaker’s goals?” You can also rephrase that question and direct it toward the speaker, asking

them, “What is your goal in this interaction?” When you feel yourself nearing a conclusion,

pause and ask yourself what influenced you. Although we like to think that we are most often

persuaded through logical evidence and reasoning, we are susceptible to persuasive shortcuts.

Persuasive shortcuts might be the credibility and likability of the speaker or even on our

emotions rather than the strength of the actual evidence presented (Petty & Cacioppo, 1984). So

keep a check on your emotional involvement to be aware of how it may be influencing your

evaluation. Also, be aware that the more likable, the more attractive, and friendly you think a

person is, can also lead you to more positively evaluate their messages.

Other Tips to Help You Become a Better Critical Listener


Ask questions to help get more information and increase your critical awareness when you get

answers like “Because that’s the way things are,” “It’s always been like that,” “I don’t know; I

just don’t like it,” “Everyone believes that,” or “It’s just natural/normal.” These are not really

answers that are useful in your critical evaluation and may be an indication that speakers don’t

really know why they reached the conclusion they did or that they reached it without much

critical thinking on their part.

• Be especially critical of speakers who set up “either/or” options, because they are

artificially limiting to two options when there are always more. Also be aware of people

who overgeneralize, especially when those generalizations are based on stereotypical or

prejudiced views. For example, the world is not just Republican or Democrat, male or

female, pro-life or pro-choice, or Christian or atheist.

• Evaluate the speaker’s message instead of his or her appearance, personality, or other

characteristics. Unless someone’s appearance, personality, or behavior is relevant to an

interaction, direct your criticism to the message.

• Be aware that critical evaluation isn’t always quick or easy. Sometimes you may have to

withhold judgment because your evaluation will take more time. Also, keep in mind your

evaluation may not be final, and you should be open to critical reflection and possible

revision later.

• Avoid mind reading, which is assuming you know what the other person is going to say

or that you know why they reached the conclusion they did. This leads to jumping to

conclusions, which shortcuts the critical evaluation process.

Becoming a Better Empathetic Listener

A prominent scholar of empathetic listening describes it this way: “Empathetic listening is to be

respectful of the dignity of others. Empathetic listening is a caring, a love of the wisdom to be

found in others whoever they may be” (Bruneau, 1993). This quote conveys that empathetic

listening is more philosophical than the other types of listening. It requires that we are open to

subjectivity and that we engage in it because we genuinely see it as worthwhile.


“Consoling a Friend” by mikecogh is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Combining active and empathetic listening leads to active-empathetic listening. During active-

empathetic listening a listener becomes actively and emotionally involved in an interaction

in such a way that it is conscious on the part of the listener and perceived by the speaker

(Bodie, 2011). To be a better empathetic listener, we need to suspend or at least attempt to

suppress our judgment so we can fully attend to the person and the message. Paraphrasing is an

important part of empathetic listening, because it helps us put the other person’s words into our

frame of experience without making it about us. In addition, speaking the words of someone else

in our own way can help evoke within us the feelings that the other person felt while saying

them. (Bodie, 2011). Active-empathetic listening is more than echoing back verbal messages.

We can also engage in mirroring, which refers to a listener’s replication of the nonverbal

signals of a speaker (Bruneau, 1993). Therapists, for example, are often taught to adopt a

posture and tone similar to their patients in order to build rapport and project empathy.

Paraphrasing and questioning are useful techniques for empathetic listening because they allow

us to respond to a speaker without taking “the floor,” or the attention, away for long.

Specifically, questions that ask for elaboration act as “verbal door openers,” and inviting

someone to speak more and then validating their speech through active listening cues can help a

person feel “listened to” (Hargie, 2011). Paraphrasing and asking questions are also useful when

we feel tempted to share our own stories and experiences rather than maintaining our listening

role. Remember, these questions aren’t intended to solicit more information to direct the speaker

toward a specific course of action. Although it is easier for us to slip into an advisory mode—

saying things like “Well if I were you, I would…”—we have to resist the temptation to give

unsolicited advice.


Empathetic listeners should not steal the spotlight from the speaker. Offer support without

offering your own story or advice. © Thinkstock

Empathetic listening can be worthwhile, but it also brings challenges. In terms of costs,

empathetic listening can use up time and effort. Since this type of listening can’t be contained

within a prescribed time frame, it may be especially difficult for time-oriented listeners

(Bruneau, 1993). Empathetic listening can also be a test of our endurance, as its orientation

toward and focus on supporting the other requires the processing and integration of much verbal

and nonverbal information. Because of this potential strain, it’s important to know your limits as

an empathetic listener. While listening can be therapeutic, it is not appropriate for people without

training and preparation to try to serve as a therapist. Some people have chronic issues that

necessitate professional listening for the purposes of evaluation, diagnosis, and therapy. Lending

an ear is different from diagnosing and treating. If you have a friend who is exhibiting signs of a

more serious issue that needs attention, listen to the extent that you feel comfortable and then be

prepared to provide referrals to other resources that have training to help. To face these

challenges, good empathetic listeners typically have a generally positive self-concept and self-

esteem, are nonverbally sensitive and expressive, and are comfortable with embracing another

person’s subjectivity and refraining from too much analytic thought.


Chapter 9 Key Takeaways and Exercises


• Getting integrated: Listening is a learned process and skill that we can improve on with

concerted effort. Improving our listening skills can benefit us in academic, professional,

personal, and civic contexts.

• Listening is the process of receiving, interpreting, recalling, evaluating, and responding to

verbal and nonverbal messages. In the receiving stage, we select and attend to various

stimuli based on salience. We then interpret auditory and visual stimuli in order to make

meaning out of them based on our existing schemata. Short-term and long-term memory

store stimuli until they are discarded or processed for later recall. We then evaluate the

credibility, completeness, and worth of a message before responding with verbal and

nonverbal signals.

• Discriminative listening is the most basic form of listening, and we use it to distinguish

between and focus on specific sounds. We use informational listening to try to

comprehend and retain information. Through critical listening, we analyze and evaluate

messages at various levels. We use empathetic listening to try to understand or

experience what a speaker is feeling.

• People-oriented listeners are concerned with others’ needs and feelings, which may

distract from a task or the content of a message. Action- oriented listeners prefer listening

to well-organized and precise information and are more concerned about solving an issue

than they are about supporting the speaker. Content-oriented listeners enjoy processing

complicated information and are typically viewed as credible because they view an issue

from multiple perspectives before making a decision. Although content-oriented listeners

may not be very effective in situations with time constraints, time-oriented listeners are

fixated on time limits and listen in limited segments regardless of the complexity of the

information or the emotions involved, which can make them appear cold and distant to


• Environmental and physical barriers to effective listening include furniture placement,

environmental noise such as sounds of traffic or people talking, physiological noise such

as a sinus headache or hunger, and psychological noise such as stress or anger.

• Cognitive barriers to effective listening include the difference between speech and

thought rate that allows us “extra room” to think about other things while someone is

talking and limitations in our ability or willingness to concentrate or pay attention.

Personal barriers to effective listening include a lack of listening preparation, poorly

structured and/or poorly delivered messages, and prejudice.

• There are several bad listening practices that we should avoid, as they do not facilitate

effective listening:

o Interruptions that are unintentional or serve an important or useful purpose are not

considered bad listening. When interrupting becomes a habit or is used in an

attempt to dominate a conversation, then it is a barrier to effective listening.

o Distorted listening occurs when we incorrectly recall information, skew

information to fit our expectations or existing schemata, or add material to

embellish or change information.


o Eavesdropping is a planned attempt to secretly listen to a conversation, which is a

violation of the speakers’ privacy.

o Aggressive listening is a bad listening practice in which people pay attention to a

speaker in order to attack something they say.

o Narcissistic listening is self-centered and self-absorbed listening in which

listeners try to make the interaction about them by interrupting, changing the

subject, or drawing attention away from others.

o Pseudo-listening is “fake listening,” in that people behave like they are paying

attention and listening when they actually are not.

• Active listening is the process of pairing outwardly visible positive listening behaviors

with positive cognitive listening practices and is characterized by mentally preparing

yourself to listen, working to maintain focus on concentration, using appropriate verbal

and nonverbal back-channel cues to signal attentiveness, and engaging in strategies like

note taking and mentally reorganizing information to help with recall.

• In order to apply critical-listening skills in multiple contexts, we must be able to

distinguish between facts and inferences, evaluate a speaker’s supporting evidence,

discover our own biases, and think beyond the message.

• In order to practice empathetic listening skills, we must be able to support others’

subjective experience; temporarily set aside our own needs to focus on the other person;

encourage elaboration through active listening and questioning; avoid the temptation to

tell our own stories and/or give advice; effectively mirror the nonverbal communication

of others; and acknowledge our limits as empathetic listeners.

• Getting integrated: Different listening strategies may need to be applied in different

listening contexts.


1. The recalling stage of the listening process is a place where many people experience
difficulties. What techniques do you use or could you use to improve your recall of

certain information such as people’s names, key concepts from your classes, or

instructions or directions given verbally?

2. Getting integrated: Identify how critical listening might be useful for you in each of the
following contexts: academic, professional, personal, and civic.

3. Listening scholars have noted that empathetic listening is the most difficult type of
listening. Do you agree? Why or why not?

4. Which style of listening best describes you and why? Which style do you have the most
difficulty with or like the least and why?

5. We are capable of thinking faster than the speed at which the average person speaks,
which allows us some room to put mental faculties toward things other than listening.

What typically makes your mind wander?

6. Bad speakers and messages are a common barrier to effective listening. Describe a time
recently when your ability to listen was impaired by the poor delivery and/or content of

another person.

7. Of the bad listening practices listed, which do you use the most? Why do you think you
use this one more than the others? What can you do to help prevent or lessen this barrier?


8. Keep a “listening log” for part of your day. Note times when you feel like you exhibited
competent listening behaviors and note times when listening became challenging.

Analyze the log based on what you have learned in this section.

9. Which positive listening skills helped you listen? What strategies could you apply to your
listening challenges to improve your listening competence?

10. Apply the strategies for effective critical listening to a political message (a search for
“political speech” or “partisan speech” on YouTube should provide you with many

options). As you analyze the speech, make sure to distinguish between facts and

inferences, evaluate a speaker’s supporting evidence, discuss how your own biases may

influence your evaluation, and think beyond the message.

11. Discuss and analyze the listening environment of a place you have worked or an
organization with which you were involved. Overall, was it positive or negative? What

were the norms and expectations for effective listening that contributed to the listening

environment? Who helped set the tone for the listening environment?


Chapter 9 References

Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (2012). About. Retrieved from

Andersen, P. (1999). Nonverbal communication: Forms and functions. Mountain View, CA:

Mayfield, 1999.

Bodie, G. D. (2011). The active-empathetic listening scale (AELS): Conceptualization and

evidence of validity within the interpersonal domain. Communication Quarterly, 59(3).

Bodie, G. D., Villaume, W. A. (2003). Aspects of receiving information: The relationships

between listening preferences, communication apprehension, receiver apprehension, and

communicator style. International Journal of Listening, 17(1).

Brownwell, J. (1993). Listening environment: A perspective. In Wolvin, A. and Gwynn, C.

(Eds.) Perspectives on listening. Norwood, NJ: Alex Publishing Corporation.

Brownell, J. (2008). Building managers’ skills to create listening environments. Cornell

Hospitality Tools, (11), 6-17.

Brownell, J. (2018) Listening: Attitudes, principles and skills (6th edition). New York, New

York: Routledge.

Bruneau, T. (1993) Empathy and listening. In Wolvin, A. and Gwynn, C. (Eds.) Perspectives on

listening. Norwood, NJ: Alex Publishing Corporation.

Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

(2012). Welcome. Retrieved from

DiSalvo, V. S. (1980). A summary of current research identifying communication skills in

various organizational contexts. Communication Education, 29.

Floyd, J. J. (1985). Listening, a practical approach. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman.

Hargie, O. (2011). Skilled interpersonal interaction: Research, theory, and practice. London:


Hayakawa, S. I. and Hayakawa, A. R. (1990). Language in thought and action (5th edition). San

Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace.

Imhof, M. (2004). Who are we as we listen? Individual listening profiles in varying

contexts. International Journal of Listening, 18(1).

McCornack, S. (2007). Reflect and relate: An introduction to interpersonal communication.

Boston, MA: Bedford/St Martin’s.


Milardo, R. M. and Helms- Erikson, H. (2000). Network overlap and third-party influence in

close relationships. In Hendrick, C. and Hendrick, S. C. (Eds.) Close relationships: A

sourcebook, eds. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2010). Job Outlook 2011. Retrieved from

Nichols, M. P. (1995). The lost art of listening. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Petty, R. E. and Cacioppo, J. T. (1984). The effects of involvement on responses to argument

quantity and quality: Central and peripheral routes to persuasion. Journal of Personality and

Social Psychology, 46(1).

Ridge, A. (1993). A perspective of listening skills. In Wolvin, A. and Coakley, C. G. (Eds.)

Perspectives on listening. Norwood, NJ: Alex Publishing Corporation.

Toppo, G. (2012). Colleges start offering ‘midnight classes’ for offbeat needs. Retrieved

from 2011–10–26/college-midnight-


Watson, K. W., Barker, L. L., and Weaver III, J. B. (1995). The listening styles profile (LS-16):

Development and validation of an instrument to assess four listening styles. International

Journal of Listening, 9.

Wolvin, A. D., Coakley, C. G. (1993). A listening taxonomy. In Wolvin, A. and Coakley, C. G.

(Eds.) Perspectives on listening. Norwood, NJ: Alex Publishing Corporation.

Worthington, D. L. (2003). Exploring the relationship between listening style preference and

personality. International Journal of Listening, 17(1).

Zabava, W. S. and Wolvin, A. D. (1993). The differential impact of a basic communication

course on perceived communication competencies in class, work, and social

contexts. Communication Education 42.


“Getting Plugged In”


Do you like to listen to music while you do homework? Do you clean while talking to your

friend on the phone? Do you think students should be allowed to use laptops in all college

classrooms? Your answers to these questions will point to your preferences for multitasking. If

you answered “yes” to most of them, then you are in line with the general practices of the “net

generation” of digital natives for whom multitasking, especially with various forms of media, is a

way of life. Multitasking is a concept that has been around for a while and emerged along with

the increasing expectation that we will fill multiple role demands throughout the day.

Multitasking can be pretty straightforward and beneficial—for example, if we listen to

motivating music while working out. But multitasking can be very inefficient, especially when

one or more of our concurrent tasks are complex or unfamiliar to us (Bardhi, Rohm, & Sultan,


Media multitasking specifically refers to the use of multiple forms of media at the same time,

and it can have positive and negative effects on listening (Bardhi et al, 2010). The negative

effects of media multitasking have received much attention in recent years, as people question

the decreasing attention span within our society. Media multitasking may promote inefficiency,

because it can lead to distractions and plays a prominent role for many in procrastination. The

numerous options for media engagement that we have can also lead to a feeling of chaos as our

attention is pulled in multiple directions, creating a general sense of disorder. And many of us

feel a sense of enslavement when we engage in media multitasking, as we feel like we can’t live

without certain personal media outlets.

Media multitasking can also give people a sense of control, as they use multiple technologies to

access various points of information to solve a problem or complete a task. An employee may be

able to use her iPhone to look up information needed to address a concern raised during a

business meeting. She could then e-mail that link to the presenter, who could share it with the

room through his laptop and a projector. Media multitasking can also increase efficiency, as

people can carry out tasks faster. Videos and online articles allow readers like you to quickly

access additional information about a particular subject to prepare for a presentation or complete

a paper assignment. Media multitasking can also increase engagement. Aside from just reading

material in a textbook, students can now access information through many sources online.

Media multitasking can produce an experience that feels productive, but is it really? What are the

consequences of our media- and technology-saturated world? Although many of us like to think

that we’re good multitaskers, some research indicates otherwise. For example, student laptop use

during class has been connected to lower academic performance (Fried, 2008). This is because

media multitasking has the potential to interfere with listening at multiple stages of the process.

The study showed that laptop use interfered with receiving information, as students using them

reported that they paid less attention to the class lectures. This is because students used the

laptops for purposes other than taking notes or exploring class content. Of the students using

laptops, 81 percent checked e-mail during lectures, 68 percent used instant messaging, and 43


percent surfed the web. Students using laptops also had difficulty with the interpretation stage of

listening, as they found less clarity in the parts of the lecture they heard and did not understand

the course material as much as students who didn’t use a laptop. The difficulties with receiving

and interpreting obviously create issues with recall that can lead to lower academic performance

in the class. Laptop use also negatively affected the listening abilities of students not using

laptops. These students reported that they were distracted, as their attention was drawn to the

laptop screens of other students.

• What are some common ways that you engage in media multitasking? What are some

positive and negative consequences of your media multitasking?

• What strategies do you or could you use to help minimize the negative effects of media


• Should laptops, smartphones, and other media devices be used by students during college

classes? Why or why not? What restrictions or guidelines for use could instructors

provide that would capitalize on the presence of such media to enhance student learning

and help minimize distractions?


Bardhi, F., Rohm, A., and Sultan, F. (2010). Tuning in and tuning out: Media multitasking

among young consumers. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 9, 318.

Fried, C. B. (2008). In-class laptop use and its effects on student learning. Computers and

Education, 50, 906-14.


“Getting Critical”


In just the past twenty years, the rise of political fact checking occurred as a result of the

increasingly sophisticated rhetoric of politicians and their representatives (Dobbs, 2012). As

political campaigns began to adopt communication strategies employed by advertising agencies

and public relations firms, their messages became more ambiguous, unclear, and sometimes

outright misleading. While there are numerous political fact- checking sources now to which

citizens can turn for an analysis of political messages, it is important that we are able to use our

own critical-listening skills to see through some of the political spin that now characterizes

politics in the United States.

Since we get most of our political messages through the media rather than directly from a

politician, the media is a logical place to turn for guidance on fact checking. Unfortunately, the

media is often manipulated by political communication strategies as well (Dobbs, 2012).

Sometimes media outlets transmit messages even though a critical evaluation of the message

shows that it lacks credibility, completeness, or worth. Journalists who engage in political fact

checking have been criticized for putting their subjective viewpoints into what is supposed to be

objective news coverage. These journalists have fought back against what they call the norm of

“false equivalence.” One view of journalism sees the reporter as an objective conveyer of

political messages. This could be described as the “We report; you decide” brand of journalism.

Other reporters see themselves as “truth seekers.” In this sense, the journalists engage in some

critical listening and evaluation on the part of the citizen, who may not have the time or ability to

do so.

Michael Dobbs, who started the political fact-checking program at the Washington Post, says,

“Fairness is preserved not by treating all sides of an argument equally, but through an

independent, open-minded approach to the evidence” (Dobbs, 2012). He also notes that outright

lies are much less common in politics than are exaggeration, spin, and insinuation. This fact puts

much of political discourse into an ethical gray area that can be especially difficult for even

professional fact checkers to evaluate. Instead of simple “true/false” categories, fact checkers

like the Washington Post issue evaluations such as “Half true, mostly true, half-flip, or full-flop”

to political statements. Although we all don’t have the time and resources to fact check all the

political statements we hear, it may be worth employing some of the strategies used by these

professional fact checkers on issues that are very important to us or have major implications for

others. Some fact-checking resources


and The caution here for any critical listener

is to be aware of our tendency to gravitate toward messages with which we agree and

avoid/reject messages with which we disagree. In short, it’s often easier for us to critically

evaluate the messages of politicians with whom we disagree and uncritically accept messages

from those with whom we agree. Exploring the fact-check websites above can help expose

ourselves to critical evaluation that we might not otherwise encounter.


• One school of thought in journalism says it’s up to the reporters to convey information as

it is presented and then up to the viewer/ reader to evaluate the message. The other school

of thought says that the reporter should investigate and evaluate claims made by those on

all sides of an issue equally and share their findings with viewers/readers. Which

approach do you think is better and why?

• In the lead-up to the war in Iraq, journalists and news outlets did not critically evaluate

claims from the Bush administration that there was clear evidence of weapons of mass

destruction in Iraq. Many now cite this as an instance of failed fact checking that had

global repercussions. Visit one of the fact-checking resources mentioned previously to

find other examples of fact checking that exposed manipulated messages. To enhance

your critical thinking, find one example that critiques a viewpoint, politician, or political

party that you typically agree with and one that you disagree with. Discuss what you

learned from the examples you found.


Dobbs, M. (2012). The rise of political fact-checking. New America Foundation(1).


“Getting Competent”


The following statistic illustrates the importance of listening in academic contexts: four hundred

first-year students were given a listening test before they started classes. At the end of that year,

49 percent of the students with low scores were on academic probation, while only 4 percent of

those who scored high were (Conaway, 1982). Listening effectively isn’t something that just

happens; it takes work on the part of students and teachers. One of the most difficult challenges

for teachers is eliciting good listening behaviors from their students, and the method of

instruction teachers use affects how a student will listen and learn (Beall, 2008). Given that there

are different learning styles, we know that to be effective, teachers may have to find some way to

appeal to each learning style. Although teachers often make this attempt, it is also not realistic or

practical to think that this practice can be used all the time. Therefore, students should also think

of ways they can improve their listening competence, because listening is an active process that

we can exert some control over. The following tips will help you listen more effectively in the


• Be prepared to process challenging messages. You can use the internal dialogue strategy

we discussed earlier to “mentally repair” messages that you receive to make them more

listenable (Rubin, 1993, p. 277). For example, you might say, “It seems like we’ve

moved on to a different main point now. See if you can pull out the subpoints to help stay

on track.”

• Act like a good listener. Make eye contact with the instructor and give appropriate

nonverbal feedback. Students often take notes only when directed to by the instructor or

when there is an explicit reason to do so (e.g., to recall information for an exam or some

other purpose). Since you never know what information you may want to recall later, take

notes even when it’s not required that you do so. As a caveat, however, do not try to

transcribe everything your instructor says, or includes on a PowerPoint, because you will

likely miss information related to main ideas that is more important than minor details.

Instead, listen for main ideas.

• Figure out from where the instructor most frequently speaks and sit close to that area.

Being able to make eye contact with an instructor facilitates listening, increases rapport,

allows students to benefit more from immediacy behaviors, and minimizes distractions

since the instructor is the primary stimulus within the student’s field of vision.

• Figure out your preferred learning style and adopt listening strategies that complement it.

• Let your instructor know when you don’t understand something. Instead of giving a

quizzical look that says “What?” or pretending you know what’s going on, let your

instructor know when you don’t understand something. Instead of asking the instructor to

simply repeat something, ask her or him to rephrase it or provide an example. When you

ask questions, ask specific clarifying questions that request a definition, an explanation,

or an elaboration.

• What are some listening challenges that you face in the classroom? What can you do to

overcome them?


• Take the Learning Styles Inventory survey at the following link to determine what your

primary learning style is: http://mym.cdn.laureate-

Do some research to identify specific listening/studying strategies that work well for your

learning style.


Beall, M. L. (2008). State of the context: Listening in education. The International Journal of

Listening, 22(124).

Conaway, M. S. (1982). Listening: Learning tool and retention agent. In A. Algier and K. Algier

(Eds.) Improving reading and study skills. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Rubin, D. L. (1993). Listenability = Oral-based discourse + considerateness. In A. Wolvin

and C. G. Coakley (Eds.) Perspectives on listening. Norwood, NJ: Alex Publishing Corporation.


Chapter 10.1 – Emotions and Interpersonal Communication

Have you ever been at a movie and let out a loud laugh only to realize no one else is laughing?

Have you ever gotten uncomfortable when someone cries? Emotions are clearly personal, as they

often project what we’re feeling on the inside to those around us whether we want it to show or

not. Emotions are also interpersonal in that another person’s show of emotion usually triggers a

reaction from us—perhaps support if the person is a close friend or awkwardness if the person is

a stranger. Emotions are central to any interpersonal relationship, and it’s important to know

what causes and influences emotions so we can better understand our own emotions and better

respond to others when they display emotions.

by eltpics is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0


by joemurphy is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Emotions are physiological, behavioral, and/or communicative reactions to stimuli that are

cognitively processed and experienced as emotional (Planlap, 2006). This definition includes

several important dimensions of emotions. First, emotions are often internally experienced

through physiological changes such as increased heart rate, a tense stomach, or a cold chill.

These physiological reactions may not be noticeable by others and are therefore intrapersonal

unless we exhibit some change in behavior that clues others into our internal state or we verbally

or nonverbally communicate our internal state. Sometimes our behavior is voluntary—we ignore

someone, which may indicate we are angry with them—or involuntary—we fidget or avoid eye

contact while talking because we are nervous. When we communicate our emotions, we call

attention to ourselves and provide information to others that may inform how they should react.

For example, when someone we care about displays behaviors associated with sadness, we are

likely to know that we need to provide support (Planlap, 2006). We learn, through socialization,

how to read and display emotions, although some people are undoubtedly better at reading

emotions than others. However, as with most aspects of communication, we can all learn to

become more competent with increased knowledge and effort.

Primary emotions are innate emotions that are experienced for short periods of time and

appear rapidly, usually as a reaction to an outside stimulus, and are experienced similarly

across cultures. The primary emotions are joy, distress, anger, fear, surprise, and disgust.

Members of a remote tribe in New Guinea, who had never been exposed to Westerners, were

able to identify these basic emotions when shown photographs of US Americans making

corresponding facial expressions (Evans, 2001).


by jrsnchzhrs is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

by notemily is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Secondary emotions are not as innate as primary emotions, and they do not have a

corresponding facial expression that makes them universally recognizable. Secondary


emotions are processed by a different part of the brain that requires higher order thinking;

therefore, they are not reflexive. Secondary emotions are love, guilt, shame,

embarrassment, pride, envy, and jealousy (Evans, 2001). These emotions develop over time,

take longer to fade away, and are interpersonal because they are most often experienced in

relation to real or imagined others. You can be fearful of the dark but feel guilty about an unkind

comment made to your mother or embarrassed at the thought of doing poorly on a presentation in

front of an audience. Since these emotions require more processing, they are more easily

influenced by thoughts and can be managed, which means we can become more competent

communicators by becoming more aware of how we experience and express secondary

emotions. Although there is more cultural variation in the meaning and expression of secondary

emotions, they are still universal in that they are experienced by all cultures. It’s hard to imagine

what our lives would be like without emotions, and in fact many scientists believe we wouldn’t

be here without them.

Perspectives on Emotion

How did you learn to express your emotions? Like many aspects of communication and

interaction, you likely never received any formal instruction on expressing emotions. Instead, we

learn through observation, trial and error, and through occasional explicit guidance (e.g., “boys

don’t cry” or “smile when you meet someone”). Some of us have learned to hide our emotions in

certain situations “never let them see you sweat!” To better understand how and why we express

our emotions, we’ll discuss the evolutionary function of emotions and how they are affected by

social and cultural norms.


Chapter 10.2 Evolution and Emotions

Human beings grouping together and creating interpersonal bonds was a key element in the

continuation and success of our species, and the ability to express emotions played a role in this

success (Planlap, 2006). Emotional regulation can help manage conflict, and empathy allows us

to share the emotional state of someone else, which increases an interpersonal bond. These

capacities were important as early human society grew increasingly complex and people needed

to deal with living with more people.

Attachment theory ties into the evolutionary perspective, because researchers claim that it

is in our nature, as newborns, to create social bonds with our primary caretaker (Planlap,

2006). This drive for attachment became innate through the process of evolution as early humans

who were more successful at attachment were more likely to survive and reproduce—repeating

the cycle. Attachment theory proposes that people develop one of the following three attachment

styles as a result of interactions with early caretakers: secure, avoidant, or anxious attachment

(Feeney, 2000). It is worth noting that much of the research on attachment theory has been based

on some societal norms that are shifting. For example, although women for much of human

history have played the primary caregiver role, men are increasingly taking on more caregiver

responsibilities. Additionally, although the following examples presume that a newborn’s

primary caregivers are his or her parents, extended family, foster parents, or others may also play

that role.

by Fitzrovia is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


by Barry.Lenard is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Individuals with a secure attachment style report that their relationship with their parents is

warm and that their parents also have a positive and caring relationship with each other.

People with this attachment style are generally comfortable with intimacy, feel like they can

depend on others when needed, and have few self-doubts. As a result, they are generally more

effective at managing their emotions, and they are less likely to experience intense negative

emotions in response to a negative stimulus like breaking up with a romantic partner.

People with the avoidant attachment style report discomfort with closeness and a reluctance

to depend on others. They quickly develop feelings of love for others, but those feelings lose

intensity just as fast. As a result, people with this attachment style do not view love as long

lasting or enduring and have a general fear of intimacy because of this. This attachment style

might develop due to a lack of bonding with a primary caregiver.

People with the anxious attachment style report a desire for closeness but anxieties about

being abandoned. They regularly experience self-doubts and may blame their lack of love on

others’ unwillingness to commit rather than their own anxiety about being left. They are

emotionally volatile and more likely to experience intense negative emotions such as anxiety and


anger. This attachment style might develop because primary caregivers were not dependable or

were inconsistent—alternating between caring or nurturing and neglecting or harming.

This process of attachment leads us to experience some of our first intense emotions, such as

love, trust, joy, anxiety, or anger, and we learn to associate those emotions with closely bonded

relationships (Planlap, 2006). For example, the child who develops a secure attachment style

and associates feelings of love and trust with forming interpersonal bonds will likely experience

similar emotions as an adult entering into a romantic partnership. Conversely, a child who

develops an anxious attachment style and associates feelings of anxiety and mistrust with

forming interpersonal bonds will likely experience similar emotions in romantic relationships

later in life. In short, whether we form loving and secure bonds or unpredictable and insecure

bonds influences our emotional tendencies throughout our lives, which inevitably affects our

relationships. Although it seems obvious that developing a secure attachment style is the ideal

scenario, it is also inevitable that not every child will have the same opportunity to do so. But

while we do not have control over the style we develop as babies, we can exercise more control

over our emotions and relationships as adults if we take the time to develop self-awareness and

communication competence—both things this book will help you do if you put what you learn

into practice.

by mikecogh is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


Chapter 10.3 Culture and Emotions

While our shared evolutionary past dictates some universal similarities in emotions, triggers for

emotions and norms for displaying emotions vary widely. Certain emotional scripts that we

follow are socially, culturally, and historically situated. Take the example of “falling in love.”

Westerners may be tempted to critique the practice of arranged marriages in other cultures and

question a relationship that isn’t based on falling in love. However, arranged marriages have

been a part of Western history, and the emotional narrative of falling in love has only recently

become a part of our culture. Even though we know that compatible values and shared social

networks are more likely to predict the success of a long-term romantic relationship than

“passion,” Western norms privilege the emotional role of falling in love in our courtship

narratives and practices (Crozier, 2006). While this example shows how emotions tie into larger

social and cultural narratives, rules and norms for displaying emotions affect our day-to-day


Display rules are sociocultural norms that influence emotional expression. Display rules

influence who can express emotions, which emotions can be expressed, and how intense the

expressions can be. In individualistic cultures, where personal experience and self-

determination are values built into cultural practices and communication, expressing emotions is

viewed as a personal right. In fact, the outward expression of our inner states may be

exaggerated, since getting attention from those around you is accepted and even expected in

individualistic cultures like the United States (Safdar, 2009). In collectivistic cultures, emotions

are viewed as more interactional and less individual, which ties them into social context rather

than into an individual right to free expression. An expression of emotion reflects on the family

and cultural group rather than only on the individual. Therefore, emotional displays are more

controlled, because maintaining group harmony and relationships is a primary cultural value,

which is very different from the more individualistic notion of having the right to get something

off your chest.

There are also cultural norms regarding which types of emotions can be expressed. In

individualistic cultures, especially in the United States, there is a cultural expectation that people

will exhibit positive emotions. Recent research has documented the culture of cheerfulness in the

United States (Kotchemidova, 2010). People seek out happy situations and communicate positive

emotions even when they do not necessarily feel positive emotions. Being positive implicitly

communicates that you have achieved your personal goals, have a comfortable life, and have a

healthy inner self (Albert, 2007). In a culture of cheerfulness, failure to express positive

emotions could lead others to view you as a failure or to recommend psychological help or

therapy. The cultural predisposition to express positive emotions is not universal. The people

who live on the Pacific islands of Ifaluk do not encourage the expression of happiness, because

they believe it will lead people to neglect their duties (Albert, 2007). Similarly, collectivistic

cultures may view expressions of positive emotion negatively because someone is bringing

undue attention to himself or herself, which could upset group harmony and potentially elicit

jealous reactions from others.

Emotional expressions of grief also vary among cultures and are often tied to religious or social

expectations (Lobar, 2006). Thai and Filipino funeral services often include wailing, a more


intense and loud form of crying, which shows respect for the deceased. The intensity of the

wailing varies based on the importance of the individual who died and the closeness of the

relationship between the mourner and the deceased. Therefore, close relatives like spouses,

children, or parents would be expected to wail louder than distant relatives or friends. In Filipino

culture, wailers may even be hired by the family to symbolize the importance of the person who

died. Even in the United States, there are gendered expectations regarding grieving behaviors

that lead some men to withhold emotional displays such as crying even at funerals.


Greene” by praba_tuty is licensed under CC PDM 1.0


Chapter 10.4 Expressing Emotions

Emotion sharing involves communicating the circumstances, thoughts, and feelings

surrounding an emotional event. Emotion sharing usually starts immediately following an

emotional episode. The intensity of the emotional event corresponds with the frequency and

length of the sharing, with high-intensity events being told more often and over a longer period

of time. Research shows that people communicate with others after almost any emotional event,

positive or negative, and that emotion sharing offers intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits, as

individuals feel inner satisfaction and relief after sharing, and social bonds are strengthened

through the interaction (Rime, 2007).

Our social bonds are enhanced through emotion sharing because the support we receive from our

relational partners increases our sense of closeness and interdependence. We should also be

aware that our expressions of emotion are infectious due to emotional contagion, or the

spreading of emotion from one person to another (Hargie, 2011). Think about a time when

someone around you got the giggles and you couldn’t help but laugh along with them, even if

you didn’t know what was funny. While those experiences can be uplifting, the other side of

emotional contagion can be unpleasant. Have you ever spoken with a friend who was really upset

with tears and yelling? Often times, we as the listener begin to take on those same emotions in

that moment.

In order to verbally express our emotions, it is important that we develop an emotional

vocabulary. The more specific we can be when we are verbally communicating our emotions, the

less ambiguous they will be for the person decoding our message. As we expand our emotional

vocabulary, we are able to convey the intensity of the emotion we’re feeling whether it is mild,

moderate, or intense. Aside from conveying the intensity of your emotions, you can also verbally

frame your emotions in a way that allows you to have more control over them.

We can communicate ownership of our emotions through the use of “I” language. This may

allow us to feel more in control, but it may also facilitate emotion sharing by not making our

conversational partner feel at fault or defensive. For example, instead of saying “You’re making

me crazy!” you could say, “I’m starting to feel really anxious because we can’t make a decision.”

However, there may be times when face-to-face communication isn’t possible or desired, which

can complicate how we express emotions.

In a time when so much of our communication is electronically mediated, it is likely that we will

communicate emotions through the written word in an e-mail, text, or instant message. We may

also still resort to pen and paper when sending someone a thank-you note, a birthday card, or a

sympathy card. Communicating emotions through the written (or typed) word can have

advantages such as time to compose your thoughts and convey the details of what you’re feeling.

There are also disadvantages, in that important context and nonverbal communication can’t be

included. Things like facial expressions and tone of voice offer much insight into emotions that

may not be expressed verbally. There is also a lack of immediate feedback. Sometimes people

respond immediately to a text or e-mail, but think about how frustrating it is when you text

someone and they don’t get back to you right away. If you’re in need of emotional support or


want validation of an emotional message you just sent, waiting for a response could end up

negatively affecting your emotional state and your relationship.

by Phillip LeConte Photography is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Politicians, Apologies, and Emotions

Politicians publicly apologizing for wrongdoings have been features in the news for years. In

June of 2011, Representative Anthony Weiner, a member of the US Congress, apologized to his

family, constituents, and friends for posting an explicit photo on Twitter that was intended to go

to a woman with whom he had been chatting and then lying about it. He resigned from Congress

a little over a week later. Emotions like guilt and shame are often the driving forces behind an

apology, and research shows that apologies that communicate these emotions are viewed as more

sincere (Eisikovits, 2006).


Chapter 10.5 Managing and Responding to Emotions

The notion of emotional intelligence emerged in the early 1990s and has received much attention

in academic scholarship, business and education, and the popular press. Emotional intelligence

“involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to

discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and action”

(Salovey, Woolery, & Mayer, 2001). As was noted earlier, improving our emotional vocabulary

and considering how and when to verbally express our emotions can help us better distinguish

between and monitor our emotions. However, as the definition of emotional intelligence states,

we must then use the results of that cognitive process to guide our thoughts and actions.

Just as we are likely to engage in emotion sharing following an emotional event, we are likely to

be on the receiving end of that sharing. Another part of emotional intelligence is being able to

appraise others’ expressions of emotions and adapt. A key aspect in this process is empathy,

which is the ability to comprehend the emotions of others and to elicit those feelings in

ourselves. Being empathetic has important social and physical implications. By expressing

empathy, we will be more likely to attract and maintain supportive social networks, which has

positive physiological effects like lower stress and less anxiety and psychological effects such as

overall life satisfaction and optimism (Andersen, 2000).

When people share emotions, they may expect a variety of results such as support, validation, or

advice. If someone is venting, they may just want your attention. When people share positive

emotions, they may want recognition or shared celebration. Remember too that you are likely to

co-experience some of the emotion with the person sharing it and that the intensity of their share

may dictate your verbal and nonverbal reaction (Rime, 2007). Research has shown that responses

to low-intensity episodes are mostly verbal. For example, if someone describes a situation where

they were frustrated with their car shopping experience, you may validate their emotion by

saying, “Car shopping can be really annoying. What happened?” Conversely, more intense

episodes involve nonverbal reactions such as touching, body contact (sitting close together), or

embracing. These reactions may or may not accompany verbal communication. You may have

been in a situation where someone shared an intense emotion, such as learning of the death of a

close family member, and the only thing you could think to do was hug them. Although being on

the receiving end of emotional sharing can be challenging, your efforts will likely result in

positive gains in your interpersonal communication competence and increased relational bonds.


Key Takeaways and Exercises


• Emotions result from outside stimuli or physiological changes that influence our

behaviors and communication.

• Emotions developed in modern humans to help us manage complex social life including

interpersonal relations.

• The expression of emotions is influenced by sociocultural norms and display rules.

• Emotion sharing includes verbal expression, which is made more effective with an

enhanced emotional vocabulary, and nonverbal expression, which may or may not be


• Emotional intelligence helps us manage our own emotions and effectively respond to the

emotions of others.


1. In what situations would you be more likely to communicate emotions through electronic
means rather than in person? Why?

2. Can you think of a display rule for emotions that is not mentioned in the chapter? What is
it and why do you think this norm developed?

3. When you are trying to determine someone’s emotional state, what nonverbal
communication do you look for and why?

4. Think of someone in your life who you believe has a high degree of emotional
intelligence. What have they done that brought you to this conclusion?


Chapter 10 References

Albert, B. M. (2007). The cultural regulation of emotions. In J. J. Gross (Ed.) Handbook of

emotion regulation (p. 486). New York: Guilford Press.

Andersen, L. K. (2000). Emotion in close relationships. In C. H. Hendrick (Ed.) Close

relationships: A sourcebook (pp. 171-83). Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Crozier, W. R. (2006). Blushing and the social emotions: The self unmasked. New York:

Palgrave Macmillan.

Eisikovits, S. H. (2006). The role of communicating social emotions accompanying apologies in

forgiveness. Motivation and Emotion, 30, 189-90.

Evans, D. (2001). Emotion: The science of sentiment. New York: Oxford University Press.

Feeney, J. A., Noller, P., and Roberts, N. (2000). Attachment and close relationships. In C. H.

Hendrick (Ed.) Close relationships: A sourcebook (p. 188). Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Hargie, O. (2011). Skilled interpersonal interaction: Research, theory, and practice. London:


Kotchemidova, C. (2010). Emotion culture and cognitive constructions of reality.

Communication Quarterly, 58(2), 207-34.

Lobar, S. L., Youngblut, J.M., and Brooten, D. (2006). Cross-cultural beliefs, ceremonies, and

rituals surrounding death of a loved one. Pediatric Nursing, 32(1).

Planlap, S., Fitness, J., and Fehr, B. (2006). Emotion in theories of close relationships. In A.

Vangelisti and D. Perlman (Eds.) The Cambridge handbook of personal

relationships. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rime, B. (2007). Interpersonal emotion regulation. In J. J. Gross (Ed.) Handbook of emotion

regulation (pp. 466-68). New York: Guilford Press.

Safdar, S., Friedlmeier, W., Matsumoto, D., Yoo, S. H., Kwantes, C.T., and Kakai, H. (2009).

Variations of emotional display rules within and across cultures: A comparison between Canada,

USA, and Japan. Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science, 41(1).

Salovey, P. , Woolery, A. W., and Mayer, J.D. (2001). Emotional intelligence: Conceptualization

and measurement. In G.J. Clark (Ed.) Blackwell handbook of social psychology: Interpersonal

processes. Malden: Blackwell.


Chapter 11.1 Communication in Relationships

More than 2,300 years ago, Aristotle wrote about the importance of friendships to society, and

other Greek philosophers wrote about emotions and their effects on relationships. Although

research on relationships has increased dramatically over the past few decades, the fact that these

revered ancient philosophers included them in their writings illustrates the important place

interpersonal relationships have in human life (Perlman & Duck, 2006). But how do we come to

form relationships with friends, family, romantic partners, and coworkers? Why are some of

these relationships more exciting, stressful, enduring, or short-lived than others? Are we guided

by fate, astrology, luck, personality, or other forces to the people we like and love? We’ll begin

to answer those questions in this chapter.

We can begin to classify key relationships we have by distinguishing between our personal and

our social relationships. (Vangelisti & Perlman, 2006). Personal relationships meet emotional,

relational, and instrumental needs, as they are intimate, close, and interdependent relationships

such as those we have with best friends, partners, or immediate family. Social relationships are

relationships that occasionally meet our needs and lack the closeness and interdependence

of personal relationships. Examples of social relationships include coworkers, distant relatives,

and acquaintances. Another distinction useful for categorizing relationships is whether or not

they are voluntary. For example, some personal relationships are voluntary, like those with

romantic partners, and some are involuntary, like those with close siblings. Likewise, some

social relationships are voluntary, like those with acquaintances, and some are involuntary, like

those with neighbors or distant relatives. You can see how various relationships fall into each of

these dimensions in Figure 11.1″Types of Relationships”. Now that we have a better

understanding of how we define relationships, we’ll examine the stages that most of our

relationships go through as they move from formation to termination.

Figure 11.1 Types of Relationships

Type of


Personal Relationship Social Relationship



• Partners/Spouses

• Best Friends

• Acquaintances

• Activity Partners (Workout




• Parent-Child

• Siblings

• Grandparent/God Parent-


• Colleagues

• Distant Relatives

• Co-Workers

• Neighbors

• Classmates

• Teacher-Student

Source: Adapted from C. Arthur VanLear, Ascan Koerner, and Donna M. Allen, “Relationship

Typologies,” in The Cambridge Handbook of Personal Relationships, eds. Anita L. Vangelisti

and Daniel Perlman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 95.


Chapter 11.2 Foundations of Relationships

Stages of Relational Interaction
Communication is at the heart of forming our interpersonal relationships. We reach the

achievement of relating through the everyday conversations and otherwise trivial interactions

that form the fabric of our relationships. It is through our communication that we adapt to the

dynamic nature of our relational worlds, given that relational partners do not enter each

encounter or relationship with compatible expectations. Communication allows us to test and be

tested by our potential and current relational partners. It is also through communication that we

respond when someone violates or fails to meet those expectations (Knapp & Vangelisti, 2009).

There are ten established stages of interaction that can help us understand how relationships

come together and come apart (Knapp & Vangelisti, 2009). We will discuss each stage in more

detail, but in Table 11.1″Relationship Stages” you will find a list of the communication stages.

We should keep the following things in mind about this model of relationship development:

relational partners do not always go through the stages sequentially, some relationships do not

experience all the stages, we do not always consciously move between stages, and coming

together and coming apart are not inherently good or bad. As we have already discussed,

relationships are always changing—they are dynamic. Although this model has been applied

most often to romantic relationships, most relationships follow a similar pattern that may be

adapted to a particular context.

Process Stage of


Representative Communication



Initiating “My name’s Rich. It’s nice to meet you.”



Experimenting “I like to cook and refinish furniture in my spare time.

What about you?”



Intensifying “I feel like we’ve gotten a lot closer over the past couple




Integrating (To Friend) “We just opened a joint bank account.”



Bonding “I can’t wait to tell my parents that we decided to get




Differentiating “I’d really like to be able to hang out with my friends




Circumscribing “Don’t worry about problems I’m having at work. I can

deal with it.”



Stagnating (To Self) “I don’t know why I even asked him to go out

to dinner. He never wants to go out and have a good




Avoiding “I have a lot going on right now, so I probably won’t be

home as much.”



Terminating “It’s important for us both to have some time apart. I

know you’ll be fine.”


Table 11.1 Relationship Stages

Source: Adapted from Mark L. Knapp and Anita L. Vangelisti, Interpersonal Communication

and Human Relationships (Boston, MA: Pearson, 2009), 34.


In the initiating stage, people size each other up and try to present themselves favorably.

Whether you run into someone in the hallway at school or in the produce section at the grocery

store, you scan the person and consider any previous knowledge you have of them, expectations

for the situation, and so on. Initiating is influenced by several factors.

If you encounter a stranger, you may say, “Hi, my name’s Rich.” If you encounter a person you

already know, you’ve already gone through this before, so you may just say, “What’s up?” Time

constraints also affect initiation. A quick passing calls for a quick hello, while a scheduled

meeting may entail a more formal start. If you already know the person, the length of time that’s

passed since your last encounter will affect your initiation. For example, if you see a friend from

high school while home for winter break, you may set aside a long block of time to catch up;

however, if you see someone at work that you just spoke to ten minutes earlier, you may skip

initiating communication. The setting also affects how we initiate conversations, as we

communicate differently at a crowded bar than we do on an airplane. Even with all this variation,

people typically follow typical social scripts for interaction at this stage.


The scholars who developed these relational stages have likened the experimenting stage,

where people exchange information and often move from strangers to acquaintances, to the

“sniffing ritual” of animals (Knapp & Vangelisti, 2009). A basic exchange of information is

typical as the experimenting stage begins. For example, on the first day of class, you may chat

with the person sitting beside you and take turns sharing your year in school, hometown,

residence hall, and major. Then you may branch out and see if there are any common interests

that emerge. Finding out you’re both St. Louis Cardinals fans could then lead to more

conversation about baseball and other hobbies or interests; however, sometimes the experiment

may fail. If your attempts at information exchange with another person during the experimenting

stage are met with silence or hesitation, you may interpret their lack of communication as a sign

that you shouldn’t pursue future interaction.

Experimenting continues in established relationships. Small talk, a hallmark of the

experimenting stage, is common among young adults catching up with their parents when they

return home for a visit or committed couples when they recount their day while preparing dinner.

Small talk can be annoying sometimes, especially if you feel like you have to do it out of

politeness. I have found, for example, that strangers sometimes feel the need to talk to me at the

gym (even when I have ear buds in). Although I’d rather skip the small talk and just work out, I

follow social norms of cheerfulness and politeness and engage in small talk. Small talk serves

important functions, such as creating a communicative entry point that can lead people to

uncover topics of conversation that go beyond the surface level, helping us audition someone to


see if we’d like to talk to them further, and generally creating a sense of ease and community

with others. And even though small talk isn’t viewed as very substantive, the authors of this

model of relationships indicate that most of our relationships do not progress far beyond this

point (Knapp & Vangelisti, 2009).


As we enter the intensifying stage, we indicate that we would like or are open to more

intimacy, and then we wait for a signal of acceptance before we attempt more intimacy.

This incremental intensification of intimacy can occur over a period of weeks, months, or years

and may involve inviting a new friend to join you at a party, then to your place for dinner, then to

go on vacation with you. It would be seen as odd, even if the experimenting stage went well, to

invite a person who you’re still getting to know on vacation with you without engaging in some

less intimate interaction beforehand. In order to save face and avoid making ourselves overly

vulnerable, steady progression is key in this stage. Aside from sharing more intense personal

time, requests for and granting favors may also play into intensification of a relationship. For

example, one friend helping the other prepare for a big party on their birthday can increase

closeness. However, if one person asks for too many favors or fails to reciprocate favors granted,

then the relationship can become unbalanced, which could result in a transition to another stage,

such as differentiating.

Other signs of the intensifying stage include creation of nicknames, inside jokes, and personal

idioms; increased use of we and our; increased communication about each other’s identities (e.g.,

“My friends all think you are really laid back and easy to get along with”); and a loosening of

typical restrictions on possessions and personal space (e.g., you have a key to your best friend’s

apartment and can hang out there if your roommate is getting on your nerves). Navigating the

changing boundaries between individuals in this stage can be tricky, which can lead to conflict or

uncertainty about the relationship’s future as new expectations for relationships develop.

Successfully managing this increasing closeness can lead to relational integration.


In the integrating stage, two people’s identities and personalities merge, and a sense of

interdependence develops. Even though this stage is most evident in romantic relationships,

there are elements that appear in other relationship forms. Some verbal and nonverbal signals of

the integrating stage are when the social networks of two people merge; those outside the

relationship begin to refer to or treat the relational partners as if they were one person (e.g.,

always referring to them together—“Let’s invite Olaf and Bettina”); or the relational partners

present themselves as one unit (e.g., both signing and sending one holiday card or opening a joint

bank account). Even as two people integrate, they likely maintain some sense of self by spending

time with friends and family separately, which helps balance their needs for independence and




The bonding stage includes a public ritual that announces formal commitment. These types

of rituals include weddings, commitment ceremonies, and civil unions. Obviously, this stage is

almost exclusively applicable to romantic couples. In some ways, the bonding ritual is arbitrary,

in that it can occur at any stage in a relationship. In fact, bonding rituals are often later annulled

or reversed because a relationship doesn’t work out, perhaps because there wasn’t sufficient time

spent in the experimenting or integrating phases. However, bonding warrants its own stage

because the symbolic act of bonding can have very real effects on how two people communicate

about and perceive their relationship. For example, the formality of the bond may lead the couple

and those in their social network to more diligently maintain the relationship if conflict or stress

threatens it.

The bonding stage eventually leads to the terminating stage for many relationships, as about 50

percent of marriages in the United States end in divorce.Cindy Perman, “Bad Economy? A Good

Time for a Steamy Affair,” USA Today, September 8, 2011, accessed September 13, 2011, money/economy/story/2011-09-10/economy-affairs- divorce-

marriage/50340948/1. © Thinkstock



Individual differences can present a challenge at any given stage in the relational interaction

model; however, in the differentiating stage, communicating differences become a primary

focus. Differentiating is the reverse of integrating, as we and our reverts back to I and my. People

may try to establish new boundaries in the parts of their life that existed prior to the integrating

of the current relationship, including other relationships or possessions. For example, Carrie may

reclaim friends who became “shared” as she got closer to her roommate Julie and their social

networks merged by saying, “I’m having my friends over to the apartment and would like to have

privacy for the evening.” Differentiating may onset in a relationship that bonded before the

individuals knew each other in enough depth and breadth. Even in relationships where the

bonding stage is less likely to be experienced, such as a friendship, unpleasant discoveries about

the other person’s past, personality, or values during the integrating or experimenting stage could

lead a person to begin differentiating.


In the circumscribing stage, communication decreases and certain areas or subjects become

restricted as individuals verbally close themselves off from each other. They may say things

like “I don’t want to talk about that anymore” or “You mind your business and I’ll mind mine.”

If one person was more interested in differentiating in the previous stage, or the desire to end the

relationship is one-sided, verbal expressions of commitment may go unreciprocated—for

example, when one person’s statement, “I know we’ve had some problems lately, but I still like

being with you,” is met with silence. Passive-aggressive behavior and the demand-withdrawal

conflict pattern may occur more frequently in this stage. Once the increase in boundaries and

decrease in communication becomes a pattern, the relationship further deteriorates toward



During the stagnating stage, the relationship may come to a standstill, as individuals

basically wait for the relationship to end. Outward communication may be avoided, but

internal communication may be frequent. The relational conflict flaw of mindreading takes place

as a person’s internal thoughts lead them to avoid communication. For example, a person may

think, “There’s no need to bring this up again, because I know exactly how he’ll react!” This

stage can be prolonged in some relationships. Parents and children who are estranged, couples

who are separated and awaiting a divorce, or friends who want to end a relationship but don’t

know how to do it may have extended periods of stagnation. Short periods of stagnation may

occur right after a failed exchange in the experimental stage, where you may be in a situation

that’s not easy to get out of, but the person is still there. Although most people don’t like to

linger in this unpleasant stage, some may do so to avoid potential pain from termination, some

may still hope to rekindle the spark that started the relationship, or some may enjoy leading their

relational partner on.



In the avoiding stage, people signal that they want to close down the lines of

communication. Communication in the avoiding stage can be very direct—“I don’t want to talk

to you anymore”—or more indirect—“I have to meet someone in a little while, so I can’t talk

long.” While physical avoidance such as leaving a room or requesting a schedule change at work

may help clearly communicate the desire to terminate the relationship, we don’t always have that

option. For example, in a parent-child relationship, where the child is still dependent on the

parent, people may engage in cognitive dissociation, which means they mentally shut down and

ignore the other person even though they are still physically present.


The terminating stage of a relationship is the point at which a relationship ends and can occur

shortly after initiation or after a ten- or twenty-year relational history has been established.

Termination can result from outside circumstances such as geographic separation or internal

factors such as changing values or personalities that lead to a weakening of the bond.

Termination exchanges involve some typical communicative elements and may begin with a

summary message that recaps the relationship and provides a reason for the termination (e.g.,

“We’ve had some ups and downs over our three years together, but I’m getting ready to go to

college, and I either want to be with someone who is willing to support me, or I want to be free

to explore who I am.”). The summary message may be followed by a distance message that

further communicates the relational drift that has occurred (e.g., “We’ve really grown apart over

the past year”), which may be followed by a disassociation message that prepares people to be

apart by projecting what happens after the relationship ends (e.g., “I know you’ll do fine without

me. You can use this time to explore your options and figure out if you want to go to college too

or not.”). Finally, there is often a message regarding the possibility for future communication in

the relationship (e.g., “I think it would be best if we don’t see each other for the first few months,

but text me if you want to.”) (Knapp & Vangelisti, 2009).


Chapter 11.3 Theories in Relationship Communication

With a general understanding of how relationships come together and come apart, we can more

deeply examine some of the theories explaining why relationships form in the first place and

how we go about maintaining them once they’ve been established.

Relationship Formation

Uncertainty Reduction Theory

Uncertainty reduction theory states that we choose to know more about those with whom

we have interactions in order to reduce or resolve the anxiety associated with the unknown.

The more we know about others, and become accustomed to how they communicate, the better

we can predict how they will interact with us in future contexts (McLean, 2012).

For example, after moving into a new apartment, you may find that coming upon a new neighbor

involves a great deal of uncertainty: How will they feel about you moving in? Will they be noisy

at night? Will you get along with one another? How trustworthy will they be? Uncertainty

reduction theory would suggest that such uncertainty would cause you discomfort, prompting

you to interact with the neighbor and learn what you can about them. With each newly learned

piece of information, your uncertainty about them diminishes. Throughout the process of

reducing your uncertainty about the neighbor, you’ve also gone about establishing a relationship

with them.

Predicted Outcome Value Theory

The predicted outcome value theory asserts that not only do we want to reduce uncertainty,

seek relationships that we predict will have rewards that will be worth the effort. This

theory would predict that you might initiate a relationship with your neighbor in order to

maximize the potential for positive interaction and any possible rewards that may result. For

example, you might begin a relationship if you if you had reason to believe they might be a good

listener, were funny, or had a vehicle you could borrow. One theory involves the avoidance of

fear while the other focuses on the pursuit of reward (McLean, 2012)

Relationship Maintenance

While the previous theories help explain why we form relationships, there are other reasons for

why we may choose to stay in a relationship and, perhaps, why we may choose to leave it.

Typically, such decisions are made by considering the costs and rewards that a relationship


Social Exchange Theory

Social exchange theory entails a weighing of the costs and rewards in a given relationship

(Harvey & Wenzel, 2006). Rewards are outcomes that we get from a relationship that benefit us


in some way, while costs range from granting favors to providing emotional support. When we

do not receive the outcomes or rewards that we think we deserve, then we may negatively

evaluate the relationship, or at least a given exchange or moment in the relationship, and view

ourselves as being under benefited. In an equitable relationship, costs and rewards are balanced,

which usually leads to a positive evaluation of the relationship and satisfaction.

Commitment and interdependence are important interpersonal and psychological dimensions of a

relationship that relate to social exchange theory. Interdependence refers to the relationship

between a person’s well-being and involvement in a particular relationship. A person will feel

interdependence in a relationship when (1) satisfaction is high or the relationship meets

important needs; (2) the alternatives are not good, meaning the person’s needs couldn’t be met

without the relationship; or (3) investment in the relationship is high, meaning that resources

might decrease or be lost without the relationship (Harvey & Wenzel, 2006).

We can be cautioned, though, to not view social exchange theory as a tit-for-tat accounting of

costs and rewards. (Noller, 2006). We wouldn’t be very good relational partners if we carried

around a little notepad, notating each favor or good deed we completed so we can expect its

repayment. As noted earlier, we all become aware of the balance of costs and rewards at some

point in our relationships, but that awareness isn’t persistent. We also have communal

relationships, in which members engage in a relationship for mutual benefit and do not expect

returns on investments such as favors or good deeds. (Harvey & Wenzel, 2006). As the dynamics

in a relationship change, we may engage communally without even being aware of it, just by

simply enjoying the relationship. It has been suggested that we become more aware of the costs

and rewards balance when a relationship is going through conflict. (Noller, 2006). Overall,

relationships are more likely to succeed when there is satisfaction and commitment, meaning that

we are pleased in a relationship intrinsically or by the rewards we receive.


Chapter 11 Key Takeaways and Exercises


• Relationships can be easily distinguished into personal or social and voluntary or


o Personal relationships are close, intimate, and interdependent, meeting many of

our interpersonal needs.

o Social relationships meet some interpersonal needs but lack the closeness of

personal relationships.

• There are stages of relational interaction in which relationships come together (initiating,

experimenting, intensifying, integrating, and bonding) and come apart (differentiating,

circumscribing, stagnating, avoiding, and terminating).

• The weighing of costs and rewards in a relationship affects commitment and overall

relational satisfaction.


1. Review the types of relationships. Name at least one person from your relationships that
fits into each quadrant. How does your communication differ between each of these


2. Pick a relationship important to you and determine what stage of relational interaction
you are currently in with that person. What communicative signals support your

determination? What other stages from the ten listed have you experienced with this


3. How do you weigh the costs and rewards in your relationships? What are some rewards
you are currently receiving from your closest relationships? What are some costs?


Chapter 11 References

Harvey, J. H. & Wenzel, A. (2006). Theoretical perspectives in the study of close relationships.

In Vangelisti et al. (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of personal relationships. Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press.

Knapp, M. L., & Vangelisti, A. L. (2009). Interpersonal communication and human

relationships. Boston: Pearson Allyn & Bacon.

McLean, S. (2012). Business communication for success. Washington, D.C.: Saylor Academy.

Noller, P. (2006). Bringing it all together: A theoretical approach. In Vangelisti et al. (Eds.), The

Cambridge handbook of personal relationships. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Perlman, D & Duck, S (2006). The Seven Seas of the study of personal relationships: From ‘The

Thousand Islands’ to interconnected waterways. In Vangelisti et al. (Eds.), The Cambridge

handbook of personal relationships. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vangelisti, A. L., & Perlman, D. (2006). The Cambridge handbook of personal relationships.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Chapter 12.1 Communication and Friends

Do you consider all the people you are “friends” with on social media to be true friends? What’s

the difference, if any, between a “social media friend” and a real-world friend? Friendships, like

other relationship forms, can be divided into categories. What’s the difference between a best

friend, a good friend, and an old friend? What about work friends, school friends, and friends of

the family? It’s likely that each of you reading this book has a different way of perceiving and

categorizing your friendships. In this section, we will learn about the various ways we classify

friends, the life cycle of friendships, and how gender affects friendships.

Defining and Classifying Friends

Friendships are voluntary interpersonal relationships between two people who are usually

equals and who mutually influence one another (Rawlins, 2008). Friendships are distinct from

romantic relationships, family relationships, and acquaintances and are often described as more

vulnerable relationships than others due to their voluntary nature, the availability of other

friends, and the fact that they lack the social and institutional support of other relationships. The

lack of official support for friendships is not universal, though. In rural parts of Thailand, for

example, special friendships are recognized by a ceremony in which both parties swear devotion

and loyalty to each other (Blieszner & Adams, 1992). Even though we do not have a formal

ritual to recognize friendship in the United States research shows that people generally have

three main expectations for close friendships: A friend is someone you can talk to, someone you

can depend on for help and emotional support, and someone you can participate in activities and

have fun with (Rawlins, 2008).

Although friendships vary across the life span, three types of friendships are common in

adulthood: reciprocal, associative, and receptive (VanLear, Koerner, & Allen, 2006). Reciprocal

friendships are solid interpersonal relationships between people who are equals with a

shared sense of loyalty and commitment. These friendships are likely to develop over time and

can withstand external changes such as geographic separation or fluctuations in other

commitments such as work and childcare. Reciprocal friendships are what most people would

consider the ideal for best friends. Associative friendships are mutually pleasurable

relationships between acquaintances or associates that, although positive, lack the

commitment of reciprocal friendships. These friendships are likely to be maintained out of

convenience or to meet instrumental goals.

For example, a friendship may develop between two people who work out at the same gym.

They may spend time with each other in this setting a few days a week for months or years, but

their friendship might end if the gym closes or one person’s schedule changes. Receptive

friendships include a status differential that makes the relationship asymmetrical. Unlike

the other friendship types that are between peers, this relationship is more like that of a

supervisor- subordinate or clergy-parishioner. In some cases, like a mentoring relationship, both

parties can benefit from the relationship. In other cases, the relationship could quickly sour if the

person with more authority begins to abuse it.


Friendships that are maintained because they are convenient and meet an instrumental need, like

having a workout partner, are likely to terminate if they become inconvenient or the need

changes. © Thinkstock

A relatively new type of friendship, at least in label, is the “friends with benefits” relationship.

Friends with benefits (FWB) relationships have the closeness of a friendship and the sexual

activity of a romantic partnership without the expectations of romantic commitment or

labels (Lehmiller, Vanderdrift, & Kelly, 2011). FWB relationships are hybrids that combine

characteristics of romantic and friend pairings, which produces some unique dynamics. In my

conversations with students over the years, we have talked through some of the differences

between friends, FWB, and hook-up partners, or what we termed “just benefits.” Hook-up or

“just benefits” relationships do not carry the emotional connection typical in a friendship, may

occur as one-night-stands or be regular things, and exist solely for the gratification and/or

convenience of sexual activity. So why might people choose to have or avoid FWB


Various research studies have shown that half of the college students who participated have

engaged in heterosexual FWB relationships (Bisson & Levine, 2009). Many who engage in FWB

relationships have particular views on love and sex—namely, that sex can occur independently

of love. Conversely, those who report no FWB relationships often cite religious, moral, or

personal reasons for not doing so. Some who have reported FWB relationships note that they

value the sexual activity with their friend, and many feel that it actually brings the relationship

closer. Despite valuing the sexual activity, they also report fears that it will lead to hurt feelings

or the dissolution of a friendship (Lehmiller et al., 2011). We must also consider gender

differences and communication challenges in FWB relationships.

Gender biases must be considered when discussing heterosexual FWB relationships, given that

women in most societies are judged more harshly than men for engaging in casual sex. But aside


from dealing with the double standard that women face regarding their sexual activity, there

aren’t many gender differences in how men and women engage in and perceive FWB

relationships. So, what communicative patterns are unique to the FWB relationship? Those who

engage in FWB relationships have some unique communication challenges. For example, they

may have difficulty with labels as they figure out whether they are friends, close friends, a little

more than friends, and so on. Research participants currently involved in such a relationship

reported that they have more commitment to the friendship than the sexual relationship. But does

that mean they would give up the sexual aspect of the relationship to save the friendship? The

answer is “no” according to the research study. Most participants reported that they would like

the relationship to stay the same, followed closely by the hope that it would turn into a full

romantic relationship (Lehmiller et al., 2011). Just from this study, we can see that there is often

a tension between action and labels. In addition, those in a FWB relationship often have to

engage in privacy management as they decide who to tell and who not to tell about their

relationship, given that some mutual friends are likely to find out and some may be critical of the

relationship. Last, they may have to establish ground rules or guidelines for the relationship.

Since many FWB relationships are not exclusive, meaning partners are open to having sex with

other people, ground rules or guidelines may include discussions of safer-sex practices,

disclosure of sexual partners, or periodic testing for sexually transmitted infections.

The Life Span of Friendships

Friendships, like most relationships, have a life span ranging from formation to maintenance to

deterioration/dissolution. Friendships have various turning points that affect their trajectory.

While there are developmental stages in friendships, they may not be experienced linearly, as

friends can cycle through formation, maintenance, and deterioration/dissolution together or

separately and may experience stages multiple times. Friendships are also diverse, in that not all

friendships develop the same level of closeness, and the level of closeness can fluctuate over the

course of a friendship. Changes in closeness can be an expected and accepted part of the cycle of

friendships, and less closeness doesn’t necessarily lead to less satisfaction (Johnson, Wittenberg,

Villagran, Mazur, & Villagran, 2003).

The formation process of friendship development involves two people moving from strangers

toward acquaintances and potentially friends (Blieszner & Adams, 1992). Several factors

influence the formation of friendships, including environmental, situational, individual, and

interactional factors (Fehr, 2000). Environmental factors lead us to have more day-to-day contact

with some people over others. For example, residential proximity and sharing a workplace are

catalysts for friendship formation. Thinking back to your childhood, you may have had early

friendships with people on your block because they were close by and you could spend time

together easily without needing transportation. A similar situation may have occurred later if you

moved away from home for college and lived in a residence hall.

You may have formed early relationships, perhaps even before classes started, with hall-mates or

dorm-mates. In college settings, some students may continue to associate and even attempt to

live close to friends they made in their first residence hall throughout their college years, even as

they move residence halls or off campus. We also find friends through the social networks of

existing friends and family. Although these people may not live close to us, they are brought into


proximity through people we know, which facilitates our ability to spend time with them.

Encountering someone due to environmental factors may lead to a friendship if the situational

factors are favorable.

Many new college students form bonds with people in their residence halls that last through

college and beyond. © Thinkstock

The main situational factor that may facilitate or impede friendship formation is availability.

Initially, we are more likely to be interested in a friendship if we anticipate that we’ll be able to

interact with the other person again in the future without expending more effort than our

schedule and other obligations will allow. In order for a friendship to take off, both parties need

resources such as time and energy to put into it. Hectic work schedules, family obligations, or

personal stresses such as financial problems or family or relational conflict may impair

someone’s ability to nurture a friendship.

The number of friends we have at any given point is a situational factor that also affects whether

we are actually looking to add new friends. Many experience this fluctuation. We forge many

important friendships over time. But when our lives are incredibly busy with school and work,

we may not have as many friendships as we have less time to invest. Instead, we focus on the

friendships we already have and attend to personal obligations. Some may even jokingly say that


they are not “accepting applications” for any new friends at this time. Of course, when you move

to a new city or take a new job, you might once again be “accepting applications” for new

friends because you have lost the important physical proximity to your previous friends.

Environmental and situational factors that relate to friendship formation point to the fact that

convenience plays a large role in determining whether a relationship will progress or not.

While contact and availability may initiate communication with a potential friend, individual and

interactional factors are also important. We are more likely to develop friendships with

individuals we deem physically attractive, socially competent, and responsive to our needs (Fehr,

2000). Specifically, we are more attracted to people we deem similar to or slightly above us in

terms of attractiveness and competence. Although physical attractiveness is more important in

romantic relationships, research shows that we evaluate attractive people more positively, which

may influence our willingness to invest more in a friendship. Friendships also tend to form

between people with similar demographic characteristics such as race, gender, age, and class,

and similar personal characteristics like interests and values. Being socially competent and

responsive in terms of empathy, emotion management, conflict management, and self-disclosure

also contribute to the likelihood of friendship development.

If a friendship is established in the formation phase, then the new friends will need to maintain

their relationship. The maintenance phase includes the most variation in terms of the processes

that take place, the commitment to maintenance from each party, and the length of time of the

phase (Blieszner & Adams, 1992). In short, some friendships require more maintenance in terms

of shared time together and emotional support than other friendships that can be maintained with

only occasional contact. Maintenance is important, because friendships provide important

opportunities for social support that take the place of or supplement family and romantic

relationships. Sometimes, we may feel more comfortable being open with a friend about

something than we would with a family member or romantic partner. Most people expect that

friends will be there for them when needed, which is the basis of friendship maintenance. As

with other relationships, tasks that help maintain friendships range from being there in a crisis to

seemingly mundane day-to-day activities and interactions.

Failure to perform or respond to friendship-maintenance tasks can lead to the deterioration and

eventual dissolution of friendships. Causes of dissolution may be voluntary (termination due to

conflict), involuntary (death of friendship partner), external (increased family or work

commitments), or internal (decreased liking due to perceived lack of support) (Blieszner &

Adams, 1992). While there are often multiple, interconnecting causes that result in friendship

dissolution, there are three primary sources of conflict in a friendship that stem from

internal/interpersonal causes and may lead to voluntary dissolution: sexual interference, failure to

support, and betrayal of trust (Fehr, 2000). Sexual interference generally involves a friend

engaging with another friend’s romantic partner or romantic interest and can lead to feelings of

betrayal, jealousy, and anger. Failure to support may entail a friend not coming to another’s aid

or defense when criticized. Betrayal of trust can stem from failure to secure private information

by telling a secret or disclosing personal information without permission. While these three

internal factors may initiate conflict in a friendship, discovery of unfavorable personal traits can

also lead to problems.


Have you ever started investing in a friendship only to find out later that the person has some

character flaws that you didn’t notice before? As was mentioned earlier, we are more likely to

befriend someone whose personal qualities we find attractive. However, we may not get to

experience the person in a variety of contexts and circumstances before we invest in the

friendship. We may later find out that our easygoing friend becomes possessive once we start a

romantic relationship and spend less time with him. Or we may find that our happy-go-lucky

friend gets moody and irritable when she doesn’t get her way. These individual factors become

interactional when our newly realized dissimilarity affects our communication. It is logical that

as our liking decreases as a result of personal reassessment of the friendship, we will engage in

less friendship-maintenance tasks such as self- disclosure and supportive communication. In fact,

research shows that the main termination strategy employed to end a friendship is avoidance. As

we withdraw from the relationship, the friendship fades away and may eventually disappear,

which is distinct from romantic relationships, which usually have an official “breakup.” Aside

from changes based on personal characteristics discovered through communication, changes in

the external factors that help form friendships can also lead to their dissolution.

The main change in environmental factors that can lead to friendship dissolution is a loss of

proximity, which may entail a large or small geographic move or school or job change. The two

main situational changes that affect friendships are schedule changes and changes in romantic

relationships. Even without a change in environment, someone’s job or family responsibilities

may increase, limiting the amount of time one has to invest in friendships. Additionally,

becoming invested in a romantic relationship may take away from time previously allocated to

friends. For environmental and situational changes, the friendship itself is not the cause of the

dissolution. These external factors are sometimes difficult if not impossible to control, and lost or

faded friendships are a big part of everyone’s relational history.

Friendships across the Life Span

As we transition between life stages such as adolescence, young adulthood, emerging adulthood,

middle age, and later life, our friendships change in many ways (Rawlins, 2008). Our

relationships begin to deepen in adolescence as we negotiate the confusion of puberty. Then, in

early adulthood, many people get to explore their identities and diversify their friendship circle.

Later, our lives stabilize and we begin to rely more on friendships with a romantic partner and

continue to nurture the friendships that have lasted. Let’s now learn more about the

characteristics of friendships across the life span.


Adolescence begins with the onset of puberty and lasts through the teen years. We typically

make our first voluntary close social relationships during adolescence as cognitive and emotional

skills develop. At this time, our friendships are usually with others of the same age/grade in

school, gender, and race, and friends typically have similar attitudes about academics and similar

values (Rawlins, 2008). These early friendships allow us to test our interpersonal skills, which

affects the relationships we will have later in life. For example, emotional processing, empathy,

self-disclosure, and conflict become features of adolescent friendships in new ways and must be

managed (Collins & Madsen, 2006).


Adolescents begin to see friends rather than parents as providers of social support, as friends help

negotiate the various emotional problems often experienced for the first time (Collins & Madsen,


Friendships in adolescence become important as we begin to create an identity that is separate

from our family.

© Thinkstock

This new dependence on friendships can also create problems. For example, as adolescents

progress through puberty and forward on their identity search, they may experience some

jealousy and possessiveness in their friendships as they attempt to balance the tensions between

their dependence on and independence from friends. Additionally, as adolescents articulate their

identities, they look for acceptance and validation of self in their friends, especially given the

increase in self- consciousness experienced by most adolescents (Rawlins, 2008). Those who do

not form satisfying relationships during this time may miss out on opportunities for developing

communication competence, leading to lower performance at work or school and higher rates of

depression (Collins & Madsen, 2006). The transition to college marks a move from adolescence

to early adulthood and opens new opportunities for friendship and challenges in dealing with the

separation from hometown friends.

Early Adulthood

Early adulthood encompasses the time from around eighteen to twenty-nine years of age, and

although not every person in this age group goes to college, most of the research on early adult

friendships focuses on college students. Those who have the opportunity to head to college will

likely find a canvas for exploration and experimentation with various life and relational choices


relatively free from the emotional, time, and financial constraints of starting their own family

that may come later in life (Rawlins, 2008).

As we transition from adolescence to early adulthood, we are still formulating our understanding

of relational processes, but people report that their friendships are more intimate than the ones

they had in adolescence. During this time, friends provide important feedback on self-concept,

careers, romantic and/or sexual relationships, and civic, social, political, and extracurricular

activities. It is inevitable that young adults will lose some ties to their friends from adolescence

during this transition, which has positive and negative consequences. Investment in friendships

from adolescence provides a sense of continuity during the often-rough transition to college.

These friendships may also help set standards for future friendships, meaning the old friendships

are a base for comparison for new friends. Obviously, this is a beneficial situation relative to the

quality of the old friendship. If the old friendship was not a healthy one, using it as the standard

for new friendships is a bad idea. Additionally, nurturing older friendships at the expense of

meeting new people and experiencing new social situations may impede personal growth during

this period.


Adult friendships span a larger period than the previous life stages discussed, as adulthood

encompasses the period from thirty to sixty-five years old (Rawlins, 2008). The exploration that

occurs for most middle-class people in early adulthood gives way to less opportunity for

friendships in adulthood, as many in this period settle into careers, nourish long- term

relationships, and have children of their own. These new aspects of life bring more time

constraints and interpersonal and task obligations, and with these obligations comes an increased

desire for stability and continuity. Adult friendships tend to occur between people who are

similar in terms of career position, race, age, partner status, class, and education level. This is

partly due to the narrowed social networks people join as they become more educated and attain

higher career positions. Therefore, finding friends through religious affiliation, neighborhood,

work, or civic engagement is likely to result in similarity between friends (Blieszner & Adams,


Even as social networks narrow, adults are also more likely than young adults to rely on their

friends to help them process thoughts and emotions related to their partnerships or other

interpersonal relationships (Blieszner & Adams, 1992). For example, a person may rely on a

romantic partner to help process through work relationships and close coworkers to help process

through family relationships. Work life and home life become connected in important ways, as

career (money making) intersects with and supports the desires for stability (home making)

(Rawlins, 2008). Since home and career are primary focuses, socializing outside of those areas

may be limited to interactions with family (parents, siblings, and in-laws) if they are

geographically close. In situations where family isn’t close by, adults’ close or best friends may

adopt kinship roles, and a child may call a parent’s close friend “Uncle Andy” even if they are

not related. Spouses or partners are expected to be friends; it is often expressed that the best

partner is one who can also serve as best friend, and having a partner as a best friend can be

convenient if time outside the home is limited by parental responsibilities. There is not much

research on friendships in late middle age (ages fifty to sixty-five), but it has been noted that


relationships with partners may become even more important during this time, as parenting

responsibilities diminish with grown children and careers and finances stabilize. Partners who

have successfully navigated their middle age may feel a bonding sense of accomplishment with

each other and with any close friends with whom they shared these experiences (Rawlins, 2008).

Later Life

Friendships in later-life adulthood, which begins in one’s sixties, are often remnants of previous

friends and friendship patterns. Those who have typically had a gregarious social life will

continue to associate with friends if physically and mentally able, and those who relied primarily

on a partner, family, or limited close friends will have more limited, but perhaps equally

rewarding, interactions. Friendships that have extended from adulthood or earlier are often “old”

or “best” friendships that offer a look into a dyad’s shared past. Given that geographic relocation

is common in early adulthood, these friends may be physically distant, but if investment in

occasional contact or visits preserved the friendship, these friends are likely able to pick up

where they left off (Rawlins, 2008). However, biological aging and the social stereotypes and

stigma associated with later life and aging begin to affect communication patterns.

Although stereotypes of the elderly often present them as slow or out of touch, many people in

later life enjoy the company of friends and maintain active social lives. © Thinkstock


Obviously, our physical and mental abilities affect our socializing and activities and vary widely

from person to person and age to age. Mobility may be limited due to declining health, and

retiring limits the social interactions one had at work and work-related events (Blieszner &

Adams, 1992). People may continue to work and lead physically and socially active lives

decades past the marker of later life, which occurs around age sixty-five. Regardless of when

these changes begin, it is common and normal for our opportunities to interact with wide

friendship circles to diminish as our abilities decline. Early later life may be marked by a

transition to partial or full retirement if a person is socioeconomically privileged enough to do so.

For some, retirement is a time to settle into a quiet routine in the same geographic place, perhaps

becoming even more involved in hobbies and civic organizations, which may increase social

interaction and the potential for friendships. Others may move to a more desirable place or

climate and go through the process of starting over with new friends. For health or personal

reasons, some in later life live in assisted-living facilities. Later-life adults in these facilities may

make friends based primarily on proximity, just as many college students in early adulthood do

in the similarly age-segregated environment of a residence hall (Rawlins, 2008).

Friendships in later life provide emotional support that is often only applicable during this life

stage. For example, given the general stigma against aging and illness, friends may be able to

shield each other from negative judgments from others and help each other maintain a positive

self-concept (Rawlins, 2008). Friends can also be instrumental in providing support after the

death of a partner. Men, especially, may need this type of support, as men are more likely than

women to consider their spouse their sole confidante, which means the death of the wife may end

a later-life man’s most important friendship. Women who lose a partner also go through

considerable life changes, and in general more women are left single after the death of a spouse

than men due to men’s shorter life span and the tendency for men to be a few years older than

their wives. Given this fact, it is not surprising that widows in particular may turn to other single

women for support. Overall, providing support in later life is important given the likelihood of

declining health. In the case of declining health, some may turn to family instead of friends for

support to avoid overburdening friends with requests for assistance. However, turning to a friend

for support is not completely burdensome, as research shows that feeling needed helps older

people maintain a positive well-being (Rawlins, 2008).

Gender and Friendship

Gender influences our friendships and has received much attention, as people try to figure out

how different men and women’s friendships are. There is a conception that men’s friendships are

less intimate than women’s based on the stereotype that men do not express emotions. In fact,

men report a similar amount of intimacy in their friendships as women but are less likely than

women to explicitly express affection verbally (e.g., saying “I love you”) and nonverbally (e.g.,

through touching or embracing) toward their same-gender friends (Blieszner & Adams, 1992).

This is not surprising, given the societal taboos against same-gender expressions of affection,

especially between men, even though an increasing number of men are more comfortable

expressing affection toward other men and women. However, researchers have wondered if men

communicate affection in more implicit ways that are still understood by the other friend. Men

may use shared activities as a way to express closeness—for example, by doing favors for each

other, engaging in friendly competition, joking, sharing resources, or teaching each other new


skills (Blieszner & Adams, 1992). Some scholars have argued that there is a bias toward viewing

intimacy as feminine, which may have skewed research on men’s friendships. While verbal

expressions of intimacy through self-disclosure have been noted as important features of

women’s friendships, activity sharing has been the focus in men’s friendships. This research

doesn’t argue that one gender’s friendships are better than the others’; rather, it concludes that

the differences shown in the research regarding expressions of intimacy are not large enough to

impact the actual practice of friendships (Monsour, 2006).

Cross-gender friendships are friendships between a male and a female. These friendships

diminish in late childhood and early adolescence as boys and girls segregate into separate groups

for many activities and socializing, reemerge as possibilities in late adolescence, and reach a

peak potential in the college years of early adulthood. Later, adults with spouses or partners are

less likely to have cross- sex friendships than single people (Rawlins, 2008). In any case,

research studies have identified several positive outcomes of cross- gender friendships. Men and

women report that they get a richer understanding of how the other gender thinks and feels

(Halatsis & Christakis, 2009). It seems these friendships fulfill interaction needs not as

commonly met in same-gender friendships. For example, men reported more than women that

they rely on their cross-gender friendships for emotional support (Blieszner & Adams, 1992).

Similarly, women reported that they enjoyed the activity-oriented friendships they had with men

(Halatsis & Christakis, 2009).

As discussed earlier regarding friends-with-benefits relationships, sexual attraction presents a

challenge in cross-gender heterosexual friendships. Even if the friendship does not include

sexual feelings or actions, outsiders may view the relationship as sexual or even encourage the

friends to become “more than friends.” Aside from the pressures that come with sexual

involvement or tension, the exaggerated perceptions of differences between men and women can

hinder cross-gender friendships. However, if it were true that men and women are too different

to understand each other or be friends, then how could any long-term partnership such as

husband/wife, mother/son, father/daughter, or brother/sister be successful or enjoyable?


Chapter 12.2 Relationships at Work

Although some careers require less interaction than others, all jobs require interpersonal

communication skills. Shows like The Office have offered glimpses into the world of workplace

relationships. Such humorous examples often highlight the dysfunction that can occur within a

workplace. Since many people spend as much time at work as they do with their family and

friends, the workplace becomes a key site for relational development. The workplace

relationships we’ll discuss in this section include supervisor-subordinate relationships, workplace

friendships, and workplace romances (Sias, 2009).

Supervisor-Subordinate Relationships

Given that most workplaces are based on hierarchy, it is not surprising that relationships between

supervisors and their subordinates develop (Sias, 2009). The supervisor-subordinate

relationship includes two people, one of whom has formal authority over the other. In any

case, these relationships involve some communication challenges and rewards that are distinct

from other workplace relationships.

Information exchange is an important part of any relationship, whether it is self- disclosure about

personal issues or disclosing information about a workplace to a new employee. Supervisors are

key providers of information, especially for newly hired employees who must negotiate through

much uncertainty as they are getting oriented. The role a supervisor plays in orienting a new

employee is important, but it is not based on the same norm of reciprocity that many other

relationships experience at their onset. On a first date, for example, people usually take turns

communicating as they learn about each other. Supervisors, on the other hand, have information

power because they possess information that the employees need to do their jobs. The

imbalanced flow of communication in this instance is also evident in the supervisor’s role as

evaluator. Most supervisors are tasked with giving their employees formal and informal feedback

on their job performance. In this role, positive feedback can motivate employees, but what

happens when a supervisor has negative feedback? Research shows that supervisors are more

likely to avoid giving negative feedback if possible, even though negative feedback has been

shown to be more important than positive feedback for employee development. This can lead to

strains in a relationship if behavior that needs correcting persists, potentially threatening the

employer’s business and the employee’s job.

We’re all aware that some supervisors are better than others and may have even experienced

working under good and bad bosses. So, what do workers want in a supervisor? Research has

shown that employees more positively evaluate supervisors when they are of the same gender

and race (Sias, 2009). This isn’t surprising, given that we’ve already learned that attraction is

often based on similarity. In terms of age, however, employees prefer their supervisors be older

than them, which is likely explained by the notion that knowledge and wisdom come from

experience built over time. Additionally, employees are more satisfied with supervisors who

exhibit a more controlling personality than their own, likely because of the trust that develops

when an employee can trust that their supervisor can handle his or her responsibilities.

Obviously, if a supervisor becomes coercive or is an annoying micromanager, the controlling has


gone too far. High-quality supervisor-subordinate relationships in a workplace reduce employee

turnover and have an overall positive impact on the organizational climate (Sias, 2009). Another

positive effect of high-quality supervisor-subordinate relationships is the possibility of


The mentoring relationship can be influential in establishing or advancing a person’s career, and

supervisors are often in a position to mentor select employees. In a mentoring relationship, one

person functions as a guide, helping another navigate toward career goals (Sias, 2009).

Through workplace programs or initiatives sponsored by professional organizations, some

mentoring relationships are formalized. Informal mentoring relationships develop as shared

interests or goals bring two people together. Unlike regular relationships between a supervisor

and subordinate that focus on a specific job or tasks related to a job, the mentoring relationship is

more extensive. In fact, if a mentoring relationship succeeds, it is likely that the two people will

be separated as the mentee is promoted within the organization or accepts a more advanced job

elsewhere—especially if the mentoring relationship was formalized. Mentoring relationships can

continue despite geographic distance, as many mentoring tasks can be completed via electronic

communication or through planned encounters at conferences or other professional gatherings.

Supervisors aren’t the only source of mentors, however, as peer coworkers can also serve in this


Workplace Friendships

Relationships in a workplace can range from someone you say hello to almost daily without

knowing her or his name, to an acquaintance in another department, to your best friend that you

go on vacations with. We’ve already learned that proximity plays an important role in

determining our relationships, and most of us will spend much of our time at work in proximity

to and sharing tasks with particular people. However, we do not become friends with all our


As with other relationships, perceived similarity and self-disclosure play important roles in

workplace relationship formation. Most coworkers are already in close proximity, but they may

break down into smaller subgroups based on department, age, or even whether or not they are

partnered or have children (Sias, 2005). As individuals form relationships that extend beyond

being acquaintances at work, they become peer coworkers. A peer coworker relationship

refers to a workplace relationship between two people who have no formal authority over

the other and are interdependent in some way. This is the most common type of interpersonal

workplace relationship, given that most of us have many people we would consider peer

coworkers and only one supervisor (Sias, 2005).

Peer coworkers can be broken down into three categories: information, collegial, and special

peers (Sias, 2005). Information peers communicate about work-related topics only, and

there is a low level of self-disclosure and trust. These are the most superficial of the peer

coworker relationships, but that doesn’t mean they are worthless. Almost all workplace

relationships start as information peer relationships. As noted, information exchange is an

important part of workplace relationships, and information peers can be very important in

helping us through the day-to-day functioning of our jobs. We often form information peers with


people based on a particular role they play within an organization. Communicating with a union

representative, for example, would be an important information-based relationship for an

employee. Collegial peers engage in more self-disclosure about work and personal topics

and communicate emotional support. These peers also provide informal feedback through

daily conversations that help the employee develop a professional identity (Sias, 2009). In an

average-sized workplace, an employee would likely have several people they consider collegial

peers. Special peers have high levels of self-disclosure with relatively few limitations and are

highly interdependent in terms of providing emotional and professional support for one

another (Kram & Isabella, 1985). Special peer relationships are the rarest and mirror the

intimate relationships we might have with a partner, close sibling, or parent. As some

relationships with information peers grow toward collegial peers, elements of a friendship


Having coworkers who are also friends enhances information exchange and can lead to greater

job satisfaction. © Thinkstock

Even though we might not have a choice about whom we work with, we do choose who our

friends at work will be. Coworker relationships move from strangers to friends much like other

friendships. Perceived similarity may lead to more communication about workplace issues,

which may lead to self-disclosure about non- work-related topics, moving a dyad from

acquaintances to friends. Coworker friendships may then become closer because of personal or

professional problems. For example, talking about family or romantic troubles with a coworker

may lead to increased closeness as self- disclosure becomes deeper and more personal. Increased

time together outside of work may also strengthen a workplace friendship (Sias & Cahill,

1998). Interestingly, research has shown that close friendships are more likely to develop among

coworkers when they perceive their supervisor to be unfair or unsupportive. In short, a bad boss


apparently leads people to establish closer friendships with coworkers, perhaps as a way to get

the functional and relational support they are missing from their supervisor.

Friendships between peer coworkers have many benefits, including making a workplace more

intrinsically rewarding, helping manage job-related stress, and reducing employee turnover. Peer

friendships may also supplement or take the place of more formal mentoring relationships (Sias

& Cahill, 1998). Coworker friendships also serve communicative functions, creating an

information chain, as each person can convey information they know about what’s going on in

different areas of an organization and let each other know about opportunities for promotion or

who to avoid. Friendships across departmental boundaries have been shown to help an

organization adapt to changing contexts. Workplace friendships may also have negative effects.

Obviously, information chains can be used for workplace gossip, which can be unproductive.

Additionally, if a close friendship at work leads someone to continue to stay in a job that they

don’t like for the sake of the friendship, then the friendship is not serving the interests of either

person or the organization. Although this section has focused on peer coworker friendships,

some friendships have the potential to develop into workplace romances.

Romantic Workplace Relationships

Workplace romances involve two people who are emotionally and physically attracted to

one another (Sias, 2009). We don’t have to look far to find evidence that this relationship type is

the most controversial of all the workplace relationships. For example, the president of the

American Red Cross was fired in 2007 for having a personal relationship with a subordinate.

That same year, the president of the World Bank resigned after controversy over a relationship

with an employee (Boyd, 2010). So, what makes these relationships so problematic?

Some research supports the claim that workplace romances are bad for business, while other

research claims workplace romances enhance employee satisfaction and productivity. Despite

this controversy, workplace romances are not rare or isolated, as research shows 75 to 85 percent

of people are affected by a romantic relationship at work as a participant or observer (Sias,

2009). People who are opposed to workplace romances cite several common reasons. More so

than friendships, workplace romances bring into the office emotions that have the potential to

become intense. This doesn’t mesh well with a general belief that the workplace should not be an

emotional space. Additionally, romance brings sexuality into workplaces that are supposed to be

asexual, which also creates a gray area in which the line between sexual attraction and sexual

harassment is blurred (Sias, 2009). People who support workplace relationships argue that

companies shouldn’t have a say in the personal lives of their employees and cite research

showing that workplace romances increase productivity. Obviously, this is not a debate that we

can settle here. Instead, let’s examine some of the communicative elements that affect this

relationship type.

Individuals may engage in workplace romances for many reasons, three of which are job

motives, ego motives, and love motives (Sias, 2009). Job motives include gaining rewards such

as power, money, or job security. Ego motives include the “thrill of the chase” and the self-

esteem boost one may get. Love motives include the desire for genuine affection and

companionship. Despite the motives, workplace romances impact coworkers, the individuals in


the relationship, and workplace policies. Romances at work may fuel gossip, especially if the

couple is trying to conceal their relationship. This could lead to hurt feelings, loss of trust, or

even jealousy. If coworkers perceive the relationship is due to job motives, they may resent the

appearance of favoritism and feel unfairly treated. The individuals in the relationship may

experience positive effects such as increased satisfaction if they get to spend time together at

work and may even be more productive. Romances between subordinates and supervisors are

more likely to slow productivity. If a relationship begins to deteriorate, the individuals may

experience more stress than other couples would, since they may be required to continue to work

together daily.

Over the past couple decades, there has been a national discussion about whether organizations

should have policies related to workplace relationships, and there are many different opinions.

Company policies range from complete prohibition of romantic relationships, to policies that

only specify supervisor-subordinate relationships as off-limits, to policies that don’t prohibit but

discourage love affairs in the workplace (Sias, 2009). One trend that seeks to find middle ground

is the “love contract” or “dating waiver” (Boyd, 2010). This requires individuals who are

romantically involved to disclose their relationship to the company and sign a document saying

that it is consensual and they will not engage in favoritism. Some businesses are taking another

route and encouraging workplace romances. Southwest Airlines, for example, allows employees

of any status to date each other and even allows their employees to ask passengers out on a date.

Other companies like AT&T and Ben and Jerry’s have similar open policies (Boyd, 2010).

Listening in Professional Contexts

Listening and organizational-communication scholars note that listening is one of the most

neglected aspects of organizational-communication research (Flynn, Valikoski, & Grau,

2008). Aside from a lack of research, a study also found that business schools lack curriculum

that includes instruction and/or training in communication skills like listening in their master of

business administration (MBA) programs (Alsop, 2002). This lack of a focus on listening

persists, even though we know that more effective listening skills have been shown to enhance

sales performance and that managers who exhibit good listening skills help create open

communication climates that can lead to increased feelings of supportiveness, motivation, and

productivity (Flynn et al., 2008). Specifically, empathetic listening and active listening can play

key roles in organizational communication. Managers are wise to enhance their empathetic

listening skills, as being able to empathize with employees contributes to a positive

communication climate. Active listening among organizational members also promotes

involvement and increases motivation, which leads to more cohesion and enhances the

communication climate.

Organizational scholars have examined various communication climates specific to listening.

Listening environment refers to characteristics and norms of an organization and its

members that contribute to expectations for and perceptions about listening (Brownell,

1993). Positive listening environments are perceived to be more employee centered, which can

improve job satisfaction and cohesion. But how do we create such environments?


Positive listening environments are facilitated by the breaking down of barriers to concentration,

the reduction of noise, the creation of a shared reality (through shared language, such as similar

jargon or a shared vision statement), intentional spaces that promote listening, official

opportunities that promote listening, training in listening for all employees, and leaders who

model good listening practices and praise others who are successful listeners (Brownell, 1993).

Policies and practices that support listening must go hand in hand. After all, what does an “open-

door” policy mean if it is not coupled with actions that demonstrate the sincerity of the policy?


Chapter 12 Key Takeaways and Exercises


• Friendships are voluntary interpersonal relationships between two people who are usually

equals and who mutually influence one another.

• Friendship formation, maintenance, and deterioration/dissolution are influenced by

environmental, situational, and interpersonal factors.

• Friendships change throughout our lives as we transition from adolescence to adulthood

to later life.

• Cross-gender friendships may offer perspective into gender relationships that same-

gender friendships do not, as both men and women report that they get support or

enjoyment from their cross- gender friendships. However, there is a potential for sexual

tension that complicates these relationships.

• The supervisor-subordinate relationship includes much information exchange that usually

benefits the subordinate. However, these relationships also have the potential to create

important mentoring opportunities.

• Peer coworker relationships range from those that are purely information based to those

that are collegial and include many or all of the dimensions of a friendship.

• Workplace romances are controversial because they bring the potential for sexuality and

intense emotions into the workplace, which many people find uncomfortable. However,

research has shown that these relationships also increase employee satisfaction and

productivity in some cases.


1. Have you ever been in a situation where you didn’t feel like you could “accept
applications” for new friends or were more eager than normal to “accept applications” for

new friends? What were the environmental or situational factors that led to this


2. Getting integrated: Review the types of friendships (reciprocal, associative, and
receptive). Which of these types of friendships do you have more of in academic contexts

and why? Answer the same question for professional contexts and personal contexts.

3. Of the life stages discussed in this chapter, which one are you currently in? How do your
friendships match up with the book’s description of friendships at this stage? From your

experience, do friendships change between stages the way the book says they do? Why or

why not?

4. Describe a relationship that you have had where you were either the mentor or the
mentee. How did the relationship form? What did you and the other person gain from the


5. Think of a job you have had and try to identify someone you worked with who fit the
characteristics of an information and a collegial peer. Why do you think the relationship

with the information peer didn’t grow to become a collegial peer? What led you to move

from information peer to collegial peer with the other person? Remember that special


peers are the rarest, so you may not have an experience with one. If you do, what set this

person apart from other coworkers that led to such a close relationship?

6. If you were a business owner, what would your policy on workplace romances be and


Getting Real

Becoming a “Listening Leader”

Dr. Rick Bommelje (n.d.) has popularized the concept of the “listening leader.” As a listening

coach, he offers training and resources to help people in various career paths increase their

listening competence. For people who are very committed to increasing their listening skills, the

International Listening Association has now endorsed a program to become a Certified Listening

Professional (CLP), which entails advanced independent study, close work with a listening

mentor, and the completion of a written exam. (“CLP training program,” n.d.). There are also

training programs to help with empathetic listening that are offered through the Compassionate

Listening Project (“Workshops: Compassionate Listening Project,” n.d.). These programs

evidence the growing focus on the importance of listening in all professional contexts.

Scholarly research has consistently shown that listening ability is a key part of leadership in

professional contexts and competence in listening aids in decision making. A survey sent to

hundreds of companies in the United States found that poor listening skills create problems at all

levels of an organizational hierarchy, ranging from entry-level positions to CEOs (Hargie, 2017).

Leaders such as managers, team coaches, department heads, and executives must be versatile in

terms of listening type and style in order to adapt to the diverse listening needs of employees,

clients/customers, colleagues, and other stakeholders.

Even if we don’t have the time or money to invest in one of these professional- listening training

programs, we can draw inspiration from the goal of becoming a listening leader. By reading this

book, you are already taking an important step toward improving a variety of communication

competencies, including listening, and you can always take it upon yourself to further your study

and increase your skills in a particular area to better prepare yourself to create positive

communication climates and listening environments. You can also use these skills to make

yourself a more desirable employee.

1. Make a list of the behaviors that you think a listening leader would exhibit. Which of
these do you think you do well? Which do you need to work on?

2. What do you think has contributed to the perceived shortage of listening skills in
professional contexts?

3. Given your personal career goals, what listening skills do you think you will need to
possess and employ in order to be successful?


Chapter 13.1 Communication and Families

There is no doubt that the definition and makeup of families are changing in the United States.

New data from research organizations and the 2010 US Census show the following: people who

choose to marry are waiting longer, more couples are cohabitating (living together) before

marriage or instead of marrying, households with more than two generations are increasing, and

the average household size is decreasing (Pew Research Center, 2010). Just as the makeup of

families changes, so do the definitions.

Defining Family

Who do you consider part of your family? Many people would initially name people who they

are related to by blood. You may also name a person with whom you are in a committed

relationship—a partner or spouse. But some people have a person not related by blood that they

might refer to as aunt or uncle or even as a brother or sister. We can see from these examples

that it’s not simple to define a family.

The definitions people ascribe to families usually fall into at least one of the following

categories: structural definitions, task-orientation definitions, and transactional definitions

(Segrin & Flora, 2019). Structural definitions of family focus on form, criteria for membership,

and often hierarchy of family members. One example of a structural definition of family is two

or more people who live together and are related by birth, marriage, or adoption. From this

definition, a father and son, two cousins, or a brother and sister could be considered a family if

they live together. However, a single person living alone or with nonrelated friends, or a couple

who chooses not to or are not legally able to marry would not be considered a family. These

definitions rely on external, “objective” criteria for determining who is in a family and who is

not, which makes the definitions useful for groups like the US Census Bureau, lawmakers, and

other researchers who need to define family for large-scale data collection. The simplicity and

time-saving positives of these definitions are countered by the fact that many family types are

left out in general structural definitions; however, more specific structural definitions have

emerged in recent years that include more family forms.

Family of origin refers to relatives connected by blood or other traditional legal bonds such

as marriage or adoption and includes parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, nieces, and

nephews. Family of orientation refers to people who share the same household and are

connected by blood, legal bond, or who act/live as if they are connected by either (Segrin &

Flora, 2019). Unlike family of origin, this definition is limited to people who share the same

household and represents the family makeup we choose. For example, most young people don’t

get to choose who they live with, but as we get older, we choose our spouse or partner or may

choose to have or adopt children.

There are several subdefinitions of families of orientation (Segrin & Flora, 2019). A nuclear

family includes two heterosexual married parents and one or more children. While this type of

family has received a lot of political and social attention, some scholars argue that it was only

dominant as a family form for a brief part of human history (Peterson & Steinmetz, 1999). A


binuclear family is a nuclear family that was split by divorce into two separate households, one

headed by the mother and one by the father, with the original children from the family residing in

each home for periods of time. A single-parent family includes a mother or father who may or

may not have been previously married with one or more children. A stepfamily includes a

heterosexual couple that lives together with children from a previous relationship. A cohabitating

family includes a heterosexual couple who lives together in a committed relationship but does

not have a legal bond such as marriage. Similarly, a gay or lesbian family includes a couple of

the same gender who live together in a committed relationship and may or may not have a legal

bond such as marriage, a civil union, or a domestic partnership. Cohabitating families and gay or

lesbian families may or may not have children.

Is it more important that the structure of a family matches a definition, or should we define

family based on the behavior of people or the quality of their interpersonal interactions? Unlike

structural definitions of family, functional definitions focus on tasks or interaction within the

family unit. Task-orientation definitions of family recognize that behaviors like emotional and

financial support are more important interpersonal indicators of a family-like connection than

biology. In short, anyone who fulfills the typical tasks present in families is considered family.

For example, in some cases, custody of children has been awarded to a person not biologically

related to a child over a living blood relative because that person acted more like a family

member to the child. The most common family tasks include nurturing and socializing other

family members. Nurturing family members entails providing basic care and support, both

emotional and financial. Socializing family members refers to teaching young children how to

speak, read, and practice social skills.

Transactional definitions of family focus on communication and subjective feelings of

connection. While task-orientation definitions convey the importance of providing for family

members, transactional definitions are concerned with the quality of interaction among family

members. Specifically, transactional definitions stress that the creation of a sense of home, group

identity, loyalty, and a shared past and future makes up a family. Isn’t it true that someone could

provide food, shelter, and transportation to school for a child but not create a sense of home?

Even though there is no one, all-encompassing definition of family, perhaps this is for the best.

Given that family is a combination of structural, functional, and communicative elements, it

warrants multiple definitions to capture that complexity.

Family Communication Processes

Think about how much time we spend communicating with family members over the course of

our lives. As children, most of us spend much of our time talking to parents, grandparents, and

siblings. As we become adolescents, our peer groups become more central, and we may even

begin to resist communicating with our family during the rebellious teenage years. However, as

we begin to choose and form our own families, we once again spend much time engaging in

family communication. Additionally, family communication is our primary source of

intergenerational communication, or communication between people of different age



Family Interaction Rituals

You may have heard or used the term family time in your own families. What does family time

mean? As was discussed earlier, relational cultures are built on interaction routines and rituals.

Families also have interaction norms that create, maintain, and change communication climates.

The notion of family time hasn’t been around for too long but was widely communicated and

represented in the popular culture of the 1950s (Daly, 2001). When we think of family time, or

quality time as it’s sometimes called, we usually think of a romanticized ideal of family time

spent together.

While family rituals and routines can be fun and entertaining bonding experiences, they can also

bring about interpersonal conflict and strife. Just think about Clark W. Griswold’s string of well-

intentioned but misguided attempts to manufacture family fun in the National Lampoon’s

Vacation series.

The nuclear family was the subject of many television shows in the 1950s that popularized the

idea of family time. © Thinkstock

Families engage in a variety of rituals that demonstrate symbolic importance and shared beliefs,

attitudes, and values. Three main types of relationship rituals are patterned family interactions,

family traditions, and family celebrations (Wolin, & Bennett, 1984). Patterned family

interactions are the most frequent rituals and do not have the degree of formality of

traditions or celebrations. Patterned interactions may include mealtime, bedtime, receiving


guests at the house, or leisure activities. Mealtime rituals may include a rotation of who cooks

and who cleans, and many families have set seating arrangements at their dinner table. My

family has recently adopted a new leisure ritual for family gatherings by playing corn hole (also

known as bags). While this family activity is not formal, it’s become something expected that we

look forward to.

Family traditions are more formal, occur less frequently than patterned interactions and

can vary widely from family to family, and include birthdays, family reunions, and family

vacations. Birthday traditions may involve a trip to a favorite restaurant, baking a cake, or

hanging streamers. Family reunions may involve making t-shirts for the group or counting the

collective age of everyone present. Family road trips may involve predictable conflict between

siblings or playing car games like “I spy” or trying to find the most number of license plates

from different states.

Last, family celebrations are also formal family rituals that have more standardization

between families, may be culturally specific, help transmit values and memories through

generations, and include rites of passage and religious and secular holiday celebrations.

Thanksgiving, for example, is formalized by a national holiday and is celebrated in similar ways

by many families in the United States. Rites of passage mark life-cycle transitions such as

graduations, weddings, quinceañeras, or bar mitzvahs. While graduations are secular and may

vary in terms of how they are celebrated, quinceañeras have cultural roots in Latin America, and

bar mitzvahs are a long-established religious rite of passage in the Jewish faith.

Conversation and Conformity Orientations

The amount, breadth, and depth of conversation between family members varies from family to

family. Additionally, some families encourage self-exploration and freedom, while others expect

family unity and control. This variation can be better understood by examining two key factors

that influence family communication: conversation orientation and conformity orientation

(Koerner & Fitzpatrick, 2002). A given family can be higher or lower on either dimension, and

how a family rates on each of these dimensions can be used to determine a family type.

To determine conversation orientation, we determine to what degree a family encourages

members to interact and communicate (converse) about various topics. Members within a family

with a high conversation orientation communicate with each other freely and frequently

about activities, thoughts, and feelings. This unrestricted communication style leads to all

members, including children, participating in family decisions. Parents in high-conversation-

orientation families believe that communicating with their children openly and frequently leads

to a more rewarding family life and helps to educate and socialize children, preparing them for

interactions outside the family. Members of a family with a low conversation orientation do

not interact with each other as often, and topics of conversation are more restricted, as

some thoughts are considered private. For example, not everyone’s input may be sought for

decisions that affect everyone in the family, and open and frequent communication is not deemed

important for family functioning or for a child’s socialization.


Conformity orientation is determined by the degree to which a family communication climate

encourages conformity and agreement regarding beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors

(Koerner & Fitzpatrick, 2002). A family with a high conformity orientation fosters a climate

of uniformity, and parents decide guidelines for what to conform to. Children are expected to

be obedient, and conflict is often avoided to protect family harmony. This more traditional

family model stresses interdependence among family members, which means space, money, and

time are shared among immediate family, and family relationships take precedent over those

outside the family. A family with a low conformity orientation encourages diversity of

beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors and assertion of individuality. Relationships

outside the family are seen as important parts of growth and socialization, as they teach lessons

about and build confidence for independence. Members of these families also value personal

time and space.

Determining where your family falls on the conversation and conformity dimensions is more

instructive when you know the family types that result, which are consensual, pluralistic,

protective, and laissez-faire (see Figure 13.1 “Family Types Based on Conflict and Conformity

Orientations”) (Koerner & Fitzpatrick, 2002). A consensual family is high in both

conversation and conformity orientations, and they encourage open communication but

also want to maintain the hierarchy within the family that puts parents above children.

This creates some tension between a desire for both openness and control. Parents may reconcile

this tension by hearing their children’s opinions, making the ultimate decision themselves, and

then explaining why they made the decision they did. A pluralistic family is high in

conversation orientation and low in conformity. Open discussion is encouraged for all family

members, and parents do not strive to control their children’s or each other’s behaviors or

decisions. Instead, they value the life lessons that a family member can learn by spending time

with non–family members or engaging in self-exploration. A protective family is low in

conversation orientation and high in conformity, expects children to be obedient to parents,

and does not value open communication. Parents make the ultimate decisions and may or may

not feel the need to share their reasoning with their children. If a child questions a decision, a

parent may simply respond with “Because I said so.” A laissez-faire family is low in

conversation and conformity orientations, has infrequent and/or short interactions, and

doesn’t discuss many topics. Remember that pluralistic families also have a low conformity

orientation, which means they encourage children to make their own decisions to promote

personal exploration and growth. Laissez-faire families are different in that parents don’t have an

investment in their children’s decision making, and in general, members in this type of family

are “emotionally divorced” from each other (Koerner & Fitzpatrick, 2002).


Figure 13.1 Family Types Based on Conflict and Conformity Orientations

• Pluralistic – A family type that has high conversation, but low conformity.

• Consensual – A family type that has high conversation, and high conformity.

• Laissez-faire – A family type that has low conversation, and low conformity.

• Protective – A family type that has low conversation, but high conformity.


Chapter 13.2 Romantic Relationships

Romance has swept humans off their feet for hundreds of years, as is evidenced by countless

odes written by love-struck poets, romance novels, and reality television shows like The

Bachelor and The Bachelorette. Whether pining for love in the pages of a diary or trying to find

a soul mate from a cast of suitors, love and romance can seem to take us over at times. As we

have learned, communication is the primary means by which we communicate emotion, and it is

how we form, maintain, and end our relationships. In this section, we will explore the

communicative aspects of romantic relationships including love, sex, social networks, and

cultural influences.

Relationship Formation and Maintenance

Much of the research on romantic relationships distinguishes between premarital and marital

couples. However, given the changes in marriage and the diversification of recognized ways to

couple, I will use the following distinctions: dating, cohabitating, and partnered couples. The

category for dating couples encompasses the courtship period, which may range from a first

date through several years. Cohabitating couples consist of couples who live together.

Partnered couples take additional steps to verbally, ceremonially, or legally claim their

intentions to be together in a long-term committed relationship. The romantic relationships

people have before they become partnered provide important foundations for later relationships.

But how do we choose our romantic partners, and what communication patterns affect how these

relationships come together and apart?

Family background, values, physical attractiveness, and communication styles are just some of

the factors that influence our selection of romantic relationships (Segrin & Flora, 2019).

Attachment theory, as discussed earlier, relates to the bond that a child feels with their primary

caregiver. Research has shown that the attachment style (secure, anxious, or avoidant) formed as

a child influences adult romantic relationships. Other research shows that adolescents who feel

like they have a reliable relationship with their parents feel more connection and attraction in

their adult romantic relationships (Seiffge-Krenke, Shulman, & Kiessinger, 2001). Aside from

attachment, which stems more from individual experiences as a child, relationship values, which

stem more from societal expectations and norms, also affect romantic attraction.

We can see the important influence that communication has on the way we perceive relationships

by examining the ways in which relational values have changed over recent decades. Over the

course of the twentieth century, for example, the preference for chastity as a valued part of

relationship selection decreased significantly. While people used to indicate that it was very

important that the person they partner with not have had any previous sexual partners, today

people list several characteristics they view as more important in mate selection (Segrin & Flora,

2019). In addition, characteristics like income and cooking/ housekeeping skills were once more

highly rated as qualities in a potential mate. Today, mutual attraction and love are the top mate-

selection values.


In terms of mutual attraction, over the past sixty years, men and women have more frequently

reported that physical attraction is an important aspect of mate selection. But what characteristics

lead to physical attraction? Despite the saying that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” there is

much research that indicates body and facial symmetry are the universal basics of judging

attractiveness. Further, the matching hypothesis states that people with similar levels of

attractiveness will pair together despite the fact that people may idealize fitness models or

celebrities who appear very attractive (Walster, Aronson, Abrahams, & Rottman, 1966).

However, judgments of attractiveness are also communicative and not just physical. Other

research has shown that verbal and nonverbal expressiveness are judged as attractive, meaning

that a person’s ability to communicate in an engaging and dynamic way may be able to

supplement for some lack of physical attractiveness. For a relationship to be successful, the

people in it must be able to function with each other on a day-to-day basis, once the initial

attraction stage is over. Similarity in preferences for fun activities and hobbies like attending

sports and cultural events, relaxation, television and movie tastes, and socializing were correlated

to more loving and well-maintained relationships. Similarity in role preference means that

couples agree whether one or the other or both should engage in activities like indoor and

outdoor housekeeping, cooking, and handling the finances and shopping. Couples who were not

similar in these areas reported more conflict in their relationship (Segrin & Flora, 2019).

Love and Sexuality in Romantic Relationships

When most of us think of romantic relationships, we think about love. However, love did not

need to be a part of a relationship for it to lead to marriage until recently. In fact, marriages in

some cultures are still arranged based on pedigree (family history) or potential gain in money or

power for the couple’s families. Today, love often doesn’t lead directly to a partnership, given

that most people don’t partner with their first love. Love, like all emotions, varies in intensity

and is an important part of our interpersonal communication.

To better understand love, we can make a distinction between passionate love and companionate

love (Hendrick & Hendrick, 2000). Passionate love entails an emotionally charged

engagement between two people that can be both exhilarating and painful. For example, the

thrill of falling for someone can be exhilarating, but feelings of vulnerability or anxiety that the

love may not be reciprocated can be painful. Companionate love is affection felt between two

people whose lives are interdependent. For example, romantic partners may come to find a

stable and consistent love in their shared time and activities together. The main idea behind this

distinction is that relationships that are based primarily on passionate love will terminate unless

the passion cools overtime into a more enduring and stable companionate love. This doesn’t

mean that passion must completely die out for a relationship to be successful long term. In fact, a

lack of passion could lead to boredom or dissatisfaction. Instead, many people enjoy the thrill of

occasional passion in their relationship but may take solace in the security of a love that is more

stable. While companionate love can also exist in close relationships with friends and family

members, passionate love is often tied to sexuality present in romantic relationships.

There are many ways in which sexuality relates to romantic relationships and many opinions

about the role that sexuality should play in relationships, but this discussion focuses on the role

of sexuality in attraction and relational satisfaction. Compatibility in terms of sexual history and


attitudes toward sexuality are more important predictors of relationship formation. For example,

if a person finds out that a romantic interest has had a more extensive sexual history than their

own, they may not feel compatible, which could lessen attraction (Sprecher & Regan, 2000).

Once together, considerable research suggests that a couple’s sexual satisfaction and relationship

satisfaction are linked such that sexually satisfied individuals report a higher quality relationship,

including more love for their partner and more security in the future success of their relationship

(Sprecher & Regan, 2000). While sexual activity often strengthens emotional bonds between

romantic couples, romantic emotional bonds can form in the absence of sexual activity and

sexual activity is not the sole predictor of relational satisfaction. In fact, sexual communication

may play just as important a role as sexual activity. Sexual communication deals with the

initiation or refusal of sexual activity and communication about sexual likes and dislikes

(Sprecher & Regan, 2000). For example, a sexual communication could involve a couple

discussing a decision to abstain from sexual activity until a certain level of closeness or relational

milestone (like marriage) has been reached. Sexual communication could also involve talking

about sexual likes and dislikes. Sexual conflict can result when couples disagree over

frequency or type of sexual activities. Sexual conflict can also result from jealousy if one

person believes their partner is focusing sexual thoughts or activities outside of the relationship.

While we will discuss jealousy and cheating more in the section on the dark side of relationships,

it is clear that love and sexuality play important roles in our romantic relationships.

Romantic Relationships and Social Networks

Social networks influence all our relationships but have gotten special attention in research on

romantic relations. Romantic relationships are not separate from other interpersonal connections

to friends and family. Is it better for a couple to share friends, have their own friends, or attempt

a balance between the two? Overall, research shows that shared social networks are one of the

strongest predictors of whether a relationship will continue or terminate.

Network overlap refers to the number of shared associations, including friends and family,

that a couple has (Milardo & Helms-Erikson, 2000). For example, if Dan and Shereece are both

close with Dan’s sister Bernadette, and all three of them are friends with Kory, then those

relationships completely overlap (see Figure 13.2 “Social Network Overlap”).


Figure 13.2 Social Network Overlap

Network overlap creates some structural and interpersonal elements that affect relational

outcomes. Friends and family who are invested in both relational partners may be more likely to

support the couple when one or both parties need it. In general, having more points of connection

to provide instrumental support through the granting of favors or emotional support in the form

of empathetic listening and validation during times of conflict can help a couple manage

common stressors of relationships that may otherwise lead a partnership to deteriorate (Milardo

& Helms-Erikson, 2000).

In addition to providing a supporting structure, shared associations can also help create and

sustain a positive relational culture. For example, mutual friends of a couple may validate the

relationship by discussing the partners as a “couple” or “pair” and communicate their approval of

the relationship to the couple separately or together, which creates and maintains a connection

(Milardo & Helms-Erikson, 2000). Being in the company of mutual friends also creates positive

feelings between the couple, as their attention is taken away from the mundane tasks of work and

family life. Imagine Dan and Shereece host a board-game night with a few mutual friends in

which Dan wows the crowd with charades, and Kory says to Shereece, “Wow, he’s really on

tonight. It’s so fun to hang out with you two.” That comment may refocus attention onto the

mutually attractive qualities of the pair and validate their continued interdependence.

Interdependence and relationship networks can also be illustrated through the theory of

triangles (see Figure 13.3 “Theory of Triangles”), which examines the relationship between

three domains of activity: the primary partnership (corner 1), the inner self (corner 2), and

important outside interests (corner 3) (Marks, 1986).


Figure 13.3 Theory of Triangles

All of the corners interact with each other, but it is the third corner that connects the primary

partnership to an extended network. For example, the inner self (corner 2) is enriched by the

primary partnership (corner 1) but also gains from associations that provide support or a chance

for shared activities or recreation (corner 3) that help affirm a person’s self-concept or identity.

Additionally, the primary partnership (corner 1) is enriched by the third-corner associations that

may fill gaps not met by the partnership. When those gaps are filled, a partner may be less likely

to focus on what they’re missing in their primary relationship. However, the third corner can also

produce tension in a relationship if, for example, the other person in a primary partnership feels

like they are competing with their partner’s third-corner relationships. During times of conflict,

one or both partners may increase their involvement in their third corner, which may have

positive or negative effects. A strong romantic relationship is good, but research shows that even

when couples are happily married they reported loneliness if they were not connected to friends.

While the dynamics among the three corners change throughout a relationship, they are all



Chapter 13.3 Listening in Relational Contexts

Listening plays a central role in establishing and maintaining our (Nelson-Jones, 2006). Without

some listening competence, we wouldn’t be able to engage in the self-disclosure process, which

is essential for the establishment of relationships. Newly acquainted people get to know each

other through increasingly personal and reciprocal disclosures of personal information. To

reciprocate a conversational partner’s disclosure, we must process it through listening. Once

relationships are formed, listening to others provides a psychological reward, through the simple

act of recognition, that helps maintain our relationships. Listening to our relational partners and

being listened to in return is part of the give-and-take of any interpersonal relationship. Our

thoughts and experiences “back up” inside of us, and getting them out helps us maintain a

positive balance (Nelson-Jones, 2006). So something as routine and seemingly pointless as

listening to our romantic partner debrief the events of his or her day or our roommate recount his

or her weekend back home shows that we are taking an interest in their lives and are willing to

put our own needs and concerns aside for a moment to attend to their needs. Listening also

closely ties to conflict, as a lack of listening often plays a large role in creating conflict, while

effective listening helps us resolve it.

Listening has relational implications throughout our lives, too. Parents who engage in competent

listening behaviors with their children from a very young age make their children feel

worthwhile and appreciated, which affects their development in terms of personality and

character (Nichols, 2009).

A lack of listening leads to feelings of loneliness, which results in lower self-esteem and higher

degrees of anxiety. In fact, by the age of four or five years old, the empathy and recognition

shown by the presence or lack of listening has molded children’s personalities in noticeable ways

(Nichols, 2009).Children who have been listened to grow up expecting that others will be

available and receptive to them. These children are therefore more likely to interact confidently

with teachers, parents, and peers in ways that help develop communication competence that will

be built on throughout their lives. Children who have not been listened to may come to expect

that others will not want to listen to them, which leads to a lack of opportunities to practice,

develop, and hone foundational communication skills. Fortunately for the more-listened-to

children and unfortunately for the less-listened-to children, these early experiences become

predispositions that don’t change much as the children get older and may reinforce themselves

and become stronger.


Parents who exhibit competent listening behaviors toward their children provide them with a

sense of recognition and security that affects their future development. © Thinkstock


Chapter 13.4 The Dark Side of Relationships

In the course of a given day, it is likely that we will encounter the light and dark sides of

interpersonal relationships. So what constitutes the dark side of relationships? There are two

dimensions of the dark side of relationships: one is the degree to which something is deemed

acceptable or not by society; the other includes the degree to which something functions

productively to improve a relationship (Spitzberg & Cupach, 2007). These dimensions

become more complicated when we realize that there can be overlap between them, meaning that

it may not always be easy to identify something as exclusively light or dark.

Some communication patterns may be viewed as appropriate by society but still serve a

relationally destructive function. Our society generally presumes that increased understanding of

a relationship and relational partner would benefit the relationship. However, numerous research

studies have found that increased understanding of a relationship and relational partner may be

negative. In fact, by avoiding discussing certain topics that might cause conflict, some couples

create and sustain positive illusions about their relationship that may cover up a darker reality.

Despite this, the couple may report that they are very satisfied with their relationship. In this

case, the old saying “ignorance is bliss” seems appropriate. Likewise, communication that is

presumed inappropriate by society may be productive for a given relationship (Spitzberg &

Cupach, 2007). For example, our society ascribes to an ideology of openness that promotes

honesty. However, as we will discuss more next, honesty may not always be the best policy.

Altruistic lies, or lies intended to protect a relational partner, may net an overall positive

result improving the functioning of a relationship.


It’s important to start off this section by noting that lying doesn’t always constitute a “dark side”

of relationships. Although many people have a negative connotation of lying, we have all lied or

concealed information to protect the feelings of someone else. One research study found that

only 27 percent of the participants agreed that a successful relationship must include complete

honesty, which shows there is an understanding that lying is a communicative reality in all

relationships (Spitzberg & Cupach, 2007). Given this reality, it is important to understand the

types of lies we tell and the motivations for and consequences of lying.

We tend to lie more during the initiating phase of a relationship (Knapp, 2006). At this time,

people may lie about their personality, past relationships, income, or skill sets as they engage in

impression management and try to project themselves as likable and competent. For example,

while on a first date, a person may lie and say they recently won an award at work. People

sometimes rationalize these lies by exaggerating something that actually happened. So perhaps

this person did get recognized at work, but it wasn’t actually an award. Lying may be more

frequent at this stage, too, because the two people don’t know each other, meaning it’s unlikely

the other person would have any information that would contradict the statement or discover the

lie. Aside from lying to make ourselves look better, we may also lie to make someone else feel

better. Although trustworthiness and honesty have been listed by survey respondents as the most

desired traits in a dating partner, total honesty in some situations could harm a relationship


(Knapp, 2006). Altruistic lies are lies told to build the self-esteem of our relational partner,

communicate loyalty, or bend the truth to spare someone from hurtful information. Part of

altruistic lying is telling people what they want to hear. For example, you might tell a friend that

his painting is really pretty when you don’t actually see the merit of it, or tell your mom you

enjoyed her meatloaf when you really didn’t. These other-oriented lies may help maintain a

smooth relationship, but they could also become so prevalent that the receiver of the lies

develops a skewed self-concept and is later hurt. If your friend goes to art school only to be

heavily critiqued, did your altruistic lie contribute to that?

As we grow closer to someone, we lie less frequently, and the way we go about lying also

changes. In fact, it becomes more common to conceal information than to verbally deceive

someone outright. We could conceal information by avoiding communication about subjects that

could lead to exposure of the lie. When we are asked a direct question that could expose a lie, we

may respond equivocally, meaning we don’t really answer a question (Knapp, 2006).

Some lies are meant to protect someone or make someone feel better. © Thinkstock

When we do engage in direct lying in our close relationships, there may be the need to

tell supplemental lies to maintain the original lie. So what happens when we suspect or find out

that someone is lying?

Research has found that we are a little better at detecting lies than random chance, with an

average of about 54 percent detection (Knapp, 2006). In addition, couples who had been together

for an average of four years were better at detecting lies in their partner than were friends they

had recently made (Comadena, 2012). This shows that closeness can make us better lie detectors.

But closeness can also lead some people to put the relationship above the need for the truth,

meaning that a partner who suspects the other of lying might intentionally avoid a particular

topic to avoid discovering a lie. Generally, people in close relationships also have a truth bias,


meaning they think they know their relational partners and think positively of them, which

predisposes them to believe their partner is telling the truth. Discovering lies can negatively

affect both parties and the relationship as emotions are stirred up, feelings are hurt, trust and

commitment are lessened, and perhaps revenge is sought.

Sexual and Emotional Cheating

Extradyadic romantic activity (ERA) includes sexual or emotional interaction with

someone other than a primary romantic partner. Given that most romantic couples aim to

have sexually exclusive relationships, ERA is commonly referred to as cheating or infidelity and

viewed as destructive and wrong. Despite this common sentiment, ERA is not a rare occurrence.

Comparing data from more than fifty research studies shows that about 30 percent of people

report that they have cheated on a romantic partner, and there is good reason to assume that the

actual number is higher than that (Tafoya & Spitzberg, 2007).

Although views of what is considered “cheating” vary among cultures and individual couples,

sexual activity outside a primary partnership equates to cheating for most. Emotional infidelity is

more of a gray area. While some individuals who are secure in their commitment to their partner

may not be bothered by their partner’s occasional flirting, others consider a double-glance by a

partner at another attractive person a violation of the trust in the relationship. While research

supports the general belief that infidelity leads to conflict, violence, and relational dissatisfaction,

it also shows that there is a small percentage of relationships that are unaffected or improve

following the discovery of infidelity (Spitzberg & Cupach, 2007). This again shows the

complexity of the dark side of relationships.

The increase in technology and personal media has made extradyadic relationships somewhat

easier to conceal, since smartphones and laptops can be taken anywhere and people can

communicate to fulfill emotional and/or sexual desires. In some cases, this may only be to live

out a fantasy and may not extend beyond electronic communication. But is sexual or emotional

computer-mediated communication considered cheating? You may recall the case of former

Congressman Anthony Weiner, who resigned his position in the US House of Representatives

after it was discovered that he was engaging in sexually explicit communication with people

using Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail. The view of this type of communication as a dark side of

relationships is evidenced by the pressure put on Weiner to resign. So what leads people to

engage in ERA? Generally, ERA is triggered by jealousy, sexual desire, or revenge (Tafoya &

Spitzberg, 2007).

Jealousy, as we will explore more later, is a complicated part of the emotional dark side of

interpersonal relationships. Jealousy may also motivate or justify ERA. Let’s take the following

case as an example. Julie and Mohammed have been together for five years. Mohammed’s job as

a corporate communication consultant involves travel to meet clients and attend conferences.

Julie starts to become jealous when she meets some of Mohammed’s new young and attractive

coworkers. Julie’s jealousy builds as she listens to Mohammed talk about the fun he had with

them during his last business trip. The next time Mohammed goes out of town, Julie has a one-

night-stand and begins to drop hints about it to Mohammed when he returns. In this case, Julie is

engaging in counterjealousy induction—meaning she cheated on Mohammed in order to elicit in


him the same jealousy she feels. She may also use jealousy as a justification for her ERA,

claiming that the jealous state induced by Mohammed’s behavior caused her to cheat.

Sexual desire can also motivate or be used to justify ERA. Individuals may seek out sexual

activity to boost their self-esteem or prove sexual attractiveness. In some cases, sexual

incompatibility with a partner such as different sex drives or sexual interests can motivate or be

used to justify ERA. Men and women may seek out sexual ERA for the thrill of sexual variety,

and affairs can have short-term positive effects on emotional states as an individual relives the

kind of passion that often sparks at the beginning of a relationship (Buunk & Dijkstra, 2006).

However, the sexual gratification and emotional exhilaration of an affair can give way to a

variety of negative consequences for psychological and physical health. In terms of physical

health, increased numbers of sexual partners increases one’s risk for contracting sexually

transmitted infections (STIs) and may increase the chance for unplanned pregnancy. While

sexual desire is a strong physiological motive for ERA, revenge is a strong emotional motive.

Engaging in ERA to get revenge may result from a sense of betrayal by a partner and a desire to

get back at them. In some cases, an individual may try to make the infidelity and the revenge

more personal by engaging in ERA with a relative, friend, or ex of their partner. In general,

people who would engage in this type of behavior are predisposed to negative reciprocity to deal

with conflict and feel like getting back at someone is the best way to get justice. Whether it is

motivated by jealousy, sexual desire, or revenge, ERA has the potential to stir up emotions from

the dark side of relationships. Emotionally, anxiety about being “found out” and feelings of guilt

and shame by the person who had the affair may be met with feelings of anger, jealousy, or

betrayal from the other partner.

Anger and Aggression

We only have to look at some statistics to get a startling picture of violence and aggression in our

society: 25 percent of workers are chronically angry; 60 percent of people experience hurt

feelings more than once a month; 61 percent of children have experienced rejection at least once

in the past month; 25 percent of women and 16 percent of men have been stalked; 46 percent of

children have been hit, shoved, kicked, or tripped in the past month; and nearly two million

people report being the victim of workplace violence each year (Spitzberg & Cupach, 2007).

Violence and abuse constitute a dark side of interpersonal relationships. Even though we often

focus on the physical aspects of violence, communication plays an important role in contributing

to, preventing, and understanding interpersonal violence. Unlike violence that is purely

situational, like a mugging, interpersonal violence is constituted within ongoing relationships,

and it is often not an isolated incident (Johnson, 2006). Violence occurs in all types of

relationships, but our discussion focuses on intimate partner violence and family violence.

Intimate partner violence (IPV) refers to physical, verbal, and emotional violence that

occurs between two people who are in or were recently in a romantic relationship. In order

to understand the complexity of IPV, it is important to understand that there are three types:

intimate terrorism, violent resistance, and situational couple violence (Johnson, 2006). While

control is often the cause of violence, it is usually short-term control (e.g., a threat to get you to

turn over your money during a mugging). In intimate terrorism (IT), one partner uses


violence to have general control over the other. The quest for control takes the following

forms: economic abuse by controlling access to money; using children by getting them on the

abuser’s side and turning them against the abused partner or threatening to hurt or take children

away; keeping the abused partner in isolation from their friends and family; and emotional abuse

by degrading self-esteem and intimidating the other partner.

Violent resistance (VR) is another type of violence between intimate partners and is often a

reaction or response to intimate terrorism (IT). The key pattern in VR is that the person

resisting uses violence as a response to a partner that is violent and controlling; however, the

resistor is not attempting to control. In short, VR is most often triggered by living with an

intimate terrorist. There are very clear and established gender influences on these two types of

violence. The overwhelming majority of IT violence is committed by men and directed toward

women, and most VR is committed by women and directed at men who are intimate terrorists.

Statistics on violence show that more than one thousand women a year are killed by their male

partners, while three hundred men are killed by their female partners, mostly as an act of violent

resistance to ongoing intimate terrorism (Johnson, 2006). The influence of gender on the third

type of IPV is not as uneven.

Situational couple violence (SCV) is the most common type of IPV and does not involve a

quest for control in the relationship. Instead, SCV is provoked by a situation that is emotional

or difficult that leads someone to respond or react with violence. SCV can play out in many

ways, ranging from more to less severe and isolated to frequent. Even if SCV is frequent and

severe, the absence of a drive for control distinguishes it from intimate terrorism. This is the type

of violence we most often imagine when we hear the term domestic violence. However, domestic

violence doesn’t capture the various ways that violence plays out between people, especially the

way intimate terrorism weaves its way into all aspects of a relationship. Domestic violence also

includes other types of abuse such as child-to- parent abuse, sibling abuse, and elder abuse.

Child abuse is another type of interpersonal violence that presents a serious problem in the

United States, with over one million cases confirmed yearly by Child Protective Services

(Morgan & Wilson, 2007). But what are the communicative aspects of child abuse? Research has

found that one interaction pattern related to child abuse is evaluation and attribution of behavior

(Morgan & Wilson, 2007). As you’ll recall from our earlier discussion, attributions are links we

make to identify the cause of a behavior. In the case of abusive parents, they are not as able to

distinguish between mistakes and intentional behaviors, often seeing honest mistakes as intended

and reacting negatively to the child. Abusive parents also communicate generally negative

evaluations to their child by saying, for example, “You can’t do anything right!” or “You’re a

bad girl.” When children do exhibit positive behaviors, abusive parents are more likely to use

external attributions, which diminish the achievement of the child by saying, for example, “You

only won because the other team was off their game.” In general, abusive parents have

unpredictable reactions to their children’s positive and negative behavior, which creates an

uncertain and often scary climate for a child. Other negative effects of child abuse include lower

self-esteem and erratic or aggressive behavior. Although we most often think of children as the

targets of violence, they can also be perpetrators.


Reports of adolescent-to-parent abuse are increasing, although there is no reliable statistic on

how prevalent this form of domestic violence is, given that parents may be embarrassed to report

it or may hope that they can handle the situation themselves without police intervention.

Adolescent-to-parent abuse usually onsets between ages ten and fourteen Eckstein, N

(2007). Mothers are more likely to be the target of this abuse than fathers, and when the abuse is

directed at fathers, it most often comes from sons. Abusive adolescents may also direct their

aggression at their siblings. Research shows that abusive adolescents are usually not reacting to

abuse directed at them. Parents report that their children engage in verbal, emotional, and

physical attacks in order to wear them down to get what they want.

Aggression and even abuse directed from child to parent is becoming more of an issue. ©


While physical violence has great potential for causing injury or even death, psychological and

emotional abuse can also be present in any relationship form. A statistic I found surprising states

that almost all people have experienced at least one incident of psychological or verbal

aggression from a current or past dating partner (Dailey, Lee, & Spitzberg, 2007). Psychological

abuse is most often carried out through communicative aggression, which is recurring verbal


or nonverbal communication that significantly and negatively affects a person’s sense of

self. The following are examples of communicative aggression (Dailey et al., 2007):

• Degrading (humiliating, blaming, berating, name-calling)

• Physically or emotionally withdrawing (giving someone the cold shoulder, neglecting)

• Restricting another person’s actions (overmonitoring/controlling money or access to

friends and family)

• Dominating (bossing around, controlling decisions)

• Threatening physical harm (threatening self, relational partner, or friends/family/pets of

relational partner)

While incidents of communicative aggression might not reach the level of abuse found in an

intimate terrorism situation, it is a pervasive form of abuse. Even though we may view physical

or sexual abuse as the most harmful, research indicates that psychological abuse can be more

damaging and have more wide- ranging and persistent effects than the other types of abuse

(Dailey et al., 2007). Psychological abuse can lead to higher rates of depression, anxiety, stress,

eating disorders, and attempts at suicide. The discussion of the dark side of relationships shows

us that communication can be hurtful on a variety of fronts.


Chapter 13 Key Takeaways and Exercises


• There are many ways to define a family.

o Structural definitions focus on form of families and have narrow criteria for


o Task-orientation definitions focus on behaviors like financial and emotional


o Transactional definitions focus on the creation of subjective feelings of home,

group identity, and a shared history and future.

• Family rituals include patterned interactions like a nightly dinner or bedtime ritual,

family traditions like birthdays and vacations, and family celebrations like holidays and


• Conversation and conformity orientations play a role in the creation of family climates.

o Conversation orientation refers to the degree to which family members interact

and communicate about various topics.

o Conformity orientation refers to the degree to which a family expects uniformity

of beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors.

o Conversation and conformity orientations intersect to create the following family

climates: consensual, pluralistic, protective, and laissez-faire.

• Romantic relationships include dating, cohabitating, and partnered couples.

• Family background, values, physical attractiveness, and communication styles influence

our attraction to and selection of romantic partners.

• Passionate, companionate, and romantic love and sexuality influence relationships.

• Network overlap is an important predictor of relational satisfaction and success.

• The dark side of relationships exists in relation to the light side and includes actions that

are deemed unacceptable by society at large and actions that are unproductive for those in

the relationship.

• Lying does not always constitute a dark side of relationships, as altruistic lies may do

more good than harm. However, the closer a relationship, the more potential there is for

lying to have negative effects.

• Extradyadic romantic activity involves sexual or emotional contact with someone other

than a primary romantic partner and is most often considered cheating or infidelity and

can result in jealousy, anger, or aggression.

• There are three main types of intimate partner violence (IPV).

o Intimate terrorism (IT) involves violence used to have general control over the

other person.

o Violent resistance (VR) is usually a response or reaction to violence from an

intimate terrorist.

o Situational couple violence (SCV) is the most common type of IPV and is a

reaction to stressful situations and does not involve a quest for control.

• Communicative aggression is recurring verbal or nonverbal communication that

negatively affects another person’s sense of self and can take the form of verbal,

psychological, or emotional abuse.



1. Of the three types of definitions for families (structural, task- orientation, or
transactional), which is most important to you and why?

2. Identify and describe a ritual you have experienced for each of the following: patterned
family interaction, family tradition, and family celebration. How did each of those come

to be a ritual in your family?

3. In terms of romantic attraction, which adage do you think is more true and why? “Birds
of a feather flock together” or “Opposites attract.”

4. List some examples of how you see passionate and companionate love play out in
television shows or movies. Do you think this is an accurate portrayal of how love is

experienced in romantic relationships? Why or why not?

5. Social network overlap affects a romantic relationship in many ways. What are some
positives and negatives of network overlap?

6. Describe a situation in which lying affected one of your interpersonal relationships. What
was the purpose of the lie and how did the lie affect the relationship?

7. How do you think technology has affected extradyadic romantic activity?
8. Getting integrated: In what ways might the “dark side of relationships” manifest in your

personal relationships in academic contexts, professional contexts, and civic contexts?

9. Think of your own family and identify where you would fall on the conversation and
conformity orientations. Provide at least one piece of evidence to support your decision.



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Getting Competent: Handling Communicative Aggression at


Workplace bullying is a form of communicative aggression that occurs between coworkers as

one employee (the bully) attempts to degrade, intimidate, or humiliate another employee (the

target), and research shows that one in three adults has experienced workplace bullying

(Petrecca, 2010). In fact, there is an organization called Civility Partners, LLC devoted to ending

workplace bullying—you can visit their website at

This type of behavior has psychological and emotional consequences, but it also has the potential

to damage a company’s reputation and finances. While there are often mechanisms in place to

help an employee deal with harassment—reporting to Human Resources for example—the

situation may be trickier if the bully is your boss. In this case, many employees may be afraid to

complain for fear of retaliation like getting fired, and transferring to another part of the company

or getting another job altogether is a less viable option in a struggling economy. Apply the

communication concepts you’ve learned so far to address the following questions.

1. How can you distinguish between a boss who is demanding or a perfectionist and a boss
who is a bully?

2. If you were being bullied by someone at work, what would you do?


Getting Real: Family Therapists

Family therapists provide counseling to parents, children, romantic partners, and other members

of family units. People may seek out a family therapist to deal with difficult past experiences or

current problems such as family conflict, emotional processing related to grief or trauma,

marriage/relationship stresses, children’s behavioral concerns, and so on. Family therapists are

trained to assess the systems of interaction within a family through counseling sessions that may

be one-on-one or with other family members present. The therapist then evaluates how a

family’s patterns are affecting the individuals within the family. Whether through social services

or private practice, family therapy is usually short term. Once the assessment and evaluation is

complete, goals are established and sessions are scheduled to track the progress toward

completion. The demand for family therapists remains strong, as people’s lives grow more

complex, careers take people away from support networks such as family and friends, and

economic hardships affect interpersonal relationships. Family therapists usually have bachelor’s

and master’s degrees and must obtain a license to practice in their state. More information about

family and marriage therapists can be found through their professional organization, the

American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, at

1. List some issues within a family that you think should be addressed through formal
therapy. List some issues within a family that you think should be addressed directly

with/by family members. What is the line that distinguishes between these two levels?

2. Based on what you’ve read in this book so far, what communication skills do you think
would be most beneficial for a family therapist to possess and why?


Getting Critical: Arranged Marriages

Although romantic love is considered a precursor to marriage in Western societies, this is not the

case in other cultures. As was noted earlier, mutual attraction and love are the most important

factors in mate selection in research conducted in the United States. In some other countries, like

China, India, and Iran, mate selection is primarily decided by family members and may be based

on the evaluation of a potential partner’s health, financial assets, social status, or family

connections. In some cases, families make financial arrangements to ensure the marriage takes

place. Research on marital satisfaction of people in autonomous (self-chosen) marriages and

arranged marriages has been mixed, but a recent study found that there was no significant

difference in marital satisfaction between individuals in marriages of choice in the United States

and those in arranged marriages in India (Myers, Madathil, & Tingle, 2005). While many people

undoubtedly question whether a person can be happy in an arranged marriage, in more

collectivistic (group-oriented) societies, accommodating family wishes may be more important

than individual preferences. Rather than love leading up to a marriage, love is expected to grow

as partners learn more about each other and adjust to their new lives together once married.

1. Do you think arranged marriages are ethical? Why or why not?
2. Try to step back and view both types of marriages from an outsider’s perspective. The

differences between the two types of marriage are fairly clear, but in what ways are

marriages of choice and arranged marriages similar?

3. List potential benefits and drawbacks of marriages of choice and arranged marriages.


Getting Plugged In: Online Dating

It is becoming more common for people to initiate romantic relationships through the Internet,

and online dating sites are big business, bringing in $470 million a year (Madden & Lenhart,

2006). Whether it’s through sites like or or through chat rooms or

social networking, people are taking advantage of some of the conveniences of online dating. But

what are the drawbacks?

1. What are the advantages and disadvantages of online dating?
2. What advice would you give a friend who is considering using online dating to help him

or her be a more competent communicator?


Chapter 14.1 Conflict Introduction

Who do you have the most conflict with right now? Your answer to this question probably

depends on the various contexts in your life. If you still live at home with a parent or parents,

you may have daily conflicts with your family as you try to balance your autonomy, or desire for

independence, with the practicalities of living under your family’s roof. If you’ve recently

moved away to go to college, you may be negotiating roommate conflicts as you adjust to living

with someone you may not know at all. You probably also have experiences managing conflict

in romantic relationships and in the workplace. So think back and ask yourself, “How well do I

handle conflict?” As with all areas of communication, we can improve if we have the

background knowledge to identify relevant communication phenomena and the motivation to

reflect on and enhance our communication skills.

Interpersonal conflict occurs in interactions where there are real or perceived incompatible

goals, scarce resources, or opposing viewpoints. Interpersonal conflict may be expressed

verbally or nonverbally along a continuum ranging from a nearly imperceptible cold shoulder to

a very obvious blowout. Interpersonal conflict is, however, distinct from interpersonal violence,

which goes beyond communication to include abuse. Domestic violence is a serious issue and is

discussed in the section “The Dark Side of Relationships.”

Conflict is an inevitable part of close relationships and can take a negative emotional toll. It takes

effort to ignore someone or be passive aggressive, and the anger or guilt we may feel after

blowing up at someone are valid negative feelings. However, conflict isn’t always negative or

unproductive. In fact, numerous research studies have shown that quantity of conflict in a

relationship is not as important as how the conflict is handled (Markman, Renick, Floyd, Stanley,

& Clements, 1993). Additionally, when conflict is well managed, it has the potential to lead to

more rewarding and satisfactory relationships (Canary & Messman, 2000).


“_DSF5370” by macitonbasi is licensed under CC PDM 1.0

Improving your competence in dealing with conflict can yield positive effects in the real world.

Since conflict is present in our personal and professional lives, the ability to manage conflict and

negotiate desirable outcomes can help us be more successful at both. Whether you and your

partner are trying to decide what brand of flat-screen television to buy or discussing the

upcoming political election with your mother, the potential for conflict is present. In professional

settings, the ability to engage in conflict management, sometimes called conflict resolution, is a

necessary and valued skill. However, many professionals do not receive training in conflict

management even though they are expected to do it as part of their job (Gates, 2006). A lack of

training and a lack of competence could be a recipe for disaster, which is illustrated in an episode

of The Office titled “Conflict Resolution.” In the episode, Toby, the human-resources officer,

encourages office employees to submit anonymous complaints about their coworkers. Although

Toby doesn’t attempt to resolve the conflicts, the employees feel like they are being heard. When

Michael, the manager, finds out there is unresolved conflict, he makes the anonymous


complaints public in an attempt to encourage resolution, which backfires, creating more conflict

within the office. As usual, Michael doesn’t demonstrate communication competence; however,

there are career paths for people who do have an interest in or talent for conflict management.

Many colleges and universities now offer undergraduate degrees, graduate degrees, or

certificates in conflict resolution, such as this one at the University of North Carolina

Greensboro: Being able to manage conflict situations can make life

more pleasant rather than letting a situation stagnate or escalate. The negative effects of poorly

handled conflict could range from an awkward last few weeks of the semester with a college

roommate to violence or divorce. However, there is no absolute right or wrong way to handle a

conflict. Remember that being a competent communicator doesn’t mean that you follow a set of

absolute rules. Rather, a competent communicator assesses multiple contexts and applies or

adapts communication tools and skills to fit the dynamic situation.


Chapter 14.2 Conflict Management Styles

Would you describe yourself as someone who prefers to avoid conflict? Do you like to get your

way? Are you good at working with someone to reach a solution that is mutually beneficial?

Odds are that you have been in situations where you could answer yes to each of these questions,

which underscores the important role context plays in conflict and conflict management styles in

particular. The way we view and deal with conflict is learned and contextual. Is the way you

handle conflicts similar to the way your parents handle conflict? If you’re of a certain age, you

are likely predisposed to answer this question with a certain “No!” It wasn’t until my late

twenties and early thirties that I began to see how similar I am to my parents, even though I, like

many, spent years trying to distinguish myself from them. Research does show that there is

intergenerational transmission of traits related to conflict management. As children, we test out

different conflict resolution styles we observe in our families with our parents and siblings.

Later, as we enter adolescence and begin developing platonic and romantic relationships outside

the family, we begin testing what we’ve learned from our parents in other settings. If a child has

observed and used negative conflict management styles with siblings or parents, he or she is

likely to exhibit those behaviors with non–family members (Reese-Weber & Bartle-Haring,


There has been much research done on different types of conflict management styles, which are

communication strategies that attempt to avoid, address, or resolve a conflict. Keep in mind that

we don’t always consciously choose a style. We may instead be caught up in emotion and

become reactionary. The strategies for more effectively managing conflict that will be discussed

later may allow you to slow down the reaction process, become more aware of it, and intervene

in the process to improve your communication. A powerful tool to mitigate conflict is

information exchange. Asking for more information before you react to a conflict- triggering

event is a good way to add a buffer between the trigger and your reaction. Another key element

is whether or not a communicator is oriented toward self-centered or other-centered goals. For

example, if your goal is to “win” or make the other person “lose,” you show a high concern for

self and a low concern for other. If your goal is to facilitate a “win/win” resolution or outcome,

you show a high concern for self and other. In general, strategies that facilitate information

exchange and include concern for mutual goals will be more successful at managing conflict

(Sillars, 1980).

The five strategies for managing conflict we will discuss are competing, avoiding,

accommodating, compromising, and collaborating. Each of these conflict styles accounts for the

concern we place on self versus other (see Figure 14.1 “Five Styles of Interpersonal Conflict



Figure 14.1 Five Styles of Interpersonal Conflict Management

Source: Adapted from M. Afzalur Rahim, “A Measure of Styles of Handling Interpersonal

Conflict,” Academy of Management Journal 26, no. 2 (1983): 368–76.

In order to better understand the elements of the five styles of conflict management, we will

apply each to the follow scenario. Rosa and D’Shaun have been partners for seventeen years.

Rosa is growing frustrated because D’Shaun continues to give money to their teenage daughter,

Casey, even though they decided to keep the teen on a fixed allowance to try to teach her more

responsibility. While conflicts regarding money and child rearing are very common, we will see

the numerous ways that Rosa and D’Shaun could address this problem.


The competing style indicates a high concern for self and a low concern for other. When we

compete, we are striving to “win” the conflict, potentially at the expense or “loss” of the other

person. One way we may gauge our win is by being granted or taking concessions from the other

person. For example, if D’Shaun gives Casey extra money behind Rosa’s back, he is taking an

indirect competitive route resulting in a “win” for him because he got his way. The competing

style also involves the use of power, which can be noncoercive or coercive (Sillars, 1980).

Noncoercive strategies include requesting and persuading. When requesting, we suggest the

conflict partner change a behavior. Requesting doesn’t require a high level of information

exchange. When we persuade, however, we give our conflict partner reasons to support our

request or suggestion, meaning there is more information exchange, which may make persuading

more effective than requesting. Rosa could try to persuade D’Shaun to stop giving Casey extra

allowance money by bringing up their fixed budget or reminding him that they are saving for a

summer vacation. Coercive strategies violate standard guidelines for ethical communication and

may include aggressive communication directed at rousing your partner’s emotions through

insults, profanity, and yelling, or through threats of punishment if you do not get your way. If

Rosa is the primary income earner in the family, she could use that power to threaten to take


D’Shaun’s ATM card away if he continues giving Casey money. In all these scenarios, the “win”

that could result is only short term and can lead to conflict escalation. Interpersonal conflict is

rarely isolated, meaning there can be ripple effects that connect the current conflict to previous

and future conflicts. D’Shaun’s behind-the-scenes money giving or Rosa’s confiscation of the

ATM card could lead to built-up negative emotions that could further test their relationship.

Competing has been linked to aggression, although the two are not always paired. If

assertiveness does not work, there is a chance it could escalate to hostility. There is a pattern of

verbal escalation: requests, demands, complaints, angry statements, threats, harassment, and

verbal abuse (Johnson & Roloff, 2000). Aggressive communication can become patterned, which

can create a volatile and hostile environment. The reality television show The Bad Girls Club is a

prime example of a chronically hostile and aggressive environment. If you do a Google video

search for clips from the show, you will see yelling, screaming, verbal threats, and some

examples of physical violence. The producers of the show choose houseguests who have

histories of aggression, and when the “bad girls” are placed in a house together, they fall into

typical patterns, which creates dramatic television moments. Obviously, living in this type of

volatile environment would create stressors in any relationship, so it’s important to monitor the

use of competing as a conflict resolution strategy to ensure that it does not lapse into aggression.

The competing style of conflict management is not the same thing as having a competitive

personality. Competition in relationships isn’t always negative, and people who enjoy engaging

in competition may not always do so at the expense of another person’s goals. In fact, research

has shown that some couples engage in competitive shared activities like sports or games to

maintain and enrich their relationship (Dindia & Baxter, 1987). And although we may think that

competitiveness is gendered, research has often shown that women are just as competitive as

men (Messman & Mikesell, 2000).


The avoiding style of conflict management often indicates a low concern for self and a low

concern for other, and no direct communication about the conflict takes place. However, as

we will discuss later, in some cultures that emphasize group harmony over individual interests,

and even in some situations in the United States, avoiding a conflict can indicate a high level of

concern for the other. In general, avoiding doesn’t mean that there is no communication about

the conflict. Remember, you cannot not communicate. Even when we try to avoid conflict, we

may intentionally or unintentionally give our feelings away through our verbal and nonverbal

communication. Rosa’s sarcastic tone as she tells D’Shaun that he’s “Soooo good with money!”

and his subsequent eye roll both bring the conflict to the surface without specifically addressing

it. The avoiding style is either passive or indirect, meaning there is little information exchange,

which may make this strategy less effective than others. We may decide to avoid conflict for

many different reasons, some of which are better than others. If you view the conflict as having

little importance to you, it may be better to ignore it. If the person you’re having conflict with

will only be working in your office for a week, you may perceive a conflict to be temporary and

choose to avoid it and hope that it will solve itself. If you are not emotionally invested in the

conflict, you may be able to reframe your perspective and see the situation in a different way,


therefore resolving the issue. In all these cases, avoiding doesn’t really require an investment of

time, emotion, or communication skill, so there is not much at stake to lose.

Avoidance is not always an easy conflict management choice, because sometimes the person we

have conflict with isn’t a temp in our office or a weekend houseguest. While it may be easy to

tolerate a problem when you’re not personally invested in it or view it as temporary, when faced

with a situation like Rosa and D’Shaun’s, avoidance would just make the problem worse. For

example, avoidance could first manifest as changing the subject, then progress from avoiding the

issue to avoiding the person altogether, to even ending the relationship.

Indirect strategies of hinting and joking also fall under the avoiding style. While these indirect

avoidance strategies may lead to a buildup of frustration or even anger, they allow us to vent a

little of our built-up steam and may make a conflict situation more bearable. When we hint, we

drop clues that we hope our partner will find and piece together to see the problem and hopefully

change, thereby solving the problem without any direct communication. In almost all the cases of

hinting that I have experienced or heard about, the person dropping the hints overestimates their

partner’s detective abilities. For example, when Rosa leaves the bank statement on the kitchen

table in hopes that D’Shaun will realize how much extra money he is giving Casey, D’Shaun

may simply ignore it or even get irritated with Rosa for not putting the statement with all the

other mail. We also overestimate our partner’s ability to decode the jokes we make about a

conflict situation. It is more likely that the receiver of the jokes will think you’re genuinely

trying to be funny or feel provoked or insulted than realize the conflict situation that you are

referencing. So more frustration may develop when the hints and jokes are not decoded, which

often leads to a more extreme form of hinting/joking: passive-aggressive behavior.

Passive-aggressive behavior is a way of dealing with conflict in which one person indirectly

communicates their negative thoughts or feelings through nonverbal behaviors, such as not

completing a task. For example, Rosa may wait a few days to deposit money into the bank so

D’Shaun can’t withdraw it to give to Casey, or D’Shaun may cancel plans for a romantic dinner

because he feels like Rosa is questioning his responsibility with money. Although passive-

aggressive behavior can feel rewarding in the moment, it is one of the most unproductive ways to

deal with conflict. These behaviors may create additional conflicts and may lead to a cycle of

passive-aggressiveness in which the other partner begins to exhibit these behaviors as well, while

never actually addressing the conflict that originated the behavior. In most avoidance situations,

both parties lose. However, as noted above, avoidance can be the most appropriate strategy in

some situations—for example, when the conflict is temporary, when the stakes are low or there

is little personal investment, or when there is the potential for violence or retaliation.


The accommodating conflict management style indicates a low concern for self and a high

concern for other and is often viewed as passive or submissive, in that someone complies with

or obliges another without providing personal input. The context for and motivation behind

accommodating play an important role in whether or not it is an appropriate strategy. Generally,

we accommodate because we are being generous, we are obeying, or we are yielding (Bobot,

2010). If we are being generous, we accommodate because we genuinely want to; if we are


obeying, we don’t have a choice but to accommodate (perhaps due to the potential for negative

consequences or punishment); and if we yield, we may have our own views or goals but give up

on them due to fatigue, time constraints, or because a better solution has been offered.

Accommodating can be appropriate when there is little chance that our own goals can be

achieved, when we don’t have much to lose by accommodating, when we feel we are wrong, or

when advocating for our own needs could negatively affect the relationship (Isenhart & Spangle,

2000). The occasional accommodation can be useful in maintaining a relationship—remember

earlier we discussed putting another’s needs before your own as a way to achieve relational

goals. For example, Rosa may say, “It’s OK that you gave Casey some extra money; she did

have to spend more on gas this week since the prices went up.” However, being a team player

can slip into being a pushover, which people generally do not appreciate. If Rosa keeps telling

D’Shaun, “It’s OK this time,” they may find themselves short on spending money at the end of

the month. At that point, Rosa and D’Shaun’s conflict may escalate as they question each other’s

motives, or the conflict may spread if they direct their frustration at Casey and blame it on her


Research has shown that the accommodating style is more likely to occur when there are time

restraints and less likely to occur when someone does not want to appear weak (Cai & Fink,

2002). If you’re standing outside the movie theatre and two movies are starting, you may say,

“Let’s just have it your way,” so you don’t miss the beginning. If you’re a new manager at an

electronics store and an employee wants to take Sunday off to watch a football game, you may

say no to set an example for the other employees. As with avoiding, there are certain cultural

influences we will discuss later that make accommodating a more effective strategy.


The compromising style shows a moderate concern for self and other and may indicate that

there is a low investment in the conflict and/or the relationship. Even though we often hear

that the best way to handle a conflict is to compromise, the compromising style isn’t a win/win

solution; it is a partial win/lose. In essence, when we compromise, we give up some or most of

what we want. It’s true that the conflict gets resolved temporarily, but lingering thoughts of what

you gave up could lead to a future conflict. Compromising may be a good strategy when there

are time limitations or when prolonging a conflict may lead to relationship deterioration.

Compromise may also be good when both parties have equal power or when other resolution

strategies have not worked (Macintosh & Stevens, 2008).


Compromising may help conflicting parties come to a resolution, but neither may be completely

satisfied if they each had to give something up. © Thinkstock

A negative of compromising is that it may be used as an easy way out of a conflict. The

compromising style is most effective when both parties find the solution agreeable. Rosa and

D’Shaun could decide that Casey’s allowance does need to be increased and could each give ten

more dollars a week by committing to taking their lunch to work twice a week instead of eating

out. They are both giving up something, and if neither of them have a problem with taking their

lunch to work, then the compromise was equitable. If the couple agrees that the twenty extra

dollars a week should come out of D’Shaun’s golf budget, the compromise isn’t as equitable, and

D’Shaun, although he agreed to the compromise, may end up with feelings of resentment.

Wouldn’t it be better to both win?


The collaborating style involves a high degree of concern for self and other and usually

indicates investment in the conflict situation and the relationship. Although the collaborating

style takes the most work in terms of communication competence, it ultimately leads to a

win/win situation in which neither party has to make concessions because a mutually beneficial

solution is discovered or created. The obvious advantage is that both parties are satisfied, which

could lead to positive problem solving in the future and strengthen the overall relationship. For

example, Rosa and D’Shaun may agree that Casey’s allowance needs to be increased and may

decide to give her twenty more dollars a week in exchange for her babysitting her little brother

one night a week. In this case, they didn’t make the conflict personal but focused on the situation

and came up with a solution that may end up saving them money. The disadvantage is that this

style is often time consuming, and only one person may be willing to use this approach while the

other person is eager to compete to meet their goals or willing to accommodate.


Here are some tips for collaborating and achieving a win/win outcome (Hargie, 2017):

• Do not view the conflict as a contest you are trying to win.

• Remain flexible and realize there are solutions yet to be discovered.

• Distinguish the people from the problem (don’t make it personal).

• Determine what the underlying needs are that are driving the other person’s demands

(needs can still be met through different demands).

• Identify areas of common ground or shared interests that you can work from to develop


• Ask questions to allow them to clarify and to help you understand their perspective.

• Listen carefully and provide verbal and nonverbal feedback.


Chapter 14.3 Culture and Conflict

Culture is an important context to consider when studying conflict, and recent research has called

into question some of the assumptions of the five conflict management styles discussed so far,

which were formulated with a Western bias (Oetzel, Garcia, & Ting‐Toomey, 2008). For
example, while the avoiding style of conflict has been cast as negative, with a low concern for

self and other or as a lose/lose outcome, this research found that participants in the United States,

Germany, China, and Japan all viewed avoiding strategies as demonstrating a concern for the

other. While there are some generalizations we can make about culture and conflict, it is better to

look at more specific patterns of how interpersonal communication and conflict management are

related. We can better understand some of the cultural differences in conflict management by

further examining the concept of face.

What does it mean to “save face?” This saying generally refers to preventing embarrassment or

preserving our reputation or image, which is similar to the concept of face in interpersonal and

intercultural communication. Our face is the projected self we desire to put into the world,

and facework refers to the communicative strategies we employ to project, maintain, or

repair our face or maintain, repair, or challenge another’s face. Additionally, face

negotiation theory argues that people in all cultures negotiate face through communication

encounters, and that cultural factors influence how we engage in facework, especially in

conflict situations (Oetzel & Ting-Toomey, 2003). These cultural factors influence whether we

are more concerned with self-face or other-face and what types of conflict management

strategies we may use. One key cultural influence on face negotiation is the distinction between

individualistic and collectivistic cultures.

The distinction between individualistic and collectivistic cultures is an important dimension

across which all cultures vary. Individualistic cultures like the United States and most of Europe

emphasize individual identity over group identity and encourage competition and self-reliance.

Collectivistic cultures like Taiwan, Colombia, China, Japan, Vietnam, and Peru value in-group

identity over individual identity and value conformity to social norms of the in-group (Dsilva &

Whyte, 1998). However, within the larger cultures, individuals will vary in the degree to which

they view themselves as part of a group or as a separate individual, which is called self-

construal. Independent self-construal indicates a perception of the self as an individual with

unique feelings, thoughts, and motivations. Interdependent self- construal indicates a perception

of the self as interrelated with others (Oetzel & Ting-Toomey, 2003). Not surprisingly, people

from individualistic cultures are more likely to have higher levels of independent self-construal,

and people from collectivistic cultures are more likely to have higher levels of interdependent

self- construal. Self-construal and individualistic or collectivistic cultural orientations affect how

people engage in facework and the conflict management styles they employ.

Self-construal alone does not have a direct effect on conflict style, but it does affect face

concerns, with independent self-construal favoring self-face concerns and interdependent self-

construal favoring other-face concerns. There are specific facework strategies for different

conflict management styles, and these strategies correspond to self-face concerns or other-face



• Accommodating. Giving in (self-face concern).

• Avoiding. Pretending conflict does not exist (other-face concern).

• Competing. Defending your position, persuading (self-face concern).

• Collaborating. Apologizing, having a private discussion, remaining calm (other-face

concern). (Oetzel, Garcia, & Ting‐Toomey, 2008).

Research done on college students in Germany, Japan, China, and the United States found that

those with independent self-construal were more likely to engage in competing, and those with

interdependent self-construal were more likely to engage in avoiding or collaborating (Oetzel &

Ting-Toomey, 2003). And in general, this research found that members of collectivistic cultures

were more likely to use the avoiding style of conflict management and less likely to use the

integrating or competing styles of conflict management than were members of individualistic

cultures. The following examples bring together facework strategies, cultural orientations, and

conflict management style: Someone from an individualistic culture may be more likely to

engage in competing as a conflict management strategy if they are directly confronted, which

may be an attempt to defend their reputation (self-face concern). Someone in a collectivistic

culture may be more likely to engage in avoiding or accommodating in order not to embarrass or

anger the person confronting them (other-face concern) or out of concern that their reaction

could reflect negatively on their family or cultural group (other-face concern). While these

distinctions are useful for categorizing large-scale cultural patterns, it is important not to

essentialize or arbitrarily group countries together, because there are measurable differences

within cultures. For example, expressing one’s emotions was seen as demonstrating a low

concern for other-face in Japan, but this was not so in China, which shows there is variety

between similarly collectivistic cultures. Culture always adds layers of complexity to any

communication phenomenon, but experiencing and learning from other cultures also enriches our

lives and makes us more competent communicators.


Chapter 14.4 Handling Conflict Better

Conflict is inevitable and it is not inherently negative. A key part of developing interpersonal

communication competence involves being able to effectively manage the conflict you will

encounter in all your relationships. One key part of handling conflict better is to notice patterns

of conflict in specific relationships and to generally have an idea of what causes you to react

negatively and what your reactions usually are.

Identifying Conflict Patterns

Much of the research on conflict patterns has been done on couples in romantic relationships, but

the concepts and findings are applicable to other relationships. Four common triggers for conflict

are criticism, demand, cumulative annoyance, and rejection (Christensen, Doss, & Jacobson,

2014). We all know from experience that criticism, or comments that evaluate another person’s

personality, behavior, appearance, or life choices, may lead to conflict. Comments do not have to

be meant as criticism to be perceived as such. If Gary comes home from college for the weekend

and his mom says, “Looks like you put on a few pounds,” she may view this as a statement of

fact based on observation. Gary, however, may take the comment personally and respond

negatively back to his mom, starting a conflict that will last for the rest of his visit. A simple but

useful strategy to manage the trigger of criticism is to follow the old adage “Think before you

speak.” In many cases, there are alternative ways to phrase things that may be taken less

personally, or we may determine that our comment doesn’t need to be spoken at all. I’ve learned

that a majority of the thoughts that we have about another person’s physical appearance, whether

positive or negative, do not need to be verbalized. Ask yourself, “What is my motivation for

making this comment?” and “Do I have anything to lose by not making this comment?” If your

underlying reasons for asking are valid, perhaps there is another way to phrase your observation.

If Gary’s mom is worried about his eating habits and health, she could wait until they’re eating

dinner and ask him how he likes the food choices at school and what he usually eats.

Demands also frequently trigger conflict, especially if the demand is viewed as unfair or

irrelevant. It’s important to note that demands rephrased as questions may still be or be perceived

as demands. Tone of voice and context are important factors here. When you were younger, you

may have asked a parent, teacher, or elder for something and heard back “Ask nicely.” As with

criticism, thinking before you speak and before you respond can help manage demands and

minimize conflict episodes. As we discussed earlier, demands are sometimes met with

withdrawal rather than a verbal response. If you are doing the demanding, remember a higher

level of information exchange may make your demand clearer or more reasonable to the other

person. If you are being demanded of, responding calmly and expressing your thoughts and

feelings are likely more effective than withdrawing, which may escalate the conflict.

Cumulative annoyance is a building of frustration or anger that occurs over time, eventually

resulting in a conflict interaction. For example, your friend shows up late to drive you to class

three times in a row. You didn’t say anything the previous times, but on the third time you say,

“You’re late again! If you can’t get here on time, I’ll find another way to get to class.”

Cumulative annoyance can build up like a pressure cooker, and as it builds up, the intensity of


the conflict also builds. Criticism and demands can also play into cumulative annoyance. We

have all probably let critical or demanding comments slide, but if they continue, it becomes

difficult to hold back, and most of us have a breaking point. The problem here is that all the other

incidents come back to your mind as you confront the other person, which usually intensifies the

conflict. You’ve likely been surprised when someone has blown up at you due to cumulative

annoyance or surprised when someone you have blown up at didn’t know there was a problem

building. A good strategy for managing cumulative annoyance is to monitor your level of

annoyance and occasionally let some steam out of the pressure cooker by processing through

your frustration with a third party or directly addressing what is bothering you with the source.

No one likes the feeling of rejection. Rejection can lead to conflict when one person’s comments

or behaviors are perceived as ignoring or invalidating the other person. Vulnerability is a

component of any close relationship. When we care about someone, we verbally or nonverbally

communicate. We may tell our best friend that we miss them, or plan a home-cooked meal for

our partner who is working late. The vulnerability that underlies these actions comes from the

possibility that our relational partner will not notice or appreciate them. When someone feels

exposed or rejected, they often respond with anger to mask their hurt, which ignites a conflict.

Managing feelings of rejection is difficult because it is so personal, but controlling the impulse to

assume that your relational partner is rejecting you, and engaging in communication rather than

reflexive reaction, can help put things in perspective. If your partner doesn’t get excited about

the meal you planned and cooked, it could be because he or she is physically or mentally tired

after a long day. Concepts discussed in Chapter 3 “Perception” can be useful here, as perception

checking, taking inventory of your attributions, and engaging in information exchange to help

determine how each person is punctuating the conflict are useful ways of managing all four of

the triggers discussed.

Interpersonal conflict may take the form of serial arguing, which is a repeated pattern of

disagreement over an issue. Serial arguments do not necessarily indicate negative or troubled

relationships, but any kind of patterned conflict is worth paying attention to. There are three

patterns that occur with serial arguing: repeating, mutual hostility, and arguing with assurances

(Johnson & Roloff, 2000). The first pattern is repeating, which means reminding the other person

of your complaint (what you want them to start/stop doing). The pattern may continue if the

other person repeats their response to your reminder. For example, if Marita reminds Kate that

she doesn’t appreciate her sarcastic tone, and Kate responds, “I’m soooo sorry, I forgot how

perfect you are,” then the reminder has failed to effect the desired change. A predictable pattern

of complaint like this leads participants to view the conflict as irresolvable. The second pattern

within serial arguments is mutual hostility, which occurs when the frustration of repeated conflict

leads to negative emotions and increases the likelihood of verbal aggression. Again, a predictable

pattern of hostility makes the conflict seem irresolvable and may lead to relationship

deterioration. Whereas the first two patterns entail an increase in pressure on the participants in

the conflict, the third pattern offers some relief. If people in an interpersonal conflict offer verbal

assurances of their commitment to the relationship, then the problems associated with the other

two patterns of serial arguing may be ameliorated. Even though the conflict may not be solved in

the interaction, the verbal assurances of commitment imply that there is a willingness to work on

solving the conflict in the future, which provides a sense of stability that can benefit the

relationship. Although serial arguing is not inherently bad within a relationship, if the pattern


becomes more of a vicious cycle, it can lead to alienation, polarization, and an overall toxic

climate, and the problem may seem so irresolvable that people feel trapped and terminate the

relationship (Christensen, Doss, & Jacobson, 2014). There are some negative, but common,

conflict reactions we can monitor and try to avoid, which may also help prevent serial arguing.

Two common conflict pitfalls are one-upping and mindreading (Gottman, 2009). One-upping is

a quick reaction to communication from another person that escalates the conflict. If Sam

comes home late from work and Nicki says, “I wish you would call when you’re going to be

late” and Sam responds, “I wish you would get off my back,” the reaction has escalated the

conflict. Mindreading is communication in which one person attributes something to the

other using generalizations. If Sam says, “You don’t care whether I come home at all or not!”

she is presuming to know Nicki’s thoughts and feelings. Nicki is likely to respond defensively,

perhaps saying, “You don’t know how I’m feeling!” One-upping and mindreading are often

reactions that are more reflexive than deliberate. Remember concepts like attribution and

punctuation in these moments. Nicki may have received bad news and was eager to get support

from Sam when she arrived home. Although Sam perceives Nicki’s comment as criticism and

justifies her comments as a reaction to Nicki’s behavior, Nicki’s comment could actually be a

sign of their closeness, in that Nicki appreciates Sam’s emotional support. Sam could have said,

“I know, I’m sorry, I was on my cell phone for the past hour with a client who had a lot of

problems to work out.” Taking a moment to respond mindfully rather than react with a knee-jerk

reflex can lead to information exchange, which could deescalate the conflict.

Validating the person with whom you are in conflict can be an effective way to deescalate

conflict. While avoiding or retreating may seem like the best option in the moment, one of the

key negative traits found in research on married couples’ conflicts was withdrawal, which as we

learned before may result in a demand- withdrawal pattern of conflict. Often validation can be as

simple as demonstrating good listening skills discussed earlier in this book by making eye

contact and giving verbal and nonverbal back-channel cues like saying “mmm-hmm” or nodding

your head (Gottman, 2009). This doesn’t mean that you have to give up your own side in a

conflict or that you agree with what the other person is saying; rather, you are hearing the other

person out, which validates them and may also give you some more information about the

conflict that could minimize the likelihood of a reaction rather than a response.


Mindreading leads to patterned conflict, because we wrongly presume to know what another

person is thinking. © Thinkstock

As with all the aspects of communication competence we have discussed so far, you cannot

expect that everyone you interact with will have the same knowledge of communication that you

have after reading this book. But it often only takes one person with conflict management skills

to make an interaction more effective. Remember that it’s not the quantity of conflict that

determines a relationship’s success; it’s how the conflict is managed, and one person’s

competent response can deescalate a conflict. Now we turn to a discussion of negotiation steps

and skills as a more structured way to manage conflict.

Negotiation Steps and Skills


We negotiate daily. We may negotiate with a professor to make up a missed assignment or with

our friends to plan activities for the weekend. Negotiation in interpersonal conflict refers to the

process of attempting to change or influence conditions within a relationship. The negotiation

skills discussed next can be adapted to all types of relational contexts, from romantic partners to

coworkers. The stages of negotiating are prenegotiation, opening, exploration, bargaining, and

settlement (Hargie, 2017).

In the prenegotiation stage, you want to prepare for the encounter. If possible, let the other

person know you would like to talk to them, and preview the topic, so they will also have the

opportunity to prepare. While it may seem awkward to “set a date” to talk about a conflict, if the

other person feels like they were blindsided, their reaction could be negative. Make your preview

simple and nonthreatening by saying something like “I’ve noticed that we’ve been arguing a lot

about who does what chores around the house. Can we sit down and talk tomorrow when we

both get home from class?” Obviously, it won’t always be feasible to set a date if the conflict

needs to be handled immediately because the consequences are immediate or if you or the other

person has limited availability. In that case, you can still prepare, but make sure you allot time

for the other person to digest and respond. During this stage you also want to figure out your

goals for the interaction by reviewing your instrumental, relational, and self-presentation goals.

Is getting something done, preserving the relationship, or presenting yourself in a certain way the

most important? For example, you may highly rank the instrumental goal of having a clean

house, or the relational goal of having pleasant interactions with your roommate, or the self-

presentation goal of appearing nice and cooperative. Whether your roommate is your best friend

from high school or a stranger the school matched you up with could determine the importance

of your relational and self-presentation goals. At this point, your goal analysis may lead you

away from negotiation—remember, as we discussed earlier, avoiding can be an appropriate and

effective conflict management strategy. If you decide to proceed with the negotiation, you will

want to determine your ideal outcome and your bottom line, or the point at which you decide to

break off negotiation. It’s very important that you realize there is a range between your ideal and

your bottom line and that remaining flexible is key to a successful negotiation—remember,

through collaboration a new solution could be found that you didn’t think of.

In the opening stage of the negotiation, you want to set the tone for the interaction because the

other person will be likely to reciprocate. Generally, it is good to be cooperative and pleasant,

which can help open the door for collaboration. You also want to establish common ground by

bringing up overlapping interests and using “we” language. It would not be competent to open

the negotiation with “You’re such a slob! Didn’t your mom ever teach you how to take care of

yourself?” Instead, you may open the negotiation by making small talk about classes that day and

then move into the issue at hand. You could set a good tone and establish common ground by

saying, “We both put a lot of work into setting up and decorating our space, but now that classes

have started, I’ve noticed that we’re really busy and some chores are not getting done.” With

some planning and a simple opening like that, you can move into the next stage of negotiation.

There should be a high level of information exchange in the exploration stage. The overarching

goal in this stage is to get a panoramic view of the conflict by sharing your perspective and

listening to the other person. In this stage, you will likely learn how the other person is

punctuating the conflict. Although you may have been mulling over the mess for a few days,


your roommate may just now be aware of the conflict. She may also inform you that she usually

cleans on Sundays but didn’t get to last week because she unexpectedly had to visit her parents.

The information that you gather here may clarify the situation enough to end the conflict and

cease negotiation. If negotiation continues, the information will be key as you move into the

bargaining stage.

The bargaining stage is where you make proposals and concessions. The proposal you make

should be informed by what you learned in the exploration stage. Flexibility is important here,

because you may have to revise your ideal outcome and bottom line based on new information.

If your plan was to have a big cleaning day every Thursday, you may now want to propose to

have the roommate clean on Sunday while you clean on Wednesday. You want to make sure

your opening proposal is reasonable and not presented as an ultimatum. “I don’t ever want to see

a dish left in the sink” is different from “When dishes are left in the sink too long, they stink and

get gross. Can we agree to not leave any dishes in the sink overnight?” Through the proposals

you make, you could end up with a win/win situation. If there are areas of disagreement,

however, you may have to make concessions or compromise, which can be a partial win or a

partial loss. If you hate doing dishes but don’t mind emptying the trash and recycling, you could

propose to assign those chores based on preference. If you both hate doing dishes, you could

propose to be responsible for washing your own dishes right after you use them. If you really

hate dishes and have some extra money, you could propose to use disposable (and hopefully

recyclable) dishes, cups, and utensils.

In the settlement stage, you want to decide on one of the proposals and then summarize the

chosen proposal and any related concessions. It is possible that each party can have a different

view of the agreed solution. If your roommate thinks you are cleaning the bathroom every other

day and you plan to clean it on Wednesdays, then there could be future conflict. You could

summarize and ask for confirmation by saying, “So, it looks like I’ll be in charge of the trash and

recycling, and you’ll load and unload the dishwasher. Then I’ll do a general cleaning on

Wednesdays and you’ll do the same on Sundays. Is that right?” Last, you’ll need to follow up on

the solution to make sure it’s working for both parties. If your roommate goes home again next

Sunday and doesn’t get around to cleaning, you may need to go back to the exploration or

bargaining stage.


Chapter 14 Key Takeaways and Exercises


• Interpersonal conflict is an inevitable part of relationships that, although not always

negative, can take an emotional toll on relational partners unless they develop skills and

strategies for managing conflict.

• Although there is no absolute right or wrong way to handle a conflict, there are five

predominant styles of conflict management, which are competing, avoiding,

accommodating, compromising, and collaborating.

• Perception plays an important role in conflict management because we are often biased in

determining the cause of our own and others’ behaviors in a conflict situation, which

necessitates engaging in communication to gain information and perspective.

• Culture influences how we engage in conflict based on our cultural norms regarding

individualism or collectivism and concern for self-face or other-face.

• We can handle conflict better by identifying patterns and triggers such as demands,

cumulative annoyance, and rejection and by learning to respond mindfully rather than



1. Of the five conflict management strategies, is there one that you use more often than
others? Why or why not? Do you think people are predisposed to one style over the

others based on their personality or other characteristics? If so, what personality traits do

you think would lead a person to each style?

2. Review the example of D’Shaun and Rosa. If you were in their situation, what do you
think the best style to use would be and why?

3. Of the conflict triggers discussed (demands, cumulative annoyance, rejection, one-
upping, and mindreading) which one do you find most often triggers a negative reaction

from you? What strategies can you use to better manage the trigger and more effectively

manage conflict?


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Getting Competent: Handling Roommate Conflicts

Whether you have a roommate by choice, by necessity, or through the random selection process

of your school’s housing office, it’s important to be able to get along with the person who shares

your living space. While having a roommate offers many benefits such as making a new friend,

having someone to experience a new situation like college life with, and having someone to split

the cost on your own with, there are also challenges. Some common roommate conflicts involve

neatness, noise, having guests, sharing possessions, value conflicts, money conflicts, and

personality conflicts (“Roommates – Housing and Residence Life,” n.d.)

Read the following scenarios and answer the following questions for each one:

1. Which conflict management style, from the five discussed, would you use in this

2. What are the potential strengths of using this style?
3. What are the potential weaknesses of using this style?

• Scenario 1: Neatness. Your college dorm has bunk beds, and your roommate takes a lot

of time making his bed (the bottom bunk) each morning. He has told you that he doesn’t

want anyone sitting on or sleeping in his bed when he is not in the room. While he is

away for the weekend, your friend comes to visit and sits on the bottom bunk bed. You

tell him what your roommate said, and you try to fix the bed back before he returns to the

dorm. When he returns, he notices that his bed has been disturbed and he confronts you

about it.

• Scenario 2: Noise and having guests. Your roommate has a job waiting tables and gets

home around midnight on Thursday nights. She often brings a couple friends from work

home with her. They watch television, listen to music, or play video games and talk and

laugh. You have an 8 a.m. class on Friday mornings and are usually asleep when she

returns. Last Friday, you talked to her and asked her to keep it down in the future.

Tonight, their noise has woken you up and you can’t get back to sleep.

• Scenario 3: Sharing possessions. When you go out to eat, you often bring back leftovers

to have for lunch the next day during your short break between classes. You didn’t have

time to eat breakfast, and you’re really excited about having your leftover pizza for lunch

until you get home and see your roommate sitting on the couch eating the last slice.

• Scenario 4: Money conflicts. Your roommate got mono and missed two weeks of work

last month. Since he has a steady job and you have some savings, you cover his portion

of the rent and agree that he will pay your portion next month. The next month comes

around and he informs you that he only has enough to pay his half.

• Scenario 5: Value and personality conflicts. You like to go out to clubs and parties and

have friends over, but your roommate is much more of an introvert. You’ve tried to get

her to come out with you or join the party at your place, but she’d rather study. One day

she tells you that she wants to break the lease so she can move out early to live with one

of her friends. You both signed the lease, so you have to agree or she can’t do it. If you

break the lease, you automatically lose your portion of the security deposit.




• ABC of image – appearance, behavior, and communication (Chapter 1.3)

• Accenting – vocal cues that allow us to emphasize particular parts of a message which

help determine meaning. (Chapter 8.3)

• Accommodating – style of conflict management that may indicate a low concern for self

and a high concern for other, is often viewed as passive or submissive, and may result in

a lose/win situation. (Chapter 14.2)

• Acronym – a mnemonic device that uses the first letter of several words to help you

remember many items such as HOMES (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior) to

help you remember the Great Lakes. (Chapter 9.4)

• Action-Oriented Listeners – listeners who focus on what action needs to take place in

regards to a received message and try to formulate an organized way to initiate that

action. (Chapter 9.1)

• Active-Empathetic Listening – a type of listening in which a listener becomes actively

an emotionally involved in an interaction in such a way that it is conscious on the part of

the listener and perceived by the speaker. (Chapter 9.4)

• Active-Listening – the process of pairing outwardly visible positive listening behaviors

with positive cognitive listening practices. (Chapter 9.4)

• Actual Self – the self that consist of the attributes that you or someone else believes you

actually possess. (Chapter 2.3)

• Adaptors – touching behaviors and movements that indicate internal states typically

related to arousal or anxiety and may be directed at the self, others, or objects. (Chapter


• Affectional orientation with sexual orientation – acknowledges that LGBTQ+

relationships, like heterosexual relationships, are about intimacy and closeness (affection)

and not just sexually based. (Chapter 5.5)

• Agreeableness – refers to a person’s level of trustworthiness and friendliness. (Chapter


• Aggressive Listening – a bad listening practice in which people pay attention in order to

attack something a speaker says. (Chapter 9.3)

• Altruistic Lies – lies told to build the self-esteem of another person, communicate

loyalty or bend the truth to spare someone from hurtful information. (Chapter 13.4)

• Ambivalent Sexism – complex nature of gender attitudes where women are often

associated with positive and negative qualities. (Chapter 5.4)

• Annoyance Swearing – swearing that provides a sense of relief as people use it to

manage stress and tension, which can be preferred alternative to physical aggression.

(Chapter 7.2)

• Anxious attachment style – a desire for closeness but anxieties about being abandoned.

(Chapter 10.2)

• Artifacts – possessions that communicate our identities. (Chapter 8.2)


• Associative Friendships – mutually pleasurable relationships between acquaintances or

associates that, although positive, lack the commitment of reciprocal friendships.

(Chapter 12. 1

• Assumed Similarity – perceptual tendency to perceive others as similar to us. (Chapter


• Attachment theory – ties into the evolutionary perspective, because researchers claim

that it is in our nature, as newborns, to create social bonds with our primary caretaker.

(Chapter 10.2)

• Avoidant attachment style – discomfort with closeness and a reluctance to depend on

others. (Chapter 10.2)

• Avoiding – style of conflict management that may indicate a low concern for self and

other, in which there is no direct communication about the conflict and may result in a

lose/lose situation. (Chapter 11.2)

• Avoiding Stage – relational interaction stage where people signal that they want to close

down the lines of communication. (Chapter 14.2)


• Back-Channel Cues – verbal and nonverbal signals we send while someone is talking,

which can consist of verbal cues like “uh-huh”, “oh”, and “right” and/or nonverbal cues

like direct eye contact, head nods, and leaning forward. (Chapter 9.1)

• Belief – propositional attitude, a settled way of thinking. (Chapter 6.1)

• Benevolent Sexism – perception that women need to be protected, supported and adored

by men. (Chapter 5.4)

• Bonding Stage – relational interaction stage that includes a public ritual that announces a

formal commitment. (Chapter 11.2)


• Channel – a sensory route on which a message travels to the receiver for decoding.

(Chapter 1.8)

• Chronemics – the study of how time affects communication. (Chapter 8.3)

• Circumscribing Stage – relational interaction stage where communication decreases and

certain areas or subjects become restricted as individuals verbally close themselves off

from each other. (Chapter 11.1)

• Co-culture – exists alongside larger dominant cultures. (Chapter 6.2)

• Cognitive flexibility – helps prevent our knowledge from becoming stale and also

prevents the formation of stereotypes while also helping avoid prejudging. (Chapter 6.5)

• Collaborating – style of conflict management that shows a high degree of concern for

self and other, usually indicates investment in the conflict and/or relationship and results

in a win/win situation. (Chapter 14.2)

• Collectivistic Culture – culture that values in-group identity over individual identity and

values conformity to social norms of the in-group. (Chapter 6.3)

• Collegial Peers – people who engage in self-disclosure about work and personal topics

and communication emotional support. (Chapter 12.2)


• Communication Process – participants are senders/receivers of a message that is verbal

or nonverbal context conveyed from sender to receiver. (Chapter 1.8)

• Communication Accommodation Theory – explores why and how people modify their

communication to fit situational, social, cultural and relational contexts. (Chapter 6.4)

• Communicative Aggression – recurring verbal or nonverbal communication that

significantly and negatively affects a person’s self of self. (Chapter 13.4)

• Companionate Love – overall stable and consistent affection felt between two people

whose lives are interdependent. (Chapter 13.2)

• Competing – style of conflict management that indicates a high concern for self and a

low concern for other, in which one party attempts to win by gaining concessions or

consent from another. (Chapter 14.2)

• Complementing – vocal cues that elaborate on or modify verbal and nonverbal meaning.

(Chapter 8.3)

• Compliance-Gaining Communication – communication aimed at getting people to do

something or to act in a particular way. (Chapter 1.7)

• Comprising – style of conflict management that shows moderate concern for self and

other, may indicate a low investment in the conflict and/or the relationship, and results in

a partial win or partial loss for both parties. (Chapter 14.2)

• Conscientiousness – refers to a person’s level of self – organization and motivation.

(Chapter 3.1)

• Consensual Family – a family that is high in both conversation and conformity

orientations, encourages open communication, but also maintains a hierarchy that puts

parents above children. (Chapter 13.1)

• Contact Cultures – cultural groups in which people stand closer together, engage in

more eye contact, touch more frequently, and speak more loudly. (Chapter 6.4)

• Content-Oriented Listener – listeners who like to listen to complex information and

evaluate the content of a message, often from multiple perspectives, before drawing

conclusions. (Chapter 9.1)

• Contradicting – vocal cues may contradict other verbal and nonverbal signals. (Chapter


• Convergence function – makes others feel at ease to increase understanding and enhance

social bonds. (Chapter 6.4)

• Covert coaching – involves sending yourself messages containing advice about better

listening like “you are getting distracted about things you have to do after class, focus on

the professor now.” (Chapter 9.4)

• Covert questioning – involves asking yourself questions about the content in ways that

focus your attention and reinforce the material such as asking yourself “what is the main

idea of that powerpoint slide?” (Chapter 9.4)

• Critical Listening – listening with the goal of analyzing or evaluating a message.

(Chapter 9.1)

• Cross-Gender Friendship – friendships between a male and a female. (Chapter 12.1)

• Culture – learned meaning system that consists of patterns of traditions, beliefs, values,

norms and symbols that are passed down generation to generation. (Chapter 6.1)

• Cultural context – includes various aspects of identities such as race, gender,

nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class and ability. (Chapter 1.8)

• Cyberslacking – the non-work related use of new media while on the job. (Chapter 2.2)



• Dark Side of Relationships – includes actions that are deemed unacceptable by society

at large and actions that are unproductive for those in the relationship. (Chapter 13.4)

• Dating Couple – couples in the courtship period of a relationship, which may range from

a first date through several years. (Chapter 13.2)

• Deception – communication of information with the intent of creating a false

understanding. (Chapter 4.1)

• Decoding – the process of turning communication into thoughts. (Chapter 1.8, 8.3)

• Developmental intergroup theory – adults heavy focus on gender leads children to pay

attention to gender as a key source of information about themselves. (Chapter 5.3)

• DTR Talk (defining-the-relationship talk) – a form of relationship maintenance that

defines the relationship between two people and often occurs in the very early stages of a

relationship to reduce uncertainty about where one stands with the other person. (Chapter


• Differentiating Stage – relational interaction stage where communicating differences

becomes the primary focus and people reestablish boundaries between themselves.

(Chapter 11.2)

• Discriminative Listening – a focused and usually instrumental type of listening that is

primarily physiological and occurs mostly at the receiving stage of the listening.

((Chapter 9.1)

• Display rules – sociocultural norms that influence emotional expression. Display rules

influence who can express emotions, which emotions can be expressed, and how intense

the expressions can be. (Chapter 10.3)

• Dispositional Attribution – identifies the cause of a disclosure with the personality of

the sender. (Chapter 2.1)

• Divergence – intentionally making another person feel unwelcome. (Chapter 6.4)

• Dormant Network – a network of people with whom users may not feel obligated to

explicitly interact but may find comfort in knowing the connections exist. (Chapter 2.2)


• Eavesdropping – a bad listening practice that involves a planned attempt to secretly

listen to a conversation. (Chapter 9.3)

• Emblems – gestures that have specific agreed-on meanings. (Chapter 8.3)

• Empathetic Listening – the most challenging form of listening, which occurs when we

try to understand or experience what a speaker is thinking or feeling. (Chapter 9.1)

• Emotions – physiological, behavioral, and/or communicative reactions to stimuli that are

cognitively processed and experienced as emotional. (Chapter 10.1)

• Emotion sharing – communicating the circumstances, thoughts, and feelings surrounding

an emotional event. (Chapter 10.4)

• Emotional contagion – the spreading of emotion from one person to another. (Chapter



• Emotional intelligence – “involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings

and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s

thinking and action”. (Chapter 10.5)

• Encoding – the process of turning thoughts into communication. (Chapter 1.8, 8.3)

• Environmental Noise – any physical noise that is present in a communication encounter.

(Chapter 1.8)

• Essentialism – assumes people (and things) have “natural” characteristics that are

inherent and unchanging. (Chapter 6.3)

• Ethnocentricism – how we evaluate other cultures based on our norms, values and

beliefs. (Chapter 6.2)

• Evaluating – the E stage of the HURIER Model of Listening that uses our individual

perceptual filters to make a judgment on what was heard. (Chapter 9.1)

• Experimenting Stage – relational interaction stage where people exchange information

and often move from strangers to acquaintances. (Chapter 11.2)

• Extraversion – refers to a person’s interest interacting with others. (Chapter 3.1)

• External attributions – the process of connecting the cause of behaviors to situational

factors. (Chapter 3.1)

• Extradyadic Romantic Activity (ERA) – sexual or emotional interaction with someone

other than a primary romantic partner. (Chapter 13.4)

• Eye contact – women generally make more eye contact than men. (Chapter 5.7, 8.3)


• Face – the projected self we desire to put into the world. (Chapter 14.3)

• Face Negotiation Theory – theory that argues that people in all cultures negotiate face

through communication encounters, and that cultural factors influence how we engage in

facework, especially in conflicts. (Chapter 14.3)

• Facial expression – women reveal emotion though facial expression more

frequently/accurately than men. Men are more likely to exhibit angry expressions.

(Chapter 5.7, 8.3)

• “Fake news” is the most widely accepted label for the empirically observed problem of

the mass distribution of deceptive content across mostly digital media. (Chapter 4.4)

• Family Celebrations – formal family rituals that have more standardization between

families, may be culturally specific, help transmit values and memories through

generations, and include rites of passage and religious and secular holiday celebrations.

(Chapter 13.1)

• Family Traditions – formal family rituals that vary widely from family to family and

include birthdays, family reunions, and family vacations, among other activities. (Chapter


• Family of Orientation – refers to people who share the same household and are

connected by blood, legal bond, or who act/live as if they are connected by either.

(Chapter 13.1)

• Family of Origin – refers to relatives connected by blood or other traditional legal bonds

such as marriage or adoption and includes parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles,

nieces, nephews, and so on. (Chapter 13.1)

• Feedback – includes messages sent in response to other messages. (Chapter 1.8)


• Formal time – in professional settings where expectations are to be on time or just a few

minutes late. (Chapter 8.3)

• Friends With Benefits – relationships that have the closeness of a friendship and the

sexual activity of a romantic partnership without the expectations of romantic

commitment or labels. (Chapter 12.1)

• Friendships – voluntary interpersonal relationships between two people who are usually

equals and who mutually influence one another. (Chapter 12.1)

• Friendship/warmth level touch – relational maintenance to communicate liking, care

and concern. (Chapter 8.3)

• Functional-professional level touch – routine touch that has professional intent such as

doctor, tattoo artist or security office. (Chapter 8.3)

• Fundamental Attribution Error – a perceptual error through which we are more likely

to explain other’s behaviors using internal rather than external attributions. (Chapter 3.1)


• Gender – cultural, social and psychological meanings associated with masculinity and

femininity. (Chapter 5.1)

• Gender discrimination – differential treatment on the basis of gender. (Chapter 5.4)

• Gender role – behaviors, attitudes, and personality traits that are designated as either

masculine or feminine in a given culture. (Chapter 5.1)

• Gender schema theory – children are active learners who essentially socialize

themselves. (Chapter 5.3)

• Gestures – there are three main types of gestures: adaptors, emblems and illustrators.

(Chapter 5.7, 8.3)


• Halo Effect – perceptual effect that occurs when initial positive perceptions lead us to

view later interactions as positive. (Chapter 3.1)

• Haptics – study of touch communication. (Chapter 5.7, 8.3)

• Hearing – involves the physiological aspects of hearing. (Chapter 9.1)

• High Conformity Orientation – a climate of uniformity where guidelines ae decided by

a parent or parents. (Chapter 13.1)

• High Conversation Orientation – people communicate with each other freely and

frequently about activities, thoughts and feelings. (Chapter 6.4, 13.1)

• Horn Effect – perceptual effect that occurs when initial negative perceptions lead us to

view later interactions as negative. (Chapter 3.1)

• HURIER model of listening – includes a framework of listening skills that use the

acronym HURIER. HURIER stand for hearing, understanding, remembering,

interpreting, evaluating and responding. (Chapter 9.2)



• Ideal Self – the self that consists of the attributes that you or someone else would like

you to possess. (Chapter 2.3)

• Identity Needs – include our need to present ourselves to others and be thought of in

particular and desired ways. (Chapter 1.7)

• Illustrators – most common type of gesture that is used to illustrate the verbal message.

(Chapter 8.3)

• Immediacy Behaviors – verbal and nonverbal behaviors that lessen real or perceived

physical and psychological distance between communicators. (Chapter 8.2)

• Implicit Personality Theories – an interpretation process that uses previous experience

to generalize a person’s overall personality from the limited traits we can perceive.

(Chapter 3.1)

• Impression Management – the effort to control or influence other people’s perception

about yourself. (Chapter 2.2)

• Individualistic Cultures – culture that emphasizes individual identity over group

identity and encourages competition and self-reliance. (Chapter 6.3)

• Inference-Observation Confusion – misperception of an inference (conclusion based on

limited information) as an observation. (Chapter 7.2)

• Informal time – casual time where there is much variation in terms of expectations.

(Chapter 8.3)

• Information Peers – peers who communicate only about work-related topics and have a

low level of self-disclosure and trust. (Chapter 12.2)

• Informational Listening – listening with the goal of comprehending and retaining

information. (Chapter 9.1)

• Initiating Stage – relational interaction stage where people size each other up and try to

present themselves favorably. (Chapter 11.2)

• Instrumental needs – include needs that help us get things done in our day-to-day lives

and achieve short and long-term goals. (Chapter 1.7)

• Instrumental talk – helps us to get things done in our relationships such as getting

information or asking for help. (Chapter 1.3)

• Intercultural communication competence – ability to communicate effectively and

appropriately in various cultural contexts. (Chapter 6.5)

• Integrating Stage – relational interaction stage where two people’s identities and

personalities merge and a sense of interdependence develops. (Chapter 11.2)

• Integrative Learning – reflection on how the content you learn in higher education

classes connects to other classes and to professional goals along with civic response.

(Chapter 1.5)

• Intensifying Stage – relational interaction stage where people indicate that they would

like or are open to more intimacy, closeness, or interdependence. (Chapter 11.2)

• Interaction Model of Communication – process in which participants alternate

positions as sender/receivers. (Chapter 1.8)

• Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) – physical, verbal, and emotional violence that occurs

between two people who are in or were recently in a romantic relationship. (Chapter


• Intimate Terrorism (IT) – violence used by one partner to have general control over the

other. (Chapter 13.4)


• Intergenerational Communication – communication between people of different age

groups. (Chapter 13.1)

• Interpersonal Communication – the process of exchanging messages between people

whose lives mutually influence one another in unique ways in relation to social and

cultural norms. (Chapter 1.1)

• Interpersonal Conflict – interactions in which there are real or perceived incompatible

goals, scare resources, or opposing viewpoints. (Chapter 14.1)

• Intersectionality – refers to an individual’s intersecting identity. (Chapter 6.2)

• Integrating – in a relationship, the couple begins to refer to themselves as “we”.

(Chapter 11.2)

• Internal Attribution – the process of connecting the cause of behaviors to personal

aspects such as personality. (Chapter 3.1)

• Interpretation – the I in the HURIER model of listening, in which we assign meaning to

our experiences using organization pattern or framework known as schemata. (Chapter


• Interruption – a turn taking technique that can be unintentional such as overlapping

statements to show support or intentional which can be used to dominate a conversation.

(Chapter 9.3)


• Jargon – specialized words used by a certain group or profession. (Chapter 7.2)

• Johari Window – concept that can be applied to a variety of interpersonal interactions in

order to help us understand what parts of ourselves are open, hidden, blind and unknown.

(Chapter 2.1)


• Kinesics – refers to the study of hand, arm, body, and face movements. (Chapter 5.7, 8.3)


• Ladder of abstraction – illustrated how language can range from concrete to abstract.

(Chapter 7.2)

• Laissez-Faire Family – a family that is low in conversation and conformity orientations,

had infrequent and/or short interactions, and does not discuss many topics. (Chapter 13.1)

• Listening Environment – characteristics and norms of an organization and its members

that contribute to expectations for and perceptions about listening. (Chapter 12.2)

• Love – intimacy level touch – personal touch between significant others, best friends and

close family. (Chapter 8.3)

• Low Conformity Orientation – a climate that encourages diversity of beliefs, attitudes,

values, and behaviors and assertion of individuality. (Chapter 13.1)

• Low-Context Communication – communication style in which much of the meaning

generated within an interaction comes from the verbal communication used rather than

nonverbal or contextual cues. (Chapter 6.4)


• Low Conversation Orientation – people do not interact with each other as often and the

topics of conversation are more restricted. (Chapter 13.1)


• Matching Hypothesis – states that people with similar levels of attractiveness will pair

together. (Chapter 13.2)

• Mental Bracketing – the process of intentionally separating out intrusive or irrelevant

thoughts that may distract you from listening. (Chapter 9.4)

• Mentoring Relationship – relationship in which one person functions as a guide, helping

another navigate toward career goals. (Chapter 12.2)

• Mindfullness – state of self, and other, monitoring that informs later reflection on

communication interactions. (Chapter 6.5)

• Mindreading – communication in which one person attributes something to the other

using generalizations, usually leading to a defensive response that escalates conflict.

(Chapter 14.4)

• Mirroring – often subconscious practice of using nonverbal cues that match those

around us such as a listeners’ replication of the nonverbal signals of the speaker. (Chapter

8.4, 9.4)

• Mixed Messages – messages in which verbal and nonverbal signals contradict each

other. (Chapter 8.2)

• Mnemonic Device – techniques that can aid in information recall such as acronyms,

rhymes, and visualization. (Chapter 9.4)

• Monochronemic – a fixed and precise orientation toward time in which time is seen as a

commodity that can be budgeted, saved, spent and wasted. Events are to be scheduled in

advance and have set beginning and ending times. (Chapter 6.4)


• Narcissistic Listening – self-centered and self-absorbed listening in which listeners try

to make the interaction about them. (Chapter 9.3)

• Network Overlap – the number of share associations, including friends and family that a

couple has. (Chapter 13.2)

• Neuroticism – refers to a person’s level of negative thoughts regarding himself or

herself. (Chapter 3.1)

• Noise – anything that interferes with a message being sent between participants in a

communication encounter. (Chapter 1.8)

• Noncontact Culture – cultural groups in which people stand farther apart while talking,

make less eye contact, and touch less during regular interactions. (Chapter 6.4)

• Norms – expectation, or rules, formal or informal, about how one should behave in a

particular social situation. (Chapter 6.1)

Nonverbal Communication – a process of generating meaning using behavior other than

words. (Chapter 8.1)



• Oculesics – nonverbal communication study of eye behaviors such as eye contact.

(Chapter 8.3)

• Olfactory – relating to the sense of smell. Olfactics is the study of how smell affects

communication. (Chapter 8.3)

• One-Upping – quick reaction to communication from another person that escalates

conflict. (Chapter 14.4)

• Openness – refers to a persons willingness to consider new ideas and perspectives.

(Chapter 3.1)

• Ought Self – the self that that consists of the attributes you, or someone else, believe you

should have. (Chapter 2.3)


• Paralanguage – the vocalized but not verbal part of a spoken message, such as speaking

rate, volume and pitch. (Chapter 8.2))

• Paraphrase – a message that is rephrased in your own words. (Chapter 9.1)

• Partial Messages – messages that are missing a relevant type of expression and can lead

to misunderstanding and conflict. (Chapter 7.2)

• Passionate Love – an emotionally charged engagement between two people that can be

both exhilarating and painful. (Chapter 13.2)

• Patterned Family Interactions – frequent family rituals that do not have the degree of

formality of traditions or celebrations. (Chapter 13.1)

• Peer Co-Worker Relationship – relationship between two people who have not formal

authority over the other and are interdependent in some way. (Chapter 12.2)

• People-Oriented Listeners – listeners who are concerned about emotional states of

others and listen with the purpose of offering support in interpersonal relationships.

(Chapter 9.1)

• Perception Checking – a strategy to help us monitor over reactions to and perceptions

about people and communication. (Chapter 3.2)

• Personal Idioms – communicative constraints between relational partners, such as

nicknames, that create a sense of belonging and have unique meaning for those in the

relationship but may not make sense to outsiders. (Chapter 1.4)

• Personal presentation – our physical characteristics and the artifacts with which we

adorn and surround ourselves. (Chapter 8.3)

• Personal Relationships – intimate, close and interdependent relationships that meet

emotional, relational and instrumental needs. (Chapter 11.1)

• Personality – a person’s general way of thinking, feeling, and behaving based on

underlying motivations and impulses. (Chapter 3.1)

• Phatic communication – scripted and routine verbal interactions that are intended to

establish social bonds rather than actually exchanging meaning. (Chapter 1.6)

• Physical context – includes environmental factors in a communication encounter.

(Chapter 1.8)

• Physical needs – includes needs that keep our bodies and minds functioning. (Chapter


• Psychological context – mental and emotional factors in a communication encounter.

(Chapter 1.8)


• Pitch – vocal quality that convey meaning, regulate conversational flow and

communicate the intensity of a message. (Chapter 8.2)

• Pluralistic Family – a family that is high in conversation orientation and low in

conformity, encourages open discussion for all family members, and in which parents do

not strive to control their children’s or each other’s behaviors or decisions. (Chapter 13.1)

• Polarizing language – refers to language that prevents people, ideas or situations as

polar opposites. (Chapter 7.2)

• Polychronic – a flexible cultural orientation toward time in which relationships are often

valued above schedules. Scheduling appointments is done at the same time and being

late/missing appointments may not be a violation of norms. (Chapter 6.3, 6.4)

• Posture – men likely to lean in during a conversation and women likely to have a face to

face body orientation when interacting with men. (Chapter 8.3)

• Power distance – importance attributed to hierarchies in a given culture, the extent to

which individuals are grouped according to birth, status, or position of power. (Chapter


• Predicted Outcome Value Theory – we seek relationships that we predict will have

rewards that will be worth the effort. (Chapter 11.3)

• Prejudice – negative feelings or attitudes toward people based on their identity or

identities such as race, age, occupation or appearance. (Chapter 3.2, 9.3)

• Primary Effect – perceptual tendency to place more value on the first information we

receive about a person. (Chapter 3.1)

• Primary emotions – innate emotions that are experienced for short periods of time and

appear rapidly, usually as a reaction to an outside stimulus, and are experienced similarly

across cultures. (Chapter 10.1)

• Primary Territory – spaces that are marked or understood to be exclusively ours such as

a person’s house, yard or desk. (Chapter 8.3)

• Prosocial Self-Presentation – strategically exhibiting behaviors that present a person as a

role model and make a person more likeable and attractive. (Chapter 2.3)

• Protective Family – a family that is low in conversation orientation and high in

conformity, expects children to be obedient to parents, and does not value open

communication. (Chapter 13.1)

• Proxemics – the study of how space and distance influence communication. (Chapter

5.7, 8.3)

• Pseudo-Listening – behaving as if you are paying attention to a speaker when you are

actually not. (Chapter 9.3)

• Psychological Noise – noise stemming from our psychological states including moods

and level of arousal which can facilitate or impede listening. (Chapter 9.3)

• Physical characteristics – body shape, height, weight, attractiveness and other features

of our bodies. (Chapter 8.3)

• Physiological Noise – Nosie stemming from a physical illness, injury, or bodily stress.

(Chapter 9.3)

• Public Territory – spaces that are open to all people and often up for grabs such as a

table at Chick-Fil-A. (Chapter 8.3)



• Recency effect – perceptual tendency to place more weight on the most recent

impression we have of a person’s communication over earlier impressions. (Chapter 3.1)

• Receptive Friendships – friendships that include a status differential that makes the

relationship asymmetrical. (Chapter 12.1)

• Reciprocal Friendships – solid interpersonal relationships between people who are

equals with a shared sense of loyalty and commitment. (Chapter 12.1)

• Reductionism – tendency to explain an object by reducing it to a different, usually

simpler level. (Chapter 6.3)

• Regulating – vocalic cues to help regulate the flow of conversation. (Chapter 8.3)

• Relational context – includes previous interpersonal history and type of relationship we

have with a person. (Chapter 1.8)

• Relational needs – needs that help us maintain social bonds and interpersonal

relationships. (Chapter 1.7)

• Relationship Norms – develop naturally and conform to or are adapted from what is

expected within the larger culture. (Chapter 1.4)

• Relationship Cultures – the unique comate within a relationship that is established

through interpersonal communication adapted from established cultural and social norms.

(Chapter 1.4)

• Relational Maintenance Communication – strives to maintain a positive relationship.

(Chapter 1.3)

• Relationship Rituals – communicative acts that take on more symbolic meaning that

relationship routines and may be adapted from established cultural rituals such as

holidays or anniversaries or may be highly individualized and specific to a relationship.

(Chapter 1.4)

• Relationship Routines – communicative acts that create a sense of predictability in a

relationship that is often comforting. (Chapter 1.4)

• Relationship Rules – explicit guidelines for what should and should not be done in

certain contexts. (Chapter 1.4)

• Relationship Schemata – the expectations or blueprints we bring into our interpersonal

relationships based on our social and cultural experiences. (Chapter 1.4)

• Remembering – the R stage of the HURIER Model of Listening which is the ability to

recall information. (Chapter 9.1)

• Repetition – vocal sues that reinforce verbal and nonverbal at the same time. (Chapter


• Responding – the R stage of the HURIER Model of Listening which in the final step of

choosing an appropriate response. (Chapter 9.1)

• Response Preparation – our tendency to rehearse what we are going to say next while a

speaker is still talking. (Chapter 9.3)

• Rhyme – remembering technique that rhymes words to help remember them. (Chapter



• Secondary emotions – not as innate as primary emotions, and they do not have a

corresponding facial expression that makes them universally recognizable. Secondary

emotions are processed by a different part of the brain that requires higher order thinking;


therefore, they are not reflexive. Secondary emotions are love, guilt, shame,

embarrassment, pride, envy, and jealousy. (Chapter 10.1)

• Secondary Territory – spaces that are not exclusively under our control but are

associated with us such as the classroom seat we sit in during every class period. (Chapter


• Secure attachment style – parent relationship is warm and that their parents also have a

positive and caring relationship with each other. (Chapter 10.2)

• Selective Attention – our tendency to pay attention to the message that benefits us in

some way and filter others out. (Chapter 9.3)

• Self-Concept – the overall idea of who a person thinks he or she is. (Chapter 2.3)

• Self-Deception – manage our beliefs without regard to truth. (Chapter 4.4)

• Self-Disclosure – purposeful disclosure of personal information to another person.

(Chapter 2.1)

• Self-Discrepancy Theory – theory that explains that people have beliefs about and

expectations for their actual and potential selves that do not always match up with what

they actually experience. (Chapter 2.3)

• Self-Efficacy – the judgements people make about their ability to perform a task within a

specific context. (Chapter 2.3)

• Self Enhancement Bias – self presentation bias that refers to our tendency to emphasize

our desirable qualities. (Chapter 2.3)

• Self Esteem – the judgements and evaluations we make about our self-concept. (Chapter


• Self-Fulfilling Prophecy – thoughts and action patterns in which a person’s false belief

triggers a behavior that makes the initial false belief actually or seemingly come true.

(Chapter 2.3)

• Self-Presentation – the process of strategically concealing or revealing personal

information in order to influence other’s perceptions. (Chapter 2.3, 5.7)

• Self-reinforcement – involves sending yourself affirmative and positive messages such

as “you are being a good, active listening and you are going to do well on the exam.”