views updated May 23 2018


couple relationshipstara m. emmers-sommer

family relationshipskathleen m. galvin


Individuals often treat their significant others more poorly than they do strangers (Birchler, Weiss, and Vincent 1975; Miller 1997). Figures suggest that the divorce rate hovers between 50 and 60 percent in the United States for all first marriages and 27 percent for all marriages in Australia (Americans for Divorce Reform). Although the divorce rate in the United States is higher than in other countries, divorce is not uncommon elsewhere. The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare reported that in 2002, 2.1 percent of Japanese had been divorced at least once. This is in comparison to the 4.3 percent they reported for the total U.S. population. They also reported that the divorce rate in Germany was 2.5 percent of the total population; in France 2.0 percent; in the United Kingdom 2.7 percent; and in Sweden 2.4 percent. Italy was credited as having the lowest divorce rate in Western culture (0.6% of the total population).

Indeed, many a gap seems to exist between an individual's relational ideal and eventual relational reality. As much of the scholarship suggests, problematic communication patterns can contribute to relational demise (Gottman 1994).

Much of the popular literature suggests that men and women are different and that these differences manifest themselves through the sexes' different communication and relationship needs (Gray 1992). Some of the scholarly research, however, suggests that men and women are not very different in their communication or relationship needs (Canary and Emmers-Sommer 1997). Although some differences do exist, so do several similarities.

When considering couple communication in close relationships, a variety of things are relevant and of interest. First, what gender differences (if any) are recognizable in couple communication patterns? Second, how do couple-type identification and gender-role adherence play a part in how individuals communicate with their partners? Finally, how do aspects of gender-role adherence and couple-type identification relate to (dis)satisfactory couple communication? It should be noted that most of the relevant research has been done in Western cultures, with most of it conducted in the United States.

Couple-Type Identification and Gender-Role Adherence

Often, the terms sex difference and gender difference are used interchangeably. This collapsing of terms is somewhat in error. Specifically, sex differences refer to biological differences between men and women. Gender differences, on the other hand, refer to social expectations and stereotypes attributed to men and women by virtue of the biological sex. Similarly, the terms man and woman should be used when referring to sex differences and masculine and feminine are the applicable terms when referring to gender differences. Finally, although the concepts of sex and gender are different, gender is implicitly influenced by sex (Canary and Emmers-Sommer 1997).

Gender Differences and Similarities in Couple Communication

Much of the literature in popular culture leads one to believe that men and women are truly quite different in terms of their emotional experiences and their communication of those experiences. According to John Gray (1992), author of Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus, men and women differ in their experience of emotions and their communication of them. Gray, however, is not an academic, and his work is not based on empirical research.

Indeed, much of the empirical scholarship on sex and gender differences indicates quite the opposite. Specifically, it shows that men and women are more similar than they are different in terms of communicating in their close, personal relationships (Canary and Emmers-Sommer 1997). Although some differences do exist, they are not substantial enough to declare that the sexes or genders are significantly different. Many of the socalled differences in the sex and gender literature are related more to flaws in the studies themselves, such as errors in recollection in self-report studies, or individuals' reports that are affected by social desirability. Specifically, social desirability refers to an individual reporting what he or she thinks others would find acceptable, rather than what actually may be the truth. Within the context of gender differences, this would account for men and women reporting what they stereotypically believe men and women should do from a social expectation standpoint versus what they actually do.

Research on communication in close, personal relationships suggests that men and women are more similar than they are different. Nevertheless, some differences do exist between men and women. Many of the differences surface within the contexts of conflict or household chores. For example, in their extensive examination of the sex and gender literature, Dan Canary and Tara Emmers-Sommer (1997) offered the following conclusions regarding sex and gender differences. First, women, compared to men, express a greater range of emotions, such as sadness, fear, love, happiness, and anger. Women are also more inclined than men to disclose personal information, such as their personal opinion or details of their personal history. Compared to men, women are more likely to use touch to convey feelings of closeness; these feelings could be sexual in nature, but not necessarily. Interestingly, women are more likely to exercise power strategies than men. Compared to men, women are more likely to engage in manipulative behaviors and to exercise negative and confrontational conflict behaviors. Finally, women are more likely than men to enact self-disclosure behaviors, engage in loyalty toward their partner and relationship, and enact task-sharing in an effort to maintain their relationship. The authors also found that women, even in dual-career couples, tend to do the lion's share of the household chores and childrearing duties. Thus, some differences do exist between men and women; however, the extensive literature on sex and gender differences indicates that the differences are far outweighed by the similarities.

Interestingly, however, some of the subtle differences that do exist contribute in a noteworthy fashion to how men and women manage their relationships, particularly issues of contention and conflict. According to John Gottman (1994), both sex (physiological) and gender (sociological) differences are exhibited in couple conflict. Similarly, men's and women's adherence to particular gender role and relational ideologies relates to their responses during conflict.


The distinction between sex and gender differences is important in communication research. For example, gender differences, rather than sex differences, play an important role in defining couple-types. Mary Anne Fitzpatrick (1988) argued that a variety of couple-types exist and that each couple-type's attitudes and beliefs toward their partner and relationship hold particular implications for their responses to conflict. It is important to consider the variety of couple-types that exist for several reasons. First, embedded within the couple-types are demonstrations of adherence to gender roles. Second, couple-type relates to how spouses respond in conflict situations, which, third, holds implications for couple communication patterns and for the satisfaction/dissatisfaction of the relationship.

Traditional couple-types. Men and women who are traditionals are highly interdependent and emphasize doing things together versus autonomously. Traditionals hold traditional gender role beliefs (e.g., the woman takes the husband's last name when married) and hold the stability of the relationship in high esteem. Traditionals use positive communication behaviors during conflict (e.g., discuss issues keeping the relationship in mind, not using threats), tend not to argue over petty issues, but do openly engage about salient issues (Fitzpatrick 1988).

Independent couple-types. Independents value both connection and personal autonomy. They actively discuss many aspects of their relationship and hold nontraditional beliefs about relationships (i.e., do not espouse the belief that the "man is in charge") (Fitzpatrick 1988). Independents actively engage in conflict over minor and major issues, argue for personal positions, and offer reasons for accepting their positions rather than rely on a oneup/one-down solution by virtue of gender (Witteman and Fitzpatrick 1986).

Separate couple-types. Separates, unlike independents or traditionals, are not interdependent and avoid interaction, particularly conflict. Separates are likely to withdraw or give in during early stages of conflict because active engagement in conflict involves interaction and a degree of interdependence. However, when separates do engage in conflict, the interaction can be quite hostile (Fitzpatrick 1988).

Mixed couple-types. Approximately half of couple-types do not neatly fall into a specific category such that both husband and wife are traditionals, independents, or separates. Rather, many couples represent a meshing of two different types. The most common mixed couple-type is the separate husband and the traditional wife (Fitzpatrick 1988). Several implications for this couple-type exist in terms of gender role adherence, engagement in conflict, and effects on the satisfaction of the relationship.

The research suggests that certain communication patterns can be constructive to a relationship's preservation, whereas other communication patterns can be destructive to a relationship's maintenance.

Communication Patterns and Couple (Dis)satisfaction

Gottman and colleagues (Gottman 1994; Gottman and Levenson 1988) have offered specific couple communication patterns that contribute to both satisfactory and dissatisfactory couple relationships, with a specific focus on the close, personal relationship of marriage. (It is important to note that most or all of this research has been conducted in the United States.) In fact, Gottman is able to predict divorce accurately 94 percent of the time. Gottman has found that the behaviors of criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and withdrawal hold the most impact in influencing a close relationship negatively. Although men and women can exercise all of these behaviors, it is of particular harm when the man in the relationship withdraws from conversation about important issues of contention. This particular behavioral pattern is indicative, for example, of a mixed couple-type in which the husband is a separate and the wife is a traditional.

Overall, Gottman (1994) offered several observations regarding what delineated a satisfied relationship from a dissatisfied one. First, dissatisfied couples more often engage in destructive communication patterns than satisfied couples. Specifically, dissatisfied couples are more likely to engage in criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and withdrawal. Many of these behaviors can also be conveyed nonverbally. For example, a partner stiffening up to convey defensiveness, rolling his or her eyes to convey contempt, or withdrawing and staring off into space to convey withdrawal. Of the four behaviors, Gottman (1994) argued that the behaviors of contempt and defensiveness are the most corrosive and that the man's withdrawal from conflict is the strongest predictor of divorce. In addition to emotional harm, these behaviors can also contribute to physiological distress. Second, husbands are more likely to withdraw from conflict in dissatisfied marriages and less likely to do so in satisfied marriages. That is, husbands are more likely to self-disclose their feelings to their wives in happy marriages. This suggests that one cannot assume that men are emotionally distant from everyone, as the common stereotype would indicate, and nondisclosive. Indeed, the mediating factor might be the state of the relationship. Research also suggests that women have a greater repertoire of individuals to disclose to than men do and are more inclined to disclose regardless of marital satisfaction, whereas some men only disclose to their wife. For those men in unhappy marriages, their feelings are often revealed to no one. Overall, much of the research suggests these aforementioned patterns (Canary and Emmers-Sommer 1997; Gottman 1994; House 1981). Third, men and women function differently in the face of negative affect. Specifically, the research suggests that women function more aptly in high conflict situations than men. Within the context of satisfied marriages, both husbands and wives engage in deescalation behaviors (i.e., reducing the conflict) during low-level conflict. Women engage in deescalation behaviors during high conflict as well, whereas men find it difficult regardless of their marital satisfaction. Within dissatisfied marriages, neither the husband nor wife engages in conflict de-escalation behaviors (Gottman 1979, 1994). Fourth, research suggests that destructive communication during conflict affects men more adversely from a physiological standpoint than women. Gottman (1994) concluded that men and women may differ in their responses to negative communication such that men react more quickly to negative affect and that their recovery from the episode is slower than that of women. These reactions to negative communication are evidenced through means such as elevated adrenal excretions and blood pressure. Interestingly, Gottman (1994) noted that while women's health appears to be superior to men's within these contexts, men seem to benefit from marriage more than women do. Fifth, Gottman (1994) argued that a five-to-one ratio is necessary for a stable relationship; specifically, that five positive communications are necessary to balance one negative communication. Further, negative communications that involve the four destructive behaviors mentioned earlier (criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and withdrawal) are particularly harmful to the relationship. In response to these destructive behaviors, Gottman (1994) suggests that partners engage in the behaviors of soothing, nondefensive listening, and validating.

Sixth, in addition to certain communication behaviors and patterns, dissatisfied or distressed couples are often distinguished from satisfied or nondistressed couples in terms of how their conflict behaviors collectively produce cycles. Specifically, dissatisfied couples often find themselves in what Gottman (1994) termed "negativity cycles." Such cycles involve one partner offering a complaint and that complaint is met with the partner's countercomplaint, which is met with another countercomplaint, and so forth. Gottman found that satisfied and dissatisfied couples were distinguished, in part, by the couples' ability to remove themselves from the complaint/countercomplaint pattern. Whereas a satisfied couple might take only a few passes at the destructive complaint/countercomplaint cycle, dissatisfied couples kept hashing out the complaints, forcing themselves into a deeper and deeper negativity spiral. Finally, distressed couples are more inclined to form negative attributions toward the partner during conflict and attribute behavior to internal factors, whereas nondistressed couples were more likely to attribute behavior to external factors. For example, if John and Jane are a distressed couple, they are more likely to attribute blame to one another, whereas if they are a nondistressed couple, they are more likely to attribute behaviors to the situation at hand.


Numerous conclusions can be gleaned from the aforementioned findings. First, it is important to note that the findings reviewed here are not exhaustive. Second, it is important to emphasize that the majority of the research presented here focuses on marital couples. Third, and as noted earlier, it must be kept in mind that some of the past gender and sex research might be somewhat in error as reliability and validity issues exist. Fourth, it is necessary to note that the majority of the research presented here was conducted in the United States. Surely, some cultural differences exist in relational ideologies and communication patterns. Nevertheless, certain noteworthy patterns do exist in the research findings that speak to sex and gender differences and similarities as well as what couple communication patterns contribute to satisfied and dissatisfied relationships.

What is particularly salient about work done on couple communication patterns is that awareness is being increased about demonstrable patterns that work and do not work in close, personal relationships. Indeed, how individuals communicate in their close personal relationships holds direct implications for individuals' personal and relational well-being. Of value in the extant research on couple communication patterns and relational satisfaction is that noticeable learned patterns can be unlearned by partners in dissatisfied and distressed relationships if the desire exists to better the relationship.

See also:Affection; Attraction; Communication: Family Relationships; Commuter Marriages; Conflict: Couple Relationships; Dating; Decision Making: Dialectical Theory; Family Roles; Infidelity; Intimacy; Marital Quality; Nagging and Complaining; Problem Solving; Relationship Dissolution; Relationship Initiation; Relationship Maintenance; Relationship Metaphors; Relationship Theories—Self-Other Relationship; Renewal of Wedding Vows; Self-Disclosure; Sexual Communication: Couple Relationships; Social Networks; Therapy: Couple Relationships; Transition to Parenthood


birchler, g. r., weiss, r. l., and vincent, j. p. (1975)."multimethod analysis of social reinforcement exchange between martially distressed and nondistressed spouse and stranger dyads." journal of personality and social psychology 31:349–360.

canary, d. j., and emmers-sommer, t. m. (1997). sex andgender differences in personal relationships. new york: guilford press.

fitzpatrick, m. a. (1988). between husbands andwives: communication in marriage. newbury park, ca: sage.

gottman, j. m. (1994). what predicts divorce? hillsdale,nj: lawrence erlbaum associates.

gottman, j. m. (1979). marital interaction: experimentalinvestigations. new york: academic press.

gottman, j. m., and levenson, r. w. (1988). "the socialpsychophysiology of marriage." in perspectives on marital interaction, ed. p. noller and m. a. fitzpatrick. philadelphia: multilingual masters.

gray, j. (1992). men are from mars, women are fromvenus. new york: harper collins.

house, j. s. (1981). work, stress, and social support.reading, ma: addison-wesley.

miller, r. s. (1997). "we always hurt the ones we love:aversive interactions in close relationships." in aversive interpersonal behaviors, ed. r. w. kowalski. new york: plenum press.

witteman, h., and fitzpatrick, m. a. (1986). "compliancegaining in marital interaction: power bases, processes, and outcomes." communication monographs 53:130–143.

other resources

americans for divorce reform. "divorce statistics collection." available from

japanese ministry of health, labour and welfare. "vitalstatistics. divorces (1983–2000)." japan information network web site. available from

tara m. emmers-sommer


Families and communication have a symbiotic relationship. Family communication encompasses the multiple ways family members interact, which reflect the relational ties as well as the communication processes that create each unique family system. Communication patterns serve to reflect, as well as construct, family reality.

It is through talk that family members define their identities and negotiate their relationships with each other and the rest of the world. Each family is defined through its communication, verbal and nonverbal, rather than just through biological and legal kinship. Communication serves as a process by which family members differentiate themselves from non-family members; some families include units constructed only through choice and interaction, such as partners, long-term friends, and other fictive kin (Whitchurch and Dickson 1999). Given the increasing complexities of family forms created through means such as multiple remarriage, chosen partnerships, and single parenting, communication patterns have taken on increasing significance in examining family dynamics. Studying relationships has taken a "decided communication turn with a growing recognition of the formative, constitutive nature of communicative processes, and perhaps this is nowhere as notable as in the study of marriage and family relationships" (Rogers 2001, p. 25).

Multigenerational and cultural communication patterns affect family interactions. Each generation teaches the next how to manage issues such as intimacy, conflict, gender roles, and handling stress. Family members are affected by family-of-origin influences—or the patterns of previous generations—even as they create their own patterns that will influence future generations. Such patterns do not determine but, unless consciously altered, affect interaction in the next generations.

Many families reflect significant cultural communication patterns that affect everything from family identity to values and interaction styles. For example, families of Chinese, Ugandan, or Irish heritage hold different beliefs about who is family; they may also relate differently to family members or outsiders based on their ancestry. Family ethnicity sets norms for communication that influence those of succeeding generations (McGoldrick 1993). When people from very different families of origin or cultural backgrounds create a family, considerable discussion and negotiation is needed to construct a functioning system.


A primary family task is meaning-making. Communication is the process by which family members create meanings, share them with the rest of the world, and eventually develop their own relational culture or shared reality. Indicators of family meaning include language patterns, stories, rituals, and rules.

Family meanings are developed as members interpret behaviors through communication. Comments such as "I was only kidding when I said that" or "Yelling is just a way of getting rid of stress" serve to create a shared reality. Nicknames, nonverbal codes, inside jokes, shared references, and unique terminology separate members from non-members.

Stories, common sources of family meanings, bring the past into the present, constructing a common history and convey messages to present generations about what is valued. Narratives distill unique family experiences while answering members' questions such as, how did this family come to be? Will the family stand behind its members? What does it mean to be a [family name]? In addition, the performance of family stories—who tells and who hears the story, and how stories are told— contributes to meanings. For example, storytelling research identifies three couple types through their performative style: connected couples tell stories that include dialogue overlaps and mutual confirmation; functional separate couples demonstrate respect, validation, and support while telling individual stories; dysfunctional couples exhibit contradictions and disagreement (Dickson l995).

Rituals serve to develop and reflect a family's sense of itself. A family ritual is "a symbolic form of communication that, owing to the satisfaction that family members experience through the repetition, is acted out in a systematic fashion over time" (Wolin and Bennett l984, p. 401). Marital rituals include time for togetherness, idiosyncratic actions, intimacy expressions, or daily routines which serve to maintain the relationship and signal coupleness to the outside world (Bruess and Pearson l995). Family rituals develop around vacations, dinnertime, or bedtime, as well as celebrations of holidays, birthdays, or cultural events.

Certain patterns, based on "shoulds" and "oughts," evolve into family rules that serve to coordinate meanings among family members. Families develop communication rules: shared understandings of what communication means and what behaviors are appropriate in various situations (Wood l997). Rules may be explicitly stated ("Do not swear") or implicitly emerge through multiple interactions ("Don't tell Mom about anything Dad's new wife bought us"). Family communication rules tell members what can be talked about, in what ways, and who is allowed to hear the talk. Frequently rules serve to protect secrets and establish and maintain family boundaries; families with an alcoholic member typically adhere to the communication rule "Don't talk about Dad's drinking."

Partnerships and family dyads are maintained as members manage competing needs and obligations, coordinate their activities, introduce pleasure into their relationship, and build a place in which to nurture the relationships. Dialectical theory, which addresses contradictions and oppositions, is useful in examining these predictable relational tensions. Communication scholars identify a range of possible dialectical tensions including (l) autonomy-connection, or the desire to be independent while wishing to integrate with another person; (2) openness-closeness, or the desire to be expressive and disclosive and to be closed and private; and (3) predictability-novelty or the desire for sameness and constancy while also desiring stimulation and change. (Baxter 1990; Baxter and Montgomery l996). Partners may each feel similar pressure to be independent and connected; a parent and teenager may wish to be close and have an open relationship, but also to protect areas of privacy. One stepfamily dialectical dilemma involves managing the voluntary marital relationship and the involuntary stepparent-stepchild relationship (Cissna, Cox, and Bochner 1990). The tensions are ongoing, and partners and family members work to manage them strategically over the life of their relationship.


Couple and family intimacy reflects many similarities. Marital intimacy involves the following characteristics: (1) a close, familiar, and usually affectionate or loving personal relationship; (2) a detailed and deep knowledge and understanding from close personal connection or familiar experience; and (3) sexual relations (Feldman l979).

With the exception of sexual relations, these characteristics may be applied to all family relationships, understanding that intimacy is much different between partners than between children and parents or young siblings due to their developmental stages.

Talk, including confirmation and positivity, self-disclosure, and sexual communication, contributes to intimacy development. Its function varies with the unique multigenerational familial system, its ethnic heritage, and the maturity of its members.

Talk provides symbolic evidence of the connections among communicators while strengthening those connections. For example, time spent in debriefing conversations, when couples inform each other about events, thoughts, and emotions they experienced while apart, is positively associated with relational satisfaction (Vangelisti and Banski l993). Confirmation messages recognize another person's existence, respond relevantly to the other's communication, accept the other's way of experiencing life, and suggest a willingness to become involved with the other. Positivity includes displaying interest, affection, caring, acceptance, empathy, and joy. Based on a review of his research with hundreds of couples, John Gottman (1994b) maintains that stable couples exhibit in a 5:1 positivity to negativity ratio. (Negativity consists of criticism, contempt, defensiveness, withdrawal, loneliness, and isolation.) These kinds of talk lay the connecting groundwork for long-term, intimate familial ties.

Self-disclosure, or voluntarily sharing personal and private information with another, serves to deepen relationships. Disclosure about self is complex and difficult, and involves risk on the part of the discloser and a willingness to accept such disclosure on the part of the other. High mutual self-disclosure is usually associated with voluntary adult relationships, such as couples or extended family, and is characterized by trust, confirmation, and affection, and is influenced by ethnic and family of origin patterns. Discussions between parents and younger children, given differences in developmental stages, seldom include mutual disclosure. High levels of self-disclosure of negative feelings about the other may occur at points in familial relationships resulting in conflict and anger. In most families, boundary management is an ongoing processes. Family members must continuously decide which feelings and thoughts they are willing to share: the cost is personal vulnerability. Relational boundary management is achieved by developing, using, and coordinating rules and managing relational turbulence when boundaries are invaded (Petronio 2000). Some cautions about unrestrained self-disclosure need to be considered, since it can be destructive or manipulative (Wilder and Collins 1994). Selective, rather than total, self-disclosure contributes to intimacy development in partner and parent-child relationships.

Sexuality is linked directly to communication at both the partner and family level. Sexual attitudes and behavior may be viewed as a topic of communication, a form of communication, and a contributing factor to relational intimacy and satisfaction. Family sex communication includes ". . . a composite of a few direct, sometimes forceful, verbal messages; a lot of indirect verbal messages; a background mosaic of innumerable nonverbal messages" (Warren 1992, p. 130). How a family encourages or discourages talk about issues such as pregnancy, birth control, masturbation, menstrual cycles, the initial sexual encounters of adolescents, and the sexual intimacy of the parents is related to communication and sexuality rules (Yerby, Buerkel-Rothfuss, and Bochner 1990).

Family approaches to sexuality range along a continuum from sexually neglectful to sexually healthy to sexually abusive (Maddock 1989). In some "sexually neglectful" families, sex is seldom mentioned or it is discussed so abstractly that a direct connection is not made between the topic and the personal experience of family members. Sexually abusive families are typically closed and emotionally inexpressive with boundary confusion between members and generations. Sexually healthy families are characterized by respect for both genders, developmentally appropriate boundaries, effective and flexible communication patterns that support intimacy, and a shared system of culturally relevant sexual values and meanings.

Each partner's background influences sexual encounters, as does the partner's sexual identity. Couples establish their own patterns of sexual activity early in the relationship, and these patterns typically continue throughout the relationship (Specher and McKinney 1994). Open communication becomes critical, since a good sexual relationship depends on what is satisfying to each partner. A couple that cannot communicate effectively about many areas of their life will have difficulty developing effective communication about their sexual life because "Communication in the bedroom starts in other rooms" (Schwartz 1994, p. 74).


Family conflict patterns become repetitive and predictable. A stage model for analyzing the frequently recurring family conflict patterns lists prior conditions, frustration awareness, active conflict, solution or non-solution, follow-up, and resolution stage (Galvin and Brommel 2000). Gottman (1994a) classifies three couple types according to their styles of conflict interactions: validating, volatile, and conflict avoiders. Whereas validating partners respect one another's point of view on a variety of topics and strive toward compromise, volatile partners are emotionally expressive, comfortable with disagreement, and highly persuasive. Conflict avoiders abhor negative messages and strive to lessen potential conflicts by placating or deferring to one another. All three groups of stable couples exhibited a 5:1 positivity to negativity ratio.

Sometimes family conflict escalates to abuse. Abusive couples exhibit significantly more reciprocity in verbally aggressive exchanges than do distressed, non-abusive control groups (Sabourin, Infante, and Rudd 1990). For the majority of couples that use verbal aggression, conflict does not lead to physical aggression although some physically aggressive couples view verbal aggression as a catalyst for their physical acts (Roloff 1996).

Parent-parent and parent-child abuse become a part of role relationships; in physically combative families such behaviors occur frequently enough for children, husbands, wives, or lovers to become accustomed to it. Family aggression relates to gender and age: boys receive more verbal aggression than girls and both experience more of it after age six (Vissing and Baily 1996). Non-abusive mothers introduce more topics into discussions, give more verbal and nonverbal instructions, and use more signs of verbal and nonverbal affection. Non-abusive parents use more time-outs, privilege denials, and explanation of consequences to discipline their children (Wilson and Whipple 1995).

Technology and Families

Technological developments are impacting family communication patterns. Technology, particularly the Internet, is altering hierarchical communication structures in many families as youngsters gain information and skills which many parents do not possess. The Internet weakens parental supervision of media use; parents report concerns of child safety, such as Internet strangers, and concerns about content such as pornography, violence, and hate speech (Wartella and Jennings 2001). Working parents and working partners are increasingly technology-dependent as family members use e-mail, cell phones, and other new media to stay in touch. Non-custodial parents often maintain relationships with children via e-mail as do parents or partners who travel frequently.

More family members are creating family websites and family listservs, researching family history, sharing photos, and rekindling Internet relationships with long-lost relatives. Whereas e-mail has increased communication among some family members, it is used as a substitute for face-to-face conversation among others. Many siblings stay in touch more frequently with e-mail than with telephones. There appear to be some gender differences in the use of electronic messages to maintain family ties (PEW Internet and American Life Project 2000)—women are more likely to use the Internet to rekindle relationships with relatives who have been out of contact for a long time. Because teens frequently teach other family members how to use the Internet, it creates a generational reversal which may enhance parent-child relationships or exacerbate conflicts (PEW Internet and American Life Project 2001).


Communication strategies are valuable as family members aim for increased satisfaction, commitment, and stability. Many people enter marriage and parenthood naïvely assuming that this wonderful relationship will endure indefinitely without much effort. Yet significant amounts of thought, time, and energy need to be invested to sustain a well-functioning family.

Sometimes family members make relational changes on their own through discussing, listening, and trying new behaviors; frequently this is insufficient to effect desired changes (Galvin and Brommel 2000). Couples or family members may participate in enrichment programs designed to improve communication; others decide to enter marital or family therapy when family life is painful.

The study of family communication is developing rapidly. Recent research has focussed on race and ethnicity (Socha and Diggs 1999; Gudykunst and Lee 2001), gay and lesbian families (West and Turner 1995), and work/family interface issues (Golden 2000). Given the complexity and power of communication patterns, and their impact on current and future generations, the importance of this research cannot be underestimated.

See also:Communication: Couple Relationships; Computers and Family; Conflict: Couple Relationships; Conflict: Family Relationships; Conflict: Parent-Child Relationships;Decision Making; Disabilities; Family and Relational Rules; Family Business; Family Life Education; Family Stories and Myths; Family Strengths; Favoritism/Differential Treatment; Food; Intimacy; Nagging and Complaining; Power: Family Relationships; Problem Solving; Relationship Maintenance; Self-Disclosure; Sexual Communication: Parent-Child Relationships; Sibling Relationships; Stepfamilies; Transition to Parenthood


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whitchurch, g., and dickson, f. c. (1999). "family communication." in handbook of marriage and the family, 2nd edition., ed. s. k. steinmetz and g. w. peterson. new york: plenum press.

wilder, c., and collins, s. (1994). "patterns of interactionalparadoxes." in the dark side of interpersonal communication, ed. w. r. cupach and b. h. spitzberg. mahwah, nj: erlbaum.

wilson, s. r., and whipple, e. e. (1995). "communication, discipline, and physical child abuse." in parents, children, and communication: frontiers in theoryand research, ed. t. socha and g. stamp. hillsdale, nj: erlbaum.

wolin, s. j. and bennett, l. a. (1984). "family rituals."family process 23:401–420.

wood, j. t. (1997). gendered lives: communication, gender, and culture, 2nd edition. belmont, ca: wadsworth.

yerby, j.; buerkel-rothfuss, n. l.; and bochner, a. (1990).understanding family communication. scottsdale, az: gorsuch scarisbrick.

other resources

golden, a., ed. (2000). "communication perspective onwork and family." electronic journal of communication 10:3–4. available from

pew internet and american life project. (2000). "trackingonline life: how women use the internet to cultivate relationships with family and friends." available from

pew internet and american life project. (2001). "teenagelife online: the rise of the instant-message generation and the internet's impact on friendships and family relationships." available from

kathleen m. galvin


views updated May 14 2018



Communication is the sharing or exchange of thought by oral, written, or nonverbal means. To function effectively, managers need to know, and be able to apply strategically, a variety of communication skills that match varying managerial tasks. These tasks might call for nonverbal, presentational, or written skills as the manager meets others, speaks at meetings, or prepares reports to be read by clients or those higher on the organizational ladder. To work effectively, managers also need to know sources of information. Finally, managers need to understand the different communication channels available.


Information, the lifeblood of any organization, needs to flow freely to be effective. Successful management requires downward communication to subordinates, upward communication to superiors, and horizontal communication to peers in other divisions. Getting a task done, perhaps through delegation, is just one aspect of the manager's job. Obtaining the resources to do that job, letting others know what is going on, and coordinating with others are also crucial skills. These skills keep the organization working and enhance the visibility of the manager and her division, thus ensuring continued support and promotion.

Downward communication is more than passing on information to subordinates. It may involve effectively managing the tone of the message, as well as showing skill in delegation to ensure the job is done effectively by the right person. In upward communication, tone is even more crucial, as are timing, strategy, and audience adaptation. In neither case can the manager operate on automatic as the messages are sent out.


At first glance the communication process, or the steps taken to get a message from one mind to another, seems simple enough. As the definition at the opening suggested, the sender has an idea, which he transmits to the receiver through signsphysical sensations capable of being perceived by another. These signs might be a printed or spoken word, a gesture, a handshake, or a stern look, to name just a few. The receiver takes those signs, interprets them and then reacts with feedback.

The process is more complex, though. When communicating, the sender encodes the message. That is, she chooses some tangible sign (something which can be seen, heard, felt, tasted, or smelled) to carry the message to the receiver. The receiver, in turn, decodes that message; that is, he finds meaning in it. Yet the signs used in messages have no inherent meaning; the only meaning in the message is what the sender or receiver attributes to it.

To make sense out of a message, to determine the meaning to attribute to it, the receiver uses perception. With perception, the receiver interprets the signs in a communication interaction in light of his past experience. That is, he makes sense out of the message based on what those signs meant when he encountered them in the past. A firm, quick handshake, for example, may signal businesslike to someone because in the past he found people who shook hands that way were businesslike.


No person sees things exactly the same way as another; each has a unique set of experiences, a unique perceptual filter, through which he or she compares and interprets messages. Making up this filter is the unique blend of education, upbringing, and all of the life experiences of the perceiver. Even in the case of twins, the perceptual filter will vary between them. When communicating, each receiver uses that filter to give meaning to or make sense out of the experience.

Herein lies the challenge in communication, particularly for managers who need to be understood in order to get things done: getting the receiver to comprehend the message in a way similar to what was intended. While the word communication implies that a common meaning is shared between sender and receiver, this is not always the case. Under optimum circumstances, the meaning attributed to the message by the receiver will be close to what was intended by the sender. In most situations, however, the meaning is only an approximation, and may even be contrary to what was intended. The challenge of communication lies in limiting this divergence of meanings between sender and receiver.

While the wide range of potential experiences makes communicating with someone from within the same culture a challenge, across cultures the possibilities are even wider and the challenges even greater. What one sign means in one culture might be taken in an entirely different way in another. The friendly Tunisian businessman who holds another man's hand as they walk down the street may be misunderstood in the North American culture, for example. Similarly, an intended signal may mean nothing to someone from another culture, while an unintended one may trigger an unexpected response.

Understanding the dynamics that underlie perception is crucial to effective and successful communication. Because people make sense out of present messages based on past experiences, if those past experiences differ, the interpretations assigned may differ slightly or even radically depending on the situation. In business communication, differences in education, roles in the organization, age, or gender may lead to radical differences in the meaning attributed to a sign.


The effective communicator learns early the value of audience adaptation and that many elements of the message can be shaped to suit the receiver's unique perceptual filter. Without this adaptation, the success of the message is uncertain. The language used is probably the most obvious area. If the receiver does not understand the technical vocabulary of the sender, then the latter needs to use terms common to both sender and receiver.

On the other hand, if the receiver has less education than the sender, then word choice and sentence length may need to be adapted to reflect the receiver's needs. For

example, if the receiver is skeptical of technology, then someone sending a message supporting the purchase of new data processing equipment needs to shape it in a way that will overcome the perceptual blinders the receiver has to the subject. If the receiver is a superior, then the format of the message might need to be more formal.


Communication barriers (often also called noise or static) complicate the communication process. A communication barrier is anything that impedes the communication process. These barriers are inevitable. While they cannot be avoided, both the sender and receiver can work to minimize them.

Interpersonal communication barriers arise within the sender or receiver. For example, if one person has biases against the topic under discussion, anything said in the conversation will be affected by that perceptual factor. Interpersonal barriers can also arise between sender and receiver. One example would be a strong emotion like anger during the interaction, which would impair both the sending and receiving of the message in a number of ways. A subtler interpersonal barrier is bypassing, in which the sender has one meaning for a term, while the receiver has another (for example, hardware could be taken to mean different things in an interchange).

Organizational barriers arise as a result of the interaction taking place within the larger work unit. The classic example is the serial transmission effect. As a message passes along the chain of command from one level to the next, it changes to reflect the person passing it along. By the time a message goes from bottom to top, it is not likely to be recognized by the person who initiated it.

Although communication barriers are inevitable, effective managers learn to adapt messages to counteract their impact. The seasoned manager, especially when in the role of sender, learns where they occur and how to deal with them. As receiver, she has a similar and often more challenging duty. The effort is repaid by the clearer and more effective messages that result.


While audience adaptation is an important tool in dealing with communication barriers, it alone is not enough to minimize their impact. As a result, communication long ago evolved to develop an additional means to combat communication barriers: redundancy, the predictability built into a message that helps ensure comprehension. Every message is, to a degree, predictable or redundant, and that predictability helps overcome the uncertainty introduced by communication barriers. Effective communicators learn to build in redundancy where needed.

Communication redundancy occurs in several ways. One of the most obvious of these is through simple repetition of the message, perhaps by making a point early and again later into the same message. A long report, by contrast, might have its main points repeated in a variety of places, including the executive summary, the body, and the conclusion.

Another source of redundancy lies in the use of multiple media. Much spoken communication is repeated in the nonverbal elements of the message. A formal oral presentation is usually accompanied with slides, product samples, or videotaped segments to support the spoken word. A person interviewing for a job stresses his seriousness and sincerity with a new suit, a warm handshake, consistent eye contact, and an earnest tone in his voice.


Nonverbal communication occurs when there is an exchange of information through nonlinguistic signs. In a spoken (and to some extent written) message, it consists of everything except the words. Nonverbal communication is a valid and rich source of information and merits close study. As with other elements of communication, the meaning of nonverbal signals depends upon perception. It does not have to be intentional in order to carry meaning to another person.

Nonverbal communication serves a variety of purposes, including sending first impressions such as a warm handshake. It also signals emotions (through tears or smiles), status (through clothing and jewelry), and when one wants to either take or relinquish a turn in conversation (using gestures or drawing a breath). Nonverbal signals can also signal when someone is lying; for example when being deceptive, vocal pitch often rises.

Many think of body language as synonymous with nonverbal communication. Body language is a rich source of information in interpersonal communication. The gestures that an interviewee uses can emphasize or contradict what he is saying. Similarly, his posture and eye contact can indicate respect and careful attention. Far subtler, but equally important, are the physical elements over which he has little control, but which still impact the impression he is making on the interviewer. His height, weight, physical attractiveness, and even his race are all sources of potential signals that may affect the impression he is making.

But nonverbal signals come from many other sources, one of which is time. If the interviewee in the previous example arrived ten minutes late, he may have made such a poor impression that his chances for hire are jeopardized. A second interviewee who arrives ten minutes early signals eagerness and promptness.

Haptics is a source of nonverbal communication that deals with touch. An interviewee with a weak handshake

may leave a poor impression. The pat on the back that accompanies a verbal well done and a written commendation may strongly reinforce the verbal and written statements. Subconsciously, most managers realize that when the permissible level of haptic communication is exceeded, it is done to communicate a message about the state of the parties' relationship. It is either warmer than it had been, or one of the parties wishes it so. Unfortunately, explain Borisoff and Victor, conflict can arise when the two parties involved do not agree on an acceptable haptic level for the relationship.

Nonverbal communication also includes proxemics, a person's relationship to others in physical space. Most are familiar with the idea of a personal space bubble that we like to keep around ourselves. In the North American culture, this intimate space may be an 18-inch circle around the person, which only those closest are allowed to invade. Just beyond this space close friends may be tolerated, and acquaintances even farther out. Other cultures may have wider or narrower circles. Table 1 sets out the meanings typically attributed to personal spaces in the North American culture.

Managers also send nonverbal signals through their work environment. These signals can affect the communication process in obvious or subtle ways. For example, a manager may arrange the office so that she speaks to subordinates across a broad expanse of desk. Or, she may choose to be less intimidating and use a round table for conferences. The artifacts she uses in the office may say something about who the manager is, or how she wishes to be seen. The organization also speaks through the space it allots to employees. For example, the perception that a large, windowed, corner office may signal prestige while a tiny, sterile cubicle may convey (intentionally or unintentionally) low status.


The grapevine is the informal, confidential communication network that quickly develops within any organization

Table 1
Proxemic Distances in the North America Culture
ZoneDistancePersons Tolerated
Adapted from Smeltzer and Waltman et al., pp. 234235
Intimate0 to 18Partner/spouse, parents, children
Personal1.5 to 4Close friends
Social4 to 12Business associates
Public12 and upStrangers

to supplement the formal channels. The structure of the grapevine is amorphous; it follows relationship and networking patterns within and outside the organization, rather than the formal, rational ones imposed by the organization's hierarchy. Thus, members of a carpool, or people gathering around the water cooler or in the cafeteria, may be from different divisions of a company, but share information to pass the time. The information may even pass out of the organization at one level and come back in at another as people go from one network to another. For example, a member of a civic group might casually (and confidentially) pass on interesting information to a friend at a club, who later meets a subordinate of the first speaker at a weekend barbecue.

The grapevine has several functions in the organization. For one, it carries information inappropriate for formal media. Fearing legal repercussions, most would rarely use printed media to share opinions on the competence, ethics, or behavior of others. At the same time, they will freely discuss these informally on the grapevine. Similarly, the grapevine will carry good or bad news affecting the organization far more quickly than formal media can.

The grapevine can also serve as a medium for translating what top management says into meaningful terms. For example, a new and seemingly liberal policy on casual dress may be translated as it moves along the grapevine to clarify what the limits of casual dress actually are. As it informally fleshes out or clarifies what is also traveling in the formal channels, the grapevine can also serve as a source of communication redundancy. And when these corporate-sanctioned channels are inaccurate, especially in an unhealthy communication climate, what is on the grapevine is usually trusted far more by those using it than what passes on the formal channels.

Participants in the grapevine play at least one of several roles. The first of these, the liaison, is the most active participant since he both sends and receives information on the grapevine. This person often has a job with easy access to information at different levels of the organization (and often with little commitment to any level). This might be a secretary, a mailroom clerk, a custodian, or a computer technician. Often, too, the liaison is an extrovert and likable. While this role means that the liaison is in on much of what is going on in the organization, he also takes a chance since the information he passes on might be linked back to him.

Another role played in the grapevine is the dead-ender. This person generally receives information, but rarely passes it on. By far the most common participant in the grapevine, this person may have access to information from one or more liaisons. This role is the safest one to play in the grapevine since the dead-ender is not linked

to the information as it moves through the organization. Many managers wisely play this role since it provides useful information on what is happening within the organization without the additional risk passing it on to others might entail.

The third role is the isolate. For one or more reasons, she neither sends nor receives information. Physical separation may account for the role in a few instances (the classic example is the lighthouse keeper), but the isolation may also be due to frequent travel that keeps the individual away from the main office. Frequently, the isolation can be traced to interpersonal problems or to indifference to what is happening in the organization (many plateaued employees fit in this category). Not surprisingly, top management often plays the role of isolate, although often unwillingly or unknowingly. This isolation may be owing to the kinds of information passing on the grapevine or to the lack of access others have to top management.

Of course, what is passing on the grapevine may affect a person's behavior or role played. The isolate who is close to retirement and indifferent to much of what is going on around him may suddenly become a liaison when rumors of an early retirement package or a cut in health benefits circulate. Meanwhile, the youngest members of the organization may not give a passing thought to this seemingly irrelevant information.


Communication channelsor the media through which messages are sentcan have an influence on the success of communication. Typical channels used in business communication are face-to-face conversations, telephone conversations, formal letters, memos, or e-mails. Each channel has its own advantages and disadvantages in communicating a particular message.

Media richness theory indicates that the various communication channels differ in their capability to provide rich information. Face-to-face interaction is highest in media richness, because a person can perceive verbal and nonverbal communication, including posture, gestures, tone of voice, and eye contact, which can aid the perceiver in understanding the message being sent. Letters and e-mails have fairly low media richness; they provide more opportunity for the perceiver to misunderstand the sender's intent. Thus, messages should be communicated through channels that provide sufficient levels of media richness for their purpose. For instance, when managers give negative feedback to employees, discipline them, or fire them, it should be done in person. However, disseminating routine, nonsensitive information is properly done through memos or e-mails, where media richness is not critical.


E-mail, a common business tool used to spread messages across company structures, can also come with pitfalls. The ease of composing and sending e-mails creates a sometimes lax environment where messages can become garbled, and laziness on the part of the sender can lead to misunderstanding or confusion. Normally clear communicators might omit helpful sentence structure or assume that their tone carries over in an e-mail when, in fact, the static of time-and-place is actually ruining the message. It is common for most companies to have monitoring and collection systems on all e-mail communication, but problems can be readily solved with more careful writing techniques. The University of California offers several helpful guidelines in its Guide to Electronic Communication

E-mail should always have the appropriate degree of formality. The structure and tone of a business letter is a good example to follow. How would you properly speak to your organization, manager, or employees? E-mails should be written with the same professionalism. Not only are they read by the intended person, but e-mails are also often sent to or seen by others.

A reply to an e-mail should always include some summary of the original message. It is rude to force the reader to reread or reconsider what they have already written. A sentence, or even a few words, is usually enough, This is also why it is polite to include links to any articles or Web sites you are referring to within the e-mail.

When sending out a mass e-mail, it is considered polite to summarize the responses you receive. A simple tally of the replies, and communication of the general decision, is enough.

Email messages should be concise. Readers rarely have the time or patience to read a full letter. Keeping the message brief will keep the communication clear.

Messages should be formatted for easy reading. Separating sentences, bulleting points, and using short paragraphs are all ways to improve the readability of e-mail messages.

Titles and subject headings should be descriptive. It is not polite to leave readers guessing what the body of the e-mail might be about. Subject headings should communicate what information the e-mail contains.

Writers of e-mails should take care when using emotive language (such as sarcasm, humor, anger, confusion, etc.). Although e-mail is more informal than other written forms of communication, it does not communicate non-verbal cues, and expressions can be misunderstood.


Web Logs, or blogs, were once used as online journals and private forums. Now, the blogging industry has exploded,

with hundreds of blogging sites adding information and articles daily. According to the blog-tracking company Technorati, approximately 175,000 new blogs are created daily, along with the millions of updates to existing blogs. So, how can a business profit from the blogging world? Can blogs be used as effective marketing and communication tools?

Peter Alexander, with, believes they can. In his 2007 article, Should You Start a Business Blog? he gives several reasons why companies should consider the blogosphere. A business blog can be much more personal, easy to access, and attractive than other marketing techniques. Customers do not feel as pressured by a blog as by other forms of sales media. A blog can be updated daily, giving the business an active, adaptive faceand at a low cost, since most blogs cost little to no money to begin and run.

There are several ways to approach blogging as a business. First, goals and core ideas should be established: what does the business want to communicate with their blog? What image does it want to show? What is the best tone and subject matter to enforce that image? With specific goals in mind, a blog can be tailored to the company's desires.

Blogs should be both relevant and useful. Updating blogs is vital for a company, and even minor posts concerning new products or leadership can communicate the friendliness and personal aspects of the blog. Customers will also want ways to find more information, so links to a company's Web site, ordering information, and any tips or extra information are great additional items to include in a business blog.

As with other types of marketing, the communications on a business blog should make readers eager to learn more about the company and its product or service. Different writers should create a variety of posts to keep the customers' attention, and the use of more than one voice on a blog can be engaging. Key words the company wants to associate itself withdedicated, freelance, or invested, for exampleshould be used frequently on the blog so customers naturally pick up the idea. Videos (even vlogs, video-oriented blogs), pictures, and pdfs can also increase the attraction and usefulness of business blogs.


Short message service (SMS), referred to usually as TM or text messaging, is sometimes considered a standby for teenagers and those with time to learn how to type on their cell phones; however, it is also starting to have many business applications. From a global perspective, America has been slow to accept TM as a form of business and social communication. According to a 2006 article in Business 2.0, Ecuador sends four times more text messages per person than the United States does, despite economic differences. Europeans, such as the Irish or the Danes, send approximately 100 texts per month, compared to people in the United States, whose average is not quite 50 texts.

How can a business make use of TM communication? There are several possibilities, and for some organizations TM can be an asset, enabling instant and direct communication that is more reliable than other electronic contact.

Companies that work a great deal in internet or intranet-based information might want to use text messaging as a failsafe, in case a network fails. Managers and employees may not be able to receive updates if e-mail and IM services are down, but TM notifications can be sent immediately to a widespread audience, explaining a system failure and giving updates on repairs.

There are also a number of people who work away from computers, without access points to check e-mail and receive important communication. Workers, those traveling on marketing tasks, or simply people who frequently move in their jobs can all benefit from a TM system where they can receive key information as they work.

There are several other, more specific uses of text messaging being attempted in the business world. Some marketing ploys use TM to advertise, certain companies announce events or orders over phone texting, and some security organizations (such as banks) use TM to transfer temporary, private security codes. Like other new methods of communication, TM is proving to have a number of uses throughout many industries.


Instant messaging (IM) works in much the same way as e-mail, but it provides a continuous flow of communication (constantly updated) and resembles a normal conversation stripped of nonverbal communication. Many businesses already use IM for training, helpdesk service, and updates. An organization can approach IM use in many different ways. The Microsoft Small Business Center has a helpful guideline for companies considering adopting IM for business use, offering key concepts to keep in mind

First, the organization should create a clear policy regarding IM use, and communicate that policy to all employees. Standards should be set, and parameters should be made on what subjects are allowed for discussion. Employees should be aware that excessive instant messaging will not be tolerated, and that all IM conversations are saved in case of potential misuse. Sensitive information should not be communicated with IM

technology. Managers should set the standard by being clear, concise users of instant messaging themselves.

Companies should be sure they know the legal precedents established in IM use, and be aware of their own liability in case of fraud, defamation, and other potential problems. Computer viruses can use IM services to hack into networks as well, so companies should be aware of possible security risks, and the dangers of transferring files over their IM system.


Voice over Internet protocol, or VoIP, is a recent form of technology allowing audio communication through an Internet provider. Many companies are attracted to VoIP because it allows them to integrate their communication system; for example, department phone networks can be set to use VoIP, avoiding the cost of a phone service provider and allowing some services to become more efficient and integrated, such as conference calling or speaker systems. With broadband services offering high-speed Internet connection capable of high-quality VoIP, companies can consider the technology as a viable alternative.

While VoIP works the same way as a phone service provider, there are several unique points companies should be aware of when looking for VoIP service. Kristin Kiya on Ezine offers a short list of such points in her 2008 article, Identifying the Best Business VoIP Solutions for Your Business:

  • Pay attention to tariffs charged for transferring calls by the VoIP provider. International calls can especially elevate costs.
  • The company should always request test calls from the VoIP provider so that the quality of service can be ascertained. No company should accept fuzzy or intermittent service.
  • A good VoIP provider should provide enough resources that the company can make the transition from its old phone service easily, without losing any capabilities.
  • Many VoIP providers offer training along with their services. If companies desire professional training in the new technology, they should be sure to find a provider that will include it.

There is a growing number of VoIP companies available. The possible providers include Phone Power, Vonage, VoIP Your Life, via-talk, and VoIPGO.


Alexander, Peter. Should You Start a Business Blog? Available from:

Athos, A.G., and R.C. Coffey. Time, Space and Things. In Behavior in Organizations: A Multidimensional View. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1975.

Borisoff, Deborah, and David A. Victor. Conflict Management: A Communication Skills Approach. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1989.

Enbysk, Monte. 10 Tips for Using Instant Messaging For Business. Microsoft Small Business Center. Available from:

Gargano, Joan. A Guide to Electronic Communication and Network Etiquette. University of California, 2005.

Kedrosky, Paul. Why We Don't Get the (Text) Message. Business 2.0, 2 Oct 2006.

Kiya, Kristen. Identifying the Best Business VoIP Solution for Your Business. Ezine Articles. Available from:

Knapp, Mark L., and Judith A. Hall. Nonverbal Communication In Human Interaction. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 2001.

Mah, Paul. Using Text Messaging In Business. TechRepublic. Availble from

Smeltzer, Larry R., and John L. Waltman, et al. Managerial Communication: A Strategic Approach. Needham, MA: Ginn Press, 1991.

Timm, Paul R., and Kristen Bell DeTienne. Managerial Communication. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1991.


views updated May 18 2018



This article is a generalized description of the communication process as a multichannel system. For articles on specific systems of communication, see the articles listed under Art as well as Communication, animal; Language; Kinesics; Parapsychology; and Perception, article onspeech perception. Approaches to the study of communication are discussed in Attitudes, article onattitude change; Cognitive theory; Communication, mass; Communication, political; Linguistics; and Propaganda.

The communicative process involves areas of human behavior that have long been of interest to the publicist, the humanist, and the politician. Social scientists have generally accepted the communicative process as a given and have concerned themselves primarily with its success or failure, its effects, or its improvement. More recently, struck by the barriers to the flow of information between societies, between teachers and students, between the politician and the electorate, between parents and children, between husbands and wives, and between the professional and his clientele, a number of disciplines have focused both thought and research effort upon the mechanisms of information transmission. By and large, increased interest has not been accompanied by a departure from earlier preoccupation with normative evaluation of the process or by a shift from earlier preconceptions about its central dynamic.

Two relatively unquestioned fallacies have served as deterrents to the development of theories about communication and to the organization of research to test such theories. The first of these has been the dominating dyadic frame into which communication research has been forced. Communication has been studied as a process identified by the passage of information through the transmission of more or less meaningful symbols from one individual to another, from one group or representative of a group to another group or representative. Thus, the ideal model for the communicative process is based on the dyad: a knowledgeable monadic father or teacher who emits knowledge-carrying symbols that enter into the head of a less knowledgeable or nonknowledgeable monadic child. Such a conception is deceptively familiar, and it has the absolute support of common sense. This model has strong underpinnings provided by our attitude toward teaching and learning, superordination and subordination, wisdom and ignorance. It is reified by the writing and reading process and by the derivations of literacy represented by books, newspapers, motion pictures, and radio and television. The dyadic model is part of cultural tradition. As such it has impeded the systematic investigation of the larger system of which the dyadic situation is little more than incidental. The dyadic view forces research into Ptolemaic structure. Communication behavior is masked by definitions of communication as “that process whereby encapsulated particles of meaning are transmitted between individual organisms by means of specialized sending and receiving devices.”

Literate man’s anthropocentric and ethnocentric predilection to locate the avenue of transmission in the aural–audio channel or in derivative channels concerned with the transportation of the written word or with the vocalized written word has been equally misleading. Enamored of the almost limitless capacity of language to store cues to accumulated experience, some scholars have confused language, culture, and social interaction. In societies that stress vocal performance and have confidence in the reliability of lexicalized information, a storehouse of social experience is available, in verbal form, to the investigator. It is, however, methodologically dangerous to extrapolate from this special situation to statements about mankind as essentially a vocally communicating species. Review of carefully drawn ethnographic reports reveals that societies vary widely in their rules of evidence, in the extent to which, for example, tangibility takes preference over visibility or audibility or some combination of these. It is both naive and ethnocentric to define communication in terms based upon the self-view of talk-oriented societies.

Human society, wherever examined and of whatever order of development, has language and is dependent upon it. We have been unable to detect any comparable development among other animals. Yet, at the moment we can only theorize about the importance of this distinction between nonhuman and human interactional behavior. We have no data whatsoever that can give us security about when it is that the men in any society talk or listen and when they do not. More significantly, we have only the most poetic conception of what portion of experience is shared when man in any society vocalizes or listens. And, until we do know more about the distinctive, the exclusive, functions of speech, comparisons of the relative efficiency of human and animal communication must remain broadly theoretical and, usually, invidious. However, even at this early stage of descriptive investigation of either animal or human communication, one thing stands out clearly: Man’s possession of language and the absence (if true) of such a system among his prehominid forebears need not be predicated upon or used as proof of the fact that man has abandoned, lost, or suppressed the multisensory reinforcement mechanisms that enable him to be as continuously social as the nonhominids. The too narrow view of communication behavior and the word-centered conception of communication has been based upon, and feeds into, an unnecessarily restricted view of the relationship between biological and social processes.

Preconditions for communication. Man is an occupant of multiple niches, physiographic and social. He lives in, has reconstructed, and adapts to the most diverse range of environments of any of the animals. This environmental diversity combines with man’s long gestation period, extended infancy, lengthy maturation, and low birth rate to make him specifically dependent upon sustaining relationships with his fellows. Having evolved over millions of years from socially dependent forebears, man has demonstrated a special capacity for intricate subdivisions of task and role assignment and regulation. As in lower animals, his relationship to his group mates is more than sequences of trial and error, action and reaction. His interactive behavior is not mechanical but interdependently systemic. Because of a complex division of labor, man’s performances are seldom isolated actions in themselves. The social performance of a given member of society is by definition incomplete; task accomplishment is dependent upon continuative, coordinate, parallel, or complementary individual or subgroup behaviors. These are rarely ritualized, mechanical, conjoint performances. Flexibility and adaptability demand continuous and reliable feedback, contribution, and correction between the performing membership; and this is never apart from the capacities and behavior of the performers.

To support social organization, a society, human or animal, must, in the sense of G. H. Mead, be composed of “significant symbolizers” (1934). Society depends upon predictability and regularity. Every human society finds it necessary to kill, specially define, regulate, rehabilitate, or isolate unreliable or unpredictable symbolizers. Sanity or reliable symbolization (as measured by a particular society within its own special thresholds of significant symbolization) must be maintained if that society is not to be destroyed by accumulating discrepancy and misinformation.

It seems logical, but hardly obvious, that a single channel, the auditory–aural or any other, has too narrow and too specialized a range and is too easily adulterated to be entrusted with social regulation, a task so critical to survival. Man must, except in the nonexample of “wolf-men,” maintain contact with other men throughout life. He must engage in communicative activity in the light and in the dark, upwind and downwind, in situations of dyadic intimacy and at audibility-absorbing distance, in situations that require absolute quiet, and in situations where competitive wave lengths drown out or distort his own oral contributions or reception. He must deal with others who are only confused by his oral productions: to the speaker they are sensible utterances; to the listener they are but nonsense in his ears. He must be predictable after long separations. And, above all, he must not destroy the conditions whereby the young can incorporate a language that he, as an adult, neither understands nor is able to teach. With all of these preconditions it should not be surprising that man (like his animal forebears) is a regulated multisensory station in a transmission system, a multichannel interactor.

Intercorporeal influence. The theoretical structure presented here is appropriate to the extra-individual province shared by biology, sociology, and anthropology. One theoretical point regarding sense perceptions, however, is cogent. We will assume that animals do not “see,” “hear,” “feel,” and so on, as separate operations, even though neural terminals may seem to be specifically stimulated by light, sound, heat, cold, pressure, and chemical activity. This is in agreement with Cherry: “It is even questionable whether the various ‘senses’ are to be regarded as separate, independent detectors. The human organism is one integrated whole, stimulated into response by physical signals; it is not to be thought of as a box, carrying various independent pairs of terminals labeled ‘ears,’ ‘eyes,’ ‘nose,’ et cetera” (Cherry 1957, pp. 127–128).

At first sight this may seem nihilistic. However, such a position concerning physiological or psychological processes in no way denies the fact that the structural properties of vocalic language and of nonlexical body motion language may be abstracted from their behavioral matrices. Structural properties must be isolated for description and analysis prior to the investigation of the relationships of these to each other and to other communicative modalities in the communicational system.

By means of kinesic analysis we have been relatively successful in recent years in isolating structured and patterned communicative elements in visible aspects of human body motion. These have been tested and found necessary to the social activity of a variety of human situations (Birdwhistell 1961; 1962; Scheflen 1965). This encourages us to postulate that other, and perhaps all, directly or indirectly influenceable somatic systems within the living body provide potentials for human interconnectedness. Interconnectedness is used in the sense of the structural aspects of interaction. The capacity for interconnectedness is a consequence of, and the necessary condition for, the flow of viable influence within the membership of a social group. The capacity for interconnectedness provides the social group with the potential for adaptability and continuity. It is the regulated flow of this influence that has given society a history at least as long as bisexuality and viviparous birth.

Influence is a term used to cover all intercorporeal processes of patterned somatic sensitization and response. It is postulated that the relative stability of adaptations leads to a patterned intercorporeal influence structure. This constitutes a vital reservoir of regular and variable behavior, from which the society “selects” for iconic representation and coding at the social level. It is not easy to think about matters such as these and remain disciplined about levels of organization. Customarily, “the ladder of organization levels” is stated in terms that characterize cells that are within a corporeal field as interacting with cells within that given field to form organs; these organs interact within that corporeal field to form a physiological system that is somehow integrated to engage, but only at the next higher level, with other physiological systems. I would not argue for a moment with this model as a source of canons to prevent reductionistic “explanation.” However, to take too simplistic a view of the organizational ladder may blind us to relationships, to interdependencies, that exist at lower levels of organization. And this can easily occur if we somehow impose on our material an implicit framework that defines physiological processes as a level above biological processes and, logically enough, psychological processes as a level above physiological process—and then, finally, sociological processes as an abstraction of combinations of these psychological processes.

The speciational grouping, the multicorporeal environment, is the natural and necessary field of all complex organisms. And this environment is not merely, if ever, an organization of organic wholes. The division of labor, of whatever complexity, necessary to maintain a multicorporeal environment cannot be explained exhaustively by the description of action–reaction sequences between total organisms. I am positing that there exists a pattern of somatic influence composed of ordered partials within the somatic structure of the component organisms. These partials emergently combine to form interdependent patterns that are distributed regularly in the multicorporeal field. Thus, the viability of the particular organism is dependent upon appropriate somatic activity of other organisms within the multicorporeal field. In the viable social grouping there exists a series of biological acts that are necessarily intercorporeal if the given organism and, in consequence, the multicorporeal field are to survive. Thus, the individual incorporates part of a pattern that requires the activity of several organisms to gain completion. I am not restricting these generalizations to such deceptively apparent intercorporeal operations as are involved in the successful or unsuccessful delivery of fertile sperm to fertilizable ovum, of mother’s milk to neonate, or of body warmth to the chilled other. These are but climactic incidents in a far more complex and far-reaching structuralization of intracorporeal partials which in context become intercorporeal transactions, extraindividual and essentially biological acts.

Timing and structure . The achievement of readiness for, and the accomplishment, completion, and abandonment of interdependent action is dependent upon intricate and reliable timing operations of readiness within both the operative individual and the multicorporeal systems. These timing operations are integral, if not central, to all communicative activities. Timing operations are present in all observed interactive systems. They are not necessarily of greater or lesser priority in a theoretical hierarchy of importance in communication. In one sense, timing is an integral function of, and evidence for, the existence of communicative structure.

In certain species, seasonal timing and coordination of readiness seem to be maintained by external contexts of influence. For example, a wide range of organisms are coordinated by a complex dependence upon light or heat variations as occasioned by regular earth–solar relationships. Specialized diets that are weather dependent provide further controls for coordination. Other more omnivorous organisms may be further regulated from within at one level by nutritional requirements and at another level by the oestrous cycle. As ethology continues its productive investigation of animal interactive behavior, we should get increased perspective upon the range of regulatory systems.

There is no need to postulate that man is more, or less, subject to such timing systems than are other animals. Nor do we need to assume that in man such operations have been assigned to, or surrendered to, culture. There is no need to be caught with false paradoxes of nature and nurture. At the moment, all of our evidence here is suggestive and circumstantial, and any generalization must be tentative. It is literally true that we still do not know how the membership of any animal grouping monitors its interactional patterning, how the component relationships remain sufficiently stable to permit continuity (membership replacement), or how the membership organizes and accumulates reaction to change permitting adaptation in a changing milieu. However, it is clear even from our limited data that intercorporeal timing is, for mammals at least, more than a mechanical response of a genetically precalibrated system in a physiographically regular environment. There is every evidence that complex organisms remain influenceable, that they incorporate dependent partials throughout life. This is the biological context in which human communication becomes comprehensible. And it is not a context abandoned in the evolutionary leap from prehominid to man. It remains active beyond the lives of individual men.

It has been pointed out that (a) complex organisms are organically dependent upon other organisms; (b) each organism has patterned partials whose activation or suppression is necessary to its survival and to its emergent contribution to biological continuity; and (c) these partials gain completion by regularity calibration at a series of levels. Only extended research can isolate and describe the mechanisms by means of which these partials are incited, triggered, released, suppressed, and modified by information flowing in the intercorporeal interstices.

Up to this point we have been discussing the relationship between incorporated partials of influence and intercorporeal interconnectedness. There is a temptation to relegate all activities of this nature to a special area of investigation, perhaps to be described as “biological or intercorporeal communication.” Such a move inevitably would serve to reinstate earlier preconceptions, which see such events of interconnectedness as distinct from and both phylogenetically and ontogenetically prior to social communication. The latter, by such definition, would be assigned concern with the stimulation and regulation of interpersonal activity in the form of social partials. It would seem inadvisable to give up the methodological advantage gained by the recognition of structured partials by arbitrarily dividing behavior into that to be termed biological as contrasted with a remainder assigned to society. It would seem more economical to search the interactional situation for communicative activity through all apparent avenues and channels of influence and to recognize that, at least in this framework of behavior, biological and social events coexist. At the least, if we are concerned with problems of the regulation of change and dynamic continuity, they are practically inseparable. There is no need to distinguish between biological and social communication. Communication can serve to cover all such events.

Multichannel communication . It is not profitable to use the term “precommunication” for intercorporeal connectedness and influence partials or to describe them as the “raw materials of communication.” Such phrasing is more appropriately applied to organic, physiological, and psychological processes. Communication is the dynamic aspect of interconnection and is only indirectly related to these individuative processes. As soon as the membership of a grouping is subject to and dependent upon intermembral influence and mechanisms are operative to reduce the likelihood of the individual organism being comparably influenced by members of alien groups and species, it can be said that we have a society and that communication is taking place. A decipherable social code exists whenever a pattern of behavior presented in regularly structured contexts of behavior will serve regularly to trigger, regulate, or modify the behavior of an influenced membership. The minimal meaningful variation of behavior (of whatever size and carried along whatever channel) within the pattern may be termed a cue. The cue is always both an event in itself and an aspect of structure; that is, it always both carries identity and instructs the participant in locating the relevant contexts of its occurrence. Parenthetically, a cue need not be a direct derivation from the behavioral complex of the incorporated partial. Indeed, we know that in language the discriminating cues are arbitrary and bear no discoverable generic relationship to the activity that they signal. Kinesic cues also have this same quality of being arbitrary. In body motion as in spoken language, the cue is iconic for the partial. We may make the working assumption that the other channels operate in the same manner. However, only reliable data about the other modalities will permit us to conclude safely that this arbitrary cue-and-experience association is characteristic of all communicative activity.

As soon as a group develops even the most rudimentary system of triggering cues, communication becomes continuous. These cues, of whatever shape or degree of conspicuousness, constitute a finite segment or structure of segments. Communication is a continuous process made up of these discontinuous and related elements. The cue signals some kind of change in the environment. However, the absence of a specific and discernible cue does not create a situation of nonsociety, of noncommunication. In the absence of a cue a “steady” state can be said to be signaled; the ordered activity within the state is in itself cueful.

The concept of the steady state in its contrast with activating cues can be fatally obscurantist as an idea if it prevents recognition of the fact that it is only a heuristic simplification of, or an observational slice from, the very complex ordering of interpersonal and group relationships present in all societies. For example, the membership of a viviparous and bisexual grouping is not, by definition, homogeneous. Every observation of group behavior, either animal or human, leads us to the conclusion that intermembral cues cannot appear in isolation, are never things-in-themselves. They are always cross-referenced. Cues of whatever shape or duration are always modified by the signature of the sender and, usually, by the identification of the addressees. Thus, even the most context-specific or event-specific cue is bound to complex modification cues, which serve to signal the reliability of the cue by transmitting information about the context, the sender, and the intended receiver of the signal. “To whom it may concern” messages undoubtedly occur within a social grouping, but they are probably sufficiently rare as to constitute special cases. At the same time, while certain situations of urban life may permit a period of relative anonymity in the message sender, these are certainly of short duration and are usually, as in the case of mob action, socially defined as a serious threat to the society.

By the mid 1950s it had become obvious from observation of even the most ritualistic interactional sequences, that is, within the most explicit of contexts, that signature and address was a complex communicational procedure. Preliminary inspection and analysis showed that much of the material loosely assembled under the rubrics of “social identity” and “social status and role” was of communicative consequence. These systematic observations, when coupled with some of the insights supplied by Goffman (1956) and given depth of biological perspective by ethological data, dissipated any confidence that sign–symbol dichotomies were useful in communication theory. There do not seem to be instances of phenomena so restricted or so isolated as to be designated as signs. Elaborate, signaled contextual redundancy is required for sign reliability. This insight serves several purposes. First, it relieves communication theory of the problem of dealing with isolated units of meaning, which are unrelated to the communicative stream; that is, the cue, when seen as effective in a variety of contexts, always signals the presence of a code to which the cue belongs. Second, it clarifies the necessarily continuous nature of the communicative process. And, finally, supported by an increasing body of evidence indicating the ultimate inseparability of linguistics and kinesics in communicative systems, it makes manifest the inadequacy of any theory of communication based on monochannel message transmission.

Inspection of any extensive body of interactional data offers proof that humans vocalize but a very small percentage of their interactional time. Furthermore, such vocalizations do not characteristically take place in a situation devoid of tactile contact, shielded against olfactory and gustatory sensation, shaded to obscure visual experience or in a situation of such anesthetic force as to prevent proprioceptive and automatic feedback. It is not necessary to depreciate the role of language or even of words and sentences in the communicative process. However, from the point of view of the behavioral scientist concerned with communication, language is an infracommunicational system. I am convinced that neither language nor communication can be either studied or understood so long as we assume that either subsumes the other. A monochannel analysis of communication must ignore or deny too much evidence to gain support unless the definition of communication is limited to the wholly aware, completely purposive transmission of commonly held, explicit, and denotative verbal information between interactants.

Ray L. Birdwhistell

[Directly related are the entriesCommunication, animal; Kinesics; Language, article onLANGUAGE AND CULTURE; Semantics and semiotics. Other relevant material may be found in the biographies ofSapir; Whorf.]


Birdwhistell, Ray L. 1961 Paralanguage: 25 Years After Sapir. Pages 43–63 in Conference on Experimental Psychiatry, Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, 1959, Lectures on Experimental Psychiatry. Univ. of Pittsburgh Press.

Birdwhistell, Ray L. 1962 Critical Moments in the Psychiatric Interview. Pages 179–188 in Tenth Anniversary Symposium on Biological, Psychological and Sociological Approaches to Current Psychiatric Problems, State Research Hospital, Galesburg, Ill., 1960, Research Approaches to Psychiatric Problems: A Symposium. New York: Grune.

Cherry, Colin (1957) 1961 On Human Communication: A Review, a Survey, and a Criticism. New York: Wiley. → A paperback edition was published in 1963.

Goffman, Erving 1956 The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Social Science Research Centre, Monograph No. 2. Univ. of Edinburgh, Social Science Research Centre. → A paperback edition was published by Doubleday in 1959.

Mead, George H. 1934 Mind, Self and Society From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. Edited by Charles W. Morris. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Mead, Margaret 1964 Continuities in Cultural Evolution. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Scheflen, Albert E. 1965 Stream and Structure of Communicational Behavior: Context Analysis of a Psychotherapy Session. Behavioral Studies Monograph No. 1. Philadelphia: Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute.


views updated Jun 27 2018









Communication is inseparable from social and behavioral activities; as a consequence it has become an integral part of research and discussion in the social sciences. Mass media and rhetoric thus closely relate to political science, while semantics and rhetoric enrich the study of law. Perception, the tool used to make sense of messages, generates much discussion in psychology and psychiatry and both areas benefit from careful communication. As the psychotherapist Carl Rogers noted in On Becoming a Person (1961), The whole task of psychotherapy is the task of dealing with a failure in communication (p. 330). Sociology, in part the study of human interactions, benefits greatly from an understanding of communications roles in those interactions.

Sociology focuses on groups while psychology focuses mainly on the individual. However, they blend in social psychology, and probably the greatest social science focus on communication has been in social psychology. This blended discipline studies the psychological basis of peoples relationships with one another. Social psychologists posit that people have few if any solely individual attributes.

In the study of interaction patterns among people and methods of influencing people, much of the work done by these scholars naturally relates to communication. In seeking to determine these patterns, social psychologists follow the work of Erving Goffman as they speak of the self, a collection of attributes, social identity, self-concept, and appearance. Interpersonal communication is affected by where a person is in the social structure as well as by the influence of others.

Relative to communication, pioneering social psychologists like Robert Bales (1950) explored interactions in small groups, while Solomon Asch (1955) detailed the impact social factors have on perception. Michael Argyle looked at patterns of social relationships across social class, while more recently Deborah Tannen (1990) examined the social characteristics of gender and genders effects on interactions.

Social psychological research in communication owes a heavy debt to scholars like Paul Ekman, W. V. Friesen, and Raymond Birdwhistell who focused on the complex patterns nonverbal communication takes. Their research has also explored possible commonalities in meaning of nonverbal signals within and across cultures.

While people engage in communication almost unconsciously, it remains a complex subject which defies simple explanations and calls for continued research. Overall, the insights into human interaction developed following social psychology research have led to numerous practical applications, especially in the business world.


In its simplest form, the term communication refers to the process by which one person transmits information (new knowledge) to another person (or persons). A number of communication models exist, but common elements delineated by Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver (1949) link them: a sender, a receiver, a channel, the message itself, and some effect or impact resulting from the message exchange (including feedback).

Feedback, a crucial part of the communication process, represents the response to a received message (not necessarily to the message intended to be sent, but to its interpretation). While an element in the overall process, feedbacks transmission duplicates the communication process it responds to, and thus involves sending and receiving, as well as media, and it can be impacted by communication barriers. Feedback, in turn, may lead to a response. Mechanistic approaches like the classic Shannon-Weaver model are appealing in their simplicity in explaining the communication process, but they do not reflect communications complexity, especially in terms of perception (which reflects the application of past events as well as the context in which the message is being received). Perception, in fact, accounts for much of the complexity of the communication process.


The sender (often) and the receiver always use perception to make sense of the message passing in the communication interchange. The perceiver processes the messages signs, its tangible factors, to determine the meaning (intended or not intended). These signs include what is seen, heard, felt, tasted, or smelled. The receiver then uses the mental filters of past experience to sort the signs and apply the meanings gained from similar past sensory experiences. Meaning derives from that past experience as one makes sense of the present through that experience.

The sender of a message may intend one meaning for what is sent, but the experiences the sender draws on in assigning that intended meaning may be only partly shared with the receiver. The meaning derived is thus imperfectly shared between the parties if at all. Few (if any) messages represent a pure transfer of identical meaning. While spoken communication is usually interpreted by the receiver almost immediately and often in a close spatial context (mass media and telephonic messages are obvious spatial exceptions), written communication is likely to be received and interpreted after some time lag and at a spatial distance. The context in which it is received will most likely have changed through time, and these changes may affect the perception of the message. Additionally, in any communication interchange, the very experience of receiving the message alters the receivers perception and will affect the next message that comes through. Perception is a dynamic, ongoing process, as communication theorist C. Glenn Pearce noted, and the sender and receivers own perceptual filters change constantly as a result of the interaction.


Even when unintentional, communication can still occur. A hapless job interviewee might make a poor first impression with unpolished shoes, a weak handshake, or slouching posture (elements of nonverbal communication). The interviewee likely intends to signal competence, but the outcome differs from that intended. Of course, much communication is intentional. The more effective sender learns skills to help achieve the intended results, but perception is still a major factor. Yet, if what one applies to interpret a message varies widely from the senders intent, common meaning may not be achieved, especially in communication between cultures.


Communication barriers, elements external to the message, also complicate the process. Barriers can be as simple as physical noise or can derive from intrapersonal, interpersonal and even organizational sources. These barriers are inevitable and communicators (senders and receivers) need to work to overcome them (where possible) to enhance communication effectiveness. Steven Golens (1990) research into communication barriers has revealed their myriad sources and the challenges communicators face in overcoming them.

Some barriers are easier to overcome. Physical noise, for example, can be overcome by isolation or simple muting. However, the intrapersonal barrier of defensiveness is more challenging in calling for ones self-awareness and empathy. An organizational barrier like the serial transmission effect (the tendency for messages to change in passing through an organizations levels) calls for objective message management skills.

The goal of a message is to transmit information, knowledge the receiver does not already know. Shannon noted that the entropy rate, the amount of information the sender wishes to transmit, cannot exceed the channel capacity without creating uncorrectable transmission errors. Keeping the senders entropy rate below channel capacity greatly reduces errors and enhances information transfer and helps combat communication barriers. Redundancy is another useful element in communication.


Communication systems naturally utilize redundancy to help combat problems with communication barriers and perceptual differences. Redundancy, predictability built into the message to help insure comprehension, backs up the message. While redundancy can seem to be mechanical, senders use it naturally without even thinking. It derives largely from repetition, exemplification, orthography, grammar, syntax, and format. David Gibson and Barbara Mendleson (1984) explored the dynamics of redundancy and showed the linking of information and probability theories to semantics.

Messages sharing a common grammar, syntax, and orthography are likely to be more redundant and thus help ensure the receiver shares much of the senders intended meaning. When redundancy is minimal, additional communication barriers can arise. Redundancy can be overused, of course, particularly in terms of exemplification or repetition.


Another source of information in communication exchanges is nonverbal communication. Although less precise than formal language, it is a very significant source of information in most interpersonal exchanges and often contains more information than in the spoken element of the message. A messages nonverbal elements include all the sources of information apart from the words themselves. Gestures, posture, tone, pitch, message duration, and intensity all add nuances to the message, and complexity. This latter is particularly the case in those cases where the nonverbals contradict the other signals. Social psychologists, notably Ekman and Friesen (1974), have closely studied nonverbal communication not just as a source of information in a message, but as a source of nonverbal leakage of deception as well.

The sender controls many nonverbal elements, of course, but other elements over which the sender has little or no control can be sources of meaning in communication. Thus ones age, race, gender, height, hair color, and even physical attractiveness can represent encoded signals for the receiver to interpret. Here intent is lacking, but the nonverbal signals still play an important role.

Whatever the source of the signs giving messages meaning, communication is a relevant part of the social sciences. While communication seems deceptively simple at first glance, its underlying complexity richly repays careful study both in terms of more effectively preparing (and understanding messages) and in terms of understanding and improving the human interactions in which communication takes place.

SEE ALSO Contempt; Culture; Fanon, Frantz; Gaze, The; Goffman, Erving; Linguistic Turn; Nonverbal Communication; Recognition; Representation; Sartre, Jean-Paul; Stare, The


Asch, Solomon E. 1955. Opinions and Social Pressure. Scientific American 193 (November): 3135.

Bales, Robert F. 1950. Interaction Process Analysis. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Birdwhistell, Ray L. 1970. Kinesics and Context: Essays on Body Motion Communication. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Ekman, Paul. 1972. Universals and Cultural Differences in Facial Expressions of Emotion. In Nebraska Symposium on Motivation 1971, ed. J. K. Cole, 207283. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Ekman, Paul, and W. V. Friesen. 1974. Detecting Deception from the Body or Face. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 29: 288289.

Gibson, David V., and Barbara E. Mendleson. 1984. Redundancy. Journal of Business Communication 1 (21): 4361.

Goffman, Erving. 1956. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Social Sciences Research Centre.

Goffman, Erving. 1967. Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to Face Behavior. New York: Anchor Books.

Golen, Steven. 1990. A Factor Analysis of Barriers to Effective Listening. Journal of Business Communication 1 (27): 2536.

Hall, Edward T. 1966. The Hidden Dimension. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Pearce, C. Glenn, Ross Figgins, and Steven Golen. 1984. Principles of Business Communication: A Comprehensive Approach. New York: Wiley.

Rogers, Carl. 1961. On Becoming a Person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Rogers, Carl, and F. J. Roethlisberger. 1952. Barriers and Gateways to Communication. Harvard Business Review (JulyAugust): 2834.

Shannon, Claude, and Warren Weaver. 1949. The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Tannen, Deborah. 1990. You Just Dont Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. New York: Ballantine Books.

Waltman, John L. 1984. Entropy and Business Communication. Journal of Business Communication 21: 6380.

Wood, Julia T. 2001. Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender, and Culture. 4th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.

John L. Waltman


views updated Jun 11 2018



Arabic . Since God’s original revelations to Muhammad between circa 610 and 632 first took the form of oral recitation and were later collected in the Qur’an, the Arabic language may rightly be considered intrinsic to the Islamic faith. The function of Arabic as a vehicle for communication within the Muslim community varied greatly over time and space. Initially, most if not all Muslims spoke Arabic and understood the Qur’an when they heard it recited. Though dialectical differences distinguished the Arabic of some parts of the Arabian peninsula from that of other parts, a pre-Islamic tradition of poetry used to extol the virtues or achievements of a tribe had produced a substantial degree of mutual comprehension of poetic diction, which is quite similar to the diction of the Qur’an.

Expansion . From 634 onward, when the first khalifahs rallied the far-flung Arab tribes to carry the Islamic conquests outside the Arabian peninsula, however, it was inevitable that different versions of Arabic would be employed in different conquest areas, depending on the geographic origins of the specific tribal contingents conquering, and subsequently being stationed in, each area. The spread of these different versions eventually contributed to the emergence of the regional dialects of Arabic that still separate the spoken language of one Arab country from that of another. Initially, however, Arabic provided a bond of unity and exclusivity among the new ruling elite and served as a barrier to communication with the conquered peoples. Moreover, the insistence on Arabic as the sole language of sacred writing served as a barrier to the spread of Islam because few non-Arabs—indeed, few Arabs—were literate in Arabic. With bilingual individuals comparatively scarce among both the Muslim and non-Muslim communities, Islam inevitably spread quite slowly. Intermarriage, concubinage, and the enslavement of prisoners of war provided the most obvious social contexts for the development of bilingualism and thereby the propagation of knowledge about Islam among the conquered population. The geography of Arab settlement was also important. Military frontiers such as Khurasan in northeast Iran, and garrison centers such as Basrah and Kufah in Iraq, Fustat in Egypt, and Qairawan in Tunisia acquired concentrated Arab populations and thus afforded non-Arabs living nearby greater opportunities for exposure to Arabic than non-Arabs had in regions where few Arabs settled. Arab settlements thus became geographical centers from which knowledge of Arabic and of Islam spread.

Migration . A third factor influencing the spread of Arabic was the movement of Arab tribes from the Arabian peninsula and the conversion to Islam of tribes already living in the regions north of the Arabian peninsula. The fact that Egypt, Syria, and Iraq all became Arabic-speaking lands, while Iran did not and North Africa became Arabic-speaking at a substantially later date, is probably related more to the spread of Arab tribes in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq than to the policies of the khalifahs. Since some important Arab tribes in Iraq and Syria remained largely Christian for a century or two after the conquests, the identification between the Arabic language and the Islamic religion was undoubtedly less firm there than in, say, Iran, where most Arabs were Muslims attached to military units. Their lack of military ties to the khilafah probably made it easier for non-Muslim Syrians and Iraqis than for non-Muslim Iranians to accept Arabic as an everyday spoken tongue without at the same time adopting the Islamic faith.

Conversion . While Arabic constituted a barrier to communication in the period 634–800, however, the situation changed dramatically between 800 and 1000. Mass conversion to Islam in the ninth century was accompanied by accelerated urbanization, partly a result of converts desiring to live in the Muslim communities established by the Arabs during the conquest period and partly a result of religious ostracism leading converts

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from Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism to leave their home communities and join the Muslim communities. For converts, knowledge of Arabic gave access to the Qur’an and to the increasingly important body of hadiths, traditions of the Prophet—stories of Muhammad’s words and deeds orally transmitted from generation to generation in Arabic. Learning Arabic became a pious obligation, and myriad grammar books and lexicons were produced to facilitate such learning.

Ulama’ . Pressure to learn Arabic was particularly high in cities and among people who sought, or sought for their children, a clear-cut identity as Muslims, irrespective of ethnic background. During the ninth and tenth centuries there emerged a distinct class of religious scholars, called ulama’, or “possessors of knowledge.”

Though some ulama’ were born in villages, the Arabic learning that they needed to read the Qur’an and master the traditions of the Prophet was mostly available in cities. Thus, the ulama’ arose as a distinctly urban class. Intermarried with merchants and landowners, the ulama’ became, by the eleventh century, the social core of urban Muslim society. Since they all spoke, read, and wrote Arabic—even if they preferred their mother tongue for everyday use—the culture of the growing cities was expressed predominantly in Arabic. Indeed, it became possible for a religious scholar from Spain to travel all the way to Central Asia and find a community of like-minded Arabic-speaking scholars in every town where he stopped.

Scholarly Travel . Travel in the interest of gathering religious knowledge was commonplace, and it became a dynamic force in Muslim societies. Scholarly travel was initially stimulated by the desire to gather and authenticate knowledge of hadiths. Though the traditions of the Prophet were all regarded as originating in Makkah and Madinah during his lifetime, they were considered to have come into general circulation in a variety of locations. A person who witnessed one of the Prophet’s deeds, for example, might have related the incident on a trip to Syria or Iran during the period of the conquests, and it might have spread elsewhere from that telling. Given these assumptions, it was plausible to believe that new traditions might be gathered almost anywhere within the range of the early conquests. Hence, ambitious ulama’ took to the road in substantial numbers to search out places where new traditions might be heard.

Itineraries . Though some non-Muslim scholars of today vehemently reject the notion of geographically dispersed prophetic traditions that motivated the traveling ulama’, a study of ulama’ itineraries and attitudes toward the collection of traditions shows clearly that they believed these assumptions about the nature of Muhammad’s traditions. Scholars in northeast Iran, for example, did not travel just to Makkah, Madinah, or Baghdad in search of traditions. Many of them went eastward to the major cities of Central Asia. Study of itineraries also shows, however, that routes of scholarly research frequently overlapped trade and pilgrimage routes. Indeed, it is apparent that many traveling scholars engaged in trade to support themselves during journeys that might last for several years. Not all Muslim merchants were scholars, of course, but an appreciable number of scholars engaged in one form or another of business. Since Islam did not have clerical or monastic institutions to provide a livelihood for scholars, as medieval Europe did, the need to earn a living and the generally favorable Muslim attitude toward business activities produced a social climate that favored the coming together of religious scholarship, travel, and trade. The rise of the ulama’ thus enhanced the role of Arabic as a transre-gional Muslim lingua franca. Far from being a barrier to communication as it had been originally, Arabic became

the foundation for a distinctively Muslim sort of international communication and understanding. However, even though Arabic continues to this day to function in this manner to some degree, inasmuch as Muslim scholars from anywhere in the Islamic world continue to use Arabic as a common language, the next wave of Islamic expansion that began after the year 1000 did little to solidify or enhance a pattern of Arabic dominance.

Persian and Turkish . In Central Asia, northern India, and Anatolia (modern Turkey), Persian became a more important vehicle for Islamic culture than Arabic; and within this same zone, and spreading into the Balkans by 1500, Turkish gradually established itself as a competing literary tongue. Among the new regions brought into the world of Islam after 1000, only in sub-Saharan Africa—specifically Sudan, Chad, Niger, Mauritania, and Mali—

did the Arabic of the ulama’ become the standard of high literary culture. Several factors contributed to these different outcomes.

Fragmentation . The growing fragmentation of Muslim political unity after 800 ensured that the new wave of expansion was carried out by political and military leaders on the geographical periphery of the khilafah rather than in the center. When Mahmud of Ghazna and his descendants led raids from Afghanistan into India in the decades after the year 1000, they had no idea that Muslim religious activists were agitating among Berber tribes in the western Sahara and stimulating a movement that eventually greatly increased Muslim presence on the southern fringe of the great desert. Nor would Mahmud have cared if he had known. His concern was for his own faith and fortune and that of his family. Perhaps the one common element binding together the new expansion areas was that it was religiously more palatable for a local Muslim warlord to raid non-Muslims across a frontier than to go to war with other Muslim warlords. Their common religion, however, certainly did not prevent Muslims from warring against each other, but warlords whose frontiers bordered non-Muslim lands seem to have had better luck than those further removed from the frontier in attracting religiously zealous warriors.

Non-Arab Muslims . Few Arabs took part in the new wave of expansion. In the east, Turks and Afghans predominated in the armies that invaded India. In West Africa, Berbers spearheaded the new wave of expansion. Arabia, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, which had become the Arabic-speaking core of the old khilafah, bordered on non-Muslim areas only in the north—Anatolia—and in the south—Sudan. In Sudan, Arabs and Arabic did, indeed, play a major role in Muslim expansion from the late twelfth century onward, but Anatolia fell not to Arabs but to Turks invading from northwest Iran. Lest one think that the Arabs were not as zealous for their faith as other Muslim peoples, however, one should remember that the Crusaders who fell upon the Holy Land in 1097 provided a vigorous non-Muslim enemy for close to two centuries.

Language Diversity . The communication gap caused by invading armies speaking languages unknown to the peoples they conquered was not quite the same as it had been in the days of the first conquests. While the Arabs of the generation after Muhammad identified Islam strongly with being Arab, by 1000 it was assumed throughout the Muslim community that Islamic faith was independent of ethnic identity, inasmuch as anyone could become a Muslim through conversion and be accepted as an equal by other Muslims. When people brought under Muslim rule during the second great wave of Islamic conquest entered into relations with their conquerors, therefore, they were under no illusion that learning the conquerors’ language was tantamount to conversion to Islam. Some of those living under the new rulers had to learn Persian or Turkish to get along, but Arabic was needed only by converts seeking a religious education. Hence, Arabic had little impact in northern India, or even in Anatolia, which bordered Arabic-speaking Syria and Iraq.

The Rise of New Persian . New Persian, a language written in Arabic script by Muslim Iranians, was gaining widespread acceptance as an alternative religious language to Arabic by the year 1000. The Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet were studied in Arabic, as they always had been, but increasing amounts of poetry, history, spiritual exhortation, and religious commentary were being written in New Persian. Minimally, the effect of this change was to open the way for Persian speakers to communicate religious sentiments to other Persians in their mother tongue, something that facilitated the deepening of Islamic observance in purely Persian-speaking settings, such as Iranian farming villages; but historical circumstance dictated broader consequences.

The Decline of Iran . For a complex set of reasons, including over-urbanization and the migration into Iran of Turkish pastoral tribes, Iran suffered serious economic decline from approximately 1075 until the devastating invasion of Ghengis Khan’s Mongol troops a century and a half later. These two blows to the economy, which seem

to have been felt most severely in the cities, prompted an extensive migration from Iran of the scholarly elite. India, Central Asia, Anatolia, Iraq, and Syria all received and welcomed a significant influx of Iranian scholars. The Iranian exodus affected most strongly India and Anatolia, both ruled by generally Turkish-speaking Muslim warlords. As Muslim communities developed around the court and in the towns of these newly conquered lands, Iranian scholars readily assumed positions of religious leadership. Arab scholars, by contrast, were comparatively few. As a consequence, Persian became firmly implanted in India and Anatolia as the language of culture and religion, although Arabic was still respected as the language of the Qur’an.

International Languages . By 1400 the Islamic world had acquired two international languages: Arabic and Persian. With the adoption of Arabic in the urban areas of North Africa, the Arabic zone stretched from Iraq westward across Africa and into the Sudan and the northern edge of sub-Saharan Africa. The Persian zone stretched from the Aegean Sea eastward across Anatolia through Iran to India and Central Asia. Turkish was a language of the military in parts of both zones; after 1500 it also became a sophisticated literary and religious language in Anatolia and the Balkans. Indeed, by 1500 it had become commonplace for well-educated Muslims in the central lands to learn all three languages, despite the difficulty caused by each tongue belonging to a different language family—Arabic to Semitic, Persian to Indo-European, and Turkish to Ural-Altaic.

Arabic Scripts . Though the ebb and flow of language dominance over nine centuries of Islamic history may seem complicated, three important factors greatly enhanced communication across the vast expanse of the Islamic lands. The first was the adoption of a common writing system, the Arabic script. Though the Arabic alphabet can be written in many styles, they are all more or less readable to someone brought up in the tradition of Arabic script. Since Arabic, Persian, and Turkish all look similar and share many words, the culture of medieval Islam had a strong element of visual cohesion. Calligraphic architectural decoration, inscriptions, personal names, and the basic appearance of books conveyed a sense of familiarity to travelers wherever they ventured. By contrast, Christian Europe still remains divided by zones of Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic script, making it difficult for the average traveler to read street signs in Greece, Russia, and London.

The Qur’an . The second uniting factor was the shared text of the Qur’an. Every aspect of written culture and many aspects of oral culture were permeated by Qur’anic phraseology and vocabulary. Even non-Muslims became accustomed to the standard religious expressions of their Muslim neighbors—such as inshallah meaning “God willing”—sometimes adopting parallel expressions of their own to contribute to an overall impression of a geographically vast territory culturally oriented toward the religion of Islam.

Paper . The third factor was the use of paper, a Chinese invention that spread rapidly after its introduction into the Islamic world sometime in the early eighth century. (The story of the craft being taught by Chinese taken prisoner after a battle on the Talas River in Central Asia in 751 is a picturesque legend.) Because paper can be made virtually anywhere and was much cheaper than parchment, medieval Islamic society took books, libraries, and bookstores for granted long before an equivalent generalizing of literate culture occurred in Europe. One consequence was that Arabic handwriting became standardized earlier and with fewer regional variants than did Latin handwriting in Europe.

Diversity . Observed at the broadest cultural level, these aspects of communication combined to create the impression—both within the Islamic world and from outside—that a great stretch of the globe was united in a single zone of communication. The reality, of course, was much more complex. Spoken languages and dialects, for example, varied widely from place to place. The Arabic of uneducated villagers in Morocco was scarcely recognizable by uneducated villagers in Iraq. Moreover, the differences between Arabic, Turkish, and Persian were by no means negligible. Nevertheless, the impression of unity of communication was an important influence on people’s lives. To live in the world of Islam seemed to offer a promise of communication, even with visitors from far away, that was missing when one moved even a short distance to a land using a different script and practicing a different faith.


Jonathan Bloom, Paper Before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).

Dale F. Eickelman and James Piscatori, eds., Muslim Travellers: Pilgrimage, Migration, and the Religious Imagination (London: Routledge, 1990).

Johannes Pedersen, The Arabic Book, translated by Geoffrey French (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).

Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Language (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997).


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because of the middle east's central location and the relatively high percentage of its people who engage in commerce, ease and speed of information transmission have long been major concerns.

Early Muslim dynasties, including the Abbasids, the Zengids, and the Mamluks, used carrier pigeons to convey military intelligence or vital state information. Messengers mounted on camels or mules carried official information throughout the Umayyad and Abbasid realms. Although this service (barid) was unavailable for private or commercial use, unofficial couriers (fuyuj) carried mail on land and sea, and some merchants used private messengers. The Ottoman and Safavid states had postal and courier services. Modern postal service began in the Ottoman Empire as early as 1823 and was extended to most cities by 1856. Private courier services existed in Egypt by the 1830s; the government post office, founded in 1865, carried mail from the outset and money orders from 1868.

France's occupation of Egypt in 1798 and the spread of European commerce in the Middle East in the early nineteenth century led to the introduction of new courier services and communication devices, including semaphores and heliographs. The electric telegraph first came to Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1839; Sultan Abdülmecit I authorized a telegraph line from the capital to Edirne in 1847 (it was not completed until 1855); and the first cable was laid under the Black Sea, from Varna to the Crimea, in 1854. Companies based in Britain vied to extend telegraph lines across the empire to Egypt and the Persian Gulf, but the Ottoman government undertook the task; the lines reached Baghdad by 1861. A telegraph line was built between Alexandria and Cairo in 1854, at the same time that Egypt's first railway was built. Under Saʿid Pasha (18541863) and Khedive Ismaʿil (18631879), telegraph lines were extended to all inhabited parts of Egypt.

The Sepoy Mutiny (1857), news of which took forty days to reach London, made Britain aware of its need for telegraphic communication with India. After an abortive attempt to lay an underwater cable from Aden to Bombay, Britain's government negotiated with the Ottomans and the government of Iran for the right to extend lines across their territories. The Indo-European Telegraph Department of the government of India began to string lines across Iran in 1863; two years later the telegraph was operational from Baghdad to Baluchistan, although problems arose, both from attacks by nomads and from official obstructionism. The Indo-European Telegraph Company, which was formed in 1867, built a more efficient line across Iran and Russia to Germany that began service in 1870. Telegraph operators, whether French-speaking Turks and Armenians in the Ottoman Empire or English-speaking Indian officers in Iran, soon became potent agents of Westernization and of tighter state control over provincial and local government.

The telephone was introduced to Constantinople and Alexandria in 1881. Used at first by European merchants, this new medium of communication was soon adopted by Egypt's government and later by businesses and households. The telephone's spread in the Ottoman Empire was upheld by Sultan Abdülhamit II (18761909), who was fearful of electricity, then accelerated by the Young Turks (19091914). Wireless telegraphy was introduced into the Ottoman Empire and Egypt in 1913.

World War I accelerated public familiarity with modern means of communication. After 1918, the governments of the states in the Middle East, new and old, set up ministries to manage the postal, telegraph, and telephone services for both official and private uses. Radio broadcasting began in Egypt in 1932 and soon spread to most other countries in the area, which established transmission facilities and radio stations under government auspices. During World War II and later, during regional conflicts such as the ArabIsrael War of 1948, extensive state censorship was imposed on all communications; this has been maintained in some

countries in the area. Television broadcasting began in Iraq in 1958 and soon spread to all other countries of the Middle East, generally under state control. In the last three decades of the twentieth century, governments expended large sums in updating their communications systems, replacing telegraphs with telex facilities and, later, augmenting telephones with fax machines.

The 1990s saw the region further revolutionized by the introduction of satellite dishes, mobile telephones, and the internet. Although some countries tried to regulate new technologyIran and Iraq, for example, were among those banning satellite dishes, and Saudi Arabia and Syria tried to control internet accesssuch media allowed an unprecedented exchange of ideas, news and information, and entertainment to wide audiences in a region where censorship has reigned and the free exchange of ideas has been tightly controlled.


Davison, Roderic. "The Advent of the Electric Telegraph in the Ottoman Empire." In Essays in Ottoman and Turkish History, 17741923: The Impact of the West, edited by Roderic Davison. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000.

Hershlag, Z. Y. Introduction to the Modern Economic History of the Middle East, 2d edition. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1980.

Shaw, Stanford J., and Shaw, Ezel Kural. History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, Vol. 2. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Arthur Goldschmidt

Updated by Michael R. Fischbach


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The world is full of sights, sounds, and smells that organisms use to communicate with each other. Because humans are diurnal (active during the day) and have well-developed eyes and ears, we tend to think of communication in terms of vision and acoustics . However, other animals, plants, fungi, and even microorganisms can communicate, and do so using a variety of different methods. Communication is defined as any signal from one organism that influences the behavior of another organism. The type of signaling an organism uses depends on the reception abilities of the receiver. Nocturnal animals use sound and smells to communicate with each other, flowers attract pollinators by smell and sight, microorganisms communicate through touch and chemicals, and aquatic organisms can use electricity.

Communication between different individuals enhances the chances of survival by the sender. The sender may successfully defend a territory, thus ensuring a food supply, or successfully attract a mate, thus increasing reproductive success. Parents communicate with offspring, increasing the probability that the offspring will mature and reproduce.

While the sender of a signal usually benefits, predators have learned to exploit these signals. The calls of male Tungara frogs can be received by bats. Fireflies have learned to prey on other fireflies by mimicking mating signals. There are five modes of communication used by animals: visual, acoustic, chemical, tactile, and electrical.


Visual communication is transmitted by light, ranging from infrared to ultraviolet, and is detected by photoreceptors. Only vertebrates and arthropods have photoreceptors advanced enough to be useful in communication. In vertebrates, the receptors are located in the retina of the eye, but in arthropods, they are encased in each of the miniature "eyes" that form their compound eyes. The eyes of arthropods and vertebrates are very different, having independent evolutionary origins. In general, vertebrates have sharper vision than arthropods, but this clarity is due to the larger size of vertebrates rather than a more advanced eye.

Some visual signals are exhibited simply through color patterns. One example is aposematic coloration , in which an animal advertises that it is toxic, distasteful, or otherwise dangerous, through bright colors. Like many signals, aposematic coloration can be deceitful. Coral snakes and scarlet king snakes have yellow, red, and black bands, but only coral snakes are venomous. King snakes mimic coral snakes in order to appear venomous and escape predation. Similarly, a group of harmless flies is marked with yellow and black banding, mimicking the various bees and wasps that actually do pose a danger.

Sometimes visual cues evolve when other forms of communication are ineffective. The semaphore frog in Borneo lives on rocks next to raging waterfalls, so the normal croaks and whistles of frog communication would be ineffective. This species has instead evolved visual signaling, which involves flashing white-spotted feet.

Visual signals, which are most effective in daylight, are usually used by diurnal animals. However, some insects, such as the familiar firefly, have evolved ways to communicate visually in darkness. Male fireflies flash bioluminescent abdomens in a particular pattern, hoping to elicit a similar flash sequence in some female on the ground. After receiving a signal, the male will join the female and mate. One genus of firefly, Photurus, has discovered the flash signal of a different genus, Photinus. Photurus females mimic Photinus females, calling in the Photinus males. When the male of the wrong species arrives expecting a mate, the female eats him.


Acoustic signals are produced in a variety of ways, from striking objects to vibrating vocal cords. A sound is heard when vibrations in air or water are detected by mechanoreceptors, which vibrate in response. In mammals, reptiles, birds, and amphibians, the receptors are located in the inner ear. Arthropod receptors are variable, and may be found on the legs, thorax, or abdomen. The only fishes that can detect sound are those with modified flexible air sacs.

Since sound is carried farther in water than in air, aquatic mammals can communicate over great distances. Orcas (so-called "killer whales") use an elaborate system of cries to establish dominance, find offspring and mates, and even express contentment. Each pod of orcas develops its own dialect of cries, allowing pod-mates to recognize each other.

Birds use songs to declare territories and enhance their chances of survival by reducing harmful encounters with birds of the same species. When male birds establish territories for the mating season, they often come to physical blows with each other to defend their boundaries. Once the territory has been settled, the birds reinforce their boundaries by singing rather than fighting. If a bird ceases calling, other birds will immediately take over the space.


Most organisms can use molecules to communicate. Animals concentrate chemical receptors in the nose, mouth, and antennae. Vertebrates have the most developed senses of smell and taste because the receptors are kept moist and isolated. Plants cannot sense chemical signals in the same way that animals do, but plants do emit them in abundance. For example, pine trees emit terpenes, sharply odoriferous chemicals that communicate distastefulness to herbivorous insects. This signal is an allomone, a term for any chemical used to communicate between members of different species.

Chemicals that communicate between members of the same species are called pheromones . Female moths use these powerful signals to attract mates. Male moths, with their fantastically plumed antennae, are able to detect just a few molecules in a square kilometer (approximately 0.4 square miles). Honeybees use pheromones in conjunction with visual cues to communicate to other workers where food sources are located. Mammals rub scent glands on objects to mark their territories, and on each other during the mating season to act as aphrodisiacs .


Touch is detected by proprioceptors on pliable body surfaces of the receiver. Proprioceptors respond to temporary changes in the shape of the surface or the movement of sensory structures such as hairs, whiskers, and bristles. Structures that have a large number of receptors are tactile organs. Human fingertips are tactile organs, having about 100 receptors per square centimeter (0.15 square inch). The tentacles of octopuses, antennae of some insects, and bills of sandpiper birds are also tactile organs.

Touch is a less informative means of communication than sight, sound, or chemicals, but can be crucial. Male and female crane flies must touch legs before either animal will accept the other as a mate, and human infants must be held and cuddled to develop properly and to recover more quickly from illness.


Communication by electrical current has evolved only in fishes, but within this group it has arisen several times independently. The fish generate an electrical charge in specialized cells called electrocytes. Electrocytes are arranged in columns and surrounded by insulating cells. Electric eels can generate charges up to 720 volts, but these strongly electrical fish use their charge to capture prey, rather than for communication.

Weakly electric fish, such as skates and knifefishes, evolved the use of their signals for social communication because they are either active at night or in murky water. Electrical signaling is highly versatile. A single fish can communicate territory boundaries, advertise for a mate, or show aggressiveness just by changing the strength and pattern of pulses. Wave fish use their signals to establish a social hierarchy. Dominant fish reinforce their position by matching their charge frequency to submissive wave fish, forcing the submissive fish to shift their frequencies away. Male Nile fish spend days building a suitable nest and then send out invitations to females by emitting pulses of electricity.

Communication is essential to any form of social interaction, and so all living things have developed some way to transmit and receive information. The few examples provided in this article do not come close to demonstrating the diversity of communication that exists in the natural world.

see also Acoustic Signals; Aposematism; Courtship; Vocalization.

Jes Marie Creech


Bradbury, Jack W., and Sandra L. Vehrencamp. Principles of Animal Communication. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, 1998.

Kirchner, Wolfgang H., and William F. Towne. "The Sensory Basis of the Honey-bee's Dance Language." Scientific American 270, no. 6 (1994):52-59.

Moller, Peter. Electric Fishes: History and Behavior. New York: Chapman and Hall, 1995.

Morton, Eugene S., and Jake Page. Animal Talk: Science and the Voices of Nature. New York: Random House Publishers, 1992.

Narins, Peter M. "Frog Communication." Scientific American 273, no. 2 (1995):78-83.


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communication The process of establishing meaning, found in all social situations, and hence a very wide-ranging concern of social scientists generally. Conventionally studied by social psychologists, semiologists, students of mass media, and linguists, communication studies has increasingly become established as a field of inquiry in its own right (for example in Communications Departments), and is often allied to cultural studies.

Communication occurs through at least five modes. Intrapersonal communication concerns internal conversations with one's self. Interpersonal communication concerns face-to-face interaction, such as that analysed by Erving Goffman, and often studies paralanguages such as body movements (see BODY LANGUAGE) and spatial arrangements. Group communication involves the study of group dynamics, whilst mass communication involves messages sent from mass sources in mass ways to mass audiences, often to make mass money. A fifth and growing form of communication has been called extrapersonal communication and concerns communicating with non-humans: this could mean ‘talking to the animals’, but most frequently it refers to the way we communicate with machines, computers, and high technology (for example through video games or bank-teller machines).

Communications research often works from a simple model which asks ‘who says what in which channel to whom and with what effects?’ The resulting description of the ‘communication structure’ that exists in every (simple or complex) social system is sometimes criticized for depicting too linear a flow since feedback loops can occur at all stages of communication. Nevertheless, the central components usually involve senders (producers), messages (codes), and receivers (audiences). A distinction must also be made between the formal and actual structures of communication. The former is defined by publicly recognized social roles (such as the hierarchy of offices in a bureaucratic organization) whereas the latter refers to the structure of interaction as it actually occurs (which may include various forms of informal communication through unofficial channels).

The structure and effectiveness of communication can have substantial consequences for the functioning of social systems. This is well illustrated in the study of formal organizations, notably for example in research influenced by contingency theory, which often placed systems of communication at the heart of the analysis. See also CONTENT ANALYSIS; CRITICAL THEORY; CYBERSOCIETY; INTERNET; LANGUAGE.


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communication An interaction between two organisms in which information is conveyed from one to the other. Communication can occur between individuals of the same species (intraspecific communication) or between members of different species (interspecific communication). It generally involves the transmission of a signal from one organism to another; signals can be visual, chemical, or tactile or they can take the form of sounds. Visual signals between members of the same species are widely used by animals in such activities as defining and protecting territories and finding suitable mates (see courtship; display behaviour; bioluminescence). Chemical and tactile signals also play an important role in these activities (see pheromone). Social species rely heavily on all three types of signalling, the classic example being provided by the dance of the bees, in which information about the distance and direction of a food source is conveyed to other members of the colony. Visual signals, in the form of body coloration, are the principal means of communication between animals of different species (see mimicry; warning coloration). Sounds are more effective than visual signals for intraspecific communication over long distances and at night. Certain insects produce sounds by stridulation, while birdsong and language are sophisticated examples of sound signals in birds and humans, respectively.

Among plants, visual and chemical signals are important in communication. Flowering plants whose flowers are pollinated by insects or other animals depend on the colour, shape, and scent of their flowers to attract suitable pollinating agents. Some plants produce chemical signals to deter competitors and predators (see allelopathy).


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com·mu·ni·ca·tion / kəˌmyoōnəˈkāshən/ • n. 1. the imparting or exchanging of information or news: direct communication between the two countries will produce greater understanding at the moment I am in communication with London. ∎  a letter or message containing such information or news. ∎  the successful conveying or sharing of ideas and feelings: there was a lack of communication between Pamela and her parents. ∎  social contact.2. (communications) means of connection between people or places, in particular: ∎  the means of sending or receiving information, such as telephone lines or computers: satellite communications | [as adj.] a communications network. ∎  the means of traveling or of transporting goods, such as roads or railroads. ∎  [treated as sing.] the field of study concerned with the transmission of information by various means.DERIVATIVES: com·mu·ni·ca·tion·al / -ˈkāshənl/ adj.

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