Interpersonal Communication

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Interpersonal communication can be defined broadly as "communicating between persons." As Arthur Bochner (1989, p. 336) points out, though, that definition can be made more specific:

The anchor points [for a narrower and more rigorous conceptualization] are: 1) at least two communicators; intentionally orienting toward each other; 2) as both subject and object; 3) whose actions embody each other's perspectives both toward self and toward other. In an interpersonal episode, then, each communicator is both a knower and an object of knowledge, a tactician and a target of another's tactics, an attributer and an object of attribution, a codifier and a code to be deciphered.

In attempting to apply this narrower definition to research in interpersonal communication published in a leading communication journal (i.e., Human Communication Research), Glenn Stamp (1999) found that very few articles met all of the definition's rigid criteria. The definition embodies particular perspectives regarding the character of interpersonal communication. By including articles that met some of the criteria of the definition and incorporating only those that were readily classifiable as interpersonal communication and not organizational communication, mass media, rhetorical, and so on, Stamp found that, during its first twenty-five years of publication, Human Communication Research published 288 articles on interpersonal communication. This indicates that interpersonal communication is a well-established research tradition in the communication field. Stamp also noted the difficulty of defining interpersonal communication. This difficulty extends to its study—because interpersonal communication is often private, fleeting, and complicated.

History of the Study of Interpersonal Communication

The study of interpersonal communication began during the 1970s, at a time when many people saw successful interpersonal relationships as being a key to happiness. The (speech) communication field has its origins in the study of rhetoric, or public speaking, especially in political settings. Therefore, in grade schools, high schools, and universities, communication scholars were teaching public speaking. The influence of these origins for the study of interpersonal communication is evident in the emphasis on persuasion in interpersonal contexts. This emphasis characterizes much of the early work in the field and continues to persist. In addition to having roots in the study of rhetoric, the studies related to interpersonal communication—published in most of the mainstream communication journals (e.g., Human Communication Research, Communication Monographs, Communication Quarterly)— are characterized by the use of hypothesis testing, which is a traditional feature of social-scientific hypothetico-deductive research methods. This reflects the heavy application of social psychological approaches to the communication field as it struggled to become a recognized social science discipline like experimental psychology. In addition to these influences, in reading interpersonal communication work it becomes evident that the work of Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin, and Don Jackson (1967), Gregory Bateson (1972), and Erving Goffman (1967, 1971) also influenced both what scholars of interpersonal communication examined and how they examined it.

Major Approaches to Interpersonal Communication

Four predominant approaches to interpersonal communication are summarized here: the developmental approach, the situational approach, the rules approach, and the covering law approach. It should be noted that each of these approaches has difficulties with regard to how adequately it captures the phenomenon of interpersonal communication. This is informative about the character of interpersonal communication, underlining the fact that it is a complex and multifaceted activity.

Developmental Approach

Some scholars suggest that interpersonal communication should be understood as a developmental phenomenon. That is, interpersonal relationships go through a discernible set of steps or "stages." While many different stage models of relationships exist, particularly in psychology, Mark Knapp's model offers a clear example of how relationships may develop from a state in which individuals are unacquainted to a state in which they are intimate (at which point the relationships may remain stable or they may disintegrate). Knapp (1978) shows how interpersonal communication is crucial to these stages, suggesting that each stage is characterized by a particular way of speaking. Gerald Miller and Mark Steinberg (1975) suggest that relationships are interpersonal to the extent that they are based on one partner's psychological knowledge of the other partner. They suggest that relationships progress along a continuum from "noninterpersonal" to "interpersonal." Noninterpersonal relationships are those in which communicators base their predictions about another person on sociological or cultural knowledge. That is, these predictions are not based in specific, individualized knowledge of that person but on generalized assumptions about that person's social or cultural group. As the relationship progresses, the ability of communicators to make predictions about the other people comes to be based to a greater extent on psychological or individualized knowledge. In this way, Miller and Steinberg suggest, the relationship becomes more interpersonal. While these models capture the evolving character of relationships and the extent to which this evolution may involve different types of communication, it represents interpersonal communication as somewhat static. Relationships are seen to be locatable at a particular stage of development because of discernible ways of talking. This contrasts with the view that relationships are organic and constantly shifting in character. The developmental approach can be summarized as being concerned with the quality of the communication that goes on between people.

Situational Approach

The situational approach suggests that factors particular to social situations determine the extent to which an encounter involves interpersonal or, alternatively, intrapersonal, small group, organizational, public, or mass communication. This approach suggests that situations may determine the character of the communication that takes place. According to this approach, some relevant features of situations include how many people are involved, whether the situation is formal or informal, private or public, and face-to-face or mediated (see Table 1).

Types of Communication According to Situational Approach
Type of CommunicationNumber of CommunicatorsFormal/InformalPrivate/PublicFace-to-Face/Mediated

This approach suggests that interpersonal communication occurs between only two people in informal settings, in private, and face-to-face. Additional dimensions that could be tabulated as factors in the situational approach include the degree of physical proximity between communicators (ranging from close in interpersonal communication to distant or mediated in public or mass communication), the available sensory channels (ranging from many in interpersonal communication to just visual and auditory in mass communication), and the immediacy of feedback (ranging from immediate in interpersonal communication to asynchronous and comparatively rare in mass communication). Both intuition and scholarship suggest that difficulties with this approach stem from the fact that communication often is not constrained by settings. Rather, communication may shape the setting as well as being shaped by it. It is possible to have a party in a classroom or a conversation between friends in a doctor's office. Thus, the situational approach tends to be characterized by issues of quantity.

Rules Approach

The rules approach suggests that interpersonal communication is a rule-governed activity. According to this approach, there are rules for social life that individuals use to structure their communication with others. While much work in interpersonal communication appears to subscribe to this view, it is usually done implicitly rather than explicitly. That is to say, findings about interpersonal communication often assume that there is a "regular" way of doing things that has some normative value attached to it, but findings are rarely, if ever, couched in terms of "rules for doing X." W. Barnett Pearce (1976) describes rules for managing meaning in interpersonal communication. While the rules approach recognizes the orderliness of much of social interaction, beyond appealing to socialization and education, it is often not able to get at the specifics of where rules "are" and how individuals learn them.

Covering Law Approach

Some work in interpersonal communication takes as its goal the formulation of universal rules for interpersonal communication, along the lines of laws that pertain to the natural world. For example, it is taken as axiomatic that water boils at 212°F (100°C). A covering law approach looks for laws of communication that have the same ability to explain, predict, and control behavior. One such proposed "law" is uncertainty reduction theory. Charles Berger and Richard Calabrese (1975) suggest that in situations where individuals meet new people, they may experience high uncertainty. This results in a drive to reduce uncertainty, often accomplished by engaging in self-disclosure (Jourard, 1971; Petronio, 1999). Because self-disclosure is subject to a norm of reciprocity, the self-disclosure of one party encourages self-disclosure from the other. Finding out more about another person enables an individual to predict more accurately their communication behavior, thereby reducing the uncertainty. Research has explored this concept in various settings, including interculturally. However, the complexity of factors involved in understanding what is happening in a communication situation often results in doubts regarding the status of the concept as a covering law.

Much of the research published in the mainstream journals of the communication field proceeds according to traditional hypothetico-deductive social scientific strictures. This often involves experimental or survey research aimed at testing a hypothesis. Robert Craig (1995) offers a threefold explanation for this. First, at the time when interpersonal communication emerged as an area of study, communication departments were divided between "humanists" and "scientists." Rhetoricians typically took a humanistic position, regarding the study of communication as a liberal art that could not become a science. Scholars studying interpersonal communication took the position that in order for it to be rigorous, experimental research was necessary. Craig suggests that a second explanation for the turn to scientific methods by scholars of interpersonal communication was an effort to offset the "academically dis-reputable, anti-intellectual, 'touchy-feelie' image" (p. vi) that was associated with it as a legacy of the human potential movement in the 1960s. A third explanation was the field's initial reliance on theories from such cognate fields as experimental social psychology. Borrowing theories from related fields that used these methods may have resulted in appropriating their methods also.

Social scientific work of this kind has sometimes been criticized for overusing as subjects the convenience sample of college sophomores. While college sophomores may be better educated and more "elite" than much of the population, nonetheless a large percentage of the population in the United States attends college. Furthermore, between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, individuals may be looking more actively for companions and/or mates than at other times in their lives and thinking seriously about their interpersonal communication. These could be considered advantages of studying this population. Clearly, using this approach, it is difficult to get a sense of how relationships develop over time and just what moment-by-moment communication looks like. This issue has been addressed in a line of work that is gaining increasing prominence in the field—work that comes from the perspective of social constructionism (Gergen, 1985). This approach sees selves and relationships as having a dynamic, interactive character, in which they are constructed moment-by-moment through communication. Working from this perspective, researchers have taken a more descriptive approach to their object of study, often enabling them to describe specific methods through which relationships are constructed. Work using social approaches contrasts in various ways with traditional approaches to interpersonal communication. Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz (1995, p. 5) summarizes the differences as follows. Social approaches emphasize the social, organic, ritual, and interpretive aspects of interpersonal communication, while traditional approaches emphasize its psychological, mechanistic, transmission, and scientific aspects. Although not all scholars of interpersonal communication would agree with these contrasts, they summarize some of the key dimensions along which more traditional approaches and social approaches to interpersonal communication differ.

Some Important Interpersonal Communication Concepts

The influence of the traditional approach to interpersonal communication can be seen in some of the key concepts and findings that have been developed since the early 1970s. These include stage theories of relationships, factors that move couples through relationships (uncertainty reduction, self-disclosure, social exchange theory), persuasion strategies, the role of nonverbal communication, and communication-related personality constructs (e.g., cognitive complexity, self-monitoring, Machiavellianism, communication apprehension).

Stage Theories of Relationships

Relationships are typically seen to develop through a series of stages. According to these theories, each stage in a relationship is characterized by distinctive forms of communication. Mark Knapp and Anita Vangelisti (2000) lay out ten stages from "greeting to goodbye," as follows:

  1. Initiating: The stage that involves all of the processes that occur when people first come together.
  2. Experimenting: The "small talk" stage, which further uncovers common topics.
  3. Intensifying: Partners come to perceive themselves as a unit.
  4. Integrating: Relaters are treated as a unit by outsiders.
  5. Bonding: The relationship is formalized by some kind of institutionalization.
  6. Differentiating: Disengaging or uncoupling emphasizes individual differences.
  7. Circumscribing: Communication is constricted or circumscribed.
  8. Stagnating: Many areas of discussion between the members of the couple are cut off and efforts to communicate effectively are at a standstill.
  9. Avoiding: Communication is specifically designed to avoid the possibility of communicating face-to-face or voice-to-voice.
  10. Terminating: The relationship ceases, which can happen immediately after initiating or after many years.

Stage theories represent an inventory of the progress of relationships from inception to stabilization and sometimes to termination. Each stage is characterized by particular ways of talking. While these stages are logically and intuitively acceptable, there are two difficulties with stage theories. First, they might seem to suggest that relationships are easily characterized as falling into a given stage. Yet it is known that even in the course of a brief conversation, several stages may be represented. This suggests that stage theories may present a rather static view of relationships, which does not take full account of their dynamic, interactively constructed character. Second, many of the stages do not differentiate the development of romantic relationships from the development of friendships. It is likely that in many cases there is a substantive difference between how the two are initiated, developed, maintained, and terminated.

Factors that Move Couples through Relationship Stages

The drive to reduce uncertainty so as to make the other person, and ultimately the relationship, more predictable may result in communicators engaging in self-disclosure that may be reciprocated, resulting in the interactants coming to know one another better. These communication activities may move interactants through stages of relationships. Another motivational force may be social exchange. According to this theory, based on assumptions drawn from economics, relationships can be described in terms of the rewards, costs, and profits that partners offer each other. For example, Uriel Foa and Edna Foa (1974) describe a model whereby couples negotiate for resources such as love, status, information, money, goods, or services. These are located along continua of concreteness and particularism. The theory suggests that a relationship will develop or fail to develop according to the costs or rewards that intimates are able to provide each other.

Persuasion Strategies

Communication scholars have given extensive attention to strategies for persuading, or "interpersonal influence." Perhaps reflecting the field's roots in the study of rhetoric, communicators are taken to be strategic players. For example, Robert Clark and Jesse Delia (1979) suggest that communicators are engaged with three simultaneous concerns: instrumental (trying to achieve specific goals), relational (the effect on the relationship in which the communication occurs), and identity (how an individual is being perceived by others). Researchers have described many different strategies communicators use in the process of persuasion. These are commonly referred to under the umbrella of compliance-gaining strategies. This line of research originates in the work of George Marwell and David Schmitt (1967). More recent works describe the range of strategies communicators may use in trying to get others to do things (cf. Dillard, 1989; Siebold, Cantrill, and Meyers, 1994).

Role of Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication is often studied in isolation from verbal communication. However, it is widely accepted that the two are intimately connected. It has been suggested that nonverbal communication may regulate verbal communication (providing one of the indications that a turn may be complete and that speaker transition could occur, for example), complement it (as when someone says they are sorry and flushes red), accent it (as when the hand is brought down hard on the table when someone is saying "Come here NOW"), repeat it (as when a person says "North" and then points in that direction), substitute for it (nodding instead of saying "Yes"), or contradict it (as when someone says "I love you too" in a sarcastic or nasty voice). Scholars of nonverbal communication often divide it into a number of distinct areas. These include proxemics (the study of the communicative use of space), kinesics (the study of the use of the body), haptics (the study of the use of touch), chronemics (the study of the use of time), and vocalics (the study of the use of the voice). Studies of nonverbal communication have emphasized the importance of understanding nonverbal communication in understanding how communication works.

Communication-Related Personality Constructs

Personality constructs are generally derived from psychology, focusing on measurable aspects of individuals that can be used to characterize and understand them, and possibly to explain and predict their conduct in certain situations. In this way, they tend to be cognitive in nature. However, some communication-related personality characteristics have been described. A person's cognitive complexity is determined by the number, abstraction, differentiation, and integration of constructs that they have about the social world and others in it (Delia, 1977). Those who are high in each of these constructs are said to be more cognitively complex than those who are lower in them. There is some controversy regarding how cognitive complexity is to be measured. Frequently, it is measured by seeing how many constructs can be coded in a subject's response to a particular question, raising the concern that cognitive complexity and loquaciousness might be conflated. Self-monitoring is the process through which a person adapts to a particular social situation. A "high" self-monitor is someone who assesses the social situation and adjusts conduct to meet the needs of that situation. A "low" self-monitor is someone who does not adapt to the social situation, but rather tends to present a consistent self (Snyder, 1974). Machiavellianism is a person's propensity to manipulate others. This concept, like communicator characteristics in general, raises the question of whether someone who measures "high" in a characteristic will demonstrate it on all occasions, or whether it may vary from communication situation to communication situation. Studies of communication apprehension have shown that feelings of anxiety about communication situations may be traits, (actual persistent characteristics of a communicator) or states (which arise only in certain conditions, such as public speaking).


An understanding of interpersonal communication processes offers both researchers and lay practitioners insight into the complexity of coming together in everyday interpersonal communication situations. Interpersonal communication is complex, private, and ephemeral. Yet, because it is so important in people's everyday lives, many native theories exist about its character. Despite the difficulty of studying it, significant progress has been made in the attempt to describe how interpersonal communication works in a variety of settings. The findings described above suggest that a scholarly understanding of how communication works for individuals, couples, groups, organizations, and families contrasts with native theories about it, and can be very important. For example, if it is understood that while individuals have discernible characteristics, a person's identity or "self" can be seen to emerge in and through interpersonal communication—constructing what Kenneth Gergen, (1991) calls a "relational self"—then individuals can have a sense of participation in the creation (through interpersonal communication) of who they are. This allows individuals to develop the sense that if they are not content with "who they are," this conception of self could be changed in and through communication. Similarly, understanding that relationships are constructed, maintained, and dismantled through particular ways of talking makes clear to communicators that relationships can be seen as "works in progress." This can help couples to overcome problems in all phases of relationships.

Understanding the processes of interpersonal communication in groups enables group members to see that group roles, relationships, and decision-making processes are not fixed. Because they are constructed through various ways of communicating, there can be some flexibility. Here again, scholarly theories may contradict native theories about interpersonal communication and may provide ways of solving problems that may have seemed insoluble. In organizations, understanding the processes of interpersonal communication is crucial. The recognition that, even in formal organizations, task-related relationships are managed through interpersonal communication can have important consequences for how successfully these relationships are managed. Interpersonal communication in families brings together the complexities of managing selves, relationships, and tasks through communication. A scholarly understanding of the nature of communication in families can help family members avoid such communication problems as role assignment, stereotyping, repeated blame, and others that may result in family difficulties. If families realize that difficulties of this kind are often constructed through communication, possible ways of remediating them become clearer.

See also:Apprehension and Communication; Group Communication; Interpersonal Communication, Conversation and; Interpersonal Communication, Ethics and;Interpersonal Communication, Listening and; Intrapersonal Communication; Nonverbal Communication; Organizational Communication; Public Speaking; Relationships, Stages of; Relationships, Types of; Rhetoric.


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Jenny Mandelbaum

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Interpersonal Communication

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