When asked to define interpersonal communication from communication in general, many people say that interpersonal communication involves fewer people, often just two. Although much interpersonal communication involves only two or three people, this isn’t a useful way of defining interpersonal communication. If it were, then an exchange between a homeowner and a plumber would be interpersonal, but a family conversation wouldn’t be.
Clearly, the number of people involved is not a good criterion for defining interpersonal communication. Some people suggest that intimate contexts define interpersonal communication. But this also doesn’t define interpersonal communication as the context doesn’t necessarily tell us what is unique about interpersonal communication. What distinguishes interpersonal communication is the particular quality, or character, of interaction. This emphasizes what happens between people, not where they are or how many are present.
A Communication Continuum
We can begin to understand the unique character of interpersonal communication by tracing the meaning of the word interpersonal. It is derived from the prefix inter, meaning “between”, and the word person, so interpersonal communication literally occurs between people. In one sense, all communication happens between people, yet many interactions don’t involve us personally. Communication exists on a continuum from impersonal to interpersonal. A lot of our communication doesn’t involve personal interaction. Sometimes we don’t acknowledge others as people at all but treat them as objects; they bag our groceries, direct us around highway construction, and so forth. In other instances, we interact with others in stereotypical or role-bound ways but don’t deal with them as distinct people. With a select few people we communicate in deeply personal ways. These distinctions are captured by philosopher Martin Buber (1970) who distinguished between three levels of communication: I-It, I-You, and I-Thou.
I-It Communication: In an I-It relationship, we treat others impersonally, almost as objects. In I-It Communication we do not acknowledge the humanity of the other people; we may not even affirm their existence. Salespeople, servers in restaurants, and clerical staff often are treated not as people but as instruments to take orders and deliver what we want. In the extreme form of I-It relationships, others are not even acknowledged. When a homeless person asks for money for food, some people do not even respond but
look away as if the person isn’t there. In dysfunctional families, parents may ignore children, thereby treating the children as I-It, not as people.
I-You Communication: the second level Buber identified is I-You Communication, which accounts for the majority of our interactions. People acknowledge one another as more than objects, but they don’t fully engage each other as unique individuals. For example, suppose you go shopping and a salesclerk asks, ‘May I help you?’ chances are you won’t have a deep conversation with the clerk, but you might treat him or her as more than an it. Perhaps you say, ‘I’m just browsing today. Yow know how it is at the end of the month – no money.’ The clerk might laugh and commiserate about how money gets tight by the end of each month. In this interaction, you and the clerk treat each other as more than its: the clerk doesn’t treat you as a faceless shopper, and you don’t treat the clerk as just as an agent of the store. I-You relationships may also be more personal than interactions with salesclerks. For instance, we talk with others in our classes, on the job, and on our sports teams in ways that are somewhat personal. The same is true of interaction in chat rooms where people meet to share ideas and common interests. Interaction is still guided by our roles as peers, members of a class or team, and people who have common interests. Yet we do affirm their existence and recognize them as individuals within those roles. Teachers and students often have I-You relationships. In the work place majority or our relationships are I-You. We communicate in less depth with more people in our social circles than those we love most. Casual friends, work associates and distant family members typically engage in I-You communication.
I-Thou Communication: the rarest kind of relationship involves I-Thou communication. Buber regarded this as the highest form of human dialogue because each person affirms the other as cherished and unique. When we interact on an I-Thou level, we meet others in their wholeness and individuality. Instead of dealing with them as occupants of social roles, we see them as unique human beings whom we know and accept in their totality. Also, in I-Thou communication we open ourselves fully, trusting others to accept us as we are with virtues and vices, hopes and fears, strengths and weaknesses. Buber believed that only in I-Thou relationships we become fully human, which for him meant we discard the guises we use most of the time and allow ourselves to be completely genuine in interaction (Stewart, 1986). Much of our communication involves what Buber calls ‘seeming’, in which we’re preoccupied with our image and careful to manage how we present ourselves. In I-Thou relationships, however, we engage in ‘being’ through which who we really are and how we really feel. I-Thou relationships are not common because we can’t afford to reveal ourselves totally to everyone all of the time. Thus, I-Thou relationships and the communication in them are rare and special.
PRINCIPLES OF INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION
There are eight basic principles of effective communication which we would describe one by one:
1. We Cannot “Not Communicate”
Whenever people are together, they communicate. We cannot avoid communicating when we are with others because they interpret what we do and say as well as what we don’t do and don’t say. Even if we chose to be silent, we are communicating. Even when we don’t intend to communicate, we do so. We may be unaware of a grimace that gives away our disapproval or an eye roll that shows we dislike someone, but we are communicating nonetheless.
2. Communication Is Irreversible
Perhaps you have been in heated arguments in which you lost your temper and said something you later regretted. It could be that you hurt someone or revealed something about yourself you meant to keep private. Later you might have tried to repair the damage by apologizing, explaining what you said, or denying what you revealed. But you couldn’t erase your communication; you couldn’t unsay what you said. That means what we say and do does matter and becomes a part of the relationship. Remembering this principle keeps us aware of the importance of choosing when to speak and what to say – or not say!
3. Interpersonal Communication Involves Ethical Choices
Ethics is a branch of philosophy that focuses on moral principles and code of conduct. Ethical issues concern what is right and what is wrong. Because interpersonal communication is irreversible and affects others, it always has ethical implications. For instance, if you read a message in a hat room that makes you angry; do you fire off a nasty reply, assuming you will never meet the person so you won’t face any consequences? In work settings, should you avoid giving negative feedback because it could hurt others’ feelings? In these and many other instances, we face ethical choices.
4. Meanings Are Constructed In Interpersonal Communication
Human beings construct the meaning of their communication. The significance of communication doesn’t lie in words and nonverbal behaviors. Instead, meanings arise out of how we interpret one another. This calls our attention to the fact that humans use symbols, which sets us apart from other creatures. For example, what does it mean if someone says, “You’re sick”? To interpret the comment, you have to consider the context (a counseling session, a professional meeting), who said it (a psychiatrist, supervisor or
subordinate, a friend, an enemy), and the words themselves, which may mean various things (a medical diagnosis, a challenge to your professional competence, a compliment, a disapproval).
5. Metacommunication Affects Meanings
The word metacommunication comes from two root terms; meta, which means “about” and communication. Thus, metacommunication is communication about communication. For example, during a conversation with your friend, you notice that his body is tense and his voice is sharp. You might say, “You seem really stressed.” The statement metacommunicates because it communicates about your friend’s nonverbal communication. Metacommunication is both verbal and nonverbal. Metacommunication can increase the chance of creating shared understanding. For example, teachers sometimes say, “The next point is really important.” This comment signals students to pay special attention to what follows. A parent might tell a child, “What I said may sound harsh, but I’m only telling you because I care about you.” The comment tells the child how to interpret a critical message. Research has found that women are more likely than men to appreciate metacommunication when there is no conflict or immediate problem to be resolved. While curled up on a sofa and watching TV, a woman might say to her husband, “I really feel comfortable being close with you.” This comments on the relationship and on the nonverbal communication between the couple.
6. Interpersonal Communication Develops And Sustains Relationships
Interpersonal communication is the primary way we build, refine, and transform relationships because it allows us to express and share dreams, imaginings, and memories and to weave all of these into the joint world of relational partners.
7. Interpersonal Communication Is Not A Panacea
As we have seen, we communicate to satisfy many of our needs and to create relationship with others. Yet it would be a mistake to think communication is a cure-all. Many problems can’t be solved by talk alone. Communication by itself won’t end hunger, abuse of human rights around the globe, racism, or physical disease. Nor can words alone bridge irreconcilable differences between people or erase the hurt of betrayal.
Although good communication may increase understanding and help us find solutions to problems, it will not fix everything. We should also realize that the idea of talking things through is distinctly Western. Not all societies think it’s wise or useful to communicate about relationships or to talk extensively about feelings.
8. Interpersonal Communication Effectiveness Can Be Learned
It is incorrect to believe that effective communicators are born. Although some people have exceptional talent in athletics or writing, all of us can become competent athletes and writers. Similarly some people have an aptitude for communicating, but all of us can become competent communicators.