Friday, November 7, 2014

So Many Ways to Communicate, Many Unintentional

Most people think communication is using written and/or spoken language. My daughter actually almost got into an argument with someone at school over what constituted a language. [More on conflict in a future post]. Said classmate tried to argue that besides spoken word and written word, the only other language was sign language because it had the word in its nomenclature. The argument was that there was no such thing as a computer language since we don't speak it. My daughter was right in her frustration, as there is so much more to language and communication than we typically take for granted. For argument's sake, let's start with defining language, since I brought it up at the beginning of this post.

Language: any system of formalized symbols, signs, sounds, gestures, or the like used or conceived as a means of communicating thought, emotion, etc. As you can see, this leaves the idea of language wide open, especially as we are not specifying that the communication has to occur between any particular species, organic or otherwise. What then, you may ask, is communication? Let's go ahead and define that as well before we start picking it apart and expanding some horizons.

Communication: the imparting or interchange of thoughts, opinions, or information by speech, writing, or signs. Remember that "signs" can take the form of any of our five senses--sight, sound, taste, touch, smell. I particularly like the biological definition of communication: activity by one organism that changes or has the potential to change the behavior of other organisms. Isn't that the primary purpose of most of our communication? We share ideas and information because we want others to learn about them and perhaps to see the world from our perspective. That's effecting change in behavior.

To make things a little easier to digest, I'm going to use the standard separation of communication into two broad categories: verbal and nonverbal. Verbal means "having to do with words," so that means written languages actually fall under verbal communication. There are several parts that are important to all forms of communication, but especially to verbal communication. I think it's important to pull these out into the open before we talk about verbal and nonverbal communication.
  • Message: this is the actual point of the communication; the thoughts, ideas, etc. that is being transmitted from one party to another. It is often subject to interpretation not only on the part of the receiver, but also on the part of the sender. All information in our brains is stored in the form of electrical/chemical signals similar to the 1s and 0s of computer language. Those don't translate directly from one person to another, so we have to take those signals and transfer them into a format that is easily (well, more easily at least) shared.
  • Sender: the individual who initiates the communication or message. After seeing the section on nonverbal communication, you will see that an individual can send a message without fully realizing it. A sender has to encode their idea in a form that can be transmitted. Sometimes communication issues occur on the sender's end when the encoding process is flawed. Have you ever had an image or thought in your mind but couldn't find the words to express it? That would be an example of a potential sender/encoding error.
  • Receiver: the individual who is the intended (or unintended) target of the message. Sometimes the receiver is not whom we wanted to get the message, but rather someone who intercepts it or comes upon it in passing. The receiver has to decode the information given to them by the sender, putting it back into a form that the brain can process (those electrical/chemical 1s and 0s). Sometimes we have issues with our understanding of the encoded information. Maybe we didn't hear something the way it was meant to be said or perhaps we misunderstood the intended meaning--sarcasm is a perfect of example of such an issue. In this case, the miscommunication error could be do to a decoding issue.
  • Channel: the sensory pathway used to transmit the message. The primary channels of communication for humans are auditory (sound) and visual (like the written word or hand signals). Believe it or not, you can also send information with the other three senses. When someone walks into a room doused in perfume, they may be conveying the idea that they REALLY want to be noticed (or that they don't care about others around them). What kind of message do you think is sent when someone greets you and they haven't brushed their teeth for months or bathed in weeks? Yeah, that's still a message. I'm sure the idea of touch for communication is easy for most. A punch, a hug, a kiss, a hand on the shoulder all tell mostly clear-cut messages or have the potential to do so. They are also easily, and sometimes purposefully, misinterpreted. You can even send a thought or idea with taste. When you season food just right, maybe you're trying to tell someone that you care about food preparation and/or them. If you burn the food, perhaps you're telling them that you're trying too hard, are distracted, or don't really care. As I said, each of our five senses can be used as a channel for communication.
  • Context: the environment in which the communication takes place. This can include the medium (text, advertisements, video, etc.) used as well as the social environment in which the communication occurs. For example, if a stranger were to tell you of their house burning down, then you might process that information differently than if you heard the same information coming from a close friend or relative. Another example of the impact context has on communication would be a request. Coming from a boss, a request might feel more like a command, whereas the same request from a subordinate or friend would be seen as a favor. The physical environmental setting is also important for communication. Formal settings are more conducive for one-way communication, such as a lecture or press conference. One tends to expect less personal disclosure and more factual information sharing in a formal setting. An informal setting such as a restaurant or someone's home would prime the receiver to expect either personal or trivial communications.
  • Noise: anything that hampers communication, especially through distraction. Again, all of the five senses come into play here. We typically think of distracting sounds as noise. However, visuals can easily pull our attention away from our sender (and even our receiver, hindering the encoding process). Smell and taste can be just as distracting, especially if they are sudden and unexpected intrusions to the communication process. I know it's "juvenile," but how many times has a conversation been disrupted by someone passing gas? Yeah, that's an example of multiple forms of noise. I'm sure you can think of an instance, also, in which a sudden tactile sensation draws your attention away from sending or receiving information. Maybe you suddenly got cold or hot, or perhaps something brushed up against you or you were bitten by something. These are all examples of noise.

Verbal Communication: communication imparted through the use of words, spoken or written or signed as in sign language. So, verbal communication is pretty straight-forward. Then again, where would you place coding languages such as binary? Computer languages are formalized sets of symbols that have meaning. It is arguable that these qualify under verbal communication because of the use of symbols. Mathematics is also a written language, by the way; it is considered by some to be the universal language. Although classified as part of nonverbal communication, there is a modifier to the words and symbols we use as well, known as paralanguage. I define it a little later in this post. Many of you already know that there is a difference in the meaning of a message with something as subtle as changing the emphasis from one word to another. Again, sarcasm is an excellent example of this phenomenon. 

Even without paralanguage to complicate things, verbal language can sometimes easily be misinterpreted. Each language and culture has their own unique idioms--sayings such as metaphors--that outsiders may find it difficult to grasp. Even when raised in that culture, sometimes individuals may not be fully versed in the subtle uses of certain phrases or words. *Incidentally, that was part of the inspiration for this blog in the first place; too many psychological concepts are used incorrectly and people don't understand what they are saying or hearing.* Young children or individuals who have a very literal mindset may find it difficult to understand the messages they receive from others. Also, some idioms just don't translate well from one language to another.

Nonverbal Communication: conveying messages or transmitting thoughts, ideas, and emotions without (or in addition to) the use of words and systematic languages. Nonverbal communication adds several layers of meaning to regular communication. Experts in communication fields and psychology often look at paralanguage, body language, kinesics, and proxemics to help understand the full message, unintentional or otherwise, sent and received during communication exercises. This is also the part of communication that can get you into more trouble than you thought and it is just as likely to be a sender/encoding issue as a receiver/decoding issue. Perhaps after looking at these various areas, it will become more apparent as to why nonverbal communication can sometimes be at odds with verbal communication and why sometimes others may misread your intentions.

  • Paralanguage: nonverbal elements in speech, such as intonation and speed, that may affect the meaning of an utterance; may also apply to the written word, such as the use of capital letters, italics, bold, and/or underlining to provide specific emphasis. Here's an example of the use of paralanguage with words. Read each of the following sentences to yourself, emphasizing the word in bold.
1) I love you. 
2) I love you. 
3) I love you.
As you can see, they send somewhat different meanings even though the same words are used. The first sentence, with the emphasis on "I," indicates that the speaker, above others, loves the recipient. The second sentence focuses on the love of the speaker. The last sentence may indicate that the receiver is an important object of love, if not the most important, for the sender. 
Paralanguage is often used to add that extra layer of insistence, importance, urgency, etc. that mere words do not always convey. One of the difficulties with written communication is the limitations on the use of paralanguage, and often the misuse of paralanguage indicators. I'm sure that if you've been on any social media site, or read the comments section on any online forum, or even read a significant volume of email, then you have come across an individual who seems to lack some basic understanding of typed paralanguage. The most common misuses and/or overused written paralanguage techniques I've encountered are the use of all capital letters (often understood to mean excitement or yelling) and the overabundance of smiley faces. In fact, the smiley faces have perpetuated our culture so deeply that I received quite a few assignments from my students over the years with their smileys in the form of the sideways typing [:-)]; this was when they were using regular pen and paper. It apparently never dawned on them that they could draw a regular smiley face in the normal vertical position, they were so used to typing/texting it sideways. In my experience, the misuse of all CAPS tends to occur most often with older individuals. Perhaps the caps lock button was engaged without realizing it, or they use the capital letters to make it easier to see the words. In either instance, it appears to the casual reader that the sender is either extremely emotional or uniformed in proper netiquette. 
Verbal paralanguage has its own pitfalls. Speak too slowly and the receiver may feel that you (the sender) perceive them as slow-witted. Speak too quickly and you sometimes come off as rude, too busy to care to communicate well, or that you are trying to hide something by glossing over it. Mumbling is also often interpreted as an attempt to be less than truthful or that you are not confident enough. Laughter or growling (or other angry noises) or tears can affect the message's meaning, too.

  •  Body language: messages or meaning conveyed through the use of various parts of our body, also known as kinesics. The study of kinesics includes the use of hand gestures, body posture, touch, and facial expressions. This type of nonverbal language is heavily influenced by culture and context and it is possibly the most misinterpreted of the forms of communication because it is so individualized and non-universal. Please note that much of the discussion I include here on body language is based on research with adults. Many of these conventions are thrown out the window when children are involved. Just as children develop in their understanding of verbal language over time, so too does it take time for a child to understand appropriate and inappropriate use of body language and the types of messages that can be sent with kinesics. It may also take a child a while to fully grasp the secondary message you send them through this form of non-verbal communication, so it is up to the more experienced communicator to be aware of potentials for misunderstanding and adjust accordingly.
I'm sure we are all aware of how different facial expressions can change the meaning of our words. Most people who are trying to determine if someone is lying to them will look at the speaker's face. Unfortunately, many of the "tells" that the average person believes indicate dishonesty are not that accurate. While most studies on lying show that the hardest part of the body to lie with is the face, that does not mean that our face will show a guilty conscience. The face is not as much under our conscious control as we would like to think, and lying isn't the only reason we would be nervous when confronted by someone. The human face is capable of generating more than 20,000 different expressions, but they all boil down to three distinct characteristics. 1) Are you interested in what the speaker is saying? 2) Do you have positive, negative, or neutral feelings toward the speaker and/or their message? 3) What is your level of familiarity or comfort with the speaker? For example, a smile can mean a whole lot of different things. The smiling face could mean genuine positive affect--happiness, joy, pleasure, etc.--about the message or the sender. It could also indicate a secret knowledge or inside joke. It could even indicate sarcasm. Similar messages can be conveyed with a frown. Someone frowning is not always in a bad mood; they may not necessarily be angry or depressed but perhaps they are thinking intently. Eye contact is also an important component of the facial expression portion of body language. We generally interpret prolonged eye contact as interest.
Each of the above characteristics--interest, basic affect, comfort/familiarity--also apply to body posture. In addition, body posture can indicate the relationship between the individuals involved in the communication. Having an open posture, such as standing with your hands by your side, usually indicates that you are receptive to communication and are withholding judgment; it may also tell observers that you are a subordinate of the person talking to you. A closed posture of crossed arms often means that you've made up your mind and you don't care to listen to the message because you might not like it or agree with it. It would be interesting to find out if closed postures are used more often by people of a higher status or a lower status than their communication partner. Failing to look at the speaker generally shows that you don't want to listen to what they have to say, unless you are in some eastern cultures, where maintaining prolonged direct eye contact is seen as a sign of disrespect. Leaning in, sitting down, standing, lounging, the direction you face, etc. all add more layers of meaning to what you say as a sender and what you say as a receiver of communication. 
Hand gestures are another culture-specific form of nonverbal communication that changes meaning from place to place. An insult in one culture could be a benign or meaningless gesture in another and vice versa. We as a species talk with our hands almost as much as we do with our vocal chords, and that's not counting the various forms of sign language that are out there. Hand gestures are also influenced by one's personality and cultural expectations of expression. I've known some people who couldn't talk unless their hands were moving and I've met others who rarely moved their hands at all. One has to be pretty careful of their hand usage in some areas. You never know when you might accidentally "throw" a gang sign or insult someone with a misplaced gesture. On the plus side, though, hand gestures can be very useful when giving directions or descriptions; they allow us to "draw" in the air to enhance our verbal descriptions. 
Touch conveys a lot of emotion to both speakers and listeners. For many people, the right touch could offer a world of emotional support that is too difficult to transmit with words alone. Hugs seem to solve a lot of problems (at least psychologically). Touch can also tell the person that you have no respect for them if the touch is inappropriate--wrong place, too long, too much or too little pressure--for the relationship you have. Studies show that, in general, women use touch more often than men, but also that women are the recipients of touch more often than men. Again, the use and interpretation of touch is heavily influenced by one's personality and culture.

  • Proxemics: the study of the distances used between individuals. Proxemics, also known as propinquity or interpersonal distance, is the final piece of nonverbal language that shows more about the context of the communication. There are generally 4 categories of distance, each one telling more about the relationship between the sender and receiver and about the type of communication that is expected. Note that the size of one's "personal bubble," especially the intimate and personal distances, is determined by a) their personality and personal preference for socialization and b) cultural norms regarding appropriate distances between two individuals in various situations. Other interesting modifiers include body size and status--people tend to afford larger bubbles to larger and taller people and those of higher social status. Age is also an interesting modifier. To most children under the age of 4 anyone bigger than them is fair game to be used as a cuddle bug or a jungle gym.
1) Intimate distance. Usually reserved for the most intimate relationships, such as one's children, significant other, most intimate friend. The average space for this distance is from 0"-12" but some individuals have much smaller bubbles and some have larger ones. At this close range, you can say the most with all forms of verbal and nonverbal communication. This distance is rich in information, with the ability to speak in lower tones (whispers) and see facial expressions more clearly. Touch plays a more important role at this distance than at the others. The type of information most often found in this circle tends to be much more personal--emotions, thoughts, laying out vulnerabilities--than in any other circle.
2) Personal distance. Usually reserved for one's closest friends and relatives, those who know you well but are not in the first circle. While the average distance for this bubble is 12"- 4 feet, some individuals have a bit of overlap with the intimate distance circle. At this distance, you can still speak low, but perhaps not quite at a whisper, and most people with fairly good vision can make out most of your facial expressions. You are still within arms-length of one another, so additional messages can be communicated through touch at this point. Information transmitted at this stage can include personal self-disclosure as well as less personal topics.
3) Social distance. This bubble is where you will typically find general friends and acquaintances, coworkers and customers, as well as the average passerby. With the distance being between 4'-12' on average, it becomes more difficult to rely on the more subtle nuances of communication. Vocalization needs to be louder than that afforded at the intimate and personal distances in order to be heard. Some facial expressions may go unnoticed at the increased space between sender and receiver. The use of body posture and hand gestures becomes more important to add needed emphasis to verbal communication. At this distance, one would not expect as much personal information to be divulged. Rather, most conversations in the social distance tend to be more superficial or goal-directed (business transactions, relaying data, etc.) in nature.
4) Public distance. At 12' and counting, this final bubble is rarely conducive to two-way communication. Rather, most often public distance is used by a communicator to simply pass on information to another person. It also generally occurs in more formal settings such as a presentation, lecture, or press conference. Speech needs to be clear and concise. Paralanguage can help add meaning to the words, but it must be used judiciously in order to avoid misinterpretation. Larger gestures and body poses will be needed to convey additional subtext to one's words, especially as facial expressions are not very visible to the average audience from that distance. Most of the information is formal and factual at this point.

Hopefully my expansion on these various areas of communication will help you to become a better communicator--sender AND receiver. The greatest source of frustration and the number one cause of a break in a relationship (especially divorce, according to numerous studies) is communication problems. These problems come from both the sender and the receiver. Sometimes we mince our words, sometimes we hear what we want to hear instead of what is actually said. Sometimes our nonverbal language is at odds with our verbal communication. It's not easy. Even for world-class grade-A communicators, there is always a chance that their audience will misinterpret their meaning. The key is to keep trying and to understand that sometimes we need to adapt to our audience. If I can improve my communication methods on this blog, please feel free to let me know how in the comments section.