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Communication theory

May 17, 2012

Communication theory, the way I use it, might have nothing to do with the communication theory taught at universities. It is based on a few pages in a magazine that I read many years ago, and found useful and incorporated into my worldview and elaborated upon on my own. So maybe it would be more accurate to say that this post is about Ester’s communication theory, except that naming my theory for myself feels like bragging, and it certainly isn’t meant to be. It’s meant to be an apology to all actual communication theorists out there.

So, a homebrew system. Let’s move on!

There are three basic components to a communication process. Sender, message and reciever. At any point in the process, one sender is trying to get one message across to one or more recievers. In conversation, debate or chat, the participants are constantly switching roles. Who is sending and who is recieving varies from moment to moment. There are also communication processes where the sender stays the same throughout, such as a sermon, a lecture, or a book. Blog posts are somewhat intermediate; I can keep writing this post for as long as I wish, but as soon as I publish it, it becomes open for debate.

Let’s focus on the process a bit more. Alice has a message that she wants to convey to her husband Bob. To do that, the first thing she must do is formulate it in words. Very simple messages, like “I love you” or “I’m annoyed with you” can be conveyed by non-verbal means only, but let’s assume that Alice’s message is more on the level of “I wish your mother would stop making hurtful comments on how I cook.” So. Alice the sender formulates the feeling that is her message into words. This is transformation 1 of the message.

Alice then speaks her message. Or writes it, or signs it, or whatever. In some manner, she transmits. This transmitted message is the only part of the process that can be recorded and studied objectively, because everything else is taking place in the minds of the participants. Maybe she chooses to formulate it like “Your mother doesn’t seem to like my food, does she?”. (I believe ordinary communication theory is rather concerned with problems in transmission, like if Alice and Bob had been talking over a noisy telephone line. Is the message Alice spoke still intact when it reaches Bob’s ear? I’m more interested in human communication than in constructing telephone lines, so I’m assuming perfect transmission. The words Alice spoke are the words that reached Bob’s ears.)

Bob interprets Alice’s words. This is transformation 2 of the message. Maybe Bob’s interpretation of Alice’s message is that Alice is feeling inadequate as a hostess. He replies: “Well, next time she’s here maybe we could have a meatloaf? She always likes meatloaf.” Whereupon Alice starts to cry…

Ok, what happened?

Alice meant: “Your mother is hurting me with her comments on my cooking. I want her to stop.”
The actual words spoken: “Your mother doesn’t seem to like my food, does she?”
Bob heard: “I want to please your mother with the meals I cook for her, but it always fails.”
Roleswitch. Bob is now the sender.
Bob meant: “I want to help you with some practical advice.”
The actual words spoken: “Well, next time she’s here maybe we could have a meatloaf? She always likes meatloaf.”
Alice heard: “Whatever comments you got, you deserved. You should have known better than to serve fish to my mother.”

So, you see, for every message sent there are actually three messages. What the sender meant undergoes transformation 1 and becomes the actual words. These undergo transformation 2 and become what the reciever heard. In the context of this theory, to hear something means to recieve a message and interpret it. What you hear does not necessarily involve your ears, since it is also possible to recieve messages visually. It does necessarily involve your mind and your preconceptions.

I find this concept immensely useful when untangling misunderstandings. “When I say (actual words), I mean (what I meant; formulated differently).” Or: “When you say (actual words), I hear (how I interpreted it).” It has almost become second nature to me when I read something that makes me upset. What in the message makes me upset? Is it the actual words? Or is it only after interpretation that the message becomes outrageous? Is it likely that the sender meant the message that I heard, or are there other possible interpretations?

One Comment
  1. Moreva permalink

    Good point!

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