The Psychology of Communication
On the limits of the process of communication and the central role of interpretation
Communication is about using symbols and in case of humans, using language, to convey meanings and ideas between individuals and it involves the act of evoking reactions from other individuals. Human communication is marked by intention and anticipation of the reactions and communication in humans can be verbal when mediated by language or non-verbal when no language is involved. Communication can also be direct when a certain pattern of behavior evokes a particular type of response or subtle and indirect when behaviors are not predictable or ambiguous and not even completely comprehensible. Thus communication is separated into certain distinct categories such as:
1. Direct and Indirect communication
2. Verbal and non-verbal communication
Any direct communication can be both verbal and non-verbal just as indirect communication can also be verbal or non verbal. Verbal communication can again be direct or indirect and similarly non verbal communication can also be either direct or indirect. So let’s say there are four types of communication patterns in humans – verbal and direct, verbal and indirect, non-verbal and direct, non-verbal and indirect. Examples of verbal and direct would be saying things that are straightforward or unambiguous and with no hidden or incomprehensible messages. These are verbal expressions of emotions and ideas as they occur. Like when you are happy and say that you are happy, you are using the verbal direct method of communication to express your feelings. Indirect methods of verbal communication are using subtle expressions such as taunts, sarcasm, hints etc. that can have ambiguous meanings and do not represent expressions of emotions or ideas ‘as they occur’. Thus if you are sad and do not say so but imply indirectly, then you are using indirect methods to convey your state of mind. Non verbal communication is about using cues, facial or bodily expressions, body language, eye or hand movements etc., to express ideas. This can be quite direct like say, hitting a person is rather non verbal but direct as it expresses anger just as crying represents sorrow. However non verbal communication can be indirect such as turning away your eyes from a person you feel uncomfortable with or maintaining prolonged eye contact with a person to convey a message.
Communication is the basis of human and non-human interaction and we can all communicate with a touch or a sound, a look or a symbol, a word or a sentence and also by doing or saying nothing at all. The body is an important interface in communication and I’ve discussed this in the psychology of body in which body language is shown to play an important role in communication. We communicate with our mates through intimate body language and sexual interaction is a very important communication tool in humans and also in animals. The psychology of communication will include the different elements or stages of communication in an individual such as
1. Absorption of external information through listening or reading etc,
2. Interpretation of the stimuli received, and
3. Reaction to the information obtained through behavior
The three stages of the communication process as in absorption or taking in information, the interpretation or deriving meaning of the information and reaction or responding to the information are facilitated by the following elements:
1. Absorption or taking in information – is through sense organs and we simply absorb the sounds and colors, the spoken words and all external data provided to us. Absorption is an objective process
2. Interpretation or analysis of information – involves using brain mechanisms and analyzing external stimuli as well as details such as expressions and subtle verbal and non verbal cues, so interpretation is a subjective process
3. Reaction or response to the stimuli – uses physical communication routes such as speech, language or expressions through facial and bodily movements. Reactions are the result of a subjective and an objective process. This is because when presented with certain stimuli we all have a set of predictable responses which are objective but depending on how we interpret the situation subjectively, the reactions might vary to an extent. Reactions can be imitative – you smile when you see someone smiling or it can be just the opposite as when someone tries to look at you and you try to look away.
This reaction or response evoked in an individual can become a stimulus for another chain of responses or the stimulus can be a completely separate event or situation. Behaviorists will usually consider communication as a stimulus-response pattern with individuals perceiving the stimuli and reacting to them in the form of communication. Freudian psychoanalysis suggests that communication is directly related to how we subjectively perceive the external information based on our own experiences. So ‘interpretation’ of external stimuli or the mediation of the individual mind is the most important aspect of communication according to psychoanalysis, although behaviorists will completely eliminate the importance of the ‘interpretation’ part considering communication as nothing but a series of mechanical ‘stimulus-response’ pattern. Thus according to behavioral psychology, we perceive an object and react to it via communication almost like a computer program. It sounds strange that the importance of mind and consciousness in communication has only been recently acknowledged in ‘scientific’ psychology.
The methods of communication are also equally interesting as humans communicate through the written word and the spoken word and through letters, messages, phone calls, personal face to face conversation, through glances and physical contact, through sex, and on a wider scale through seminars, conferences, news events, newspapers, press releases, books, brochures, and campaigning or propaganda. The newer methods of communication using information technology are via chats and chatrooms, internet and emails, text messages, forums, blogging and networking. Technology has opened up new avenues of communication and the world is now completely dependent on how far and how quickly people are able to communicate.
Communication is central to our modern life, yet it is a difficult and complicated process and a gap remains between the ideas communicated and the ideas perceived. This communication gap as it is generally called is closed only with proper consideration of all verbal, non verbal, indirect and direct elements of the communication process. So in a personal or business meeting the communication process involves not just presentation of the ideas of people verbally but also the non verbal facial and bodily expressions.
The purpose of communication is almost always motivated or intentional as we naturally expect a response from people we communicate with. In fact all communication is based on anticipation of response from others thus communication tend to have a direction or purpose. However the communication gap can create problems in the process and the purpose of communication may remain unfulfilled when communicated ideas are too vague or indirect. The vagueness increases when channels of communication between two or more individuals are remote or distal rather than proximal.
Long distance communication methods such as emails and internet, telephone calls etc. bring in new challenges to the study of communication as we are not able to see the person we communicate with, we find it difficult to ‘interpret’ the stimuli that we encounter. As I have noted in an earlier part of this discussion, the ability to ‘interpret’ the communicative stimuli is a very important part of the communicative process and the interpretation or derivation of the meaning of what we hear or see depends on our inherent need for analysis of all indirect body language cues, facial expressions and hints or subtle or subconscious processes. Human beings are intelligent and in most cases do not take all information for granted. The direct face to face communication provides us with a definite sense of what the other person really means and gives us assurance that our interpretation of the communication is correct. That is why the face to face interviewing process still remains the most popular method of communication in a selection process. All online communication and information on the internet are thus prone to misinterpretation as we are not able to interpret the information using the non verbal cues or expressions that are an essential part of the communication process. The communication gap is thus the gap of interpretation as despite a lot of information there is certain dearth of essential information and our mind recognizes the communication process as incomplete. You may chat with a person online for several hours in a day but unless you are able to see or hear his or her facial and bodily expressions, you can never be assured that the communication process is completely authentic. Of course, modern devices such as the webcam have greatly improved the communication process. Yet it is also true that even if we have all the essential cues of communication, the very fact that we have to interpret the information received subjectively, can suggest the possibility of a communication gap.
In this discussion then, I simply pointed out that the three stages of communication comprise of certain essential elements and a communication gap is inherent in the process of interpretation either because of our own limitations or due to limitations of technology.