Before I can go any further, we have to talk about what communication is.
Let’s start with a definition. I know, BO-RING. But definitions matter.
Definitions shape how we see things. They orient us, point us in directions, and help us ask the right questions.
For example, how a company defines “sexual harassment” matters. It affects workplace behavior and the repercussions for transgressive behaviors. It addresses risk. If it is defined correctly, a definition can improve employee confidence in the company. They will feel more comfortable in their workplace. Definitions have all sorts of ramifications.
Definitions matter because they shape our reality.
In Defining Reality, Communication theorist and MIT scholar Ed Schiappa argues that definitions are questions of “ought” rather than “is.” In other words, there are better and worse ways to define things. Good definitions drive us forward. Definitions don’t have inherent meanings. Rather, they are pragmatic, malleable concepts open to change. Schiappa draws our attention to how definitions, as they change over time, move us closer to more productive ways of interacting.
So let me take a stab at a useful definition of communication — to orient you.
I think of communication as people or entities making meaning and exchanging information in a medium or media across spacetime using symbolic behaviors and language.
Whew, that’s a lot! Let me break down its 5 key components.
1) People or entities - Pretty straightforward: people communicate. Plural, because you need at least two to tango. Things like robots, organizations, art, performances, and characters in games can count as entities. There are always at least two participants in and perspectives on a relationship.
2) Making meaning and exchanging information - Note the “and.” When we communicate, we always do both. There are no exceptions. We might think we are just transmitting information, but senders and receivers are always interpreting and making meaning as well.
3) [in a] medium or media - Communication happens through media. We call these “channels.” Channels are all sorts of things. Texting is a channel. FaceTime is a channel. Newspapers are channels. Speaking is a channel. Each medium shapes interactions in a different way.
4) [across] spacetime - This one’s a doozy! Messages quite literally move through space and across time. In conversation, we hardly perceive this. In other forms of communication, this asynchronicity is more prominent. Messages are not direct and linear. They are interpreted in different times and circumstances from their departure. I wrote this sentence on my computer screen at home. You are reading it now, and it has traveled a complex path to get to you in a different time and space from where it originated. This message has traveled across servers in different locations to the electronic device on which you are reading it. You are reading these words — or they are being read to you through assistive technology — in a different space and time from when I wrote them.
5) [using] symbolic behaviors and language - Symbols are things that stand for other things. They are open to interpretation. We use all sorts of symbols when communicating. All behavior and language is symbolic. We use words and tell stories. We also use our hands, faces, and bodies. In each case, we make new symbols and use old ones. Emojis and memes, for example, are new sorts of improvisational symbolic forms.
This definition of communication is probably unlike any other you’ve encountered. Hopefully, it points toward some details of communication that you might not have thought of.
Communication is always about relationships. Wherever there are relationships, there is communication. Communication is our connection to others — what we have in common. This much is easy to understand. But communication is there even when we feel like it isn’t working, or when we feel like it’s “failing.” Strangely, feeling disconnection comes from communication as well. In this sense, communication is a paradox. Communication connects and separates. These two outcomes of communication work together in unexpected ways.
Disconnection, oddly, can become what you have in common with someone else. Remember how you hate when family members argue politics around the holiday dinner table? You probably feel like communication isn’t working in those scenarios because you’re not coming to a mutual understanding. But it is in those very disagreements that you and they become entangled. Communication creates the good and it creates the bad.
Despite the fact that humans communicate naturally, many people struggle with communication. We over-analyze our habits, micro-critique our words, or perhaps obsess over what someone else really means when they talk with us. These sorts of behaviors cause stress and can become unhealthy.
There is no one best way to communicate. Nobody analyzes your communication as much as you do! Don’t beat yourself up over using a wrong word or adopting a certain tone of voice, or for having internal feelings of awkwardness. That is important, even if it is easier said than done.
Shifting your thinking about communication will help you unleash communication’s potential and help you focus on how to improve your relationships. Communication isn’t just linear messages and transmission. Communication is more than that. This is the starting point if you want to communicate better.