We are constantly communicating. Every time you have a conversation, you are communicating. If you text, you’re communicating. Sent an email? Communication. Watched an advertisement or a movie? You’re communicating. That last ones a different type, often called parasocial communication, and it has a lot in common with any regular old one-on-one interaction, but has much that’s different as well.
In fact, communication is always a little bit different.
What communication is not is just a variable. It’s not linear. It’s not just information. Nor is it just transmission of information or messages from here to there. It is a process. Conceive of communication as “getting your point across” and you miss a whole lot. It’s not just one part of your relationship. It is your relationship.
Seeing communication simplistically might be easy but it is limiting. The human brain is always looking for shortcuts. Communication is one of those things that people tend to think about too simplistically. This is fine. Probably even natural. But let me nudge out some room for a little complexity.
Communication is a rapidly quick process. Linguistically and logistically speaking communication is a situation in which participants take short, rapidly alternating turns. Turn-taking is a behavior that appears in early infancy, well before words. Who hasn’t babbled back and forth with a baby? This is where humans learn the foundational firsts that underlie communication to come.
Scientists estimate, on average, we take about 1,200 turns per day in conversation and average speaking around 16,000 words in those turns. The time between those turns is microscopic: 200ms. That’s how quickly communication turns around from one person and bounces back. To put that in perspective, it takes and average human 3x that (600ms) just to say a single word .
No wonder we have a hard time assessing how communication is going when we’re doing it. It moves too fast!
Turn-taking is central to communication and a key aspect of the process but we don’t necessarily need to think about it at these microscopic levels. Turn-taking is one of those things you can quite easily pay attention to when you’re just talking to someone. Who is doing all (or most) of the talking? Who is doing less? Do they cut me off? Do I, them? Finding a healthy balance is important. These are keys to communicating well.
Another way in which communication is quick is the traversing of an overall non-linear narrative path and frequent diversion into narrative fractals followed by an almost instantaneous teleportation back to the main conversational path. The narrative paths of conversational communication seen in this way are multiple and from different perspectives. We don’t know where conversations will end up at their outset. This is quite natural. After the fact, we sensemake these conversations into straight, clear paths — linear even — but this is not how they unfold. Conversations halt and start, get interrupted, shift topics, and take on different feels over their lifespan.
We think linear, but communication is not linear. It’s full of offshoots and communicative cul-de-sacs. Conversations are quite literally littered with them. Pay attention to how a conversation unfolds sometime, you’ll see.
This is why we must focus on process. An emphasis on process gets us around communication’s problem of nonlinearity. But moreover, if we try to view communication as linear, we miss the richness of the process that builds our relationships; seeing it as anything short of a dynamic, changing process is to take a limited view.
Any time you communicate, two things are happening: information is being shared and meaning is being made. People tend to focus on the information-sharing part.
For example, it’s pretty common to see “models” of communication concerned the exchange or transmission of information. There are a thousand variations; here are three:
The one in the middle is slightly more complex, but still drawn from that sender, receiver, channel, noise, message model. Most of these models operate based on directionality of communication. Even a “transactional” approach, which sounds good, is riddled with a stench of cleanliness and neatness, that simply doesn’t reflect communication’s realities. As if a conversation is the same as exchanging money for donuts. Communication is messy. When we communicate, information doesn’t go directly from Brain A to Brain B.
There is a classic quote about communication by William Whyte writing in Fortune magazine in 1950: “The great enemy of communication, we find, is the illusion of it.” But communication is only an illusion if you’re looking for what you meant over there in the other person’s head. You’re not going to find it. Communication is in between us.
In communication, you always have information and meaning. Information is always part of communication, but it’s where it starts, not where it ends.
Meaning is woven and generated around information. That’s what’s really important about communication, at least when it comes to relationships. Meaning. The Final Frontier.
Information degrades and decays over time. Information entropy is real . Meanings grow and fade.
Information ripples out into meaning. Two parts of the same whole.
On average, there is a lot of room for improvement in how people think about communication. Communication must be seen as a process. A system of systems.
There’s little that will benefit you and your relationships more than to see communication as slightly more complex than you probably do. There’s no idea with the potential to benefit you more than an improved view of communication with slightly more nuance and complexity than a sender-receiver model.
We take for granted a lot about communication and an appreciation of some of depth is all I’m trying to cultivate here. Let’s get away from simple models and communication-as-variable views driven from psychology. Let’s end naive conceptions of communication’s linearity and stop believing that information transmission is enough. There’s meaning in them there hills!
 Levinson SC, Holler J. 2014 The origin of human multi-modal communication. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 369: 20130302. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2013.0302
 Shannon, C.E. (1948), A Mathematical Theory of Communication. Bell System Technical Journal, 27: 379-423. doi:10.1002/j.1538-7305.1948.tb01338.x