Transparency is a god-term. People want it. Calls for it are everywhere. “I’m aiming to be transparent here,” you might hear in everyday conversation. Transparency is supposedly one of the great communication achievements.
Or so we tell ourselves.
People widely accept the idea that the best communication is transparent. Transparency is one of the most cherished and celebrated ideals and aspirations of contemporary society, seen as central to participation and democracy itself, and a countervailing force and grand solution to nearly all social, political, and relationship ills.
But is it?
Transparency goes largely unquestioned. People say we want transparency from our social institutions (ex. governments, corporations, organizations, legal systems, etc.) and when we do, we are often talking about data, information, reporting, accountability, and the like. Our obsession with transparency trickles all the way into our 1-on-1 relationships, as well. Mentions of transparency pop up all over the place. This is odd, considering nobody really knows exactly what they’re talking about when it comes to transparency.
“Transparency” can mean all sorts of different things and we talk about transparency in all sorts of interesting ways in everyday language.
“I want to be transparent about our process.”
“I want to be transparent with the client about what we can accomplish in the next 6 months.”
“I’m trying to be transparent about my feelings here!”
“You’re not being transparent with me about what really happened!”
“Thanks for being transparent about the rules. It really made for a fair process.”
Despite needing to be interrogated to some degree, transparency surely is a powerful bonding agent, essential to making meaningful connections. I don’t take issue with this fact. Transparency leads to positive outcomes: deals and collaborations, shared information, a common foundational base from which win-win relationships can be built.
But what is transparency?
We rarely define transparency beyond common-sense ideas of “openness,” “insight,” or “clarity” which I’ve already argued elsewhere is a component in flawed ways of thinking about communication. Our calls for transparency are rooted in notions of a reality concealed, just out of sight, just off stage, awaiting the pulling back of a curtain that may never come.
But when we get down to it, when we talk about transparency, the ultimate question is two-fold: “What will you openly share?” and “What will you keep hidden?”
Acts of transparency can be information sharing — valid, trustworthy, and authentic information, even though information itself isn’t the ultimate goal. (Note, too, that relevant, timely, reliable, authentic “information” comes in all kinds of shapes and forms. It can be data. It can be a personal story or an honest and forthright articulation of a feeling, an experience, or an emotion. Many options are possible.)
Calls for transparency are also a demand for an interrogable process — ideally, one that is agreeable to all parties. In essence, a “how things are going to work” agreement. It’s when people perceive that an unacceptable part of the process has become hidden from view that problems can happen. This, for example, is when you hear someone at the beginning of a potentially tense meeting say, “We want to be transparent with you about what’s going on,” your communication spidey-sense is probably going off.
Transparency, both information and process, leads us to greater potential: for interpersonal connections, organizational effectiveness, and for widened democratic practice.
Traditionally speaking, notions of transparency imply very specific assumptions about the communication process: classic, linear, unfolding smoothly from source to receiver, where senders willingly divulge truthful information whose meanings are obvious and clear.
Classical thinking on transparency takes for granted that communication can reach a state of frictionlessness, where meaning is directly transported from one to another and devoid of mystery, inaccuracy, and misrepresentation (Peters, 1999). Transparency imagines communication as a neutral, uncontaminated system of signs and messages and constructions circulating freely, absent of alteration or ambiguity, “noise,” or ancillary, unintended effects. Even more, we believe that if we somehow manage to reach an ideal state of “transparency,” we think we’ve been granted access to an unequivocal and immutable truth.
We often think of transparency as a pane of glass that gives an unobstructed view. Except, we’re just like bees, we fly directly into the glass. Only in our case we can’t see the “glass” because we are unable to recognize the opacity of other communication objects, such as signs, language, and technology, none of which are “see through.” So goes our relentless entrapment in language, our perceptual limitations, failures of interpretation, and our belief that anything is ever complete, direct, and perfectly accessed.
Transparency isn’t just some revelation of “pure” information, but is itself a representation, and interpretation of copy, not just a revelation of some truth.
While ideas of transparency invoke light or clarity, the reality is that it has an inescapable double-sided nature: Alongside the clarity, there is always something hidden, something unshared and/or unshareable. Indeed, we can never see process or information perfectly; there are always more layers of depth, more intricacies unseen, different angles from which to look on. In focusing on what is brought to light by transparency, we often do not realize what we are missing.
Transparency can, in effect, obscure what is hidden (And, again, something will always be hidden!). As a result, it’s far more difficult to know precisely what to ask for, what information is lacking, and what part of the communication process to try to make “clearer.”
For example, when we insist that legislative, legal, or corporate processes be “transparent,” we seek the full exposure of information into view. However, we often don’t know what information remains unavailable. Similarly, when we plead with someone to “be transparent with me,” we assume there are relevant aspects of someone’s reality they aren’t sharing, when in fact the full story can is never available.
We needn’t always be in direct pursuit of transparency. It’s not the Ultimate, though it might seem like an easy cure-all. We always keep secrets and open things up. Each has costs and benefits. In negotiations, for example, keeping the wrong things secret can land you in jail! Is that a cost or a benefit? Depends, I suppose. In romance, bad secrets about the wrong things have ruined millions upon millions of marriages — but so has transparency about the wrong things.
Full transparency, quite simply isn’t always a realistic goal. There are times when information can’t be shared and some experiences go beyond words. Still, sometimes full transparency may be the goal — perhaps with government or corporate dealings — even knowing it’s an impossibility, and in these cases it’s important to also look at what is hidden and consider how best to deal with that.
Furthermore, our intuitions about what to disclose and what not to disclose are often incorrect. For example, did you know that job candidates are more likely to be viewed positively by an interviewer even if the answers would be seen as negative information. A job candidate, for instance, is far better off answering the question, “Have you ever been reprimanded at work?” affirmatively than they would be to avoid answering the question, even when the answer is, “Yes, I have been reprimanded at work.”
Before a conversation takes place, think carefully about whether a refusal to answer tough questions would do more harm than good. And remember that your intuitions about transparency might be wrong.
With goals of clarity, accuracy, and insight, transparency actually fuels dissatisfaction with the communication process. We think transparency will solve all our problems. It sounds nice. But there is a fundamental ambiguity to transparency.
There’s always something we don’t know. We come to believe that “pure” messages exist, unchallengeable and uncontaminated by language and representations (Christensen & Cheney, 2015). But they do not. With communication, mystery is abound!
A smarter perspective on transparency acknowledges its inherent ambiguities and limitations, its diverse and often unintended consequences, and its double-edged influences. Protect yourself from illusions of clarity and full insight. Transparency isn’t sacred or immutable or a one-shot magic revelation of what’s behind the curtain, but a step-after-step process of openness.
Lars Thøger Christensen, George Cheney, Peering into Transparency: Challenging Ideals, Proxies, and Organizational Practices, Communication Theory, Volume 25, Issue 1, February 2015, Pages 70–90, https://doi.org/10.1111/comt.12052
John Durham Peters, 1999. Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press