Communication hides in plain sight. Right there in front of you.
Many behaviors we perform throughout our day can be thought of as communication. Talk to a store clerk? That’s communication. Exchange some texts with a friend or sibling? You’re communicating. A work meeting to talk about project expectations? A conversation about plans for the weekend? Communication. Trading messages with someone you matched with? That’s communication too.
All of our typical everyday interactions, even the ones we don’t give much thought to, are communication.
It’s everywhere, I’m telling you!
Funny how it hides right there in plain sight.
Communication fading easily into the background is one of its tricks. There are certain forms or instances of communication where we are highly aware of the fact that we’re communicating. We take notice. Think of what it feels like to compose an emotional letter or what it feels like to have a difficult conversation like a break-up. Those feel like communication. But there are just as many instances, if not more, when we’re communicating but don’t notice it as much.
So, we’re always communicating. We can’t help ourselves. Yet, many communication situations look quite different from one another. Having a weekly conversation with your boss is communication but it doesn’t look anything like hanging out with some neighbor friends in a backyard watching a ballgame. But that’s also communication.
A few elements are at play, but a specific note here is how communication is always tied to performing roles. In every different context, people perform different roles or partial elements of themselves. The roles we perform depend on the situation, who it is we’re communicating with, and expectations.
Situations have different characteristics, such as more or less structure. Alcoholics Anonymous meetings start with set questions and a procedure for how those questions are asked and answered. Did you know that? Lots of structure, with definite purposes, formal, yet open communication. Most relationships don’t have this sort of planned out structure. And that’s fine too.
The topics we communicate about vary widely as well. This is natural. What is common to talk about in one relationship is unheard of in an other. You’re not likely to talk to your spouse about that PowerPoint you’re working on for a client and you’re not likely to talk to your Atlanta based co-worker about where to eat in Chicago. In each relationship, there are certain topics and subjects that are more or less likely to come up or are up for grabs. This always-shifting nature of communication can allow the obvious fact we are communicating to fade gently into the background, away from our attention.
In addition to different topics, we’re always striving for different outcomes in our assorted relationships. In some relationships, you and the other person solve problems (Together, hopefully!), in others you commiserate and comfort each other, in others still, you might argue and be in conflict…which leads to other places and outcomes. All of these are communication even though they themselves are quite different sets of behaviors and outcomes themselves.
So, what is communication? Lots of things, which is why it can be hard to grasp and pin down. It hums along in the background without us often noticing it much.
We communicate all the time. Every interaction, every conversation, is communication. Blah blah blah.
Also interesting though, is how we talk about communication. Communication is sneaky. We have sort of a meta-language about communication that deeply infiltrates our normal, everyday ways of talking. We have language about communication that we use without often realizing what it is we’re takling about, that we use to describe our connections with others.
We connect. We chat. We chew the fat. We shoot the shit.
We text and call and write and ping.
We explain ourselves, outline points, and express our views.
We talk and we listen.
We have meetings, run ideas up the flagpole, and have water cooler conversations.
We reach out and network.
We hang out, we chill, and we let the cat out of the bag.
They flap their lips, have the gift of gab, and if I bump into you on the street we might shoot the breeze.
These, and many others, are examples of colloquialisms that describe communicating. We talk about communication all the time without explicitly saying or thinking that we’re talking about communicating. And this is only a sampling of this meta-language.
A final confounding, contributing factor to this hidden-in-plain-sight nature of communication is the fact that a lot of human communication behavior can be automatonic.
1 : a relatively self-operating mechanism as in a robot
2 : designed to follow an automatically predetermined sequence of operations or respond to encoded instructions
3 : an individual who acts in a mechanical fashion
There’s no shortage of situations where humans seem to be on autopilot.
What kinds of behaviors? Lots of them! Conversations with store clerks, swaths of social media behavior (hitting the like button, sharing some nonsense with little to no thought or critical assessment), and passerby conversations (Hi. Hi. How are you? Good, you? Good, thanks. K bye.) There’s always the possibility for genuine and meaningful interaction, but in some conversations we’re more likely to be on autopilot (more or less) than others.
This can lead to problems: stagnation, lack of meaning, lack of enjoyment, and more. It’s also how pathogen spreads.
Mindless sharing on social media is not the only example, but it is a prime one. It’s with the tiniest movements of your finger that people are able to share, endorse, pontificate, or urge. It’s beyond easy to say — through your behavior — “I agree” or “THIS IS WHAT I THINK!” or “This is important!!!??!!” when it might be important or you might just be an idiot. The wild and strange things people share that endorse and support and justify their obtuse, damaging political views are one very prominent example. It doesn’t give much hope that some humans can change their behavior, does it? I’d also note that in terms of design, social media is a tool that works exactly as planned to exploit our behavioral and neurological weaknesses and instigate problematic automatonic behavior. Tristian Harris’ work on “brain hacking” is worth checking out if you’re interested in more on this point.
This is a dark side of sharing. The mindless sharing of corrupted information is how pathogen spreads. We share and dissent and argue and behave in attention-seeking ways and other things which feed their own further loops of communication. It’s easy to go on autopilot.
The point here isn’t: social media bad. The point is: automatonic communication behavior is everywhere and it has consequences. Patterns of communicating and ways of interacting get ingrained, sometimes quickly. At that point, they are even harder to change. This is a lesson that goes well-beyond social media. Routine can be good, but it can be deadly to relationships as well.
We communicate all the time. Every conversation is communication. Every share, every tweet, every call, every meeting, every interaction. It’s all communication, hidden right there in front of you. Communication changes and twists from one context to the next, but communication always remains the force that shapes your relationships, right there in front of our noses…out in between us, and other. Hidden, in plain sight.