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august 2004

On communication


by Hans Durrer
Next Right: US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld communicating a "Code Orange terror alert" during a Pentagon press briefing (December 23, 2003)

"One cannot not communicate," as the famous statement from an article by Watzlawick, Beavin and Jackson says: "... there is a property of behavior that could hardly be more basic and is, therefore, often overlooked: behavior has no opposite. In other words, there is no such thing as non-behavior or, to put it even more simply: one cannot not behave. Now, if it is accepted that all behavior in an interactional situation has message value, i.e., is communication, it follows that no matter how one may try, one cannot not communicate. Activity or inactivity, words or silence all have message value: they influence others and these others in turn, cannot not respond to these communications and are thus themselves communicating. It should be clearly understood that the mere absence of talking or of taking notice of each other is no exception to what has just been asserted" (cited in Singer, 1987: 64).

  As feasible as this definition seems to be it appears that it need have nothing to do with whatever one might want to communicate. Moreover, if everything has message value — and we do not doubt that this might indeed be true — one might wonder in what respect such a definition can be of practical relevance. Aristotle described communication as "who says what to whom with what effect," to which, in 1948, Laswell added "in what channel" (cited in Singer, 1987: 66). As Irwin (1996: 21) states: "No longer is it taken for granted that communication has occurred simply because messages have been sent and/or received. While messages are an essential component of communication activity they are only a means to an end. That end is the process of sharing meanings among or between people. Communication is now thought of as the sharing of meanings."
Next So what then is meaning? "... Whatever we do, whatever we say, indicates that we are always operating on a basis of meanings: meaning exists, even though its definition is elusive" (Tough, 1979: 31). As true as this may be, we nevertheless hold that meaning is not to be found out there — as an objective reality that simply has to be discovered — but is created. Furthermore, it needs to be understood in context. In the words of Thomas (1995: 4): "Taken in the abstract — by consulting a dictionary of contemporary spoken English, for example — the word coke could — at least in theory — refer to Coca-Cola, cocaine or a coal derivative. And, accordingly, the whole expression to be on coke could have one of — at least — three abstract meanings: to be drinking Coca-Cola, to use cocaine, or to have solid-fuel heating. What the words actually meant on the occasion in question could only be determined in context."
  Moreover, meaning is not static — a symbol that once was attributed a special meaning might, over time, develop another meaning. Neither is communication a fixed entity, on the contrary: it is a dynamic process. This implies that it is ongoing, changing, developing and evolving (Neuliep, 2000: 7; Lustig and Koester, 1999: 27). In other words, communication needs to be understood as a dynamic process of intentionally creating shared meanings that need to be understood in context. That sounds as if communication were a pretty complex affair — and of course it is. Which is why — so we are told — it almost never seems to work. Take any problem of any government, or of any big corporation, that is being heatedly debated and discussed on television — the cause given for the problem is always, well, lack of communication, or communication failure, or bad communication. That, of course, is a euphemism for it suggests, hey, we're competent, we know how to do things properly, it is just that we're sometimes not so good at making you understand how good, how competent, how professional, we really are.
Next Take the weapons of mass destruction, for example. The secret services, quite obviously, were wrong in their assessments yet the presentation of their false conclusions, the communication that is, worked pretty well — it made us all suspect that there must be something there. In other words, there was no lack of good and effective communication, there was however quite some lack of substance to the claims that the communication strategy was making. Flights from London to Washington were held up because of internet chatter overheard, the alert levels were raised in New York and Washington because of terrorists' threats — all that was communicated to the public. It is of course debatable if routinely scaring the public as well as alerting the terrorists is indeed a brilliant strategy, yet to not communicate anything doesn't seem to be an option either.
  However, let us not get distracted — and to distract, to be sure, is precisely what the term "communication" is used for. Let us look at the real issues: how on earth is it possible to continue to even consider paying attention to the chatter of seemingly incapable secret services? Or to not jump up in the air when being subjected to a word combination such as "military intelligence?" Or to listen to politicians who seem to even believe their own lies? Needless to say, such questions are of no interest at all for, as the old Romans phrased it, "mundus vult decipi," the world wants to be deceived. The modern way to do this is to attribute, and thus reduce — in public at least — every political or professional failure to one of communication.
  • Irwin, Harry (1996), Communicating with Asia. Understanding people and customs. St. Leonards, NSW: Allen and Unwin.
  • Lustig, Myron W., and Jolene Koester (1999), Intercultural competence. Interpersonal communication across cultures. New York: Addison Wesley Longman.
  • Neuliep, James W. (2000), Intercultural communication. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  • Singer, Marshall R. (1987), Intercultural communication. A perceptual approach. Eaglewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
  • Thomas, Jenny (1995), Meaning in interaction. An introduction to pragmatics. London: Longman.
  • Tough, Joan (1979), The development of meaning. A study of children's use of language. London: George Allen and Unwin.
  2004 © Hans Durrer / 2004 © Soundscapes