If you’re like most people taking their first course or reading your first book in interpersonal communication, you may be wondering what it is that you’re going to be studying. Academics are notorious for not agreeing on definitions of concepts, which is also true of interpersonal communication scholars. Bochner laid out the fundamental underpinnings of this academic area called “interpersonal communication,” “at least two communicators; intentionally orienting toward each other; as both subject and object; whose actions embody each other’s perspectives both toward self and toward other.”1 This simplistic definition of interpersonal communication frustrates many scholars because it does not provide clear parameters for the area of study beyond two people interacting. Mark Knapp and John Daly noted that four areas of contention are commonly seen in the discussion of interpersonal communication: number of communicators involved, physical proximity of the communicators, nature of the interaction units, and degree of formality and structure.2
Number of Communicators Involved
As the definition from Bochner in the previous paragraph noted, most scholars agree that interpersonal communication involves “at least two communicators.” Although a helpful tool to separate interpersonal communication from small group or organizational communication, some scholars argue that looking specifically at one dyad is an accurate representation of interpersonal. For example, if you and your dating partner are talking about what a future together might look like, you cannot exclude all relational baggage that comes into that discussion. You might be influenced by your own family, friends, coworkers, and other associates. So although there may be only two people interacting at one point, there are strong influences that are happening in the background.
Physical Proximity of the Communicators
In a lot of early writing on the subject of interpersonal communication, the discussion of the importance of physical proximity was a common one. Researchers argued that interpersonal communication is a face-to-face endeavor. However, with the range of mediated technologies we have in the 21st Century, we often communicate interpersonally with people through social networking sites, text messaging, email, the phone, and a range of other technologies. Is the interaction between two lovers as they break up via text messages any less “interpersonal” than when the break up happens face-to-face? The issue of proximity is an interesting one, but we argue that in the 21st Century, so much of our interpersonal interactions do use some kind of technology.
Nature of the Interaction Units
One of our primary reasons for communicating with other people is trying to understand them and how and why they communicate. As such, some messages may help us understand and predict how people will behave and communicate, so do those interactions have a higher degree of “interpersonalness?” Imagine you and your boyfriend or girlfriend just fought. You are not sure what caused the fight in the first place. During the ensuing conversation (once things have settled down), you realize that your boyfriend/girlfriend feels that when you flirt with others in public, it diminishes your relationship. Through this conversation, you learn how your behavior causes your boyfriend/girlfriend to get upset and react angrily. You now have more information about how your boyfriend/girlfriend communicates and what your behavior does to cause these types of interactions. Some would argue this type of conversation has a high degree of “interpersonalness.” On the other hand, if you “like” a stranger’s post on Facebook, have you engaged in interpersonal communication? Is this minimal form of interaction even worth calling interpersonal communication?
Degree of Formality and Structure
The final sticking point that many scholars encounter when discussing interpersonal communication are the issues of formality and structure. A great deal of research in interpersonal communication has focused on interpersonal interactions that are considered informal and unstructured (e.g., friendships, romantic relationships, family interactions). However, numerous interpersonal interactions do have a stronger degree of formality and structure associated with them. For example, you would not interact with your physician the same way you would with your romantic partner because of the formality of that relationship. We often communicate with our managers or supervisors who exist in a formal organizational structure. In all of these cases, we are still examining interpersonal relationships.
Most people think they are great communicators. However, very few people are “naturally” good. Communication takes time, skill, and practice. To be a great communicator, you must also be a great listener. It requires some proficiency and competence. Think about someone you know that is not a good communicator. Why is that person not good? Do they say things that are inappropriate, rude, or hostile? This text is designed to give you the skills to be a better communicator.