- Realize the importance of conversation.
- Recognize the motives and needs for interpersonal communication.
- Discern conversation habits.
Most of us spend a great deal of our day interacting with other people through what is known as a conversation. According to Judy Apps, the word “conversation” is comprised of the words con (with) and versare (turn): “conversation is turn and turnabout – you alternate.”1 As such, a conversation isn’t a monologue or singular speech act; it’s a dyadic process where two people engage with one another in interaction that has multiple turns. Philosophers have been writing about the notion of the term “conversation” and its importance in society since the written word began.2 For our purposes, we will leave the philosophizing to the philosophers and start with the underlying assumption that conversation is an important part of the interpersonal experience. Through conversations with others, we can build, maintain, and terminate relationships.
Coming up with an academic definition for the term “conversation” is not an easy task. Instead, Donald Allen and Rebecca Guy offer the following explanation: “Conversation is the primary basis of direct social relations between persons. As a process occurring in real-time, conversation constitutes a reciprocal and rhythmic interchange of verbal emissions. It is a sharing process which develops a common social experience.”3 From this explanation, a conversation is how people engage in social interaction in their day-to-day lives. From this perspective, a conversation is purely a verbal process. For our purposes, we prefer Susan Brennan’s definition: “Conversation is a joint activity in which two or more participants use linguistic forms and nonverbal signals to communicate interactively.”4 Brennan does differentiate conversations, which can involve two or more people, from dialogues, which only involve two people. For our purposes, this distinction isn’t critical. What is essential is that conversations are one of the most common forms of interpersonal communication.
There is growing concern that in today’s highly mediated world, the simple conversation is becoming a thing of the past. Sherry Turkle is one of the foremost researchers on how humans communicate using technology. She tells the story of an 18-year-old boy who uses texting for most of his fundamental interactions. The boy wistfully told Turkle, “Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.”5 When she asks Millennials across the nation what’s wrong with holding a simple conversation:
“I’ll tell you what’s wrong with having a conversation. It takes place in real-time and you can’t control what you’re going to say.” So that’s the bottom line. Texting, email, posting, all of these things let us present the self as we want to be. We get to edit, and that means we get to delete, and that means we get to retouch, the face, the voice, the flesh, the body–not too little, not too much, just right. 6
Is this the world we now live in? Have people become so addicted to their technology that holding a simple conversation is becoming passé?
You should not take communication for granted. Reading this book, you will notice how much communication can be critical in our personal and professional lives. Communication is a vital component of our life. A few years ago, a prison decided to lessen the amount of communication inmates could have with each other. The prison administrators decided that they did not want inmates to share information. Yet, over time, the prisoners developed a way to communicate with each other using codes on walls and tapping out messages through pipes. Even when inmates were not allowed to talk to each other via face-to-face, they were still able to find other ways to communicate.7
Types of Conversations
David Angle argues that conversations can be categorized based on directionality (one-way or two-way) and tone/purpose (cooperative or competitive).8 One-way conversations are conversations where an individual is talking at the other person and not with the other person. Although these exchanges are technically conversations because of the inclusion of nonverbal feedback, one of the conversational partners tends to monopolize the bulk of the conversation while the other partner is more of a passive receiver. Two-way conversations, on the other hand, are conversations where there is mutual involvement and interaction. In two-way conversations, people are actively talking, providing nonverbal feedback, and listening.
In addition to one vs. two-way interactions, Angle also believes that conversations can be broken down on whether they are cooperative or competitive. Cooperative conversations are marked by a mutual interest in what all parties within the conversation have to contribute. Conversely, individuals in competitive conversations are more concerned with their points of view than others within the conversation. Angle further breaks down his typology of conversations into four distinct types of conversation (Figure 7.1.1).
The first type of conversation is one-way cooperative, which Angle labeled discourse. The purpose of a discourse conversation is for the sender to transmit information to the receiver. For example, a professor delivering a lecture or a speaker giving a speech.
The second type is what most people consider to be a traditional conversation: the dialogue (two-way, cooperative). According to Angle, “The goal is for participants to exchange information and build relationships with one another.”9 When you go on a first date, the general purpose of most of our conversations in this context is dialogue. If conversations take on one of the other three types, you could find yourself not getting a second date.
The third type of conversation is the two-way, competitive conversation, which Angle labels “debate.” The debate conversation is less about information giving and more about persuading. From this perspective, debate conversations occur when the ultimate goal of the conversation is to win an argument or persuade someone to change their thoughts, values, beliefs, and behaviors. Imagine you’re sitting in a study group and you’re trying to advocate for a specific approach to your group’s project. In this case, your goal is to persuade the others within the conversation to your point-of-view.
Lastly, Angle discusses the diatribe (one-way, competitive). The goal of the diatribe conversation is “to express emotions, browbeat those that disagree with you, and/or inspires those that share the same perspective.”10 For example, imagine that your best friend has come over to your dorm room, apartment, or house to vent about the grade they received on a test.
There are many reasons why we communicate with each other, but what are our basic communication needs? The first reason why we communicate is for physical needs. Research has shown that we need to communicate with others because it keeps us healthier. There has been a direct link to mental and physical health. For instance, it has been shown that people who have cancer, depression, and even the common cold, can alleviate their symptoms simply by communicating with others. People who communicate their problems, feelings, and thoughts with others are less likely to hold grudges, anger, hostility, which in turn causes less stress on their minds and their bodies.
Another reason why we communicate with others is that it shapes who we are or identity needs. Perhaps you never realized that you were funny until your friends told you that you were quite humorous. Sometimes, we become who we are based on what others say to us and about us. For instance, maybe your mother told you that you are a gifted writer. You believe that information because you were told that by someone you respected. Thus, communication can influence the way that we perceive ourselves.
The third reason we communicate is for social needs. We communicate with others to initiate, maintain, and terminate relationships with others. These relationships may be personal or professional. In either case, we have motives or objectives for communicating with other people. The concept of communication motives was created by Rebecca Rubin. She found that there are six main reasons why individuals communicate with each other: control, relaxation, escape, inclusion, affection, and pleasure.
Control motives are means to gain compliance. Relaxation motives are ways to rest or relax. Escape motives are reasons for diversion or avoidance of other activities. Inclusion motives are ways to express emotion and to feel a link to the other person. Affection motives are ways to express one’s love and caring for another person. Pleasure motives are ways to communicate for enjoyment and excitement.
To maintain our daily routine, we need to communicate with others. The last reason we communicate is for practical needs. To exchange information or solve problems, we need to talk to others. Communication can prevent disasters from occurring. To create and/or sustain a daily balance in our lives, we need to communicate with other people. Hence, there is no escaping communication. We do it all the time.
- Communication is very important, and we should not take it for granted.
- There are six communication motives: control, affection, relaxation, pleasure, inclusion, and escape. There are four communication needs: physical, identity, social, and practical.
- Communication habits are hard to change.
- Imagine if you were unable to talk to others verbally in a face-to-face situation. How would you adapt your communication so that you could still communicate with others? Why would you pick this method?
- Create a list of all the reasons you communicate and categorize your list based on communication motives and needs. Why do you think you communicate in the way that you do?
- Reflect on how you introduce yourself in a new situation. Write down what you typically say to a stranger. You can role play with a friend and then switch roles. What did you notice? How many of those statements are habitual? Why?