It is easy to underemphasize the importance of everyday communication. Whereas public speakers often deal with issues of national importance and members of decision-making groups often design important new products, members of interpersonal dyads tend to spend their time in what seem to be less significant pursuits: gossiping, joking, or simply passing the time. Viewed in this light, interpersonal communication hardly seems to be a topic worthy of serious study. But in reality interpersonal communication is far from insignificant. It is, in fact, the most frequently used and, arguably, the most important form of communication humans undertake. It’s possible to make it through life without ever giving a public speech or joining any decisionmaking group. None of us, however, can avoid interpersonal communication. In fact, our survival as social beings depends in large part on our interpersonal communication skills.
What Is Interpersonal Communication?
In a sense, all communication is interpersonal, because all communication occurs between people. The term interpersonal communication, however, is generally reserved for two-person, face-to-face interaction and is often used interchangeably with the term dyadic communication. Whenever we tell a joke to a friend, ask a professor a question, succumb to a sales pitch, share news with a family member, or express our love to a romantic partner, we are engaging in interpersonal communication. Compared to other forms of communication, dyadic communication has several unique characteristics. It is direct, personal, immediate, spontaneous, and informal.
Characteristics of Dyadic Communication
The first characteristic that distinguishes the dyadic context from other communication contexts is its directness. We can hide in the back of a classroom or make ourselves unobtrusive in a committee meeting, but when we communicate face-to-face with one other person, we cannot hide. Because we are in such direct contact, dyadic communication is also very personal. Public speakers cannot adapt to every audience member’s specific needs. Dyadic communicators, on the other hand, can get to know one another more intimately. They can adapt their contributions to their partner’s intellect and interests.
Dyadic interaction is more immediate than other forms of communication because the quality of feedback is high. As a member of a dyad, we can instantly sense when our partner is losing interest, can note when we are speaking too rapidly or too slowly, and can correct ourselves on the spot if our partner looks confused or puzzled. In other communication contexts, feedback is less immediate.
Compared to other kinds of communication, dyadic communication is the most spontaneous. Members of dyads rarely, if ever, outline and rehearse what they will say to each other; public speakers almost always do. Finally, whereas communication in other contexts is often characterized by formal role relations that signal a communicative division of labor, in dyads the roles of speaker and listener are freely exchanged. In a dyad, whatever one partner can do, the other is free to do as well.
Are All Dyads Interpersonal?
For many scholars, the defining characteristic of interpersonal communication is that it occurs between two people. This view suggests that all dyads are equally interpersonal. But are they? No, dyadic communication and interpersonal communication are not the same thing. According to those researchers who take a developmental approach to interpersonal communication, something special must occur to turn ordinary, impersonal, dyadic interaction into interpersonal communication. When the rules governing the relationship, the amount of data communicators have about one another, and the communicators’ level of knowledge change, dyadic communication becomes interpersonal.
Cerald Miller and Mark Steinberg argue that communication is governed by rules. These rules, which tell us how to communicate with one another, vary in generality. Cultural level rules are the most general; they apply to all of the members of a particular culture. We use cultural level rules with people we do not know well. When we greet strangers, for example, we follow rules that tell us to use polite, fairly formal forms of address. We usually nod, shake hands, and say something such as, “Hello, how are you?” Our choice of topics is very general. With strangers we talk about the weather, sports, or current events, not about personal concerns and fears.
When we interact with people who belong to specific groups within our culture, we use sociological level rules, rules that are tied to group membership. When college students greet each other, they seldom use the formal, stiff greetings of the cultural level. Informal modes of address, such as “What’s up?” are preferred. The topics that group members talk about also differ from those that strangers discuss. In addition to more general topics, students talk about classes, upcoming social activities, and campus events. Each of the many groups we belong to employs a slightly different set of communication rules.
Finally, when we interact with people we know quite well, we abandon the sociological rules and move to the use of psychological level rules. Here partners in an interaction make up the rules themselves. Part of the joy of being in a close relationship is the knowledge that we are free to break everyday rules. Friends, for example, may greet each other with hugs, screams of delight, or mock blows. They may be serious, or they may joke around or even insult one another. They use behaviors that would never do with strangers, because in the course of their relationship, they have made these behaviors their own. The range of topics that couples talk about is quite broad. With our close friends we can talk about very personal and emotional matters, topics we would hesitate to mention to people we don’t know well.
As we get to know one another, our sources of information also deepen. When we interact at the cultural level, we have very little data to go on. As we become more familiar, however, we can understand our partners better because we know about their backgrounds and about their attitudes and values. We begin to understand their nonverbals and can recognize when they are happy or upset or are hiding their feelings. We pick up on cues that would not be obvious to outsiders. As a result, our level of knowledge deepens. Now, not only can we describe our partners’ behaviors, but we can predict and explain them as well.
Miller and Steinberg argue that interpersonal communication is “a special kind of dyadic communication, characterized by the development of personally negotiated rules, increased information exchange, and progressively deeper levels of knowledge.” Interpersonal communication occurs over time, as partners put effort and energy into building a personal relationship. For Miller and Steinberg, dyads start off as impersonal; only a few undergo the changes that make them interpersonal.
Why Do We Build Dyads?
The first reason we enter dyads is that dyads provide us with comfort and support. Knowing that we have someone to turn to when things get bad provides a feeling of security in a rather insecure world. Having someone who will listen when we need to talk and will accept us no matter what we have done is a real source of comfort. To cope with our everyday lives, we need to make connections with others.
Second, dyads help us develop a sense of self. We become involved in dyads because friends and lovers not only provide security but also show us ways to live our lives and teach us who to be. Sometimes relationships can be a kind of wish fulfillment; we’re attracted to others who complement our personalities, who are the people we’d secretly like to be, and who can show us how to do the things we wouldn’t be able to do on our own.
It is hard to overestimate the importance of other people in the development of the self-concept. Our sense of self is a product of the approval and disapproval of those with whom we come in contact. To use Charles Morton Cooley’s metaphor, the appraisals of others act as a kind of mirror, reflecting back to us our looking-glass self. William Wilmot discusses the way this cyclical process works. Someone we care about responds to us. Our perception of this response affects our sense of who we are, and we behave in ways consistent with that self. This behavior then draws forth additional responses, and the cycle repeats itself.
A parent’s anxiety about a child’s health, for example, may be picked up by the child, who begins to think of himself or herself as weak and sickly. The child becomes fussy and gives in to every ache and pain, only increasing the parent’s anxiety. Thus, our self-concept is related to the ways we think others perceive us.
In addition to helping us create our identities, dyads allow us to maintain stable views of ourselves over time. This is the final reason we form relationships: to validate our perceptions of ourselves and our social worlds. A long time ago, psychologist Leon Festinger suggested that the reason we form connections with others is that these connections provide us with information. He believed that we all have a need to know how well we are doing and whether our perceptions are correct. The only way to get this kind of information is through social comparison, that is, by turning to others. We do not turn to just anyone for information, however. We form close relationships with people who affirm our identities and abilities, who see the world as we do. We choose our friends in part because they allow us to be who we want to be.