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Verbal and Nonverbal Messages


Do you remember the story in the Book of Genesis about the men who tried to build a tower all the way to Heaven?  Everything was going swimmingly until the Lord got upset with them, saying, “Let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”  So He did, and the men began to speak many different languages.  No longer able to understand one another, they were unable to work together to build their tower and ended up scattered all over the earth.  (This story of the “Tower of Babel,” of course, is the biblical explanation for why people all over the earth speak different languages.)


The problems that began with Babel live on today.  Sometimes it seems as if none of us speaks the same language.  We misunderstand others, and they don’t understand us.  Yet despite its frustrations and challenges, there is no question that language is a marvelous tool.  It is the gift that allows us to communicate in a way that no other animals appear to match.  Without language, we would be more ignorant, ineffectual, and isolated.




We’re going to take sort of an overview of language first, looking at the nature of language and at how we can take advantage of its strengths ad minimize its limitations.  After that we will focus on overcoming barriers to understanding and on how language affects the climate of interpersonal relationships.  And finally, we will consider how linguistic practices shape entire cultures.


The Nature of Language


Let’s take a look at some features that characterize all languages.  They will help explain why language is so useful and why it can be so troublesome.


Language is Symbolic


Words are arbitrary symbols that don’t have any meaning in themselves.  The word five, for example, is a kind of code that represents the number of fingers on your hand only because we agree that it does.  There is nothing particularly “five-like” about the word.  To a speaker of French, the symbol “cinq” would convey the same meaning; to a computer programmer, the same value would be represented by the electronically coded symbol “0000101.”


Even sign language, as “spoken” by most deaf people, is symbolic in nature and not the pantomime it might seem.  Because this form of communication is symbolic and not literal, there are literally hundreds of different sign languages spoken around the world that have evolved independently whenever significant numbers of deaf people are in contact.  These distinct languages include American Sign Language, British Sign Language, Chinese Sign Language—even Australian Aboriginal Sign Language.


Despite the fact that symbols are arbitrary, people often act as if they had some meaning in themselves.  We have this vague sense that foreign languages are rather odd and that the speakers really ought to call things by their “right” names.  Has it ever occurred to you that they might think the same about us?


Language is Subjective


Show a dozen people the same symbol and ask them what it means, and you’re likely to get twelve different answers.  Does the American flag bring up a picture of soldiers giving their lives for their country?  Parades?  Institutionalized bigotry?  Mom’s apple pie?  Imperialism?  What about a cross:  What does it represent?  The gentle image of Jesus?  Hate-filled Ku Klux Klan rallies?  Your childhood Sunday school?  The necklace your sister always wears?


Like these symbols, words can be interpreted in many different ways.  And of course, this is the basis for many misunderstandings.  It’s possible to have an argument about liberalism without ever realizing that you and the other person are using the word to represent entirely different ideas.  The same goes for religious, patriotic, loyal, and thousands of other symbols.  Words don’t have meanings; people do—and often in widely different ways.


Despite the potential for linguistic problems, the situation isn’t hopeless. 

We do, after all, communicate with one another reasonably well most of the time.  And with enough effort, we can clear up most of the misunderstandings that do occur.  One key to more accurate use of language is to avoid assuming that others interpret words the same way we do.  In truth, the chances for successful communication increase when we negotiate the meaning of a statement.  By working to clarify the way language is used, we move closer to a shared understanding.


The need to negotiate meanings highlights both the shortcomings and strengths of language.  On one hand, it is an imprecise tool for communicating.  In any interchange we are likely to be misunderstood, and the odds are great that our understanding of others is flawed.  On the other hand, the same language that works so imperfectly allows us to discover and clarify problems of understanding when they occur.


Language is Rule-Governed


The only reason symbolic languages work at all is that people agree on how to use them.  The linguistic agreements that make communication possible can be codified in rules.  Languages contain several types of rules.  Phonological rules govern how sounds are combined to form words.  For instance, the words champagne, double, and occasion have the same meaning in French and English, but are pronounced differently.


Whereas phonological rules determine how spoken language sounds, syntactic rules govern the ways symbols can be arranged.  For example, in English, syntactic rules require every word to contain at least one vowel and prohibit sentences such as “Have you the cookies brought?” which would be a perfectly acceptable arrangement in German.  Although most of us aren’t able to describe the syntactic rules that goven our language, it’s easy to recognize their existence by noticing how odd a statement that violates them appears.


Semantic rules also govern our use of language.  But where syntax deals with structure, semantics governs meaning.  Semantic rules reflect the ways in which speakers of a language respond to a particular symbol.  Semantic rules are what make it possible for us to agree that “bikes” are for riding and “books” are for reading, and they help us to know whom we will and won’t encounter when we use rooms marked “men” and “women.”  Without semantic rules, communication would be impossible, for each of us would use symbols in unique ways, unintelligible to one another.


Semantic rules help us understand the meaning of individual words, but they often don’t explain how language operates in everyday life.  Consider the statement “let’s get together later.”  The semantic meaning of the words in this sentence is clear enough, yet the statement could be taken in several ways.  We learn to make sense of speech acts like this through pragmatic rules, which help us decide what interpretation of a message is appropriate in a given context. 


The best way to appreciate how these rules work is to think of communication as a kind of cooperative game.  Like all games, success depends on all the players understanding and following the same set of rules.  The statement “let’s get together later” illustrates this point.  These words are likely to mean one thing when uttered by your boss and another entirely when spoken by your lover; one thing when uttered at the office and something quite different when whispered at a cocktail party.  As long as everyone involved uses the same set of pragmatic rules to makes sense of statements like this, understanding occurs.  Problems arise, though, when communicators use different pragmatic rules to interpret a statement.


Pragmatic rules can be quite complex.  Those of you who have studied communication theory might want to consider CMM theory, which describes some types of pragmatic rules that operate in everyday conversations.  It suggests that we use rules at several levels to create our own messages and interpret others’ statements.  In light of this, consider how easy it is to get in trouble when two communicators use different rules to make sense of a statement. 


Think about a male boss who says to his female subordinate, “You look pretty today.”  What does that mean?  Depends on your rules, doesn’t it?  Let’s consider some possibilities:


  1. The boss considers his business to be just one big happy family and all of his employees as family members.  He offers the compliment just as he might to his daughter or sister-in-law as an honest expression of friendly admiration.
  2. The boss views attractive females primarily as decorations for his business—just one more way to impress and attract customers.  He offers the compliment to indicate his approval of the employee as successful decoration.
  3. The boss views females primarily as sexual targets.  He offers the compliment as a come-on.
  4. The boss views females as competent, contributing members of the company and also as enjoyable to look at.  He offers the compliment simply to let the employee know she is looking nice today.
  5. The boss views females—or at least this female—as a threat to his position of authority.  He offers the compliment in an attempt to undermine the employee’s confidence in her competence as an employee and to indicate to her that her appearance, not her professional skill, is her most important attribute.


There are other possible interpretations.  So is this remark something that looks like a lead-in to sexual harassment?  You tell me.  It is important to make sure that the other person’s use of language matches yours before jumping to conclusions about the meanings of his or her statements.  We’re going to talk about perception checking in the next lesson; this is a useful tool at times like this.


After reading this far, you should be aware that language isn’t as simple as it at first seems.  You have already seen that failure to use language with the care and caution it deserves can lead to problems.  Sometimes these problems are relatively minor, but in other cases they can be disastrous, as the following account shows.


The Great Mokusatsu Mistake:

Was This the Deadliest Error of Our Time?


For many months after the Japanese collapse in 1945, people wondered whether it was the atomic bomb or Russia’s entry into the war that had brought to an end the fighting in the Pacific.  But it gradually became clear that the importance of these two events in persuading Japan to surrender had been overrated; that Japan had been a defeated nation long before August 1945.


“The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace before the Atomic Age was announced to the world with the destruction of Hiroshima, and before the  Russian entry into the war,” Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz told Congress; and other American military leaders confirmed this report.


Why, then, did not Japan accept the Potsdam Declaration, which called upon Japan to surrender, when it was issued in late July of 1945, instead of waiting until the second week in August, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been blasted into radioactive rubble and the Russians had begun their drive into Manchuria?  That question has never been satisfactorily answered.


The true story of Japan’s rejection of the Potsdam Declaration may be the story of an incredible mistake—a mistake which so altered the course of history in the Far East that we shall never be able to estimate its full effect on our nation—a mistake which, ironically, was made by a Japanese and involved just one Japanese word.


I say that it “may be” because part of the actual truth lies buried in human motivations which will probably always puzzle historians.  But another part of it is clearly demonstrable.  Let me tell the story; then you can judge for yourself what really happened.


By the spring of 1945 there was no question in the minds of Japan’s leaders that their nation had been badly beaten.


The plight of the nation was so desperate that the actual figures were kept secret even from some of the cabinet ministers.  Japan’s industrial complex had crumbled under the aerial assault.  Steel production was down 79 percent; aircraft production down 64 percent.  By September a lack of aluminum would halt the building of planes entirely.


Allied air attacks were destroying railroads, highways, and bridges faster than they could be replaced.  Hundreds of thousands of bodies were buried in the smoking ruins of cities and towns.  Millions were homeless.  In Tokyo alone, almost half of the homes had been leveled.  People were fleeing the cities.  A combination of American surface, air, and undersea attack had cut off shipments from the occupied regions on which Japan depended for her life.  Food was running out.


American planes destroyed the last of Japan’s fleet in a battle off Kyushu on the very day in April when Suzuki took office.  The aged Premier was an admiral without a navy.


“We must stop the war at the earliest opportunity,” he said when he learned the true condition of his nation’s war potential.  The jushin, the senior statesmen, had advised the Emperor in February of 1945 that surrender was necessary no matter what the cost.


The Potsdam Declaration was issued on July 26, 1945.  It was signed by the United States, Great Britain, and (to the surprise of the Japanese) China.  The reaction among Japanese leaders was one of exultation.  The terms were far more lenient than expected.  The Japanese were quick to note that instead of demanding unconditional surrender from the government, the last item of the proclamation called upon the government to proclaim the unconditional surrender of the armed forces.


The document also promised that Japan would not be destroyed as a nation, that the Japanese would be free to choose their own form of government, that sovereignty over the home islands would be returned to them after occupation, that they would be allowed access to raw materials for industry, and that Japanese forces would be allowed to return home.


Most important of all, the phrasing of the proclamation hinted strongly that the Emperor would be left on the throne, the one point which had been of most concern to the cabinet in all its discussions of surrender.  The Japanese were expected to read between the lines, which they very quickly did.


Upon receiving the text of the proclamation, the Emperor told Foreign Minister Togo without hesitation that he deemed it acceptable.  The full cabinet then met to discuss the Allied ultimatum.


Despite the fact that the cabinet members were considering acceptance of the Potsdam terms, they could not at first decide whether the news of the Allied proclamation should be released to the Japanese public.  Foreign Minister Togo, anxious to prepare the people for the surrender, argued for four hours for its prompt release to the press.  At six in the evening he won his point over strong army objections and late that night the declaration was released to the newspapers.


But there was another factor which the cabinet also was forced to consider.  As yet the Japanese had received news of the statement of Allied policy at Potsdam only through their radio listening posts.  It was not addressed to their government and the ultimatum had not yet gone through official channels.  Could the cabinet act on the basis on such unofficial information?


“After mature deliberation, the hastily convened cabinet decided to keep silence for a while about the Potsdam proclamation pending further developments,” says Kase.


The delay in announcing acceptance of the Allied terms was not expected to be long, but Prime Minister Suzuki was to met the very next day with the press.  The Japanese newsmen undoubtedly would question him about the proclamation.  What should he say?


Hiroshi Shimomura, president of the powerful Board of Information—counterpart of Germany’s propaganda ministry—and a member of the cabinet, recalls in his account of this fateful session that it was decided that the prime minister, if asked, should treat the matter lightly.


“This was to be done in order not to upset the surrender negotiations then under way through Russia.” says Shimomura.


Premier Suzuki was to say merely that the cabinet had reached no decision on the Allied demands and that the discussion was continuing.  Although the policy was to be one of silence, the very fact that the cabinet did not reject the ultimatum at once would make it clear to the Japanese people what was in the wind.


When Premier Suzuki confronted the press on July 28, he said that the cabinet was holding to a policy of mokusatsu.  The word mokusatsu not only has no exact counterpart in English but is ambiguous even in Japanese.  Suzuki, as we know, meant that the cabinet had decided to make no comment on the Potsdam proclamation, with the implication that something significant was impending.  But the Japanese were tricked by their own language.  For in addition to meaning “to withhold comment,” mokusatsu may also be translated as ”to ignore.”


The word has two characters in Japanese.  Moku means “silence” and satsu means “kill,” thus implying in an absolutely literal sense “to kill with silence.”  This can mean—to a Japanese—either to ignore or to refrain from comment.


Unfortunately the translators at the Domei News Agency could not know what Suzuki had in mind.  As they hastily translated the prime minister’s statement into English, they chose the wrong meaning.  From the towers of Radio Tokyo the news crackled to the Allied world that the Suzuki cabinet had decided to “ignore” the Potsdam ultimatum.


The cabinet was furious at Suzuki’s choice of words and the subsequent error by Domei.  The reaction of Kase, who had fought long and hard for peace, was one of dismay.


“This was a piece of foolhardiness,” he says.  “When I heard of this I strongly remonstrated with the cabinet chief secretary, but it was too late . . . . Tokyo radio flashed it—to America!  The punishment came swiftly.  An atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6 by the Allies, who were led by Suzuki’s outrageous statement into the belief that our government had refused to accept the Potsdam proclamation.”


But for this tragic mistake, Kase laments, Japan might have been spared the atomic attack and the Russian declaration of war.


William J. Coughlin, 1953, in Harper’s Magazine


The Impact of Language


So far we have focused on language only as a medium for helping communicators understand one another.  But along with this important function, the words we use can shape our perceptions of the world around us and reflect the attitudes we hold toward one another. 


On the broadest level, the language that communicators use can affect the way they view one another and the world around them.  Later we will talk about how language can shape an entire culture’s world view and how problems can arise when speakers of different languages encounter one another.  But even among communicators who speak the same language, the labels we use to describe people, things, events, and ideas can affect our perceptions in a variety of ways.


Naming and Identity


“What’s in a name?” Romeo asked.  If Juliet had been a social scientist, she would have answered “A great deal.”  Research has demonstrated that names are more than just a simple means of identification:  They shape the way others think of us, the way we view ourselves, and the way we act.


Different names have different connotations.  In one study, psychologists asked college students to rate over a thousand names according to their likability, how active or passive they seemed, and their masculinity or femininity.  In spite of the large number of subjects, the responses were quite similar.  Michael, John, and Wendy were likable and active and were rated as possessing the masculine or feminine traits of their sex.  Percival, Isadore, and Alfreda were less likable, and their sexual identity was less clear.  Other research also suggests that names have strong connotative meanings.  More common names are generally viewed as being more active, stronger, and better than unusual ones.  The impact of names does affect first impressions, but the effect doesn’t seem so powerful once communicators become more familiar with one another.


By the middle of childhood, we are able to start controlling the names by which we want to be called.  The labels we choose for ourselves and encourage others to use says a great deal about who we think we are and how we want others to view us.  For many people, changes in age lead to changes in names.  The diminutive that seemed to fit as a child doesn’t fit as well in adolescence or adulthood.  Thus, Bobby may become Bob or Robert, and Danny may insist on being called Dan or Daniel.  It still may be fine for close friends to use diminutives, but not others.  The shift to more formal, adult names may not be as pronounced for some women:  It’s not uncommon to meet an adult Betsy or Susie.  But when being taken seriously is the goal in a world where women are all too often treated with less respect than they deserve, having a serious name can be an asset.  A male president of the United States may have been elected without changing his name from Bill to William, but it’s hard to imagine a female public figure who would risk being called Cindy or Babs.  Contemporary female office officeholders prove the point:  Names like Barbie Cubin (US Representative from Wyoming), Missy Hart (US Representative from Pennsylvania), or Sandy O’Connor (Supreme Court Justice) just don’t sound right.


Many women in Western society, aware of the power of names to influence identity, are aware that choosing how to identify themselves after marriage can be a significant decision.  They may follow the tradition of taking their husband’s last name, hyphenating their own name and their husband’s, or keeping their birth names.  A fascinating study revealed that a woman’s choice is likely to reveal a great deal about herself and her relationship with her husband.  Surveys revealed that women who took their husband’s name placed the most importance on relationships, with social expectations of how they should behave rated second and issues of self coming last.  On the other hand, women who kept their birth names put their personal concerns ahead of relationships and social expectations.  Women with hyphenated names fell somewhere between the other groups, valuing self and relationships equally.  Of course, the names men choose to use after marriage don’t tell us a thing about them because men aren’t required to make these difficult choices when they marry.


Affiliation, Attraction, and Interest


Besides shaping an individual’s identity, speech can also be a way of building and demonstrating solidarity with others.  Research has demonstrated that communicators are attracted to others whose style of speaking is similar to theirs.  Likewise, communicators who want to show affiliation with one another adapt their speech in a variety of ways, including their choice of vocabulary, rate of talking, number and placement of pauses, and level of politeness.  Adolescents who all adopt the same vocabulary of slang words and speech mannerisms illustrate the principle of linguistic solidarity.  The same process works among members of other groups, ranging from street gangs to military personnel.  Communication researchers call the process of adapting one’s speech style to match that of others with whom the communicator wants to identify convergence.


When two or more people feel equally positive about one another, their linguistic convergence will be mutual.  But when communicators want or need approval they often adapt their speech to accommodate their other person’s style, trying to say the “right thing” or speaking in a way that will help them fit in.  We see this process when immigrants who want to gain the rewards of material success in a new culture strive to master the host language.  Likewise, employees who seek advancement tend to speak more like their superiors, supervisors adopt the speech style of managers, and managers converge toward their bosses.


The principle of speech accommodation works in reverse too.  Communicators who want to set themselves apart from others adopt the strategy of divergence, speaking in a way that emphasizes their differences from others.  For example, members of an ethnic group, even though fluent in the dominant language, might use their own dialect as a way of showing solidarity with one another—a sort of “us against them” strategy.  Divergence also operates in other settings.  A physician or an attorney, for example, who wants to establish credibility with his or her client, might speak formally and use professional jargon to create a sense of distance.  The implicit message here is, “I’m different (and more knowledgeable) than you.”


Along with convergence and divergence, an individual’s choice of words can reflect his or her liking and interest  Social customs discourage us from expressing like or dislike in an overt way.  Only a clod would say, “I don’t like you” in most circumstances.  Likewise, bashful or cautious suitors might not admit their attraction to a potential partner.  Even when people are reluctant to speak candidly, the language they use can suggest their degree of interest and attraction toward a person, an object, or an idea.  There are several linguistic clues that can reveal these attitudes.


Demonstrative pronoun choices.  “These people want our help” indicates greater affinity than Those  people want our help.”


Sequential placement.  “Jack and Jill are my friends” may suggest a different level of liking than “Jill and Jack are my friends.”


Negation.  For the question “What do you think of it?”, the response “It’s not bad” is less positive than “It’s good.”


Duration. The length of time spent discussing a person or subject can be a strong indicator of attraction to the subject or person about whom the speaker is talking.




Communication researchers have identified a number of language patterns that add to or detract from a speaker’s power to influence others.  Notice the differences between these two statements:


Excuse me, sir.  I hate to say this, but I . . . uh . . . I guess I won’t be able to turn in the assignment on time.  I had a personal emergency and . . . well . . . it was just impossible to finish it by today.  I’ll have it on your desk on Monday, O.K.?


I won’t be able to turn in the assignment on time.  I had a personal emergency and it was impossible to finish it by today.  I’ll have it on your desk Monday.


Whether or not the professor finds the excuse acceptable, it’s clear that the second one sounds more confident, whereas the tone of the first is apologetic and uncertain.  That first example illustrates what are called powerless speech mannerisms.  Here’s a catalog:


Hedges.  “I’m kinda disappointed . . .”  “I think we should . . .   I guess I’d like to . . . “


Hesitations.  “Uh, can I have a minute of your time?”  “Well, we could try this idea . . .   I wish you would—er—try to be on time.”


Intensifiers.  “So that’s how I feel . . .   I’m not very hungry.”


Polite Forms.  “Excuse me, sir . . . “


Tag Questions.  “It’s about time we got started, isn’t it?”  “Don’t you think we should give it another try?”


Disclaimers.  “I probably shouldn’t say this, but . . .   I’m not really sure, but . . . “


A number of studies have shown that speakers whose talk is free of these mannerisms are rated as more competent, dynamic, and attractive than speakers who sound powerless.  One study revealed that even a single type of powerless speech mannerism can make a person appear less authoritative or socially attractive.


Despite its apparent advantages, a consistently powerful style of speaking isn’t always the best approach.  In some cultures politeness is valued more highly than directness.  In China or Japan, for example, a powerful approach would be highly offensive.  Even in more direct Western cultures, language that is too powerful may intimidate or annoy others.  Consider these two different approaches to handle a common situation:


“Excuse me.  My baby is having a little trouble getting to sleep.  Would you mind turning down the music just a little?”


“My baby can’t sleep because your music is too loud.  Please turn it down.”


The more polite, if less powerful, approach would probably produce better results than the stronger statement.  How can this fact be reconciled with the research on powerful language?  The answer lies in the tension between the potentially opposing goals of getting immediate results and developing positive relationships.  If you come across as too powerful, you may get what you’re seeking in the short term but alienate the other person in ways that will make your relationship more difficult in the long run.  Furthermore, a statement that is too powerful can convey relational messages of disrespect and superiority—just as likely to antagonize others as to gain their compliance.


In some situations polite, less apparently powerful forms of speech can even enhance a speaker’s effectiveness.  For example, a boss might say to a secretary, “Would you mind retyping this letter?”  In truth, both the boss and the secretary know this is an order and not a request, but the questioning form is more considerate, and leaves the secretary feeling better about the boss.  The importance of achieving both content and relational goals helps explain why a mixture of powerful and polite speech is usually most effective.



What’s In a First Name

Solidarity reigns when two people call each other by first name.  Power reigns when one calls the other by first name but it’s not reciprocal.  If a man tells his servant, “When the guests arrive, show them into the drawing room, Steven,” can Steven reply, “I’d be glad to, Ronald”?  If a teacher calls on Johnny to read the lesson aloud, can Johnny ask, “Which page, Margaret?”  If the doctor or dentist or psychotherapist calls the secretary or client “Mary,” can Mary respond in kind?


Age, gender, and status all play roles here.  In a sense the age relationship is a model for power and solidarity.  Any adult can call any child by first name, but children must call at least some adults by title-last name (Mr., Ms., Miss, Mrs., Dr.).  Ways of talking to children—calling them by first name, patting and caressing them, asking them personal questions—show affection.  But they also reflect a difference in status because the right to show affection in that way is not reciprocal.


Women are often caught in the grip of this paradox.  They are far more often called by their first names and touched than are men.  Talk-show hosts, panel moderators, students, and others far more often address men with Ph.D.s as “Doctor” than they do women with Ph.D.s.  It’s common for strangers—travel agents, salespeople, telephone-order clerks—to use the first names of all women customers.  In one sense, this shows condescension:  lack of respect.  Just as people feel free to touch, pat, and first-name children, they feel freer to use these friendly signs with children.


But the fact remains that people who treat women in this way are doing it to be friendly; using “Miss” or “Mrs.” would feel awkward., like anything that goes against habit.  Many women prefer to be called by first name because it’s distancing to be addressed by title-last name.  And women are more likely than men to be troubled by distancing.


Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., 1986, That’s Not What I Meant


The Uses (and Abuses) of Language


By now it’s apparent language can shape the way we perceive and understand the world.  Next we will look at some specific types of usage and explore both the value and potential problems they generate.


Precision and Vagueness


Most people assume that the goal of language is to make our ideas clear to one another.  When clarity is the goal, we need language skills to make our ideas understandable to others.  Sometimes, however, we want to be less than perfectly clear.  Let’s take a look at some cases where ambiguity and vagueness serve useful purposes as well as cases where perfect understanding is the goal.


Equivocation.  Equivocal language consists of words that have more than one commonly accepted definition.  Some equivocal misunderstandings are amusing, as the following newspaper headlines illustrate:


Family Catches Fire Just in Time

20-Year Friendship Ends at the Altar


Some equivocal understandings are trivial.  Suppose you’re at Perkins one night, and you order a ham sandwich and lettuce.  Now what you expect to receive is a ham sandwich and a side salad; but a server might just think you ordered a ham sandwich that contains lettuce.  Turns out “a ham sandwich and lettuce” has two equally correct meanings.


Other equivocal misunderstandings can be much more serious.  A nurse gave one of her patients a scare when she told him he “wouldn’t be needing” his robe, books, and shaving materials anymore.  The patient became quiet and moody.  When the nurse inquired about his odd behavior, she discovered the poor man had interpreted her statement to mean he was going to die soon.  In fact, the nurse meant he would be going home shortly.


It’s difficult to catch every equivocal statement and clarify it while speaking.  For this reason, the responsibility for interpreting statements accurately rests in large part with the receiver.  Feedback of one sort or another—and we’ll be talking about techniques as we go along—can help to clear up misunderstandings.


Despite its obvious problems, equivocal language has its uses.  There are times when using language that is open to several interpretations can be useful.  It helps people get along by avoiding the kind of honesty and clarity that can embarrass both the speaker and listener.  For example, if a friend proudly shows you a newly completed painting and asks your opinion about it, you might respond equivocally by saying, “Gee, it’s really unusual.  I’ve never seen anything like it” instead of giving a less ambiguous but more hurtful response such as “This may be the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen!”


Abstraction.  High-level abstractions are convenient ways of generalizing about similarities between several objects, people, ideas, or events.  We use higher-level abstractions all the time.  For instance, rather than saying, “Thanks for washing the dishes,” “Thanks for vacuuming the rug,” Thanks for making the bed,” it’s easier to say, “Thanks for cleaning up.”  In such everyday situations, abstractions are a useful kind of verbal shorthand.


At other times, the vagueness of abstractions allows us to avoid confrontations by deliberately being unclear.  Suppose, for example, your boss is enthusiastic about a new approach to doing business that you think is a terrible idea.  Telling the truth might be too risky, but lying—saying “I think that’s a great idea”—wouldn’t feel right either.  In situations like this an abstract answer can hint at your true belief without a direct confrontations:  “I don’t know . . . It’s sure unusual . . . It might work.”  The same sort of abstract language can help you avoid embarrassing friends who ask for your opinion with questions like, “What do you think of my new haircut?”  An abstract response like “It’s really different!” may be easier for you to deliver—and for your friend to receive—than the clear, brutal truth:  “It’s really ugly!”  We’ll return later in the semester to the subject of using abstract equivocation as an alternative to complete self-disclosure or lying.


Although vagueness does have its uses, highly abstract language can cause four types of problems.  The first is stereotyping.  Imagine someone who has had one bad experience and, as a result, blames an entire group:  “Marriage counselors are worthless,” “Californians are all flaky,” or “Men are no good.”  Overly abstract expressions like these can cause people to think in generalities, ignoring uniqueness.  As you learned earlier, expecting people to act in a certain way can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If you expect the worst of people, you have a good chance of getting it.


Besides narrowing your own options, excessively abstract language can also confuse others.  Telling the hair stylist, “not too short” or “more casual” might produce the look you want, or it might lead to an unpleasant surprise.  Overly abstract descriptions can lead to frustration and confusion.


Even appreciation can suffer from being expressed in overly abstract terms.  Psychologists have established that behaviors that are reinforced will recur with increased frequency.  Your statements of appreciation will encourage others to keep acting in ways you like; but if they don’t know just what it is that you appreciate, the chances of their repeating that behavior are lessened.  There’s a big difference between “I appreciate your being so nice” and “I appreciate the way you spent time talking to me when I was upset.”


Overly abstract language can leave you unclear even about your own thoughts.  At one time or another we’ve all felt dissatisfied with ourselves and others.  Often these dissatisfactions show up as thoughts such as “I’ve got to get better organized” or “She’s been acting strange lately.”  Sometimes abstract statements such as these are shorthand for specific behaviors that we can identify easily; but in other cases we’d have a hard time explaining what we’d have to do to get organized or what the strange behavior is.  Without clear ideas of these concepts, it’s hard to begin changing matters.  Instead, we tend to go around in mental circles, feeling vaguely dissatisfied without knowing exactly what is wrong or how to improve it.


Overly abstract language can lead to problems of a more serious nature.  For instance, accusations of sexual assault can arise because one person claims to have said “no” when the other person insists no such refusal was ever conveyed.  In response to this sort of disagreement, specific rules of sexual conduct have become more common in work and educational settings.  Here’s an example:


To knowingly take advantage of someone who is under the influence of alcohol, drugs, and/or prescribed medication is not acceptable behavior.


If sexual contact and/or conduct is not mutually and simultaneously initiated, then the person who initiates sexual contact/conduct is responsible for getting verbal consent of the other individual(s) involved.


If one person wants to initiate moving to a higher level of sexual intimacy . . . that person is responsible for getting verbal consent of the other person(s) involved before moving to that level.


If someone has initially consented but then stops consenting during a sexual interaction, she/he should communicate withdrawal verbally and/or through physical resistance.  The other individual(s) must stop immediately.


Some critics have ridiculed rules like these as being unrealistically legalistic and chillingly inappropriate for romantic relationships.  Whatever their weaknesses, these codes illustrate how low-level abstractions can reduce the chance of a serious misunderstanding.  Specific language may not be desirable or necessary in many situations, but in an era when misinterpretations can lead to accusations of physical assault, it does seem to have a useful place.


Low-level descriptions can also improve the quality of relationships when conflicts arise.  One study found that well-adjusted couples had just as many conflicts as poorly-adjusted couples, but the way adjusted pairs handled their problems was significantly different.  Instead of blaming one another by using evaluative language (“You’re so mean to me!”), the well-adjusted couples expressed their complaints in behavioral terms (“You point out my faults in front of your friends.”)  It’s hard to overestimate the value of specific behavioral language because speaking in this way vastly increases the chance not only of thinking clearly about what’s on your mind, but also of others understanding you.


Euphemism.  Euphemisms (from the Greek word meaning “to use words of good omen”) are pleasant terms substituted for blunt ones.  Euphemisms soften the impact of information that might be unpleasant or socially unacceptable.  Let’s look at some examples:


“What do you think of my new hairstyle?”

Blunt honesty:  “It’s really ugly.”

Euphemistic response:  “What an original haircut!”


“What do you think of our relationship?”

Blunt honesty:  I can’t wait to get away from you.”

Euphemistic response:  “We could be closer than we are right now.”


Likewise, we all learn fairly young that it’s more appropriate to say, “I need to go the rest room,” than to describe just what it is we plan to do once we get there.  (The very term, “rest room,” is a euphemism; no one actually does any resting there.  And how many public “bathrooms” are places where one can take a bath?)  And we’ve learned to refer to people “sleeping together” when there’s precious little sleeping going on.  At a funeral, there are repeated references to “the loved one” and “the dearly departed” rather than the “dead person” or “corpse.”  Why?  To avoid giving offense or upsetting others.


Unfortunately, this pulling of linguistic punches often obscures the accuracy of a message.  Being too indirect can leave others wondering just where you stand.  When choosing how to broach difficult subjects, the challenge is to be as kind as possible without sacrificing either your integrity or the clarity of your message.


Relative Language.  Relative words gain their meaning by comparison.  For example, is SDSU a large or a small school?  Depends on what you compare it to.  Compared to PC, SDSU is gigantic—at least ten times as large.  On the other hand, compared to the University of Minnesota with its tens of thousands of students, SDSU is a pygmy.  Relative words such as “fast” and “slow,” “smart” and “stupid,” “short” and “long” are clearly defined only through comparison.


Some relative terms are so common that we mistakenly assume that they have a clear meaning.  In one study, graduate students were asked to assign numerical values to such terms as “doubtful,” “toss-up,” “likely,” “probable,” “good chance,” and “unlikely.”  There was tremendous variation in the meaning of most of these terms.  For example, the responses for “possible” ranged from 1 to 99 percent, “good chance” meant between 35 and 90 percent, while “unlikely” fell between 0 and 40 percent.


Using relative terms without explaining them can lead to communication problems.  Have you ever responded to someone’s question about the weather by saying it was warm, only to find out the person thought it was cold?  (You have if you’ve spent very much time with me.)  Have you followed a friend’s advice and gone to a “cheap” restaurant, only to find that it was twice as expensive as you expected?  Have classes you heard were “easy” turned out to be hard?  The problem in each case resulted from failing to link the relative word to a more measurable term.


Static Evaluation.  “Mark is a nervous guy.”  “Karen is short-tempered.”  “You can always count on Wes.”  Statements that contain or imply the word “is” lead to the mistaken assumption that people are consistent and unchanging—clearly an incorrect belief.  Instead of labeling Mark as permanently and totally nervous, it would probably be more accurate to outline the situations in which he behaves nervously.  The same goes for Karen, Wes, and the rest of us:  We are more changeable than the way static, everyday language describes us.


Describing John as “boring” is less correct than saying “The John I encountered yesterday seemed to me to be . . .   The second type of statement describes the way someone behaved at one point; the first categorizes him as if he had always been that way.  Of course, in real life such designations are somewhat clumsy.


Subscripting is a linguistic device first suggested by General Semantics Theory to reduce static evaluation.  Adding a subscript wherever appropriate will show the transitory nature of many objects and behaviors.  Here’s an example that illustrates the concept:


The Husbands in My Life


A Greek named Heraclitus claimed that you never see the same river twice because the water that was there one minute is not there the next.  In this respect, it seems to me, husbands are like rivers.  For example, my husband Tom.


Tom1 is of course the lover; Tom2 the man of business.  Both these Toms are substantially the same today as when we were married in 1948.


Tom3, the father is different.  He wasn’t born until 1950.  I watched his birth with some pity, a little resentment, and a strong upsurge of motherly feeling toward him.  He was almost as bewildered as was Tom, Jr.  But, whereas the baby took strong hold in his new world, Tom3 stood at the edge of fatherhood for a while, until I felt like taking him by the ear with an old-fashioned motherly grip and leading him to his son.  Today, though, Tom3 bears little resemblance to Tom3(1950).  Actually I feel a little shut out now when Tom3 and Tom, Jr., are especially close, as when they’re planning a fishing trip.


Tom4, the fisherman, is a loathsome person—an adolescent, self-centered, unpredictable, thoughtless, utterly selfish braggart.  Yesterday he bought Junior a fishing rod.


“Pampering him,” I said.  “He needs other things so much more—his teeth straightened, summer camp.” 


“He needs a fishing rod,” Tom4 said.


“You’re teaching him to become a thoughtless husband,” I charged.


“Oh, I don’t know,” Tom4 said.  “Maybe he’ll marry a girl who likes to fish.”


“That stopped me for a minute.  I’d never thought of there being such girls.  Perhaps Tom4 was disappointed in me.  I was just wondering what I could wear on a fishing trip when Tom4 shattered my good intentions by saying, “A fishing trip for Junior is a good deal more important than a permanent for Nancy.”


This came as a surprise.  Tom3b, as father of Nancy, was not the Tom3a, father of Junior.  Usually Nancy could get away with anything.  At five, she had known better than to cut up the evening paper before her father had seen it, but Tom3b had just laughed.  He was certainly no relation to the husband-at-breakfast Tom who would scream if his wife got the pages of the morning paper out of place.  He’s always been a little too indulgent with Nancy and too severe with Junior, but now he was begrudging Nancy a permanent.


“Do you want to have an unattractive daughter?” I asked, but Tom3b wasn’t there.  Tom5, the amateur plumber and ardent do-it-yourselfer, had taken over.  He was at the sink fussing with the garbage disposer, promising to fix it Saturday.


“Why don’t you buy Nancy a fishing rod?” I suggested.


And who looked back at me?  Tom6, the bewildered husband.  “Are you joking?” he asked.


“Certainly not,” I said indignantly.  “You should train her to make a good wife.”


Tom6 laughed.  Then Tom7 took over.  Tom7 is the appreciative husband.  He’s a very determined fellow.  He laughs loud and long.


“Very funny,” he said.  “I always appreciate your sense of humor.  I always tell my—“


“Don’t overdo it,” I snarled.  “I’m not being funny.  Maybe she should have a fishing rod.”


“She has her permanent,” Tom said with a laugh.  “When she gets a little older she can fish with that.”  Tom8 is a clown, the life of the party.  Some day I may murder him.


I poured the coffee and resisted the temptation to drip a little on Tom8’s balding head.  “Polygamy’s wonderful,” I murmured with a sigh, as I set the coffee pot down.


Tom7 looked at me with concern.  “Have you seen your doctor lately?” he asked.


“No, there are enough men in my life,” I answered.  But Tom2 was looking at his watch.  I realized that my remark had been wasted.  Not one of my husbands was listening.

Mary Graham Lund, Et Cetera



Although the device of subscripting is awkward in writing and impractical in conversation, the idea it represents can still be used.  Instead of saying, “I’m shy,” a more accurate statement might be “I haven’t approached any new people since I moved here.”  The first statement implies that your shyness is an unchangeable trait, rather like your height, while the second one suggests that you are capable of changing.


The Language of Responsibility


Besides providing a way to make the content of a message clear or obscure, language reflects the speaker’s willingness to take responsibility for his or her beliefs and feelings.  This acceptance or rejection of responsibility says a great deal about the speaker and can shape the tone of the relationship.  To see how, read on.


“It” Statements.  Notice the differences between sentences of each set:


“It bothers me when you’re late.”

“I worry when you’re late.”


“It’s nice to see you.”

“I’m glad to see you.”


“It’s a boring class.”

“I’m bored in this class.”


As their name implies, “it” statements replace the personal pronoun “I” with the less immediate word “it.”  By contrast, “I” language clearly identifies the speaker as the source of a message.  Communicators who use “it” statements avoid responsibility for ownership of a message, instead attributing it to some unidentified source.  This habit isn’t just imprecise; more important, it is an unconscious way to avoid taking a position.  You an begin to appreciate the increased directness of “I” language by trying to use it instead of the less direct and more evasive “it” statements in your own conversations.


“But” statements.  Statements that the the form “X-but-Y” can be confusing.  A closer look at the “but” statement explains why.  In each sentence, the word “but” cancels the thought that precedes it:


“You’re really a great person, but I think we ought to stop seeing each other.”

“You’ve done good work for us, but we’re going to have to let you go.”

“This paper has some good ideas, but I’m giving it a D grade because it’s late.”


These “buts” often are a strategy for wrapping the speaker’s real but unpleasant message between more palatable ideas in a “psychological sandwich.”  This approach can be a face-saving strategy worth using at times.  When the goal is to be absolutely clear, however, the most responsible approach can be to deliver the central idea without the distractions that can come with “but” statements.


Questions.  Some questions are sincere requests for information.  At other times, though, questions are a linguistic way to avoid making a declaration.  “What are we having for dinner?” may hide the statement, “I want to eat out” or “I want to get a pizza” or “Why haven’t you started cooking yet?”


“How many textbooks are assigned in that class?” may hide the statement “I’m afraid to get into a class with too much reading.”


“Are you doing anything tonight?” can be a less risky way of saying “I want to go out with you tonight.”


“Do you love me?” safely replaces the statement “I love you,” which may be too embarrassing, too intimate, or too threatening to say directly.


Sometimes being indirect can be a tactful way to approach a topic that would be difficult to address head on.  When used unnecessarily, though, it can be a way to avoid speaking for yourself.


“I” and “you” language.  We’ve already seen that “I” language is a way of accepting responsibility for a message.  “You” language  is different.  It expresses a judgment of the other person.  Notice how each of the following statements implies that the subject of the complaint is doing something wrong.


“You left this place a mess!”

“You didn’t keep your promise!”

“You’re really crude sometimes.”


Despite its name, “you” language doesn’t have to contain the pronoun “you,” which is often implied rather than stated outright:


“That was a stupid joke!”  (“Your jokes are stupid.”)

“Don’t be so critical!”  (“You’re too negative.”)

“Mind your own business.”  (You’re too nosy.”)


Whether the judgment is stated outright or implied, it’s easy to see why “you” language can arouse defensiveness.  A “you” statement implies that the speaker is qualified to judge the target—not an idea that most listeners are wiling to accept, even when the evaluation is correct.


Fortunately, “I” language provides a more accurate and less provocative way to express a complaint.  “I” language shows that the speaker takes responsibility for the gripe by describing his or her reaction to the other’s behavior without making any judgments about its worth.  A complete “I” statement has three parts:  It describes (1) the other person’s behavior, (2) your feelings, and (3) the consequences the other’s behavior has for you:


“I get embarrassed (feeling) when you talk about my bad grades in front of our friends (behavior).  I’m afraid they’ll think I’m stupid (consequence).”


“When you didn’t pick me up on time this morning (behavior) I was late for class and got chewed out by my professor (consequences).  That’s why I got so mad (feeling).”


“I haven’t been very affectionate (consequence) because you’ve hardly spent any time with me in the past few weeks (behavior).  I’m confused (feeling) about how you feel about me.”


When the chances of being misunderstood or getting a defensive reaction are high, it’s a good idea to include all three elements in your “I” message.  In some cases, however, only one or two of them will get the job done:


“I went to a lot of trouble fixing this dinner, and now it’s cold.  Of course I’m mad!”  (The behavior is obvious.)


“I’m worried because you haven’t called me up.”  (“Worried” is both a feeling and a consequence.)


Even the best “I” statement won’t work unless it’s delivered in the right way.  If your words are nonjudgmental but your tone of voice, facial expression, and posture all send “you” messages, a defensive response is likely to follow.  The best way to make sure your actions match your words is to remind yourself before speaking that your goal is to explain how the other’s behavior affects you—not to act like a judge and jury.


Advantages of “I” language.  Using “I” language has several benefits, both for you and for the recipients:  reducing defensiveness, and increasing honesty and information.


  1. Defense Reduction:  Others are more likely to accept your message when it’s delivered in “I” language than when you make judgmental “you” statements.  Even accurate “you” statements (“you’re late,” “you broke your promise”) are hard to take.  By contrast, “I” statements aren’t a direct attack on the recipient.  Since they describe how the speaker feels, they are easier to accept without justification.  This doesn’t mean using “I” language will eliminate defensiveness, but it will almost certainly reduce it.
  2. Honesty:  Even though they are kinder than “you” language, “I” statements are just as honest.  They let you speak your mind, sharing what bothers you.  They aren’t artificially “nice” or watered down to avoid displeasing the other person.  In fact, because “I” statements are easier on the recipient, you are more likely to use them when you might be reluctant to blurt out an accusing “you” message.
  3. Completeness:  “I” statements deliver more information than “you” messages.  Instead of making the other person guess about what’s bothering you, they describe the other person’s behavior.  “I” statements also describe how the other’s behavior affects you and how you are feeling—much more information than most “you” messages.


Problems with “I” language.  Some people have reservations about using “I” language, despite its theoretical appeal.  The best way to overcome questions about this communication skill is to answer them.


  1. “I get too angry to use ‘I’ language.”  It’s true that when you’re angry the most likely reaction is to lash out with a judgmental “you” message.  But it’s probably smarter to keep quiet until you’ve thought about the consequences of what you might say than to blurt out something you’ll regret later.  It’s also important to note that there’s plenty of room for expressing anger with “I” language.  It’s just that you own the feeling as yours (“You bet I’m mad at you!”) instead of distorting it into an attack (“That was a stupid thing to do!”)
  2. “Even with ‘I’ language, the other person gets defensive.”  Like every communication tool we’ll learn, “I” language won’t always work.  You may be so upset or irritated that your judgmental feelings contradict your words.  Even if you deliver a perfectly worded “I” statement with total sincerity, the other person might be so defensive or uncooperative that nothing you say will make matters better.  But using “I” language will almost certainly improve your chances for success, with little risk that this approach will make matters worse.
  3. ” ’I’ language sounds artificial.”  “That’s not the way I talk,” some people object.  Much of the awkwardness that comes with first using “I” language is due to its unfamiliarity.  As you become more comfortable making “I” statements they will sound more and more natural—and become more and more effective.


One of the best ways to overcome your initial awkwardness is to practice making “I” statements in a safe way:  by trying them out in a class, writing them in letters, and delivering them to receptive people on relatively minor issues.  After your skill and confidence have grown, you will be ready to tackle really challenging situations in a way that sounds natural and sincere.


“We” language.  Despite its obvious advantages, even the best constructed and delivered “I” messages won’t always succeed.  As author Thomas Gordon points out, “Nobody welcomes hearing that his behavior is causing someone a problem, no matter how the message is phrased.”  For this reason, Gordon points out that “I” statements can leave the recipient feeling “hurt, sorry, surprised, embarrassed, defensive, argumentative, or even tearful.”  Furthermore, “I” language in large doses can start to sound egotistical.  Research shows that self-absorbed people, also known as “conversational narcissists,” can be identified by their constant use of first-person singular pronouns.  For this reason, “I” language works best in moderation.


One way to avoid overuse of “I” statements is to consider the pronoun “we.”  “We” statements imply that the issue is the concern and responsibility of both the speaker and receiver of a message.  Consider a few examples:


“We need to figure out a budget that doesn’t bankrupt us.”


“I think we have a problem.  We can’t seem to talk about money without fighting.”


“We aren’t doing a very good job of keeping the place clean, are we?”


It’s easy to see how “we” language can help build a constructive climate.  Besides being immediate, it suggests a kind of “we’re in this together” orientation.  People who use first-person-plural pronouns signal their closeness, commonality, and cohesiveness with others.  On the other hand, “we” statements aren’t always appropriate.  Sometimes using this pronoun sounds presumptuous because it suggests you are speaking for the other person as well as yourself.  It’s easy to imagine someone responding to your statement “We have a problem . . . “ by saying “Maybe you have a problem, but don’t tell me I do.”


Given the pros and cons of both “I” and “we” language, here’s my best advice:  Researchers have found that I/We combinations (for example, “I think that we . . . “ or “I would like to see us . . . “) have a good chance of being received favorably.  Because too much of any pronoun comes across as inappropriate, combining pronouns is generally a good idea.  If your “I” language reflects your position without being overly self-absorbed, your “you” language shows concern for others without judging them, and your “we” language includes others without speaking for them, you will probably come as close as possible to the ideal use of pronouns.


Disruptive Language


Not all linguistic problems come from misunderstandings.  Sometimes people understand one another perfectly and still wind up in a conflict.  Of course, not all disagreements can or should be avoided.  But eliminating three bad linguistic habits from your communication repertoire can minimize the kind of clashes that don’t need to happen, allowing you to save your energy for the unavoidable and important struggles.


Fact-opinion confusion.  Factual statements are claims that can be verified as true or false.  By contrast, opinion statements are based on the speaker’s beliefs.  Unlike matters of fact, they can never be proved or disproved.  Consider a few examples:







It rains more in Seattle than in Portland.

The climate in Portland is better than in Seattle.



Michael Jordan is the all-time leading scorer in the NBA.

Jordan is the greatest basketball player in the history of the game.



Per-capita income in the US is lower than in several other countries.

The US is not the best model of economic success in the world.



When factual and opinion statements are set side by side like this, the difference between them is clear.  In everyday conversation, however, we often present our opinions as if they were facts, and in doing so we invite an unnecessary argument.  For example:

“That was a dumb thing to say!”


“Spending that much on _____ is a waste of money!”


“You can’t get a fair shake in this country unless you’re a white male.”


Notice how much less antagonistic each of these statements would be if it were prefaced by a qualifier such as “In my opinion . . .” or “It seems to me . . .”


Fact-inference confusion.  Labeling your opinions can go a long way toward relational harmony, but developing this habit won’t solve all linguistic problems.  Difficulties also arise when we confuse factual statements with inferential statements—conclusions arrived at from an interpretation of evidence.


Arguments often result when we label our inferences as facts:


Bob:  Why are you mad at me?

Sarah:  I’m not mad at you.  Why have you been so insecure lately?

Bob:  I’m not insecure.  It’s just that you’ve been so critical!

Sarah:  What do you mean, “critical?”  I haven’t been critical . .


Instead of trying to read the other person’s mind, a far better course is to identify the observable behaviors (facts) that have caught your attention and to describe the interpretations (inferences) you’ve drawn from them. After describing this train of thought, ask the other person to comment on the accuracy of your interpretation.


“When you didn’t return my phone fall (fact), I got the idea that you’re mad at me (inference).  Are you?”  (question)


“You’ve been asking me whether I love you a lot lately (fact), and that makes me think you’re feeling insecure (inference).  Is that right?”  (question)


Emotive language.  Emotive language seems to describe something, but really announces the speaker’s attitude toward it.  If you approve of a friend’s round-about approach to a difficult subject, you might call her “tactful;” if you don’t like it, you might accuse her of “beating around the bush.”  Whether the approach is good or bad is more a matter of opinion of fact, although this difference is obscured by emotive language.


You can appreciate how emotive words are really editorial statements when you consider these examples:



If you approve, say:

If you disapprove, say:



























military victory








Using emotive labels can have ugly consequences.  Although experimental subjects who heard a derogatory label used against a member of a minority group expressed annoyance at this sort of slur, the negative emotional terms did have an impact.  Not only did the unwitting subjects rate the minority individual’s competence lower when that person performed poorly, they also found fault with others who associated socially with that minority person—even members of the subject’s own ethnic group.


The best way to avoid arguments involving emotive words is to describe the person, thing, or idea you are discussing in neutral terms and to label your opinions as such.  Instead of saying “I wish you’d quit making those sexist remarks” say, “I really don’t like it when you call us ‘girls’ instead of ‘women’.”  Not only are nonemotive statements more accurate, they have a much better chance of being well received by others.


Gender and Language


So far we have discussed language as if it were identical for both sexes.  In many cases, however, there are significant differences between the ways men and women speak.



Although there is a great deal of variation within each gender, on average, men and women discuss a different range of topics.  Over many years, despite changes in men’s and women’s roles, this difference has held.  Certain subjects were common to both men and women:  work, movies, and television were frequent topics for both groups.  Both men and women reserved discussions of sex and sexuality to members of the same sex.  Female friends spent much more time discussing personal and domestic subjects, relationship problems, family, health and reproductive matters, weight, food, and clothing.  Men, on the other hand, were more likely to discuss music, current events, sports, business, and other men.  Both men and women were equally likely to discuss personal appearance, sex, and dating in same-sex conversations.  True to one common stereotype, women are more likely to gossip about close friends and family.  By contrast, men spent more time gossiping about sports figures and media personalities  Women’s gossip was not more derogatory than men’s.


These differences can lead to frustration when men and women try to converse with one another.  Researchers report that “trivial” is the word often used by both men and women to describe topics discussed by the opposite sex.  “I want to talk about important things,” a woman might say, “like how we’re getting along.  All he wants to do is talk about the news or what we’ll do this weekend.”  The man will complain that he wants to talk about important things like the NBA playoffs and the presidential campaign, while all his partner wants to discuss is “trivial things” like their family and their relationship.


Reasons for Communicating


Men and women in the dominant culture of the United States often use language in different ways for different purposes.  As a group, women are more inclined than men to use conversation to establish and maintain relationships with others.  In fact, one researcher states that “for women, talk is the essence of relationships.”  When a group of women were surveyed to find out what kinds of satisfaction they gained from talking with their friends, the most common theme mentioned was a feeling of empathy—“To know you’re not alone,” as some put it.  Whereas men commonly described same-sex conversations as something they liked, females characterized their woman-to-woman talks as a kind of contact they needed.


Because they use conversations to pursue social needs, women typically use statements showing support for the other person, demonstrations of equality, and efforts to keep the conversation going.  With these goals, it’s not surprising that traditionally female speech often contains statements of sympathy and empathy.  “I’ve felt just like that myself,” “The same thing happened to me!”  Women are also inclined to ask lots of questions that invite the other person to share information:  “How did you feel about that?“  “What did you do next?”  The importance of nurturing a relationship also explains why female speech is often somewhat powerless and tentative.  Saying “This is just my opinion . . .” is less likely to put off a conversational partner than a more definite “Here’s what I think.”


The greater frequency of female conversations reflects their importance.  Nearly 50 percent of women surveyed said they called friends at least once a week just to talk, whereas less than half as many men did so.  In fact, 40 percent of the men surveyed reported that they never called another man just to chat.


Men’s speech is often driven by quite different goals than women’s speech.  Men are more likely to use language to accomplish the job at hand than to nourish relationships.  This explains why men are less likely than women to disclose their vulnerabilities, which would be a show of weakness.  When someone is sharing a problem, instead of empathizing, men are prone to offer advice:  “That’s nothing to worry about . . .” “Here’s what you need to do . . .”  Besides taking care of business, men are more likely than women to use conversation to exert control, preserve their independence, and enhance their status.  This explains why men are more prone to dominate conversations and one-up their partners.  Men interrupt their conversational partners to assert their own experiences or point of view.  (Women interrupt too, but they usually do so to offer support:  quite a different goal.)  Just because male talk is competitive doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable.  Men often regard talk as a kind of game:  When researchers asked men what they liked best about their all-male talk, the most frequent answer was its ease.  Another common theme was appreciation of the practical value of conversation:  new ways to solve problems.  Men also mentioned enjoying the humor and rapid pace that characterized their all-male conversations.


Conversational Style


Women behave differently in conversations than men do.  For example, although both men and women use expletives, men swear more than women.  Women ask more questions in mixed-sex conversations than do men—nearly three times as many.  In mixed-sex conversation, men interrupt women far more than the other way around.  Some have argued that these differences result in women’s speech that is less powerful and more emotional than men’s.  Research has supported these theories to some extent.  Even when clues about the speakers’ sex were edited out, raters found clear differences between transcripts of male and female speech.  In one study women’s talk was judged more aesthetic, while men were seen as more dynamic, aggressive, and strong.  In another, male job applicants were rated more fluent, active, confident, and effective than females.


Other studies have revealed that men and women behave differently in certain conversational settings.  For example, in mixed-sex dyads men talk longer than women, while in same-sex situations women speak for a longer time.  In larger groups, men talk more, while in smaller settings women do more of the speaking.  In same-sex conversations there are other differences between men and women.  Females use more questions, justifiers, intensive adverbs, personal pronouns, and adverbials.  Men use more directives, interruptions, and filler words to begin sentences.


Given these differences, it’s easy to wonder how men and women manage to communicate with one another at all.  One reason cross-sex conversations do run smoothly is that women accommodate to the topics men raise.  Both men and women regard topics introduced by women as tentative, whereas topics that men bring up are more likely to be pursued.  Thus, women seem to grease the wheels of conversation by doing more work than men in maintaining conversations.  A complementary difference between men and women also promotes cross-sex conversations:  Men are more likely to talk about themselves with women than with other men; and since women are willing to adapt to this topic, conversations are likely to run smoothly, if one-sidedly.


An accommodating style isn’t always a disadvantage for women.  One study revealed that females who spoke tentatively were actually more influential with men than those who used more powerful speech.  On the other hand, this tentative style was less effective in persuading women.  (Language use had no effect on men’s persuasiveness.)  This research suggests that women who are willing and able to be flexible in their approach can persuade both other women and men . . . as long as they are not dealing with a mixed-sex audience.


Nongender Variables


Despite the differences in the way men and women speak, the link between gender and language use isn’t as clear-cut as it might seem.  A large number of studies have found no significant difference between male and female speech in areas such as use of profanity, use of qualifiers such as “I guess” or “This is just my opinion,” tag questions, and vocal fluency.  Some on-the-job research shows that male and female supervisors in similar positions behave the same way and are equally effective.  Other studies, however, have found differences between the style of men and women,.  Female managers were rated as providing more information, putting more emphasis on happy interpersonal relationships, and being more encouraging, receptive to new ideas, concerned, and attentive.  Male managers were rated as being more dominant, direct, and quick to challenge.  The researchers concluded that male and female managers [exerted] leadership in their own distinct fashions.  They also argued that females may be superior managers because their verbal communication promotes job satisfaction.


A growing body of research explains some of the apparent contradictions between the similarities and differences of male and female speech.  Research reveals other factors that influence language use as much or more than sex.  For example, social philosophy plays a role.  Feminist wives talk longer than their partners, while nonfeminist wives speak less than their husbands.  Orientation toward problem-solving also plays a role in conversational style.  The cooperative/competitive orientation of speakers has more influence on how they interacted than does their gender.


The speaker’s occupation also influences speaking style.  for example, male day-care teachers’ speech to their students resembles the language of female teachers more closely than it resembles the language of fathers at home.  Overall, doctors interrupt their patients more often than the reverse, although male patients do interrupt female physicians more often than their male counterparts.  A close study of trial transcripts showed that the speaker’s experience on the witness stand and occupation had more to do with language use than did gender.  If women generally use “powerless” language, this fact probably reflects their historical social role in society at large.


Sex Roles


Why is the research on sex differences so confusing?  In some cases male and female speech seems identical, while other studies reveal important differences.  As we’ve already seen, one reason for the confusion is that other factors besides biological sex influence the way people speak:  the setting in which conversation takes place, the expertise of the speakers, their social roles (husband/wife, boss/employee, and so on).  Also, female roles are changing so rapidly that many women simply don’t use the conversational styles that characterized their older sisters and mothers.  But in addition to these factors, another powerful force that influences the way individual men and women speak is their sex role—the social orientation that governs social behavior, rather than the biological sex.  Researchers have identified three sex roles:  masculine, feminine, and androgynous.  These sex types don’t always line up neatly with biological differences.  There are “masculine” females, “feminine” males, and androgynous communicators who combine traditionally masculine and feminine characteristics.


Research shows that linguistic differences are often a function of these sex roles more than the speaker’s biological sex.  Masculine-type communicators—whether male or female—use more dominant language than either feminine-type or androgynous speakers.  Feminine-type communicators have the most submissive speaking style, while androgynous speakers fall between these extremes.  When two masculine-type communicators are in a conversation, they often engage in a one-up battle for dominance, responding to the other’s bid for control with a counterattempt to dominate the relationship.  Feminine-type speakers are less predictable.  They use dominance, submission, and equivalent behavior in an almost random fashion.  Androgynous individuals are more predictable:  They most frequently meet another’s bid for dominance with a symmetrical attempt at control, but then move quickly toward an equivalent relationship. 


All this information suggests that, when it comes to communicating, “masculinity” and “femininity” are culturally recognized sex roles and not biological traits.  Research certainly suggests that neither a stereotypically male or female style is the best choice.  For example, one study showed that a “mixed gender strategy” that balanced the traditionally male, task-oriented approach with the stereotypically feminine, relationship-oriented approach received the highest marks by both male and female respondents.  As opportunities for men and women become more equable, we can expect that the differences between male and female use of language will become smaller.


Language and Culture


Anyone who has tried to translate ideas from one language to another knows that conveying the same meaning isn’t always easy.  Choosing the right words during translation won’t guarantee that non-native speakers will use an unfamiliar language correctly.  for example, Japanese insurance companies warn their policy holders who are visiting the United States to avoid their cultural tendency to say “excuse me” or I’m sorry” if they are involved in a traffic accident.  In Japan, apologizing is a traditional way to express goodwill and maintain social harmony, even if the person offering the apology is not at fault.  But in the United States an apology can be taken as an admission of guilt and result in Japanese tourists being held accountable for accidents in which they may not be responsible.


Difficult as it may be, translation is only a small part of the differences in communication between members of different cultures.  Differences in the way language is used and the very world view that a language creates make communicating across cultures a challenging task.


Verbal Communication Styles


Using language is more than just choosing a particular group of words to convey an idea.  Each language has its own unique style that distinguishes it from others.  Matters like the amount of formality or informality, precision or vagueness, and brevity or detail are major ingredients in speaking competently.  And when a communicator tries to use the verbal style from one culture in a different one, problems are likely to arise.


One way in which verbal styles vary is in their directness.  There are two distinct cultural ways of using language.  Low-context cultures use language primarily to express thoughts, feelings, and ideas as clearly and logically as possible.  Low-context communicators look for the meaning of a statement in the words spoken.  By contrast, high-context cultures value language as a way to maintain social harmony.  Rather than upset others by speaking clearly, communicators in these societies learn to discover meaning from the context in which a message is delivered:  the nonverbal behaviors, the history of the relationship, and the general social rules that govern interaction between people.


North American culture falls toward the low-context end of the scale.  Residents of the United States and Canada value straight talk and grow impatient with “beating around the bush.”  By contrast, most Asian and Middle-Eastern cultures fit the high-context pattern.  In many Asian cultures, for example, maintaining harmony is important and so communicators will avoid speaking clearly if that would threaten another person’s face.  For this reason, Japanese or Koreans are less likely than Americans to offer a clear “no” to an undesirable request.  Instead they would probably use roundabout expressions like “I agree with you in principle, but . . .” or “I sympathize with you, but . . .”


The same sort of clash between directness and indirectness can aggravate problems between straight-talking, low-context Israelis who value speaking clearly and Arabs, whose high-context culture stresses smooth interaction.  It’s easy to imagine how the clash of cultural styles could lead to misunderstandings and conflicts between Israelis and their Palestinian neighbors.  Israelis could view their Arab counterparts as evasive, while the Palestinians could perceive the Israelis as insensitive and blunt.


Even within a single country, subcultures can have different notions about the value of direct speech.  For example, Puerto Rican language style resembles high-context Japanese or Korean more than low-context English.  As a group, Puerto Ricans value social harmony and avoid confrontation, which leads them to systematically speak in an indirect way to avoid giving offense.


Another way in which language styles can vary across cultures is whether they are elaborate or succinct.  Speakers of Arabic, for instance, commonly use language that is much more rich and expressive than most communicators who speak English.  Strong assertions and exaggerations that would sound ridiculous in English are a common feature of Arabic.  This contrast in linguistic style can lead to misunderstandings between people from different backgrounds.  As one observer put it,


First, an Arab feels compelled to overassert in almost all types of communication because others expect him or her to.  If an Arab says exactly what he or she means without the expected assertion, other Arabs may still think that he or she means the opposite.  For example, a simple “no” by a guest to the host’s requests to eat more or drink more will not suffice.  To convey the meaning that he or she is actually full, the guest must keep repeating “no” several times, coupling it with an oath such as “By God” or “I swear to God.”  Second, an Arab often fails to realize that others, particularly foreigners, may mean exactly what they say even though their language is simple.  To the Arabs, a simple “no” may mean the indirectly expressed consent and encouragement of a coquettish woman.  On the other hand, a simple consent may mean the rejection of a hypocritical politician.


Succinctness is most extreme in cultures where silence is valued.  In many native American cultures, for example, the favored way to handle ambiguous social situations is to remain quiet.  When you contrast this silent style to the talkativeness that is common in mainstream American cultures when people first meet, it’s easy to imagine how the first encounter between an Apache or Navajo and a non-native may feel uncomfortable for both people.


Along with differences such as directness and indirectness and elaborate and succinct styles, a third way languages differ from one culture to another involves formality and informality.  The informal approach that characterizes relationships in countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, and the Scandinavian countries is quite different from the great concern for using proper speech in many parts of Asia and Africa.  Formality isn’t so much a matter of using correct grammar as of defining social position.  In Korea, for example, the language reflects the Confucian system of relational hierarchies.  It has special vocabularies for different sexes, for different levels of social status, for different degrees of intimacy, and for different types of social occasions.  For example, there are different degrees of formality for speaking with old friends, nonacquaintances whose background one knows, and complete strangers.  One sign of being a learned person in Korea is the ability to use language that recognizes these relational distinctions. 

When you contrast these sorts of distinctions with the casual friendliness many North Americans use even when talking with complete strangers, it’s easy to see how a Korean might view communicators in the United States as boorish, and how an American might see Koreans as stiff and unfriendly.


Language and World View


Different linguistic styles are important, but there may be even more fundamental differences that separate speakers of various languages.  For almost 150 years, some theorists have put forward the notion of linguistic determinism:  that the world view of a culture is unavoidably shaped and reflected by the language its members speak.  The best-known example of linguistic determinism is the notion that Eskimos have a large number of words (estimated at everything from 17 to 100) for what we simply call “snow.”  Different terms are used to describe conditions like a driving blizzard, crusty ice, and light powder.  This example suggests how linguistic determinism operates.  The need to survive in an Arctic environment led Eskimos to make distinctions that would be unimportant to residents of warmer environments, and to see the world in ways that match the broader vocabulary.


Even though there is some doubt that Eskimos really have so many words for snow, other examples do seem to support the principle of linguistic determinism.  For instance, bilingual speakers seem to think differently when they change languages.  In one study, French-Americans were asked to interpret a series of pictures.  When they spoke in French, their descriptions were far more romantic and emotional than when they used English to describe the same kinds of images.  Likewise, when students in Hong Kong were asked to complete a values test, they expressed more traditional Chinese values when they answered in Cantonese than when they spoke English.  In Israel, both Arab and Jewish students saw bigger distinctions between their group and “outsiders” when using their native language than when they spoke in English, a neutral tongue.  Examples like these show the power of language to shape cultural identity . . . sometimes for better, and sometimes for worse.


Linguistic influences start early in life.  English-speaking parents often label the mischievous pranks of their children as “bad,” implying that there is something immoral about acting wild.  “Be good!” they are inclined to say.  On the other hand, French adults are more likely to say Sois sage!”—“Be wise.”  The linguistic implication is that misbehaving is an act of foolishness.  Swedes would correct the same action with the words Var snall!”—“Be friendly,” “Be kind.”  By contrast, German adults use the command Sei artig!”—literally “Be of your own kind”—in other words, get back in step, conform to your role as a child.


The best-known declaration of linguistic determinism is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, formulated by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf.  Following Sapir’s theory, Whorf observed that the language spoken by Hopi Native Americans represents a view of reality that is dramatically different from more familiar languages.  For example, the Hopi language makes no distinction between nouns and verbs.  Therefore the people who speak it describe the entire world as being constantly in process.  Whereas we use nouns to characterize people or objects as being fixed or constant, Hopi view them more as verbs, constantly changing.  In this sense our language represents much of the world rather like a snapshot camera, whereas Hopi reflects a world view more like a motion picture.


Although there is little support for the extreme linguistically deterministic viewpoint that it is impossible for speakers of different languages to view the world in the same way, the more moderate notion of linguistic relativism—that language exerts a strong influence on perceptions—does seem valid.  As one scholar puts it, “The differences between languages are not so much in what can be said, but in what it is relatively easy to say.” 
Some languages contain terms that have no English equivalents, for example, consider a few words in other languages that have no English equivalents:


Nemawashi (Japanese):  The process of informally feeling out all the people involved with an issue before making a decision.

Lagniappe (French/Creole):  An extra gift given in a transaction that wasn’t expected by the terms of a contract.

Lao (Mandarin):  A respectful term used for older people, showing their importance in the family and in society.

Dharm (Sanskrit):  Each person’s unique, ideal path in life, and knowledge of how to find it.

Koyaanisquatsi (Hopi):  Nature out of balance; a way of life so crazy it calls for a new way of living.


Once words like these exist and become a part of everyday life, the ideas that they represent are easier to recognize and seem more “natural.”  But even without such terms, each of the concepts above is still possible to imagine.  Speakers of a language that includes the notion of lao would probably treat its older members respectfully and those who are familiar with lagniappe might be more generous.  The words aren’t essential to follow these principles, but they help.  Although language may shape thoughts and behavior, it doesn’t dominate them absolutely.


The importance of language as a reflection of world view isn’t just a matter of interest for anthropologists and linguists.  The labels we use in everyday conversation both reflect and shape the way we view ourselves and others.  This explains why businesses often give employees impressive titles, and why a woman’s choice of the label “Ms” or “Mrs.” can be a statement about her identity.


Along with gender, labeling can both affect and reflect the way members of an ethnic group define themselves.  Over the years, labels of racial identification have gone through cycles of popularity.  In North America, the first freed slaves preferred to be called “Africans.”  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, “colored” was the term of choice; but later “Negro” became the respectable word.  Then, in the sixties, the term “Black” grew increasingly popular—first as a label for militant proponents of civil rights, and later as a term preferred by more moderate citizens of all colors.  More recently “African American” has gained popularity.  Recent surveys have found that between 60 and 72 percent of Blacks surveyed prefer the term “Black,” while between 15 and 25 percent prefer African American.  The rest either have no opinion or chose other labels.


Decisions about which name to use reflect a person’s attitude.  And, it seems to me, those who do NOT belong to a particular ethnic or racial group should respect the preference of group members as to the most acceptable label.  Just as you should call your boss “Mr. Smith” if he prefers that or “John” if he urges you to use his first name, so should you use labels that are acceptable to the individuals being labeled.




Nonverbal communication is messages expressed by other than linguistic means.  This rules out written language and sign language, but it includes messages transmitted by vocal means that don’t involve language—the sighs, laughs, and other assorted noises we make as we interact.  It will also include the nonlinguistic dimensions of the spoken word—volume, rate, pitch, and so on, as well as all the facial expressions and body movements we use as we communicate.


Characteristics of Nonverbal Communication


There are several features of nonverbal communication that are important to get straight before we go further.


Nonverbal Communication Exists


Even without formal experience, you can recognize and to some degree interpret messages that other people send nonverbally.  With some formal experience, you can sharpen the skills you already have, get a better grasp of the vocabulary of nonverbal communication, and learn to use this knowledge to understand yourself and others better.


All Nonverbal Behavior Has Communicative Value


Imagine you’re with another person and your goal is to NOT communicate at all.  What would you do?  Close your eyes?  Withdraw into a ball?  Leave the room?  The thing is, even these behaviors communicate messages—that you’re avoiding contact.


This impossibility of not communicating is extremely important to understand because it means that each of us is a kind of transmitter that cannot be shut off.  No matter what we do, we give off information about ourselves.


Stop for a minute and examine yourself as you read this.  If someone were observing you now, what nonverbal clues would that person get back about how you’re feeling?  Are you sitting forward or reclining back?  Is your posture tense or relaxed?  Are your eyes wide open, or do they keep closing?  What does your facial expression communicate?  Can you make your face expressionless?  Don’t people with expressionless faces communicate something to you?


Of course, we don’t always intend to send nonverbal messages.  Unintentional nonverbal behaviors differ from deliberate ones.  For example, we often stammer, blush, frown, and sweat without meaning to do so.  Whether or not our nonverbal behavior is intentional, others recognize it and make interpretations about us based on their observations.  Even unconscious and unintentional behavior conveys messages, and thus is worth studying as communication.


The fact that you and everyone around you is constantly sending nonverbal clues is important because it means that you have a constant source of information available about yourself and others.  If you can tune into these signals, you’ll be more aware of how those around you are feeling and thinking, and you’ll be better able to respond to their behavior.


Nonverbal Communication is Culture-Bound


We’ve all heard the stories—some of them funny—about Americans getting in trouble in other countries because they innocently used gestures that were insulting or vulgar to natives of the country.  So some nonverbal behaviors have different meanings from culture to culture.


But there are less obvious cross-cultural differences that can damage relationships without the parties ever recognizing exactly what has gone wrong.  While Americans are comfortable conducting business at a distance of roughly four feet, people from the Middle East stand much closer.  It is easy to visualize the awkward advance and retreat pattern that might occur when two diplomats or businesspeople from these cultures meet.  The Middle Easterner would probably keep moving forward to close the gap that feels so wide, whereas the American would continually back away.  Both would feel uncomfortable without really knowing why.


Communicators become more tolerant of others once they understand that unusual nonverbal behaviors are the result of cultural differences.  In one study, American adults were presented with videotapes of speakers from the United States, France, and Germany.  When the sound was eliminated, so that it wasn’t clear these speakers were from different countries, viewers judged foreigners more negatively than their fellow citizens.  But when the speakers’ voices were added, allowing viewers to recognize who was from a different country, the critical ratings dropped.


Like distance, patterns of eye contact vary around the world.  A direct gaze is considered appropriate for speakers in Latin America, the Arab world, and southern Europe.  On the other hand, Asians, Indians, Pakistanis, and northern Europeans gaze at a listener peripherally or not at all.  In either case, deviations from the norm are likely to make a listener uncomfortable.


Despite differences like these, many nonverbal behaviors are universal.  Certain expressions have the same meanings around the world.  Smiles and laughter are universal signals of positive emotions, for example, while sour expressions convey displeasure in every culture.  The innateness of some facial expressions becomes even more clear when we examine the behavior of children born deaf and blind.  Despite a lack of visual and sound cues for learning, these children display a broad range of expressions.  They smile, laugh, and cry in ways virtually identical to normal infants.


Although nonverbal expressions like these may be universal, the way they are used varies widely around the world.  Some cultures discourage the overt demonstration of feelings like happiness or anger.  In other cultures, expressing the same feelings is perfectly appropriate.  Thus, a Japanese might appear much more controlled and placid than an Arab, when in fact their feelings might be identical.


The same principle operates closer to home among subcultures.  For example, observations have shown that black women in all-black groups are nonverbally more expressive and interrupt each other more than white women in all-white groups.  This doesn’t mean that black women always feel more intensely than their white counterparts; a more likely explanation is that the two groups follow different cultural rules.  The researchers found that in racially mixed groups both black and white women moved closer to each others’ style.  This nonverbal convergence shows that skilled communicators can adapt their behaviors when interacting with members of other cultures or subcultures in order to make the exchange more smooth and effective.


Nonverbal Behavior is Primarily Relational


Some nonverbal messages serve utilitarian functions.  For example, a police officer directs the flow of traffic and a team of street surveyors uses hand motions to coordinate their work.  But nonverbal communication also conveys a more common and more interesting variety of social messages.


One important category of social messages conveyed by nonverbal communication involves identity management.  We’ve already talked about how we strive to create an image of ourselves as we want others to view us (impression management).  Nonverbal communication plays an important role in this process—in many cases more important than the verbal messages.  Consider, for example, what happens when you attend a party where you are likely to meet strangers you would like to get to know better.  Instead of projecting your image verbally (“Hi!  I’m attractive, friendly, and easygoing”), you behave in ways that will present this identity.  You might smile a lot and perhaps try to strike a relaxed pose.  It’s also likely that you dress carefully, even if the image you’re trying to project involves looking as if you hadn’t given a lot of attention to your appearance.


Along with identity management, nonverbal communication allows us to define the kinds of relationships we want to have with others.  Think about the wide range of ways you could behave when greeting another person.  You could wave, shake hands, nod, smile, clap the other person on the back, give a hug, or avoid all contact.  Each one of these decisions would send a message about the nature of your relationship with the other person.


Nonverbal behavior can be more powerful than words in defining the kind of relationship you are seeking.  Recall all the times and ways you have learned that someone you know is upset with you.  Most often the first clues don’t come from direct statements but from nonverbal clues.  Perhaps the message is conveyed through a lack of eye contact, different facial expressions, an increase in distance, or decreased touch.  In any case, the change in behavior clearly proves the power of nonverbal communication to define the status of a relationship.


Nonverbal messages perform a third valuable social function:  conveying emotions that we may be unwilling or unable to express or ones we may not even be aware of.  In fact, nonverbal communication is much better suited to expressing attitudes and feelings than ideas.  You can prove this for yourself by imagining how you could express each item on the following list nonverbally:


You’re tired.

You’re in favor of capital punishment.

You’re attracted to another person in the group.

You think prayer in the classroom should be allowed.

You’re angry with someone in the room.


This experiment shows that, short of charades, ideas don’t lend themselves to nonverbal expressions nearly as well as attitudes.  Sometimes the attitudinal message relates to the content of the conversation going on at the time (“I think that’s a great idea!”), and sometimes they reflect a relational message (“I’m bored talking to you.”).


Nonverbal Communication Serves Many Functions


Of course, our words and our actions are related.  Verbal and nonverbal communication are interconnected elements in every act of communication.  Nonverbal behaviors can operate in several relationships with verbal messages.


  1. Repeating.  If someone asked you for directions to the nearest drugstore, you could say, “North of here, about two blocks,” repeating your instructions nonverbally by pointing north.  Pointing is an example of what social scientists call emblems—deliberate nonverbal behaviors that have a very precise meaning, known to virtually everyone in a cultural group.  For example, we all know that a head nod means “yes,” a head shake means “no,” a wave means “hello” or “goodbye,” and a hand to the ear means “I can’t hear you.”
  2. Substituting.  Emblems can also replace a verbal message.  When a friend asks, “What’s up?” you might shrug your shoulders instead of answering in words.  Not all substituting consists of emblems, however.  Sometimes substituting responses are more ambiguous and less intentional.  Many facial expressions operate primarily like verbal interjections such as “gosh,” “really?”, “oh, please!” and so on.  In other cases, nonverbal substituting can be useful when communicators are reluctant to express their feelings in words.  Faced with a message you find disagreeable, you might sigh, roll your eyes, or yawn when speaking out would not be appropriate.  Courtship is a situation in which nonverbal behaviors can signal “I’m interested,” when the same message would be awkward to express verbally. 
  3. Complementing.  If you saw a student talking to a teacher, and the student’s head was bowed slightly, his voice was low and hesitating, and he shuffled slowly from foot to foot, you might conclude that he felt inferior to the teacher, possibly embarrassed about something he did.  The nonverbal behaviors you observed provided the context for the verbal behaviors—they conveyed the relationship between the teacher and the student.  Complementing nonverbal behaviors signal the attitudes the interactants have for one another.
  4. Accenting.  Just as we use italics to highlight an idea in print, we use nonverbal devices to emphasize oral messages.  Pointing an accusing finger adds emphasis to criticism (as well as probably creating defensiveness in the receiver).  Accenting certain words with the voice (“It was your idea!”) is another way to add nonverbal emphasis.
  5. Regulating.  Nonverbal behaviors can serve a regulating function by controlling the flow of verbal communication.  For example, parties in a conversation often unconsciously send and receive turn-taking cues.
  6. Contradicting.  People often simultaneously express different and even contradicting messages in their verbal and nonverbal behaviors.  A common example of this sort of “double message” is the experience we’ve all had of hearing someone with a red face and bulging veins yelling, “Angry?  No, I’m not angry!”


Usually, however, the contradiction between words and nonverbal clues isn’t this obvious.  At times we all try to seem different from what we are.  There are many reasons for this contradictory behavior:  to cover nervousness when giving a speech or in a job interview, to keep someone from worrying about us, or to appear more attractive than we believe we really are.


Even though some of the ways in which people contradict themselves are subtle, double messages have a strong impact. 
As we grow older we become better at interpreting these contradictory messages.  Children between the ages of six and twelve use a speaker’s words to make sense of a message.  But as adults, we rely more on nonverbal cues than on words to decide whether speakers are honest.  We also use nonverbal behaviors to judge the character of speakers as well as their competence and composure; and differences in nonverbal behavior influence how much listeners are persuaded by a speaker.


Deception is perhaps the most interesting type of double message.  Signals of deception—often called leakage—can occur in every type of nonverbal behavior.  Some nonverbal channels are more revealing than others, however.  Facial expressions are less revealing than body clues, probably because deceivers pay more attention to controlling their faces.  Even more useful is the voice, which offers a rich variety of leakage clues.  In one experiment, subjects who were being deliberately deceitful made more speech errors, spoke for shorter periods of time, and had a lower rate of speech than others who expressed themselves honestly.  Another study revealed that the vocal frequency of a liar’s voice tends to be higher than that of a truth teller.  Research also shows that deceivers delivering a prepared lie responded more quickly than truth tellers, mainly because there was less thinking involved.  When unprepared, however, deceivers generally took longer than both prepared deceivers and truth tellers.


As this research shows, deceivers don’t always broadcast cues that reveal their lies.  Nonverbal evidence of lying is most likely to occur when deceivers haven’t had a chance to rehearse, when they feel strongly about the information being hidden, or when they feel anxious or guilty about their lies.  Even when deception cues are abundant, they aren’t necessarily direct signals of lying itself; rather, they may simply reflect the anxiety that some liars feel. 


Despite the abundance of nonverbal deception cues, it isn’t always easy to detect deception.  The range of effectiveness in uncovering deceptive messages is broad, ranging from 45 percent to 70 percent.  Sometimes awareness of your listener’s suspicion that you are lying can improve your attempts to hide the truth; this seems to imply that you’ll lie more convincingly when you know you have a skeptical audience.  Research also shows that communicators who probe the messages of a deceptive communicator are no better at detecting lies than those who don’t investigate the truth of a message.  One explanation for this surprising finding is that deceivers who are questioned become more vigilant about revealing the truth, and that their greater caution results in a better coverup of deception clues.


Some people are better than others at uncovering deception.  For example, younger people are better than older ones at uncovering lies.  Women are consistently more accurate than men at detecting lying and what the underlying truth really is.  The same research shows that, as people become more intimate, their accuracy in detecting lies diminishes.  This is a surprising fact:  Intuition suggests that we ought to be better at judging honesty as we become more familiar with others.  Despite their overall accuracy at detecting lies, women are more inclined to fall for deception by intimate partners than are men.


Before we abandon this subject, there is one more thing we should consider:  Not all deceptive communication is aimed at taking advantage of the recipient.  Some are a polite way to express an idea that would be difficult to handle if expressed in words.  For example, recall a time when you became bored with a conversation while your companion kept rambling on.  At such a time the most straightforward statement would be “I’m tired of talking to you and want to get away.”  It’s obvious that the less direct nonverbal signal—glancing at your watch, for example—is a kinder way to express yourself.  In this sense, the ability to deliberately send nonverbal messages that contradict your words can be a kind of communication competence.


Nonverbal Communication is Ambiguous


Verbal messages can be misunderstood, but nonverbal messages are even easier to misinterpret.  Imagine two possible meanings of silence from your companion after a fun-filled evening.  Or suppose that a much admired person with whom you’ve worked suddenly begins paying more attention to you than ever before.  What could some possible meanings of this behavior be?  Although nonverbal behavior can be very revealing, it can have so many possible meanings that it’s impossible to be certain which interpretation is correct.


Not all nonverbal behavior is equally ambiguous.  In laboratory settings, subjects are better at identifying positive facial expressions such as happiness, love, surprise, and interest than negative ones like fear, sadness, anger, and disgust.  In real life, however, spontaneous nonverbal expressions are so ambiguous that observers are unable to identify the emotions they convey with accuracy any better than blind guessing.


Despite the ambiguity of nonverbal messages, some people are more skillful decoders than others.  Decoding ability also increases with age and training, though there are still differences because of personality and occupation.  Women seem to be better than men at decoding nonverbal messages.  Even the best nonverbal decoders do not approach 100 percent accuracy.


There is a difference between merely observing somebody’s behavior and actually interpreting it.  Noticing someone’s shaky hands or smile is one thing, but deciding what such behaviors mean is quite another.  If you’re like most people, you will probably find that a lot of your guesses are incorrect.  Being a sharp nonverbal observer can give you some good hunches about how people are feeling, but the only way you can find out if these hunches are correct is to check them out verbally.


Differences Between Verbal and Nonverbal Communication


Let’s take a quick review of the differences between words and the nonverbal messages that accompany them.


Single versus Multiple Channels


Most verbal messages—words, sentences, and paragraphs—reach us one at a time, rather like pearls on a string.  In fact, it’s physically impossible for a person to speak more than one word at a time.  Unlike the spoken word, however, nonverbal messages don’t arrive in such an orderly, sequential fashion.  Instead, they bombard us simultaneously from a multitude of channels.  In one way this multichannel onslaught of nonverbal messages is a boon, since it provides so many ways of learning about others.  In another sense, however, the number of simultaneous messages is a problem, for it’s difficult to recognize the overwhelming amount of nonverbal information we receive from others every moment.


Discrete versus Continuous


Verbal messages form messages with clear beginnings and endings.  In this sense we can judge whether others are communicating verbally by observing whether they are speaking or writing.  Unlike the written and spoken word, however, nonverbal communication is continuous and never-ending.  There is a constant flow of messages.  Even the absence of a message is a message  As one communication expert said when referring to nonverbal communication, “Nothing never happens.”


Verbal versus Nonverbal Impact


When we are exposed to both verbal and nonverbal messages, research shows that we find the nonverbal signals much more powerful.  In a variety of settings (including job interviews, therapy sessions, first meetings), adults rely more on nonverbal messages than on words when interpreting the messages of others.  Nonverbal cues are especially likely to carry weight when they contradict a speaker’s words.  When nonverbal messages are combined with verbal ones, the nonverbal ones accounted for as much as 12.5 times as much power as the verbal statements.


Deliberate versus Unconscious


Although we usually think about what we want to say before speaking or writing, most nonverbal messages aren’t deliberate.  Of course, we do pay attention to some of our nonverbal behavior:  smiling when we want to convince someone we’re happy, or making sure our handshake is firm to show that we’re straightforward and decisive.  But there are so many nonverbal channels that it’s impossible to think about and to control all of them.  Thus, our slumping shoulders might contradict our smiles, and our sweating palms might cancel out all the self-confidence of our firm handshakes.  The unconscious nature of most nonverbal behavior explains why it offers so many useful cues about how others are feeling.


Types of Nonverbal Communication


We talked about this at length in our first communication course.  What we’ll do here, other than a quick review, is expand on those initial ideas here and there.


You’ll remember that we classified nonverbal elements into five categories when we studied this back in your freshman year:  kinesics (body movements, posture, gestures, facial expression, and eye contact), paralanguage (vocal elements), environment (personal symbols and use of space), proxemics (use of space), and chronemics (use of time).  Here we go again.




Body Orientation.  This is the degree to which we face toward or away from someone with our body, feet, and head.  Imagine you’re in the middle of a personal conversation when a third person approaches and wants to join you.  You’re not especially glad to see this person, but you don’t want to be rude by asking him to leave.  How do you signal the intruder that you’d rather be alone, using only the position of your body?  You’ll probably turn your body slightly away from the intruder, who will then find himself in the difficult position of trying to talk over your shoulder.  It isn’t long before he gets the message and goes away.  The nonverbal message here is, “We’re interested in each other right now and don’t want to include you in our conversation.”  The general rule here is that facing someone directly signals your interest and facing away signals a desire to avoid involvement.  This also explains why we all face the same way on a crowded elevator full of strangers; the indirect orientation signals that despite (or perhaps because of) the close quarters, everyone wants to avoid personal contact.


By observing the way people position themselves, you can learn a good deal about how they may feel.  Next time you’re in a crowded place where people can choose whom to face directly, try observing who seems to be included in the action and who is being subtly shut out.  And in the same way, pay attention to your own body orientation; you may catch yourself avoiding an unpleasant situation or communicating annoyance or dislike for another person.


Posture.  We all have an awareness of the messages sent by posture, but it’s generally unconscious.  The main reason we miss most posture messages is that they aren’t very obvious.  It’s seldom that a person who feels weighted down by a problem hunches over so much that she stands out in a crowd, and when we’re bored, we usually don’t lean back and slump enough to embarrass the other person.  In the reading of posture, then, the key is to look for small changes that might be shadows of the way people feel.


Other postural keys to feelings are tension and relaxation.  We take relaxed postures in nonthreatening situations and tighten up when threatened.  We can tell a good deal about how others feel simply by watching how tense or loose they seem to be.  Watching tenseness is also a way of detecting status differences:  The lower-status person is generally the more rigid, tense-appearing one, whereas the one with higher status is more relaxed.  This is the kind of situation that often happens when the employee sits ramrod straight while the boss leans back in her chair.  The same principle applies in social situations, where it’s often possible to tell who’s uncomfortable by looking at pictures.  Often you’ll see someone laughing and talking as if he were perfectly at home, but his posture almost shouts nervousness.  Some people never relax, and their posture shows it.


Sometimes posture communicates vulnerability in situations far more serious than mere social or business ones.  One study revealed that rapists sometimes use postural clues to select victims they believe are easy to intimidate.  Easy targets are more likely to walk slowly and tentatively, stare at the ground, and move their arms and legs in short, jerky motions. 
Another interesting study unobtrusively videotaped pedestrians on weekdays, taping each for six to eight seconds, the approximate time it takes a mugger to size up an approaching person.  The tapes were then shown to prison inmates convicted of assault; inmates were asked to rate the pedestrians on a ten-point scale from 1 (a very easy rip-off) to 10 (would avoid it, too big a situation).  The inmates were remarkably consistent in their ratings of the various pedestrians; these ratings revealed several body movements that characterized easy victims.  Easy victims’ “strides were either very long or very short; they moved awkwardly, raising their left legs with their left arms (instead of alternating them); on each step they tended to lift their whole foot up and then place it down (less muggable sorts took steps in which their feet rocked from heel to toe).”


Gestures.  We spent a great deal of time on this subject in your previous course.  I don’t really want to rehash all of that again, so I’ll just add a couple of thoughts here.


The first has to do with what we usually call fidgeting—officially called manipulators.  Research agrees with our common interpretation—that manipulators are often a sign of discomfort.  But it’s very important to realize that not all fidgeting signals uneasiness.  People also are likely to use manipulators when relaxed.  Whether or not the fidgeter is hiding something, observers are likely to interpret manipulators as a signal of dishonesty.  Since not all fidgeters are liars, it’s important not to jump to conclusions about the meaning of manipulators.


Actually, too few gestures may be as significant an indicator of double messages as too many.  Lack of gesturing may signal a lack of interest, sadness, boredom, or low enthusiasm.  These gestures also decrease when someone is cautious about speaking.  For these reasons, a careful observer will look for either an increase or a decrease in the usual level of gestures.


Face and Eyes.  The face is very complicated, and it is capable of a huge number of different expressions.  To make matters more difficult, facial expression can change very rapidly.  Despite the difficulty, people tend to be quite accurate at judging facial expressions for basic emotions of surprise, fear, anger, disgust, happiness, and sadness.  Accuracy increases when the judge knows the target or the context in which the expression occurs. 


The best ways to pick up messages include watching for expressions that appear to be overdone and watching the person’s face when he isn’t likely to be thinking about his appearance.  In addition, remember that eye contact can help to signal involvement or avoidance, positive or negative attitude, dominance or submission, and interest.




One means for studying paralanguage is to study content-free speech.  You get this effect when you listen to someone speak in a language you don’t know.  Since the words don’t have any effect on the messages you receive, all of the cues you receive are paralanguage.  Another way to simulate content-free speech is to choose a list of names from the telephone book, and then try reading the list to convey an attitude or message.  For example, try reading the names to convey egotism, friendliness, insecurity, irritation, or confidence.  You’ll most likely find it fairly easy.  If you try this, have a friend listen, and see whether she can figure out just what attitude you’re trying to project.  You’re probably better at this than you know.


Remember that paralanguage cues are not always intentional, and that they can have a big influence on the way a speaker is perceived.  Generally those who speak loudly and without hesitation are viewed as more confident than those who pause and speak more quietly.  People with more attractive voices are rated more highly than those whose speech sounds less attractive.  In our culture, attractiveness in voice depends on a firm, low-pitched voice, clear enunciation, good modulation, the lack of a regional accent, and a cheerful tone.


Environment:  Personal Symbols


Remember that personal symbols are those objects and aspects of appearance we choose to present ourselves to the world.


Physical Attractiveness.  The importance of beauty has been emphasized in the arts for centuries.  More recently, social scientists have begun to measure the degree to which physical attractiveness affects interaction between people.  For example, women who are perceived as attractive have more dates, receive higher grades in college, persuade males with greater ease, and receive lighter court sentences.  Both men and women whom others view as attractive are rated as being more sensitive, kind, strong, sociable, and interesting than those who are viewed as less attractive.  Who is most likely to succeed in business?  Place your bet on the attractive job applicant.  And for men, height is part of physical attractiveness.  Shorter men have more difficulty finding jobs in the first place, and men over six feet two inches receive starting salaries that average 12.4 percent higher than comparable applicants under six feet.


The influence of attractiveness begins early in life.  Preschoolers were shown photographs of children their own age and asked to choose potential friends and enemies.  The researchers found that children as young as three agreed as to who was attractive (“cute”) and unattractive (“homely”).  Furthermore, the children valued their attractive counterparts—both of the same and opposite sex—more highly.  Also, preschool children rated by their peers as pretty were most liked, and those identified as least pretty were least liked.  Children who were interviewed rated good-looking children as having positive social characteristics (“He’s friendly to other children) and unattractive children negatively (“He hits other children without reason).


Teachers are also affected by students’ attractiveness.  Physically attractive students are usually judged more favorably—more intelligent, friendly, popular than their less attractive counterparts.  Fortunately, what it takes to be perceived as attractive can be controlled to a large degree—without calling in a plastic surgeon.  We view others as beautiful or ugly, not just on the basis of their basic physical endowments (shape of face, nose, etc.)  but also on how they use those endowments.  Factors you can control include posture, gestures, facial expression, and other behaviors; it turns out these have a big effect on perceived attractiveness.  Exercise, grooming, and hairstyle can improve the way we look.  Another big factor is clothing, a point to which we’ll now give our attention.


Clothing.  Besides protecting us from the elements, clothing is a means of nonverbal communication.  Some of the messages clothing send include the following:



1.  Economic level

6.  Economic background


2.  Educational level

7.  Social background


3.  Trustworthiness

8.  Educational background


4.  Social positin

9.  Level of success


5.  Level of sophistication

10. Moral character


Research shows that we do make assumptions about people based on their attire.  Communicators who wear special clothing often gain persuasiveness.  Uniforms, for example, give the wearer an aura of authority which increases the likelihood that others will comply with their requests.  We are also more likely to obey people dressed in a high-status manner.  Pedestrians are more likely to return lost coins to well-dressed people than to those dressed in low-status clothing—interesting when you consider one might argue the well-dressed people may have less need of the coins.  We are also more likely to follow the lead of high-status dressers, even when it comes to violating social rules.  Eighty-three percent of pedestrians in one study followed a well-dressed jaywalker who violated a “wait” crossing signal, whereas only 48 percent followed another person dressed in low-status clothing.  Women who are wearing a jacket are rated as being more powerful than those wearing only a dress or skirt and blouse.


Of course, we know that clothing-based assumptions aren’t always accurate, but we continue to make them.  As we get to know someone better, the importance of clothing shrinks.  This fact suggests that clothing is especially important in the early stages of a relationship, when making a positive first impression is necessary to encourage others to know us better.  This advice is equally important in personal situations and in employment interviews.  In both cases, our style of dress (and personal grooming) can make all the difference between the chance to progress further and outright rejection.


Environment:  Setting


Let’s consider now the ways in which physical settings, architecture, and interior design affect our communication.  Begin by recalling for a moment the different homes you’ve visited lately.  Were some of these homes more comfortable to be in than others?  Certainly a lot of these kinds of feelings are shaped by the people you were with, but there are some houses where it seems impossible to relax, no matter how friendly the hosts are.  You’ve no doubt been in what Mark Knapp calls “unliving rooms,” where the spotless furniture, plastic lamp covers, and formal atmosphere tell us not to touch anything, not to put our feet up, and not to be comfortable.  People who live in houses like this often wonder why nobody seems to relax and enjoy themselves at their parties. 


Research shows the impressions that home designs convey can be remarkably accurate.  When people are asked to infer the personalities of home owners from interior pictures of their homes, they drew accurate conclusions about the homeowners’ intellectualism, politeness, maturity, optimism, tenseness, willingness to take adventures, family orientation, and reservedness.  The home exteriors also gave viewers accurate information about the owners’ artistic interests, graciousness, privacy, and quietness.


Besides communicating information about the designer, an environment can shape the kind of interaction that takes place in it.  In one experiment, the attractiveness of a room influenced the happiness and energy of the people working in it.  Workers generally feel better and do a better job when they’re in an attractive environment.




Proxemics is the study of the way people and animals use space.  There are three elements we’ll consider here—touching, distance, and territoriality.



Haptics:  The Science of Touch.  Touch can communicate many messages and signal a variety of relationships. 

functional/professional (dental exam, haircut)

social/polite (handshake)

friendship/warmth (clap on back, some hugs)

sexual interest (some kisses, strokes)

aggression (shoves, slaps)


Of course, a lot depends on the nature of the contact.  For example, a kiss can be friendly, parental, or sexual—and I suspect we can all tell the difference.  Interpretation of a touch depends on a number of factors:


What part of the body does the touching

What part of the body is touched

How long the touch lasts

How much pressure is used

Whether there is movement after the contact is made

Whether anyone else is present

The situation in which the touch occurs

The relationship between the persons involved


Since nonverbal messages are inherently ambiguous, it’s no surprise that this language can often be misunderstood.  Is a hug playful or suggestive of stronger feelings?  Is a touch on the shoulder a friendly gesture or an attempt at domination?  The ambiguity of nonverbal behavior often leads to serious problems.  It is important to check your perceptions before jumping to conclusions about the meaning of a specific incident of touching.


Touch plays a powerful role in shaping how we respond to others.  In a laboratory test, subjects evaluated partners more positively when they were appropriately touched by them.  Besides increasing liking, touch also boosts compliance.  People are more likely to perform a favor for someone who accompanies the request with a light touch on the arm.  An additional power of touch is its on-the-job utility.  One study showed that a restaurant waiter’s brief touches on the hand and shoulder resulted in larger tips.


In traditional US culture, touching is generally more appropriate for women than for men.  Males touch their male friends less than they touch their female friends, and also less than females touch their female friends.  Fear of homosexuality or homosexual interpretations seems to be a strong reason men are reluctant to touch one another.  Although females are more comfortable about touching than men, gender isn’t the only factor that shapes contact.  In general, the degree of touch comfort goes along with openness to expressing intimate feelings, an active interpersonal style, and satisfactory relationships.


Distance.  We gather all sorts of information about other people and relationships based on use of space to establish a comfortable distance between individuals.  We spent a fair amount of time on this issue in your first course, so I’ll just add a couple of things for you to consider here.


Note this quote from Edward T. Hall:  “Once I heard a hospital nurse describing doctors.  She said there were beside-the-bed doctors, who were interested in the patient, and foot-of-the-bed doctors, who were interested in the patient’s condition.  They unconsciously expressed their emotional involvement—or lack of it—by where they stood.”  You might want to extend this idea to those in other professions.


And along these same lines, try this exercise.  Make a list of professors you have this semester.  (You can do this for those who taught you last semester too if you have a fairly good memory for details.)  Now rank each professor on a scale of 1 to 5, as to how satisfied you were with him or her.  Last, note how far each professor stands from the members of the class within the confines of the classroom.  The idea here is to indicate whether the professor is apparently putting as much distance as possible between him/herself and members of the class or instead moves as close as he or she reasonably can without making class members uncomfortable.  Look for correlations between your satisfaction and the professor’s physical distance.  If you’re typical, an important factor in your satisfaction with a professor will be just this use of space.  Students tend to prefer those who choose to place themselves physically close to the class.  They are also more satisfied with the course itself and more likely to follow the teacher’s instructions instructions.


Territoriality.  Whereas personal space is the invisible bubble we carry around as an extension of our physical being, territory remains stationary.  Any geographical area such as a room, house, neighborhood, or country to which we assume some kind of “rights” is our territory.  What’s interesting about territoriality is that there is no real basis for the assumption of proprietary rights of “owning” some area, but the feeling of “owning” exists nonetheless.  Your room in your house is your room whether you’re there or not, and it’s your room as long as you say it is.  Of course you probably also feel that way about the desk you sit in at each class, even though it’s owned by the school and in no way is really yours.  Have you ever arrived in class to find someone else has sat at “your”desk?  Ticked you off a bit, didn’t it? 


We also feel this way about “our” table in a restaurant.  Imagine someone you don’t know (or someone you don’t care for) entering a restaurant, seeing you and a companion at a table for four or six, and joining you.  You feel “invaded,” don’t you?  In many countries, this is common practice; we Americans with our wider sense of appropriate space, often feel uncomfortable with this practice.


And has someone at the grocery store ever taken “your” shopping cart?  This is likely to bother you, even if you haven’t placed even one item in the cart yet.  Our reaction to such an act is generally disproportionate to the inconvenience of simply getting another cart; this is because it isn’t just a question of convenience—it’s a question of territory.


The way people use space can communicate a good deal about power and status.  Generally we grant people with higher status more personal territory and greater privacy.  We knock before entering the boss’s office, whereas she can usually walk into our work area without hesitating.  In traditional schools, professors have offices, dining rooms, and even bathrooms that are private, whereas the students, who are presumably less important, have no such sanctuaries.  Among the military, greater space and privacy usually come with rank.  Privates sleep forty to a barrack, sergeants have their own private rooms, and generals have government-provided houses.




We’ve also discussed uses of time in your first course.  To review, the way we handle time can express both intentional and unintentional messages.  In a culture like ours that values time highly, waiting can be an indication of status.  “Important” people (whose time is supposedly more valuable) may be seen by appointment only, while it is acceptable to intrude without notice on lesser beings.  To see how this rule operates, consider how natural it is for a boss to drop into a subordinate’s office unannounced, while the employee would be expected to make an appointment to drop in on the boss.  A related rule is that low-status people must never make more important people wait.  It would be a serious mistake to show up late for a job interview, although the interviewer may keep you cooling your heels in the lobby.  Important people are often whisked to the head of the line at a restaurant or airport, while less exalted masses are forced to wait their turn.  Remember also that use of time depends greatly on culture.