Criteria in Assessing Communicative Competence

Communicative competence is assessed based on two criteria—effectiveness and appropriateness. Brian Spitzberg (2003) states that incompetence, according to the dual criteria of appropriateness and effectiveness, is the extent to which an interactant achieves preferred outcomes in a manner that upholds the emergent standards of the legitimacy of those judging the interaction.”


A communication act is considered effective if the purpose or function of communication is achieved. This means that both communicators are able to share the same understanding of why they are communicating and what they are talking about. An effective listener knows how to generate accurate inferences about the speaker’s utterances. It is important for the listener to understand the intention of the speaker and determine whether or not the speaker is being ironic or sarcastic, in which case one must not take the literal meaning of the utterance. Consider the following example:

In the dialogue above, one of the girls tried to avoid answering the specific question if Rita’s new boyfriend is “cute,” as demonstrated by the hesitation (the use of ellipsis) and her indirect answers. An effective communicator would know how to infer the meaning of a statement not only based on what kind of language was used but also how the statement was uttered (e.g., use of intonation, volume, etc.)

It is not just important to be able to achieve the function of communication (e.g., informing, persuading, etc.) but also to reach a higher level of effectiveness in communicating. This involves communication efficiency, which is the amount of time and energy it took for a communicator to understand a statement. In the example above, if May was able to infer the meaning behind Lora’s first answer, she wouldn’t have to ask her question again.


This is also a factor to be considered in assessing one’s communicative competence. Appropriateness “reflects tact and politeness and is defined as the avoidance of violating social or interpersonal norms, rules, or expectations” (Spitzberg & Cupach, 1989).

In communication, it is important to take into account the social factors within a particular context. For instance, while in some universities in the West, you can call your professor by his or her first came, you cannot do that in any academic setting in the Philippines. Again, culture also plays a role regarding which rules or norms are acceptable or appropriate in a given context. 

Going back to our previous example, Lora’s last statement seems contrary to what is implied by her previous descriptions. Infer the meaning of Lora’s last statement, “I didn’t say that.” What could be the meaning behind these words? What does this imply about Lora and Rita’s relationship? It should be noted that effective communication involves not only accomplishing the purpose or goals of the interaction, but also preserving or developing relationships.

To demonstrate the variety of responses one can make and the importance of choosing the most appropriate response, consider the following situation (adapted from Adler & Rodman, 2006): A teacher constantly tells offensive jokes that may be considered a form of discrimination against your other classmates. None of your other classmates seem to care.
You may:

  1. Refuse to respond because you think it would further aggravate the situation or make a big deal out of a “joke.” Besides, the offender is your teacher.
  2. Ask another classmate to tell the teacher to stop telling these jokes as they can hurt the feelings of others.
  3. Say something that may imply that you are uncomfortable hearing these jokes. For instance, in Filipino, you may say “Ano ba `yan?” which literally translates as “What’s that?” but carries a different meaning. (See editorial explaining its meaning in Dadufalza, 1996) or use the expression, “Grabe” to subtly hint at your discomfort.
  4. Tell another joke that would hint at your teacher’s insensitivity because you do not want to offend him or her by criticizing his or her behavior directly.
  5. Request that your teacher stop telling these jokes when you are around.
  6. Tell him directly to stop telling these jokes without any explanation.

Competent communicators have a wide range of responses to choose from and knows which utterance would result in the most favorable consequence. This communicative skill may be developed through experience and constant practice.