Nature and Definition of Communication

There has not yet been a universally accepted definition for communication. It is also difficult to come up with one as it is a broad concept used in diverse fields and various situations. Dictionaries list what are the different several meanings for the word “communication,” depending on how it is used in different contexts. However, our task is not to enumerate and compare these various definitions but instead to come up with a working definition which will help us acquire a fundamental understanding of the concept. In order to achieve this, we will start by examining the nature of communication in human interactions.

According to the famous linguist G.G. Brown, “communication is a transfer of information from one person to another, whether or not it elicits confidence. But the information transferred must be understandable to the receiver”.

But if we consult the dictionary, “communication refers to the systems and processes that are used to communicate or broadcast information, especially by means of electricity or radio waves” (Collins Dictionary). This definition of Collins is more of the nature of communication when we communicate through technological means. 

Etymology of Communication

Communication comes from the Latin words: Cum which means “with” and Munus which means “service, duty, office”.  When combined, Cum Munus means “performing an office with”. After Cum Munus, it became Communis which means “joint, used by two”. As proof of how dynamic language is, it became Communicare which means “to share, to divide with”.

Centuries passed, the concept of communication has changed dramatically. From the previous three Latin terms, it became Comunicaccion – a French term that bears the meaning of communication as defined today.

Communication is a process.

Communication does not simply begin when we open our mouths to say something, and neither does it end when we finally receive a reply from our interlocutor or the person we are talking to. Communication is a continuous and constantly changing process, which is influenced by a lot of factors, making it difficult to determine where exactly communication begins or ends. Frank Dance (1967) pointed out the dynamic quality of communication by describing it as “in constant flux, motion, and process.” 

Communication does not happen in isolation. When we think of communication, we often liken it to a video clip or a scene from a movie which involves two people exchanging words and utterances that form a dialogue; and which has a definite beginning and end. We think communication begins when characters or people make contact and speak to each other. However, communication is always affected by outside factors; such that even if we refuse to talk to a person or say anything to him or her at all, we are already communicating something. Our manner of walking, speaking to others and the way we present ourselves through clothing or stance all affect how other people perceive us and how we perceive ourselves.

The kind of response one receives after giving a compliment, for instance, does not depend solely on the meaning or content of the message, however good one’s intentions are. For instance, the statement, “You look pretty today,” may not always elicit a positive reaction from the receiver of the compliment. The reaction may depend on factors such as how the listener feels on that particular day, her relationship with the one who gave the compliment, how she perceives herself, or how other people have commented on her physical appearance in the past. Instead of viewing communication as a video clip, we must think of it as a continuous video involving several series of clips that relate to each other, like that of a movie. We learn why a character is acting a particular way in a scene because we are able to follow what happens to him throughout the movie.

The situations or events that come before or during the interaction, as well as the relationships and roles of the people involved in communication, the environment where the communication is taking place, and the interlocutors’ use of language, are just some of the factors that may affect the process of communication. The interplay of these various elements makes the process dynamic, in that a change in the interaction of these elements may result in a change in the consequences of the communication process.

Consider the following example:

Professor Geronimo had been feeling under the weather the past few weeks. He had a nasty fight with his wife before he went to work. The heavy traffic and the rainy weather also did not improve his mood. When he got to his first class, one of his students casually asked him about moving the deadline for the project. He recalled that he had given the deadline two months earlier to give the students enough time and he couldn’t imagine where students nowadays get the gall to ask him this. He snapped at the student who asked the question and during the whole session compared them to his students in the past. The class could not understand where the professor was coming from as he was normally lenient and open-minded.

In the example above, communication did not begin with the student’s asking for a deadline extension; therefore, he should not think that the professor’s reaction was caused exclusively by his request. In fact, had the student asked the professor a month before, or maybe a week after, he might even have received a different reaction.

Communication is systemic.

Communication happens within various systems. A system is an organization of interdependent elements or component parts that form a complex whole and achieve a certain purpose. It means that the system is not just a random combination of component parts. To help you visualize the concept of a system, take a look at the following example:

The human body is made up of systems. These systems are made up of body parts that work together to perform particular bodily functions. For instance, the circulatory system, which includes the heart and blood vessels, is in charge of the flow of blood, nutrients, and oxygen around the body. The digestive system deals with the absorption of food nutrients and removal of waste; while the nervous system deals with the reception and interpretation of stimuli to control and manage the body’s actions, and so on. These different body systems are interrelated such that a malfunction in a particular system affects all the other biological systems.

In the same way, society is comprised of systems. The family, the most basic organizational unit in society, is an example of a system. Each of its members, with different personalities, functions and duties, play a significant role as a part of the system. Each system has its own patterns of communication, language and vocabulary use, and rules that depend on elements such as the behavior and shared experiences of its members. A change in any part or element of a system affects the system of communication as a whole. And because each unique individual is a part of a system, we could say that no two systems are exactly alike. Consider the following example:

In a family reunion, Mark overheard his aunt utter the statement, “We’ll talk later,” to her son. She said this in a firm but gentle manner, though in the presence of other guests. Mark understood this as his aunt’s way of reprimanding her son for being too noisy and disruptive. Mark’s own mother used to say this to him as a warning before a scolding. This, however, did not daunt his cousin from running around and making noise.

One family system differs from another’s system. In a family where a parent takes on an authoritarian role, the intended meaning of the statement “We’ll talk later” uttered by a parent to a child in the presence of guests will easily be understood. The same statement uttered in the same context to a child belonging to a family that adopts a more tolerant parenting style will have a different effect on the child. In order to understand the meaning of a statement, it is therefore important to take into account the system in which communication occurs.

The social setting, the physical environment, the physical location of each member or communicator, and the time of day during which the communication takes place are also some of the elements of a communication system. A student whose teacher is also his mother may communicate differently to the same person depending on the setting (in the classroom versus at home) and the roles they take in these settings. In each context, members are supposed to follow certain conventions imposed by the system.

A system may also be a part of a larger system, such as the culture of the society in which the organization is a part of. Each culture has its own system ranging from verbal communication (making use of oral or written language use) to nonverbal communication (making use of actions, gestures, or facial expressions). What may be acceptable in the system of one culture may be unacceptable in the system of another. For example, in some cultures, eye contact is considered offensive or disrespectful. In others, touch is generally inappropriate between male and female individuals. Still, even in these large systems, the system of communication still varies depending on its elements, e.g., an individual member’s behavior, beliefs, ethnicity, or religious affiliations.

In any system (e.g., business organizations, religious groups, and even social media groups), a change in leadership, management, or the behavior of its members would require a change in the patterns of communication. The openness of an organization determines the group’s capacity to accept changes brought about by factors that are not within the system. Open systems are most commonly influenced by mass media or by social media interactions. A close system, on the other hand, attempts to achieve homeostasis, or the state of being unaffected by outside factors, by developing and strictly following routines, habits, rules, policies and procedures, conventions, and cultural traditions. It is, however, impossible for one system to not change and be influenced by any outside factor, especially if it is to function effectively in a similarly changing world.

Communication involves communicators, not just a speaker and a listener.

People often describe communication as a process of transmitting information, where one speaks and the other merely listens. However, a speaker’s role goes beyond simply conveying a message. Neither is the listener’s role just to passively receive the message. Both actively and simultaneously construct meaning out of the conversation. Although it is important for two interlocutors to take turns in speaking, both may send and receive messages simultaneously or at the same time. For instance, while trying to understand the speaker’s message and waiting for his or her turn to speak, the listener’s facial expressions, gestures, or eye contact also communicate a message to the speaker. The speaker receives this message and in turn modifies the way he or she speaks and sometimes even changes the topic of the conversation. Consider this example:

For the first time, Elias is independently presenting his report in front of the class. While discussing the important points of his work, he notices one of his classmates yawn. Another classmate has his forehead creased in confusion, and two others whisper to each other while giving him side glances. This made Elias feel more uncomfortable.

Communication is irreversible.

Since communication is a continuous process, it is impossible for one to actually take back what was said. Once an utterance has left someone’s mouth, the consequences of that statement being uttered has already left an impression on the listeners. Thoughts when put into words become significant representations of experience, and words said in haste or anger may influence possible communication in the future or even destroy relationships. Even in written communication, where messages may be erased or deleted, thoughts and ideas, once transferred, may never be reversed. It is important to be careful with one’s choice of words and use of language.

Communication is proactive.

When people receive information, they actively evaluate the content and purpose of the message and the credibility of the speaker, even when they seem to be listening passively. This is why the audience is a very important factor to consider when giving a public speech. Meaning rests not only in the person who conveys the message. The receiver is also involved in the active construction of meaning.

Communication is symbolic.

Symbols are representations used to communicate and interpret one’s thoughts and feelings. Words, pictures, gestures or anything that may be used to signify or represent another thing, concept, or information is considered a symbol. Symbols are arbitrary, which means that any symbol can be used to represent a concept, that is, as long as the meaning is shared by a group of people. For instance, the letters of the English alphabet are symbols used to form words and convey meaning, the same way the hiragana, katakana, and kanji characters do for the Japanese. These sets of symbols serve the same function for a group of people; however, it is necessary that the meaning of symbols be shared by two communicators in order to understand each other. 

Can two people who do not speak the same language communicate with each other? Yes, people can communicate through other forms, by using nonverbal symbols such as sign language, body language, facial expressions, gestures, and posture. Even the way we dress and present ourselves communicate something to people. However, nonverbal symbols, just like words, are not universal. The meaning of a single gesture may be different in various societies. In Bulgaria, for example, the nodding of the head means a no instead of a yes. However, even for people who are part of the same culture, nonverbal symbols may mean different things. Nonverbal symbols for love, for instance, may vary for different people. Some feel loved by receiving gifts or affirmations from their loved ones; others by being caressed or hugged; and some by being provided services or time. Therefore, in order to interpret the meaning of a particular gesture, the meaning of the symbol in a particular context must be taken into account.

Meaning in communication is individually construed.

Individuals involved in communication play a significant role in meaning construction, which means that they actively create meaning taken from experiences or phenomena through symbolic representation. There is no one definite meaning in a particular experience. People give their own meaning to a phenomenon using their schema or background knowledge, previous experiences, ways of viewing things, behaviors, principles, or attitudes. For example, a farmer would view the rain differently from a commuter who forgot his umbrella on – the way to work. The rain’s pouring may be the same phenomenon but it is given different meanings depending on the context. For the farmer, the rain may be a symbol of a bountiful harvest; while for the commuter, it may mean getting soaked in the rain or perhaps, being late for work.

This attachment of meaning to a phenomenon works the same way with words. A male professor’s compliment, for example, may be received negatively by a female. student and call it harassment. Meanings, therefore, depend on people, not words. Meanings of symbols differ depending on how the people involved in communication use or understand them. Over time, the meaning of words may change. For example, the word “mouse” only refers to a rodent in the past. Nowadays, it may also refer to a computer hardware device. Before, the word “awful” used to mean “worthy of awe” or awesome, the complete opposite of what it means today.

Using the nature of communication as our guide, we can now define communication as “a systemic process, in which people interact with and through symbols to create and interpret meanings” (Wood, 2006).