The Contexts of Communication

The words “I love you” did not always express the most profound feeling a person can have toward another. During the time of William Shakespeare, the famous playwright, the words “I love you” meant someone likes another person very much. To express a deep commitment to someone, a person had to say, “I cherish thee.”

How you communicate with others depends on several elements of communication. One of them is the concept of speech acts. Speech acts relate to actions done by saying them. Learning about speech acts will enhance your knowledge of communication and help you become more capable than responding the what others say as well as utter a correct sentence that you need to influence others. Another concept is the speech context. Speech context can be intrapersonal, interpersonal, (dyad or small group), public, and intercultural. The kind of speech context depends on the number and, in the case of intercultural speech context, the identity of the listeners. You need to understand how to behave in different speech contexts.

Another element of communication is the setting. There are two kinds of communication settings – informal and formal – each having its own characteristic and requirements for proper communication. Finally, you will study in this lesson the five kinds of speech styles described by Martin Joos in his book, The Five Clocks. Speech style involves the way participants communicate, including pronunciation, word choice, grammar, and other characteristics of speech. Styles can be intimate, casual, consultative, formal, and frozen. Each of them requires different manners of speaking and other factors affecting communication. By understanding and applying these topics, you are expected to become more competent in communication.

Appropriate Verbal and Nonverbal Behavior in Different Speech Contexts

The previous lesson discussed types of communication, based on speech context; they are intrapersonal, interpersonal (dyad and small group), public, and intercultural. This section discusses the appropriate verbal and nonverbal behavior in different speech contexts. Different speech contexts require shifts or changes in verbal and nonverbal behavior. Proper functioning in different speech contexts upholds good understanding, prevents a breakdown in communication, and facilitates the interaction between participants.


Since intrapersonal communication involves talking to oneself, this is the context in which verbal and nonverbal communication should be minimized. Typically, you do not verbalize that you communicate to yourself. Thus, pauses, loudness or softness, rhythm, repetition, rephrasing, tone, and language form are not factors in your speech. However, an exception holds true if you are an auditory type of person who needs to listen to process information and learn. In this case, you would need to verbalize and speak your thoughts. You must be careful, however, in the use of verbal language, particularly for loudness or tone of your voice so that you can act within acceptable behavior in society.

Intrapersonal communication also minimizes the need for nonverbal communication, especially gestures. Other elements of nonverbal communication are also to be kept to a minimum, such as posture and facial expression. A minor exception, in this case, maybe given to persons who are haptic – people who need to touch and move to learn and process information. However, this must also be done within acceptable societal limits, particularly gestures.


Interpersonal communication, particularly when speaking in dyads, requires decreasing the nature of some verbal and nonverbal elements of communication. For example, you need not raise your voice when speaking in a small group and much less so when speaking in dyads. Otherwise, you may be considered irritating or impolite, nor do you have to emphasize the rhythm of your speech. However, you must still employ a tone of voice that is appropriate to the discussion. In addition to verbal language, you must also make adjustments to nonverbal elements of your communication. For instance, you need to keep your gestures small and less frequent.

In some cultures, gesture should be minimized. Eye contact, however, looking at the speaker in the eye helps maintain communication and concentration for both the speaker and the listener. You must note, however, that the size of your eyes and position of your eyeballs are more evident in dyads and small group discussions. For this reason, a relaxed gaze must be maintained. Looking at your partner or co-interlocutors in a different manner might convey to them a message that they do not intend and lead to miscommunication. In addition, good posture must be maintained both the produce an appropriate stance before your partner or co-participants. You must avoid any posture that may be deemed impolite or indifferent in the cultural setting of your communication.  You must also avoid unnecessary movements like too much shifting or changing from sitting to standing or vice versa. Realize also that in small groups and more so in dyads, your facial expression is more obvious both when you are speaking and when you are listening. For this reason, you must maintain appropriate facial expression that supports the information you are saying, the emotion you’re conveying, or the feedback you are returning to the speaker.

The effect of verbal and nonverbal aspects of communication may be magnified when engaging in interpersonal communication. That is why a participant, whether listening or speaking, must be careful in using appropriate verbal and nonverbal elements of communication.


One salient characteristic of speaking in public is that there is a more considerable distance between the speaker and his listeners than in dyads or small group discussions. Because of this, the speaker must exert more effort at using both verbal and nonverbal elements of communication to effectively send his/her message across the audience.  For instance, the speaker may have to speak more loudly if he or she is not speaking with the enhancement offered by sound equipment. The speaker must also talk in a more exaggerated rhythm so that he or she can maintain the attention of the audience.

For the same reason, a significant amount of exaggeration should also apply to the speaker’s tone of voice. Public speaking may also require the speaker to take more pauses than he or she does in speaking small groups of dyads, not only to allow the audience to catch up, but also to observe if the audience understand him or her. Repetition and rephrasing also become more crucial because there is always the possibility that someone in the audience has not heard correctly a particular utterance the first time.

Equally necessary are the adjustments a public speaker must make regarding nonverbal language. For instance, the gestures the speaker makes must be much larger than when speaking in a dyad or in a small group. This is because the distance between the speaker and the audience makes the actions look small. The speaker must then compensate for this by using broader gestures. The decrease in apparent size caused by the distance between the speaker and audience also requires the speaker to make the adjustments so that the audience will see his or her eyes better if he intends to communicate using them. A speaker might, for instance, have to lean closer to the audience so they can see his or her eyes better. Also, because of the number of listeners, the speaker cannot look at only one member of the audience but must shift eye contact from one person to another. In the case of the audience, however, the need to look the speaker in the eyes is lessened because the speaker may be able to do so with other members of the audience. The distance between the speaker and the audience also affects the audience’s ability to see the speaker’s facial expressions. That is why, the speaker must exaggerate his or her facial expressions compared with talking before small groups or dyads.

In addition to gestures, facial expressions, and eye contact, the speaker in front of an audience has the responsibility of matching the content of the speech with a proper posture. Good posture before the public audience makes the speech more dynamic an attractive. Poor posture sends the message that the speaker is not very interested in speaking before the audience. Finally, a good speaker makes use of good proxemics – the use of space. Some speakers like moving away from the podium, especially if it looks too big as to conceal a significant portion of their body. Other speakers like speaking in the close to the middle of an audience giving more sense of intimacy. Other speakers also love walking around the stage and gesturing wildly, but this must be optimally done as making a lot of walking movements coupled with making wild gestures may distract or irritate the audience especially if the setting is more formal.

A special case of speaking before a public audience is broadcasting through radio, TV, or digital emerging media. Speaking using radio or any other media not showing the speaker obviously necessitates excellent use of voice. The discussion on verbal communication is thus magnified in this case. In the case of TV or any other media showing the speaker, there are techniques known to train specialists regarding how to focus the camera on the speaker. The speaker in this case also needs excellent use of facial expressions and projection when the camera zooms away and focuses on more parts of the body.

Speaking before a public audience requires very good use of verbal and nonverbal communication.


Intercultural communication requires a lot of caution in communicating cross-culturally.  A speaker must be aware of the possible difference in his or her connotation of a word and a connotation given to it by people of other culture. For example, in some countries, the color white does not have a good connotation. It connotes barrenness, emptiness, and even death. Concerning this, speakers must also be aware that the message they try to send using metaphors may not be the same message received by the cross-cultural listeners. For example, using the word shepherd as a metaphor for someone who is caring may not be appreciated by people from another culture which views shepherds us, drunkards.

People from other cultures may also differ in how they interpret loudness or softness of the speaker’s voice, mainly if the speaker is a woman. People from different cultures may also appreciate the speaking rhythm of a speaker differently. Some may not appreciate staccato (speaking fast in short sentences) or sing-song (alternating high and low pitch and volume) rhythm. Most importantly, the tone of voice of a speaker differs significantly from one culture to another. For this reason, a speaker must be careful about the way he or she speaks in an intercultural context.

People from a different culture may differ in their interpretation of nonverbal elements of communication. Some cultures did not allow speakers to make gestures unless it is clear that the speaker is angry. Other cultures do not let people wave their left hand. Different cultures give a different meaning to different fingers being outstretched. In other cultures, making direct eye contact is not polite, particularly between sexes. Some facial expressions may be funny, sad, or offensive to some cultures. Some postures that are acceptable in your culture may show arrogance or disrespect in some other cultures. Speaking in an intercultural setting requires knowledge of other peoples ways of communicating.

In any context of communication, sensitivity to the reaction of participants is very important. Speakers must be ready to pick up what others are trying to express.