The prefix meta- can mean a variety of things but as used in communication, philosophy, and psychology it’s meaning is best translated as about. Thus, metacommunication is communication about communication, metalanguage is language about language, and metamessage is a message about a message.
Look at it this way. You can communicate about the world—about the desk you’re sitting at, the computer you’re using, or the passage you’re reading right now. We refer to this as object communication; you’re talking about objects. And the language you’re using is called an object language. But notice that you’re not limited to talking about objects; you can also talk about your talk; you can communicate about your communication. And this is referred to as metacommunication. In the same way, you can use language (i.e., metalanguage) to talk about language (i.e., object language). And you can talk about your messages with metamessages.
The distinction between object communication and metacommunication is not merely academic; it’s extremely practical and recognizing the difference between these two forms of communication is essential in untangling lots of conflicts and understanding a wide variety of interpersonal communication interactions.
Actually, you use this distinction every day, perhaps without realizing it. For example, when you send someone an e-mail with a seemingly sarcastic comment and then put a smiley at the end, the smiley communicates about your communication; it says something like “this message is not to be taken literally; I’m trying to be humorous.” The smiley is a metamessage; it’s a message about a message. When you say, in preface to some comment, “I’m not sure about this but. . .” you’re communicating a message about a message; you’re commenting on the message and asking that it be understood with the qualification that you may be wrong. When you conclude a comment with “I’m only kidding” you’re metacommunicating; you’re communicating about the communication.
In relationship communication you often talk in metalanguage and say things like, “we really need to talk about the way we communicate when we’re out with company” or “you’re too critical” or “I love when you tell me how much you love me.” In fact, it might be argued that relationship or couples therapy is largely (though not entirely) a process of exploring your communication patterns through metacommunication, through talking about the way you talk to and about each other.
And, of course, you can use nonverbal messages to metacommunicate. You can wink at someone to indicate that you’re only kidding, look longingly into another eyes when you say “I love you” to show that you really mean it, or sneer after saying “Yeah, that was great,” with the sneer contradicting the literal meaning of the verbal message.
In a similar way, meta- can prefix a large number of terms to distinguish them from their object counterparts. Thus, you can have, say, a theory about the way communication works or about first encounters or about persuasion but you can also have a metatheory, a theory about theories. For example, when you consider the qualities that a theory must have (say, it must have clearly defined terms and be capable of being disproven), these are metatheoretical statements; they are statements about theories and not about the way communication works or about first encounters or about persuasion; they are about theories as theories.
Like all your communication, your metacommunication may be used both effectively and ineffectively. Generally, it’s helpful to analyze your talking patterns and the ways in which you and your partner or management and workers, say, relate to each other. This is good; this is the effective use of metacommunication and can often lead to significant improvements in your own relationships. But, when you substitute talking about your communication for talking about a problem, you’re likely to create more problems than you had originally. For example, let’s say you’re part of a couple discussing your child’s getting into trouble with the police. As long as the conversation is focused on the child and the trouble with the police, it seems you’re addressing the problem at hand. But, there is also a tendency to substitute talk about the talk for talk about the problem. Let’s say one person says “You’re just an uncaring parent.” Then the other person focuses on being called “uncaring” and the conversation now veers off into whether “uncaring” is justified and may entail a list of all the actions that demonstrated a great deal of caring. The conversation (and soon-to-be argument) is now between the parents and their view of each other. When this type of talk becomes the sole or main topic of conversation, you’re into what is called a metacommunication spiral, with your talk focusing more and more on the ways you talk and less and less on the problem of the child.
So, the lessons to be learned from metacommunication are two fold: (1) use metacommunication to improve your interpersonal and relationship communication—to preface important messages or to analyze and ultimately improve relationship communication, for example, and (2) avoid metacommunication when it substitutes for addressing an immediate problem.