Interpersonal Communication: A Definition

A comment on one of my posts came from a student studying interpersonal communication who was not sure what interpersonal communication was. [Hopefully, she was not using one of my books.] So, I thought I'd post this definition/explanation which comes from the revision manuscript of my Interpersonal Messages 2/e. I hope it helps.
Interpersonal communication is the verbal and nonverbal interaction between two interdependent people (sometimes more). This relatively simple definition implies a variety of characteristics.

(1) Interpersonal Communication Involves Interdependent Individuals
Interpersonal communication is the communication that takes place between people who are in some way “connected.” Interpersonal communication would thus include what takes place between a son and his father, an employer and an employee, two sisters, a teacher and a student, two lovers, two friends, and so on. Although largely dyadic in nature interpersonal communication is often extended to include small intimate groups such as the family. Even within a family however, the communication that takes place is often dyadic—mother to child, sister to sister, and so on.
Not only are the individuals simply “connected,” they are also interdependent, what one person does has an impact on the other person. The actions of one person have consequences for the other person. In a family, for example, a child’s trouble with the police will impact on the parents, other siblings, extended family members, and perhaps friends and neighbors.

(2) Interpersonal Communication Is Inherently Relational
Because of this interdependency, interpersonal communication is inevitably and essentially relational in nature. Interpersonal communication takes place in a relationship, it impacts the relationship, it defines the relationship. The way you communicate is determined in great part by the kind of relationship that exists between you and the other person. You interact differently with your interpersonal communication instructor and your best friend; you interact with a sibling in ways very different from the ways you interact with a neighbor, a work colleague, or a casual acquaintance.
But notice also that the way you communicate will influence the kind of relationship you have. If you interact in friendly ways, you’re likely to develop a friendship. If you regularly exchange hateful and hurtful messages, you’re likely to develop an antagonistic relationship. If you each regularly express respect and support for each other, a respectful and supportive relationship is likely to develop. This is surely one of the most obvious observations you can make about interpersonal communication. And yet, so many seem not to appreciate this very clear relationship between what you say and the relationship that develops (or deteriorates).

(3) Interpersonal Communication Exists on a Continuum
Interpersonal communication exists along a continuum, ranging from relatively impersonal at one end to highly personal at the other. At the impersonal end of the continuum, you have simple conversation between people who, we’d say, really don’t know each other—the server and the customer, for example. At the highly personal end is the communication that takes place between people who are intimately interconnected—a father and son, two long time lovers, or best friends, for example. A few characteristics distinguish the impersonal from the personal forms of communication (the first three are based on Gerald Miller’s widely used analysis.
• Role vs. Personal Information. Notice that in the impersonal example, the individuals are likely to respond to each other according to the role they are currently playing; the server treats the customer not as a unique individual but as one of many customers. And the customer, in turn, acts towards the server not as a unique individual but as he or she would react to any server. The father and the son, however, react to each other as unique individuals. They act on the basis of personal information.
• Societal vs. Personal Rules. Notice too that the server and the customer interact according to the rules of society governing the server-customer interaction. The father and the son, on the other hand, interact on the basis of personally established rules. The way they address each other, their touching behavior, and their degree of physical closeness, for example, are unique to them and are established by them rather than by society.
• Predictive and Explanatory Data. In impersonal relationships you're able to predict the other person's behavior with only a fair likelihood of accuracy. For example, you can predict (to a modest extent) some of the behaviors of the other students in your class. But, as you get to observe and interact with them over time—that is, as you get to know them better, your accuracy in prediction increases and, in addition, you’ll also begin to explain their behaviors (at least to some extent). That is, as you move along the continuum from impersonal to highly personal, your ability to predict and explain behaviors increases.
• Social vs. Personal Messages. Still another difference is found in the messages exchanged. The messages that the server and customer exchange, for example, are themselves impersonal; there is little self-disclosure and little emotional content, for example. Between the father-son, however, the messages may run the entire range and may at times be highly personal with lots of disclosure and emotion.

(4) Interpersonal Communication Involves Verbal and Nonverbal Messages
The interpersonal interaction involves the exchange of verbal and nonverbal messages. The words you use as well as your facial expressions--your eye contact and your body posture, for example, send messages. Likewise, you receive messages through your sense of hearing as well as through your other senses especially visual and touch. Even silence sends messages. These messages, as you’ll see throughout this course, will vary greatly depending on the other factors involved in the interaction. You don’t talk to a best friend in the same way you talk to your college professor or your parents.

(5) Interpersonal Communication Exists in Varied Forms
Often interpersonal communication takes place face-to-face: talking with other students before class, interacting with family or friends over dinner, trading secrets with intimates. This is the type of interaction that probably comes to mind when you think of interpersonal communication. But, of course, much conversation takes place online. Online communication is a major part of people’s interpersonal experience throughout the world. Such communications are important personally, socially, and professionally.

(6) Interpersonal Communication Is Transactional
Some early theories viewed the communication process as linear.In this linear view of communication, the speaker spoke and the listener listened; after the speaker finished speaking, the listener would speak. Communication was seen as proceeding in a relatively straight line. Speaking and listening were seen as taking place at different times—when you spoke, you didn’t listen; and when you listened, you didn’t speak.
A more satisfying view, and the one currently held by most communication theorists, sees communication as a transactional process in which each person serves simultaneously as speaker and listener. According to the transactional view, at the same time that you send messages, you’re also receiving messages from your own communications and from the reactions of the other person. And at the same time that you’re listening, you’re also sending messages. In a transactional view, each person is seen as both speaker and listener, as simultaneously communicating and receiving messages.


Anonymous said...

But, of course, much conversation takes place online. Online communication is a major part of people’s interpersonal experience throughout the world.

I'm really interested that you've addressed this... in one of my communication papers a year or so back, my tutor was convinced that 'real' interpersonal communication could only take place face-to-face where non-verbal and verbal cues were both immediately accessible; that telephone conversations were only just barely inter-personal; and that online interactions like e-mail and IM converastions weren't at all. She classed both of the latter as forms of 'mediated' communications, and held that to the degree that something was a mediated communication, it couldn't (to the same degree) be inter-personal... as though the two things were mutually exclusive.

That never sat right with me (since some of my more inter-personal conversations happen via IM or through comments-based conversations on my blog), but I couldn't find any material to argue the point.

Thanks for the alternative point of view!

Anonymous said...

Interesting article you got here. I'd like to read something more about this theme. The only thing this blog misses is a photo of some blocker.

desi said...

I read and use your book in my class. Indeed, interpersonal communication book is one of my favorite book. Thank you for writing it.

ps. I hope you write more book about relational communication.

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