Communication Strategies: Metacommunication

Here's a brief explanation of metacommunication, surely not enough to do this important topic justice--but a start.
The prefix meta- can mean a variety of things (Give examples), but as used in communication, philosophy, and psychology, its meaning is best translated as about. Thus, metacommunication is communication about communication, metalanguage is language about language, and a 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. This is called object communication; you’re talking about objects. And the language you’re using is called object language. But 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 (that is, metalanguage) to talk about language (that is, object language). And you can talk about your messages with metamessages.
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 your 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.”
And, of course, you can also use nonverbal messages to metacommunicate. You can wink at someone to indicate that you’re only kidding or sneer after saying “Yeah, that was great,” with the sneer contradicting the literal meaning of the verbal message.
Here are a few suggestions for increasing your metacommunication effectiveness:
< Explain the feelings that go with your thoughts.
< Give clear feedforward to help the other person get a general picture of the messages that will follow.
< Paraphrase your own complex messages so as to make your meaning extra clear. Similarly, check on your understanding of another’s message by paraphrasing what you think the other person means.
< Ask for clarification if you have doubts about another’s meaning.
< Use metacommunication when you want to clarify the communication patterns between yourself and another person: “I’d like to talk about the way you talk about me to our friends” or “I think we should talk about the way we talk about sex.”
< Be careful that you don’t substitute talk about talk for talk about the issues. It’s easy in an argument, say, to focus on the talk—for example, objecting to the terms the other person is using or the tone of voice—and avoiding talking about the infidelity or the gambling debts.


Cyberflirting etc

Here is a startling statistic from a survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and reported in The Week magazine (December 17, 2010, p. 8): 20 percent of divorces filed involved cyber flirting and affairs arising from Facebook messages. I checked the website (www.aaml.org) and couldn’t find exactly that statistic but I did discover there a wealth of material on the role of cyber flirting and e-communication generally and their impact on interpersonal (mainly romantic) relationships.

Emotional Checker

Take a look at this website for an emotional message checker. Much like a spell checker alerts you to words that are not in the software’s dictionary and that therefore are probably spelled incorrectly, this tone-check reviews your e-mail messages for highly emotional words and alerts you to the possibility that the use of these words might violate the tone you want to use. It evaluates words for eight emotions (from the positive to the negative): affection, enjoyment, amusement, contentment, sadness, fear, anger, and humiliation. The site offers an excellent demo on its major functions.

New Communication Words

Here is a great article on new words introduced in 2010. The words in the communication section are: coffice, halfalogue, sofalize, mansplainer, and social graph. I won’t spoil the fun of guessing what these words mean by giving their definitions here. They’re given in the article.


Communication Strategies: Feedback

Throughout the communication process, you exchange feedback—messages sent back to the speaker concerning reactions to what is said. Feedback tells the speaker what effect she or he is having on listeners. On the basis of this feedback, the speaker may adjust, modify, strengthen, de-emphasize, or change the content or form of the messages.
Feedback may come from you or from others. When you send a message—say, in speaking to another person—you also hear yourself. As you type in an email or text message, you also see what you’ve typed. That is, you get feedback from your own messages: you hear what you say, you feel the way you move, and you see what you write.
In addition to this self-feedback, you get feedback from others. This feedback can take many forms. A frown or a smile, a yea or a nay, a pat on the back or a punch in the mouth are all types of feedback. Sometimes feedback is easy to identify, but sometimes it isn’t. Part of the art of effective communication is to discern feedback and adjust your messages on the basis of that feedback.
Each feedback opportunity presents you with choices along at least the following five dimensions: positive–negative, person focused–message focused, immediate–delayed, low monitored–high monitored, and supportive–critical. To use feedback effectively, you need to make educated choices along these dimensions.
< Positive–Negative. Feedback may be positive (you pay a compliment or pat someone on the back) or negative (you criticize someone or scowl). Positive feedback tells the speaker that he or she is on the right track and should continue communicating in essentially the same way. Negative feedback tells the speaker that something is wrong and that some adjustment should be made.
< Person Focused–Message Focused. Feedback may center on the person (“You’re sweet” or “You have a great smile”). Or it may center on the message (“Can you repeat that number?” or “Your argument is a good one”).
< Immediate–Delayed. In interpersonal situations, feedback is often sent immediately after the message is received; you smile or say something in response almost simultaneously with your receiving the message. In other communication situations, however, the feedback may be delayed. Instructor evaluation questionnaires completed at the end of a course provide feedback long after the class began.
< Low-Monitoring–High-Monitoring Feedback. Feedback varies from the spontaneous and totally honest reaction (low-monitored feedback) to the carefully constructed response designed to serve a specific purpose (high-monitored feedback). In most interpersonal situations, you probably give feedback spontaneously; you allow your responses to show without any monitoring. At other times, however, you may be more guarded, as when your boss asks you how you like your job.
< Supportive–Critical. Supportive feedback accepts the speaker and what the speaker says. It occurs, for example, when you console another, encourage him or her to talk, or otherwise confirm the person’s definition of self. Critical feedback, on the other hand, is evaluative; it’s judgmental. When you give critical feedback (whether positive or negative), you judge another’s performance—as in, for example, coaching someone learning a new skill.
Of course, these categories are not exclusive. Feedback does not have to be either critical or supportive; it can be both. For example, in talking with someone who is trying to become a more effective interviewer, you might critically evaluate a practice interview but also express support for the effort. Similarly, you might respond to a friend’s question immediately and then after a day or two elaborate on your response. Because each situation is unique, it’s difficult to offer specific suggestions for making your feedback more effective. But, with some adjustments for the specifics of the situation, the following guides might prove helpful:
< Focus on the behavior or the message rather than the motives behind the message or behavior. Say, for example, “You forgot my birthday” rather than “You don’t love me.”
< If your feedback is largely negative, try to begin with something positive. There are always positives if you look hard enough. The negatives will be much easier to take, after hearing some positives.
< Ask for feedback on your feedback, for example, say “Does this make sense?” “Do you understand what I want our relationship to be?”
< When you’re the recipient of feedback, be sure to show your interest in feedback. This is vital information that will help you improve whatever you’re doing. Encourage the feedback giver. Be open to hearing this feedback. Don’t argue; don’t be defensive.
< Check your perceptions. Do you understand the feedback? Ask questions. Not all feedback is easy to understand; after all, a wink, a backward head nod, or a smile can each signal a variety of different messages. When you don’t understand the meaning of the feedback, ask for clarification (nondefensively, of course). Paraphrase the feedback you’ve just received to make sure you both understand it: “You’d be comfortable taking over the added responsibilities if I went back to school?”


$5 Off

$5 Off

The $5 off coupon and the large percentage reductions provide good examples of media literacy and its relevance to everyday living. Increasingly we see coupons for saving money at the various stores. One such one is Bed Bath & Beyond. The coupon says “$5 off any purchase of $15 or more.” Not a bad deal or so you’d think. Then, at the bottom of the ad, in very small print—print most people would need glasses to read—is a list of exclusions—in this case, over 40. And here is an ad for Michaels—40% off any one regular price item—followed by a list of exclusions in print too small to read. And then there’s Macy’s—15% off in large letters, followed by a list of exclusions—again, in small print.
So, what’s the idea? Well, it seems to me (and I could be wrong) that at last part of the idea is to have you read the big print, select the items to be purchased, present the coupon, and then be told that this item is excluded from the $5 offer, the 40% discount, or the 15% off. Then, what do you do? You can hold up the line and argue? Go back for a similar product that is covered? Refuse to purchase the item? Most likely, you’ll just buy it without the discount. I think the media literacy lesson here is: Expect to be fooled. Look at how an ad, any ad, is trying to fool you. Chances are it’s doing exactly that.



I want to broaden The Communication Blog to include items that the general reader who has a casual interest in communication might want to read. I also want to include the person who is in college or who made it through college without the benefit of a communication course, now realizes the importance of communication, and wants to learn some of the basic concepts, principles, and especially skills. So, in addition to the focus on instructors teaching and students taking one of the basic communication courses, I’m adding these more general skills-oriented items, which I’m calling Communication Strategies. Some of these will come from one or more of my textbooks and some will be new. After posting about 100 of these, I hope to have a popular book, 100 Communication Strategies for Success at Home and at Work. With this as a preface, it seems appropriate to begin with feedforward.

Communication Strategies: Feedforwar
Literary and rhetorical critic, I. A. Richards, once remarked that there was nothing he learned that was more important than the concept of feedforward. It’s an essential part of any communication act and yet is regularly ignored in many, if not most, of our textbooks. This is especially strange since we all give much attention to feedback; the other half needs to be given its due.
Feedforward is information you provide before sending your primary message. Feedforward reveals something about the message to come. Feedforward exists in all forms of communication. Examples of feedforward include the preface or table of contents of a book, the opening paragraph of a chapter, movie previews, magazine covers, and introductions in public speeches. Feedforward may serve a variety of functions. Here are some of the major functions:
< To Open the Channels of Communication. Feedforward helps you open the channels of communication and tells you another person is willing to communicate. It tells you that the normal, expected, and accepted rules of interaction will be in effect. It’s the “How are you” and “Nice weather” greetings that are designed to maintain rapport and friendly relationships.
< To Preview the Message. Feedforward messages may, for example, preview the content (“I’m afraid I have bad news for you”), the importance (“Listen to this before you make a move”), the form or style (“I’ll tell you all the gory details”), and the positive or negative quality of subsequent messages (“You’re not going to like this, but here’s what I heard”). The subject heading on your e-mail illustrates this function of feedforward, as do the phone numbers and names that come up on your caller ID.
< To Disclaim. The disclaimer is a statement that aims to ensure that your message will be understood as you want it to be and that it will not reflect negatively on you. For example, you might use a disclaimer when you think that what you’re going to say may be met with opposition. Thus, you say “I’m not against immigration, but . . .” or “Don’t think I’m homophobic, but . . .”
< To Altercast. Feedforward is often used to place the receiver in a specific role and to request responses in terms of this assumed role, a process called altercasting. For example, you might altercast by asking a friend, “As a future advertising executive, what would you think of corrective advertising?” This question casts your friend in the role of advertising executive (rather than parent, Democrat, or Baptist, for example) and asks that she or he answer from a particular perspective.
Here are a few suggestions for giving effective feedforward.
< Use feedforward to estimate the receptivity of the person to what you’re going to say. For example, before asking for a date, you’d probably use feedforward to test the waters and to see if you’re likely to get a “yes” response. You might ask if the other person enjoys going out to dinner or if he or she is dating anyone seriously. Before asking a friend for a loan, you’d probably feedforward your needy condition and say something like “I’m really strapped for cash and need to get my hands on $200 to pay my car loan” and wait for the other person to say (you hope), “Can I help?”
< Use feedforward that’s consistent with your subsequent message. If your main message is one of bad news, then your feedforward needs to be serious and help to prepare the other person for this bad news. You might, for example, say something like “I need to tell you something you’re not going to want to hear. Let’s sit down.”
< The more important or complex the message, the more important and more extensive your feedforward needs to be. For example, in public speaking, in which the message is relatively long, you’d probably want to give fairly extensive feedforward or what is called an orientation or preview. At the start of a business meeting, the leader may give feedforward in the form of an agenda or meeting schedule.
< Avoid using overly long feedforwards that make your listener wonder whether you’ll ever get to the business at hand. These will make you seem disorganized and lacking in focus.


Politeness as a Theory of Relationship Development

Here is a brief and very preliminary discussion of what politeness as a theory of relationship development might look like:

Among the theories of interpersonal relationship development are such well known entries as social exchange theory, social penetration, rules theory, uncertainty reduction, equity, and a variety of others. Politeness theory needs to be added to this list. It would go something like this:

Two people develop a relationship when each respects, contributes to, and acknowledges the positive and negative face needs of the other and it deteriorates when they don'

"Positive face" is the need to be thought of highly, to be valued, to be esteemed. In more communication terms, respect for positive face entails the exchange of compliments, praise, and general positivity. "Negative face" is the need to be autonomous, to be in control of one's own behavior, to not be obligated to do something. In more communication terms, respect for negative face entails the exchange of permission requests (rather than demands), messages indicating that a person's time is valuable and respected, and few if any imposed obligations. It would also entail providing the other person an easy "way out" when a request is made.

Relationships develop when these needs are met. Relationships will be maintained when the rules of politeness are maintained. And relationships will deteriorate when the rules of politeness are bent, violated too often, or ignored completely. Relationship repair will be effected by a process of reinstituting the rules of politeness. Politeness, of course, is not the entire story; it's just a piece. It won't explain all the reasons for relationship development or deterioration but it explains a part of the processes. It won't explain, for example, why so many people stay in abusive and unsatisfying relationships. It's major weakness seems to be that politeness needs for specific individuals are difficult to identify--what is politeness to one person, may be perceived as rude or insensitive to another.

And, perhaps not surprisingly, politeness seems to be relaxed as the relationship becomes more intimate. As the relationship becomes more intimate and long-lasting, there is greater relationship license to violate the normal rules of politeness. This may well be a mistake, at least in certain relationships. Our needs for positive and negative face do not go away when a relationship becomes more intimate; they're still there. If the definitions of politeness are themselves relaxed by the individuals, then there seems little problem. There is a problem when the definitions--relaxed or original--are not shared by the individuals; when one assumes the acceptability of something generally considered impolite as o.k. while the other does not.

When people in relationships complain that they are not respected, are not valued as they used to be when they were dating, and that their relationship is not romantic, they may well be talking about politeness. And so, on the more positive side, it offers very concrete suggestions for developing, maintaining, and repairing interpersonal relationships, namely: increase politeness by contributing to the positive and negative face needs of the other person.


How to Write a Lot

Here is a Word file of a brief article I wrote and which appears in the current issue of ETC: A Review of General Semantics and here with permission.

How to Write a Lot
Four Rules
Joseph A. DeVito

A lot has been written about effective writing. For example, the largest selling textbooks, for the largest college course (English Composition), are the basic English handbooks used to teach the skills of effective writing, attesting to society's conviction in the importance of effective writing and its concern with teaching the skills of effective writing. The importance of effective writing has even penetrated the best seller lists with such books as Eats, Shoots & Leaves and the continuing success of Strunk and White's Elements of Style. A search of "writing skills" on amazon.com/books yielded 46,769 results. And a Google search of the same phrase yielded 5, 190,000 sites, many of these devoted to teaching people in business the skills they never learned in college--despite the current emphasis.
But what about writing a lot? Surely there is some merit in writing a lot. And, contrary to what many who write little may argue, there seems no evidence to suggest that quantity is in any way negatively related to quality. Yet many persist in the belief that if you write a lot you can't be writing "good." But consider: Is Shakespeare any less a playwright because he wrote a lot? Similarly, for John Updike who has written some 60 books, for Joyce Carol Oats who has written over 100, and Isaac Asimov who wrote over 200. The same is true in the academic world. Those who write a great deal are in no way inferior to those who write little; instead, those who write a great deal seem (to me, at least) to be among the best writers and most significant contributors to their field.
This is not to say that there are some who write a great deal but are known not for quality but only their prolificacy. There are these people as well but they certainly don't define the class of prolific writers.
With this as a preface--to help de-demonize the writer who writes a lot--here are four "don'ts" that a writer might follow to write a lot. In the interest of avoiding allness, each of these "don'ts" comes with a "however."

Don't No. 1. Don't Delay

Don't wait to sit in your favorite chair with a cup of coffee at your computer to write. If you're on a bus and a thought hits you, write it down on the paper and pen you always keep with you. Louis L'Amour, the prolific Western writer, said that he could write in the middle of Times Square. And, though I doubt that he tried, I'm sure he could have. It's that attitude that helps you write a lot. And don't wait for inspiration which may or may not come. Novelist Peter deVries put this in perspective: "I only write when I am inspired. And I see to it that I am inspired at 9 o'clock every morning."
However, there are many instances from literature of prolific writers who only wrote at certain times or in certain ways. And it obviously worked for them. Tolstoy wrote in the morning, Dostoyevsky late at night, and Benjamin Franklin and Edmond Rostand at any time but preferably in the bathtub.

Don't No. 2. Don't Edit

Don't edit, evaluate, or self-censor your own work. This can come later. Pausing to evaluate may be an indication of fear of being able to move on and so you pause and evaluate, censoring more and more ideas. This suggestion is nothing more than a repeat of the brainstorming rule: "Don't Evaluate". Creativity and the easy flow of ideas work best when uncensored.
However, at some point you need to separate what works from what doesn't and here you need to start evaluating. But, only after you've written a lot.
At some point you'll need to spell and grammar check and edit what you've written but just don't do it at the point of creation. You can always fine tune your sentences at a later, editing stage. Thomas Wolfe approached this differently, He simply wrote as much as possible and then left it up to his editor to cut and edit his length prose. Fortunately for Wolfe, his editor was the famed Max Perkins, the editor, not only of Wolfe but also of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

Don't No. 3. Don't Stop

Don't stop your writing or interrupt your creative flow by looking up a word, finding a statistic, or locating an apt quotation. These are often stall tactics, similar to sharpening pencils in the olden days, and are best avoided at this point. Instead, consider writing directly into your manuscript a note to yourself (I call these NTM, notes to myself) such as "needs a good quotation here" or "rewrite in plain English!" (one of my favorites).
If something is giving you trouble, don't stop to resolve the problem. Continue writing and go on to the next point--perhaps, again, making a note to yourself--"this statement needs research support" or "a good example would really help here." If you stop to find the research support or the example, you're likely to lose your writing momentum--too large a price for finding the information right now.
However, under some circumstances you'll want a break. If that's the case, take a break and you might want to use the time to find that quotation or example. Or you might want to integrate breaks into your writing routine. Dan Brown, author of The DaVinci Code, for example, sets a clock, write for one hour, and then takes an exercise break and does pushups and stretches. Taking a break when you want it is perfectly acceptable and leads easily into our next and final suggestion.

Don't No. 4. Don't Follow Rules

"You have to write every day" is one of the time-honored rules for prolific writers. William Zinsser, in his popular On Writing Well--now in its 30 anniversary edition--echoes the advice originally given by Balzac ("You must write one page each day."): "The only way to learn is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis." This suggestion is not surprising coming from Balzac who tried to write for 24 hours at a stretch, aided by lots of black coffee from which he supposedly died.
Not only is there no evidence to support this claim, there's good reason for believing otherwise. Rules like this make writing work and that's not going to help you write a lot. The more that writing is fun, enjoyable, exciting, engaging, interesting, etc., the more you'll write. And that's perhaps the clearest rule for writing a lot: Write a lot. Basically, the less rule-bound, the more enjoyable the experience will be and the more likely you'll write a lot. After all, why spend a great deal of time doing something you don't like?
However, some people do need rules and it helps to recognize this. If you find that you write more when you follow a set pattern (from 9-12, Monday through Friday, say) then do so. If you want to set a quota, then do so. After all it worked for Hemingway who had a quota of 500 words and it works for Stephen King who uses ten pages (around 2000 words) as his guideline.
Perhaps the best "don't" comes from playwright Lillian Hellman: "If I had to give young writers advice, I'd say don't listen to writers talking about writing."

Joseph A. DeVito is Professor Emeritus of Communication at Hunter College of the City University of New York and, by at least some standards, would be considered to have written a lot.


Drugstore Politeness

Yesterday, I went to a drugstore to get a prescription for Vicodin (I had a tooth pulled) and there I stood waiting for someone to acknowledge that I was in fact standing at the drop-off counter with a prescription in my hand. Four people were behind the counter doing various things. Not one of them looked my way, made eye contact, or said anything. About 3 or 4 minutes later, someone came and asked if I needed help. “Of course, I need help. Why else would I be standing here with a prescription in my hand?” This incident, which I figure happens every day at every drug store, stimulated me to think of some guidelines for politeness in this type of situation. So, here goes—with love to all the drug-store workers (who are often overworked), please consider the following simple suggestions:
1. Be mindful that people waiting to get their prescriptions filled are probably not at their best. They’re probably feeling ill or in some sort of pain. Of course, this is not true of everyone but it’s probably a good assumption for a drug store worker to act on.
2. Recognize the presence of the person at the drop-off counter. Even if you’re busy and can’t stop to take care of the customer, acknowledge the presence of the person with a simple smile and an “I’ll be right with you.”
3. Treat the customer as a person with a friendly acknowledgment. A simple “hello, how are you?” is sufficient to let the person know that he or she will be treated as a person and not simply as a walking prescription.
4. Further acknowledge the presence and important of the customer by making brief eye contact. Look at the person before you look at the prescription; it will take no longer than a second.
5. Instead of just taking the prescription and walking to the computer in silence, tell the customer what you’ll be doing, e.g., “Let me look up your insurance and see what we have” or “Let me see if I have this in stock.”
6. In giving the prescription, ask the customer if he or she has any questions that you might be able to answer. For example, you might say, very simply, “Do you have any questions about this?” Or, “Have you taken this medication before? There are important precautions to take and these are all written down on this leaflet.” It’s a simple thing that will make the patient feel a lot better.
7. Avoid mentioning the medication or the person’s name if other customers are within earshot. “Mr. Barley, your Viagra is ready” is probably not going to make Mr. Barley feel very comfortable. It’s a variation on that great scene from the Golden Girls where the Girls are buying condoms and feeling very uncomfortable about it and so just whispering, only to have the clerk ask on loudspeaker for the price of the condoms the Girls are buying.
8. Avoid jargon as much as possible. You know the names of all these medications and physical conditions; the customer may not. Keep in mind that your responsibility is to communicate clearly and that means beginning with what the customer knows. Probably the best assumption to make here is that the customer does not know any of the information you learned in pharmacy school.
9. Explain when the prescription will be filled and give the customer as many options as available. Say something like “This will take about 10 minutes, would you like to wait or come back later?” or “This will take several days; we can call you when it comes on or mail it to you.”
10. Thank the customer. After all, your salary and job depend on that customer coming back and a simple “thank you” can help a great deal. It’s also a big part of politeness.
As it turned out, I didn’t need the Vicodin; there was no pain. But the experience at the drugstore did help me to think in another way about politeness.


Facial Attraction

Here's an interesting article on facial attraction that is likely to stimulate some interesting class discussion. The basic finding is that women who are in their fertile period prefer masculine facial features (George Clooney, rather than Pee Wee Herman--examples from Steven Gangestad, the author of the study).



Here’s a study on names (you can access the entire study from the website given here/above) that has received lots of attention—Psychology Today, The New York Times, etc. it was conducted in The Netherlands and so probably cannot be directly applied to the United States. Yet, its findings (or “hypotheses” for study in other cultures) are most interesting. The study focuses on the perceptions people have of women as a result of their changing (or not changing) their name to that of their husbands’. For example, the study found that women who took on their husbands’ names or created hyphenated names were perceived as more dependent, emotional, and caring and less intelligent, competent, and ambitious than women who kept their own names. Even more interesting is the finding that a female job applicant who took used her husband’s name was less likely to be hired than the woman who kept her own name. It will be interesting to see if there’s any effect to Portia de Rossi’s taking the name of her wife, Ellen DeGeneres, and becoming Portia Lee James DeGeneres.

Online Politeness

Here's an intresting take on politeness (Int. J. of Virtual Communities and Social Networking, 1(2), 65-84, April-June 2009), a topic we address in our textbooks but never fully enough.


Virtual and face-to-face meetings

Here is a great little interview on virtual meetings and how they differ from the face to face groups that we emphasize in our small group chapters. Among the issues considered are how to dress for videoconferences, how to deal with the delays in teleconferences, and how a presentation in a virtual group should differ from one given in a face-to-face group.


Social Media Warnings

Here is a particularly useful set of guidelines for avoiding problems with social media messages. The examples are especially revealing and serve as warnings to all social media users but especially to those looking for a job. As you'll see, it's all pretty much common sense and yet you see violations every day--and they're costly.


College and its Benefits

Here's an interesting article on the value of a college degree--especially appropriate today when there is so much talk about college not necessarily being a good investment. This report shows that college and advanced degrees mean higher income. College also seems associated with a variety of social benefits, tho' college is not necessarily the causal factor here.


A preface to a public speaking course

This a little introduction I wrote to go into the next edition of my public speaking book. But, it may not fit and so I thought it might be of value to post here. These aren't the only things we might say to students in preface to a public speaking course, but they introduce, I think, a productive attitude and the importance of the right frame of mind in approaching a course like public speaking.

Beginning Your Study of Public Speaking

Preparing yourself for this course will help you get the maximum benefit. Here are a few suggestions.

4 Starters

1. Fear of public speaking is normal and isn't always a bad thing. Since it’s likely your major concern, we explain how you can manage your fear, making it work for you rather than against you, in the first chapter.

2. Make a commitment to exert a major effort in this course. It’s not going to be your easiest college course, but it will be worth your effort. You’ll see the rewards of competence in public speaking throughout your social and professional life and you’ll find that the skills of public speaking have application to all communication encounters.

3. Participate actively. Be willing to offer suggestions so others might improve and listen openly to the suggestions of others so you might improve.

4. This is a learning environment. You don’t have to be excellent; in fact, be prepared to make lots of mistakes. You’re here to learn how to correct mistakes and to emerge a competent and effective speaker.


Accents and Credibility

Here is an interesting article that provides some evidence suggesting that messages spoken with an accent are perceived as less credible than messages spoken without an accent. I'm wondering, however, if there are occasions when accents increase the perception of credibility. I'm thinking of a French accented message about food or a German accented message about automotive engineering. All in all an interesting area to explore.


Public Speaking Checklist

Here is a public speaking checklist that I prepared for the new edition of my Essential Elements of Public Speaking but I think it should be useful to just about any student preparing a speech--regardless of the textbook used. For those using the 3rd edition of EEPS, you'll note that the steps have been reorganized a bit--I think it makes better sense this way. The 4th edition follows the steps as noted here. I'd be very interested in hearing in you find this a useful aid.
Public Speaking Checklist
Step 1. Select your topic, general and specific purposes, and your thesis.
o Is the topic substantive, appropriate, and culturally sensitive?
o Is the topic limited so that you cover a small topic in some depth?
o Is your purpose worded as an infinitive, focused on the audience, limited to one idea, limited to what you can reasonably accomplish, and phrased with precise terms?
o Is the thesis limited to one central idea, stated as a complete declarative sentence, useful for generating main points and suggesting organizational patterns, and focuses audience's attention?
Step 2. Analyze your audience: Seek to discover what is unique about your listeners and how you might adapt your speech to them.
o Have you taken into consideration the age, gender, affectional orientation, educational levels, religion, and culture of the audience and have you adapted your speech in light of these characteristics?
o Have you taken into consideration additional audience and context characteristics?
o Have you taken into consideration the audience's willingness, favorableness, and knowledge of your subject and adapted to these factors?
Step 3. Research your topic so that you know as much as you possibly can.
o Is your speech adequately researched (is the research current, reliable, and appropriate to the topic)?
o Have you incorporated research citations into your speech?
Step 4. Collect your supporting materials.
o Are the supporting materials varied, interesting, and relevant to the topic?
o Are your presentation aids clear, well organized, and tested?
Step 5. Develop your main points.
o Do the main points support your thesis?
o Are the main points few in number, focused on your audience, and worded as separate and discrete?
Step 6. Organize your main points into an easily comprehended pattern.
o Is your speech organized into a logical pattern?
o Will the audience be able to understand the organizational pattern you use?
Step 7. Construct your introduction, conclusion, and transitions.
o Does the introduction gain attention, establish a speaker–audience–topic connection, and orient the audience?
o Does the conclusion summarize, motivate, and close?
o Do the transitions hold the parts together and make going from one part to another clear to your audience.
Step 8. Word your speech, focusing on being as clear as possible.
o Is the language clear, vivid, appropriate, and personal?
o Are the sentences powerful, short, direct, active, positive, and varied in type?
Step 9. Rehearse your speech until you feel confident and comfortable with the material and with your audience interaction.
o Have you rehearsed the speech from beginning to end sufficiently?
o Have you rehearsed the speech a sufficient number of times?
Step 10. Present your speech to your intended audience.
o Does your voice use appropriate volume, rate, pitch, pausing, articulation and pronunciation?
o Do your general appearance, eye contact, facial expressions, posture, dress, gestures, and movements contribute to your speech purpose?



One measure of an ailing society has to be the large gap between the salaries of normal people working in education, science, and government and television performers. For example, the median elementary school teacher salary is $50,590. A licensed practical nurse earns $39,772; a dentist, $136,303; a biostatistician, $143,392; a level 1 engineer, $54,948, a clinical psychologist, $63,000, and a firefighter in New York City, $37,426 to $81,313. These figures come from a variety of websites--for example, salary.com, payscale.com, careeroverview.com, about.com--which, admittedly, are somewhat dated. Even if we increase these salaries substantially to take inflation into consideration, the comparison wouldn't suffer. Added to this comparison should be the approximately 10 percent unemployment rate and the hundreds of thousands of people who are homeless.
Compare these salaries with that of Charlie Sheen (of Two and a Half Men) who earns $1,250,000 per episode--in a 23 episode season that comes to $28,750,000. The four Desperate Housewives each earn $400,000 per episode for a season salary of $9,200,000. David Caruso and Marge Helgenberger (of CSI) each earn $350,000 per episode for a neat annual salary of $8,625,000. Ryan Seacrest earns $15 million, Judge Judith Sheindlin, $45,000,000, and Oprah Winfrey, $315,000,000. All figures come from TV Guide, August 16-29, 2010.
So, what's wrong with this picture? These extreme salaries of our television stars--and the same kind of comparisons can be drawn with athletes--push up the cost of television production. This cost pushes up the cost for advertising. The high cost of advertising pushes up the price of the products the teacher, nurse, dentist, and all the others purchase. So, it is the people making well under $200,000 who are paying the bulk of these salaries. [Of course, people making over $200,000 also pay for these salaries; it's just that there are fewer in this group than in the under $200,000 group.]
But, more important than this, these salaries--and, unfortunately, these discrepancies--define our society's values. These salaries tell our children and our students what really counts and what counts not so much.
Why do we allow this to exist?


Interpersonal Communication throughout the World

Here again, in the second edition of an interpersonal communication text--the name of which I won't mention since my own books compete with this one--is the claim that the "formal study of interpersonal communication occurs almost exclusively in the United States." And then goes on to ask, "Why isn't interpersonal communication studied and taught in other cultures?"
This is simply not true. My evidence for this is the number of translations of my own interpersonal books (and hybrid books which are perhaps one-third devoted to interpersonal) There have been four Chinese editions (of which I'm aware; there may be others), for example, as well as translations into Indonesian, Greek, Czech, and French--and adaptations for Canadian and New Zealand audiences. Further, my interpersonal and hybrid books sell widely in Japan and, in fact, throughout Asia, Europe, and Australia. And my guess is that other textbook authors such as Adler, Beebe, the Gambles, Pearson and Nelson, the Verderbers, and Wood, for example--would have similar stories to tell that would refute this claim that interpersonal communication is only studied in the United States.
Further, consider the very existence of the Pacific and Asian Communication Association and its journal (Human Communication) which, in its call for paper, specifically mentions interpersonal communication. And the Communication Association of Japan has interpersonal communication as one of its major divisions. I could go on but I think the point is made: (as I mentioned in my first post on this bogus claim) the study of interpersonal communication is alive and well throughout the world and is certainly not limited to the United States.



Here are some interesting findings about tweets (reported in the NYTimes 7/25/10, p. 4 Weekend). From an analysis of 300 million tweets, researchers at Harvard and Northeastern University found that morning tweets are happier than those posted in the afternoon. Thursday's tweets seem to be the saddest and Sunday the happiest. And tweets from the West Coast are happier than those from the East Coast. Now, what does all this mean?


Social Networking Cautions

Here's another reason for being cautious about what you write on your social networking pages. According to Main Street, 81% of the top divorce lawyers (from a survey of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers) used or faced evidence gathered from social networking pages. Facebook leads the way with 66% saying this was the primary source; MySpace was at 15% and Twitter at 5%. More cautions and lots of provocative examples can be found in "The Dumbest Facebook Mistakes" at www.mainstreet.com.


Taboo language: gender differences

Here's an interesting gender difference reported by Psychology Today (August 2010). In 1996 the percentage of public swearing by men and women was 67% for men and 33% for women. In 2006, however, the percentages were much more similar: 55% for men and 45% for women.

Social Networking and Getting a Job

Here's an article from CareerBuilder that makes a strong case for being cautious about what goes on your Facebook or MySpace site. Their survey reports that 77% of the recruiters run searches of job candidates' social network pages and 35% said they rejected a candidate based on the information on a social network page. Their advice: Be careful of what you put on your site, be discrete, and be prepared by checking your site regularly for potentially embarrassing photos or comments.


Relationship and Work Esteem

In my attempt to integrate media literacy into my communication textbooks, I've been working on the ways in which the media influences our view of interpersonal relationships (close relationships and workplace relationships). Here is an initial formulation of just one aspect of this influence. I think this might be a useful stimulus for class discussion--in interpersonal communication and in media courses--and also an interesting project for classes in which students conduct original research. The hypotheses presented here should prove suitable for such projects, perhaps even for an entire class.

Esteem and the Media

The media teaches us about what our lives should be or could be, particularly in terms of our relationship and our work lives.

Relationship Esteem and the Media

Compared to what happens on Brothers and Sisters or Desperate Housewives or any of the soaps, most people's lives are dull and uninteresting. Their lives are boring, at least when compared to the Walkers or the families on Wisteria Lane. And it's unlikely that this constant bombardment with the fantastic lives of those on television, takes no toll on viewers. In fact, it seems reasonable to propose that these programs have an effect on what we might call Relationship Esteem. Similar to self-esteem, relationship-esteem refers to the value we put on our relationships, whether friendship, romantic, family, or work. Like high self-esteem, high relationship esteem refers to the condition where we place a positive value on our relationships; we think they're good. Negative relationship esteem would be the opposite; we place a negative value on our relationships and think they are not so good.

Like self-esteem, which we gauge, in part, through comparisons with other people, we also estimate our relationship-esteem through comparisons with other people's relationships. When we compare our own relationships with those of our neighbors or with those with whom we work, our relationships are likely to be seen as relatively comparable--not great perhaps, but not terrible either. In fact, the self-serving bias in most people might lead them to conclude that their relationships are a bit better than those of their friends and colleagues. However, when we compare our relationships with those on Days of Our Lives or The Young and the Restless, they're likely to be seen as falling short of the glamour and glitz, the excitement and intensity, the attractiveness and style of these make-believe relationships (which of course many don't see as make-believe).

Surprisingly, media researchers have done little to explore the influence of the media on viewer's perceptions of relationships. There are some notable exceptions. For example, the study of parasocial relationships explored the establishment of relationships between viewers and media characters and was clearly a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, surprisingly little scientific research has been done on this topic since it was introduced in 1956 (Giles, 2002). Another noble attempt was the collection of readings by Robert Cathcart and Gary Gumpert, Inter/Media: Interpersonal Communication in a Media World, which went through three editions from 1979 to 1986 but no comparable recent volume seems to exist. Most telling is that the mass media textbooks virtually ignore this topic, although they do address media effects (but not in terms of our perceptions of our relationships). And, equally guilty, are the interpersonal communication texts that discuss relationships in detail but say little, if anything, about the role of the media. The present argument is another attempt to bridge these two worlds and worldviews by demonstrating one important connection between media watching and relationship perception, a connection that's essential to understand if we're to understand interpersonal relationships or media effects.

Of course, the reason for the media's emphasis on intensity (and we see this in new shows, advertisements, and just about any media product) is obvious. If the media presented lives that were not full of high emotions, intense feelings, and extraordinary experiences we wouldn't watch it. People don't watch boring; they watch exciting. The same is true with the crime shows. Simple shootings or poisonings are far too tame to make it to prime time; dismemberment, cannibalism, and only the most painful of deaths are shown. Anything short of this is likely to be seen as too ordinary, too common, too uninteresting.

From this basic assumption about the media and relationships, we can advance a few seemingly-reasonable propositions: Those who watch lots of television, especially relationship dramas and soaps, compared to those who watch little or no television, are characterized by:

Lower relationship esteem. There's no way a real relationship can compete with the excitement of a media relationships.
Lower self-esteem. It would be difficult to maintain high self-esteem if your relationship looks so poor in comparison with those on television
Lower positive predictions about their relationship future. Discontent is likely to dull the prospects for an exciting future or a future at all
Greater personal depression. Relationship dissatisfaction is likely to spill over and create depression and general unhappiness
Greater relationship conflict. Dissatisfaction with one's relationship is likely to generate conflict.
Greater relationship doubt and uncertainty. Seems a likely outcome--after all, these exciting relationships on television are going to make yours' seem so average that you might doubt the significance of your current relationships.
Lower relationship commitment. All this great competition (these great relationships) is likely to make you less committed to your own relationship and perhaps to begin looking elsewhere.
Lower relationship satisfaction. This seems true, by definition (almost).
Greater relationship ambiguity. Perhaps we look for situations that are ambiguous on the assumption that our relationships may be better than we thought
Shorter-lasting relationships. Relationship dissatisfaction is a likely cause of relationship deterioration or dissolution
Fewer cherishing behaviors and affiliative cues. This seems a consequence of the low relationship satisfaction
Less self-disclosure. especially about their relationship, to each other and to those outside the relationship (for example, friends, neighbors, and co-workers) We don't want to tell others about a mediocre life--it wouldn't be interesting and it wouldn't be good for our self-image. On the other hand, it's likely to increase the frequency of complaining and perhaps greater self-disclosure in some contexts.

Work Esteem and the Media

A coordinate theme is that of work esteem. For the most part, the work situations we see on television--for example, Criminal Minds, Cold Case, and the CSI, Law & Order, and NCIS dramas--are filled with incredibly competent people. These are people who know their job and know how to work efficiently and effectively. Contrast this with our own work experience and there's an enormous difference. Most of us do not work with incredibly competent people--some are competent but many are incompetent and we wonder how organizations can survive on this level of incompetence. Few of us have the opportunity to work with technology personnel on the level of Penelope Garcia from Criminal Minds or Abby Sciuto from NCIS. Those who are truly competent move on to the small group of elite institutions--whether it's Harvard and Yale in academic life or Google and Yahoo! in Internet life or Goldman Sachs and J. P. Morgan in financial life--while the vast numbers of others, continue to toil among the average and the incompetent--a sad but necessary realization. And those who are even more competent than these are, of course, created by writers.

The exception here are the shows purposely illustrating incompetence for comic effect, such as The Office. But, this type of show draws incompetence in such broad strokes that it can never be taken as real, unlike the shows that feature competence. There seems to be a fundamental difference here; drama is real, comedy is not real.

Another aspect that distinguishes the drama on television from the drama of real life is that the people on television are engaged in significant endeavors--curing people of deadly illnesses, saving lives, bringing the guilty to justice, or winning a case for a worthy client, for example. Everything they do is genuinely worthwhile. Whose work can compare with that of Gregory House or Kadee Strickland or Derek Shepherd from the various medical shows. Only few real life people are in this league.

If even part of this is true, then it's likely that workers will develop negative views of their colleagues and even themselves if they compare themselves to Horatio Caine or Calleigh Duquesne from CSI Miami, for example. And, equally likely, they'll develop negative views of their own work environment, the purposes of their work (and perhaps their lives), and the value of what they do for eight hours a day.

As with relationship esteem, a number of corollaries seem warranted, for example:
People who watch a great deal of television, particularly positive work environment shows such as the CSIs, when compared to those who watch such shows rarely or never, are likely to be characterized as having:

A more negative view of their colleagues. After all, who can compare with fictional characters.
A more negative view of their work environment. With so many competent people engaged in such worthwhile causes, your own work environment is likely to pale in comparison.
A more negative view of the value of what they do. Most work can't compare in importance to that depicted in television dramas.
Greater job restlessness that results in more frequent job changes. Dissatisfaction is likely to lead one to look elsewhere for the basic satisfactions the media tells us we should experience.
Fewer happy experiences in general and in their work in particular. Work dissatisfaction will likely spread into life in general.
Less satisfaction from working. If you're not doing anything terribly interesting, then you're not likely to experience much satisfaction
Less emotional investment in the success of the company. There's probably a tendency to invest less when there is dissatisfaction and perhaps an awareness of potential change
Less respect for the company and its officers. The supervisors and heads of departments are not likely to compare favorably to Jethro Gibbs or Hetty Lange from the NCIS franchise.
Less commitment to the goals of the company. Dissatisfaction seems to underlie and nurture a lack of commitment
Lives personal life separate from work life. Perhaps this is a way of separating the good from the bad
Less efficiency and effectiveness on the job. After all, if the work doesn't really matter (at least in comparison to the television world) why be concerned with efficiency or effectiveness.
Fewer friends from the job. This may actually prove the reverse; perhaps it comforts us to associate with people we think are less competent than we are.

Giles, D. C. (2002). Parasocial interaction: A review of the literature and a model for future research. Media Psychology 4, 279-305.
Cathcart, R., & Gumpert, G. (1986). Inter-Media: Interpersonal communication in a media world, 3rd ed. Oxford University Press.


Talking about Relationships

The cover story in yesterday's AM New York was titled "Oh Boy!" and reports on a Florida Baptist minister, George Alan Rekers, an outspoken anti-gay activist who wants to "cure" homosexuals. Well, it seems, Rekers "solicited a 20-year old male hooker online from the website....then reportedly took his escort for a 10-day romp through Europe last month." Rekers now joins a fairly long and well-known list including former Florida Representative Mark Foley, Idaho's Senator Larry Craig, Virginia Representative Ed Schrock, evangelical preacher Ted Haggard, and former Florida Representative Bob Allen. All of these men were outspoken anti-gay activists who built their reputations on opposition to gay rights. Makes you wonder about hypocrites like these. Makes you wonder about people who hate and who are willing to go to great lengths to spread their particular brand of bigotry. Makes you wonder about their relational lives in general and what kind of hatred they're passing on to their children. One good thing to emerge from this is that people like this will have little further influence and our world will be a little better place.


Intercultural communication

Take a look at "What Not to Say" by Sam Sommers in Psychology Today (June 2010)--it doesn't seem to be online yet; it's a different take on intercultural communication from that which appears in most of our textbooks. Along with the article is a sidebar by blogger Kristin J. Anderson who offers some suggestions on intercultural conversations. One of them I don't see in our textbooks: "let go of the fear of appearing racist."


Relationships and Relationship Conflict

If you haven't seen it, take a look at Is Marriage Good for Your Health? by Tara Parker-Pope in the New York Times Magazine (April 18, 2010). Among other things, it's a clarification of the frequently expressed thought that marriage (it's in just about all our interpersonal communication textbooks)--and long-term relationships generally--are good for your health. Well, it appears that only good relationships are good for your health and bad relationships are bad for your health--tho' I wonder why we needed tons of studies to prove that. More interesting are the health problems that marital discord can create or make worse. Among those mentioned are elevated stress hormones and increased risks of diabetes, heart disease, mood swings, and depression. Also, wounds take longer to heal, the immune system is weakened, and an outbreak of herpes seems more likely under conditions of marital discord.
All in all, a good reason to study interpersonal communication and conflict management.
Along with this article, take a look at Bella DePaulo's discussion for Psychology Today: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/living-single/201004/is-good-marriage-good-your-health


The Eye Roll

In a strange place to find a discussion of nonverbal communication, an article in Better Homes and Gardens (May, 2010)discusses the eye roll, eye movements--used by tweens especially and by girls more than boys, says author Rachel Simpson--that indicate disapproval or disdain for something just said. We're all familiar with this behavior. It can even be seen in lots of college students when they don't like something the instructor says. So, I thought I'd take a look at the nonverbal textbooks I have on my shelf and see what they say about this nonverbal behavior that has significant implications for all stages of interpersonal relationships and for communication generally. I looked in Burgoon, Guerrero, and Floyd's Nonverbal Communication; Ivy and Wahl's The Nonverbal Self; Remland's Nonverbal Communication in Everyday Life; Leathers and Eaves' Successful Nonverbal Communication; Richmond, McCroskey, and Hickson's Nonverbal Behavior in Interpersonal Relations; Guerrero and Hecht's The Nonverbal Communication Reader; Kuhnke's Body Language for Dummies; and Andersen's The Complete Idiot's Guide to Body Language. In none of them was the eye role mentioned (at least according to their indexes and a cursory scan of the eye communication sections). How come?
Here's one suspicion. Authors of specialized textbooks such as nonverbal communication are so intent on summarizing the literature that they fail to look at how communication operates in the real world. A good mix is what we need in nonverbal communication and in communication generally.


Interviewing Mistakes

Here is a great little article on mistakes to avoid in the employment interview.


Romance in the Workplace

Here's an interesting Q&A that updates some of the thinking on office romance. Each of the questions will, I suspect, make for great class discussion.


Gender Differences

Here's a brief article on gender differences in verbal communication. It can serve as an interesting stimulus for class discussion.


It's about communication, Abby

Well, Abby again fails to see the value in simple communication principles. Briefly, a father writes (April 4, 2010) that his two step sons (ages 14 and 15) find his and their mother's displays of affection--e.g., "a quick kiss after saying grace before meals, even in restaurants"--embarrassing and "weird." The step-father and the mother think these displays are appropriate and strengthen their relationship. Abby's advice? ". . . please consider refraining from the quick kisses when you're out in public"--an overly simple and totally unhelpful suggestion.
First, this is a textbook case of a win-lose strategy for dealing with conflict. Why not look for win-win strategies? Why should the parents give up something they value? Abby, this type of "resolution" is likely going to cause resentment which can easily spill over into other issues and to send the wrong messages to the children.
Second, Abby, your solution looks only at the surface message--the boys' dislike of the displays of affection--and fails to see that there is likely much more on the minds of the boys and perhaps of the parents as well. These need to be examined and talked about. Part of the problem, Abby, is that you're disregarding the simple principles that meanings are in people, not in words or even nonverbals such as kissing, and that each person's meaning is unique. Parents and children need to talk about the meanings they each see in this behavior. With that as a start, they can focus on a win-win solution.
This case, I think, would make an excellent exercise/discussion stimulus for the coverage of the basic principles of interpersonal communication (content and relationship messages, ambiguity), messages (meaning is in people, denotation and connotation), or conflict (win-win strategies, conflict management). Ask the students to answer the letter using their knowledge of communication. My guess is you'd get some great responses. It's also a great way to illustrate the practical value in what may at first seem "only academic."


Free Speech

Student’s Facebook Tirade Against Teacher Is Protected Speech | Threat Level | Wired.com
Here's an interesting summary of cases involving students and teachers and free speech and would make for an interesting class discussion of what constitutes free speech and what are its limits.


Stopping Unwanted Behavior

A recent letter to Dear Abby is from a woman whose husband slaps her on the bottom which he refers to as a "love tap" and she as "degrading and frustrating." Although she has told him repeatedly to stop, he doesn't. What to do? The answer to "Dear Soar" was "It's one in which there is a serious communication problem. " Hardly a satisfactory answer. It might have been helpful to suggest to Soar that she needs to confront the pattern of behavior and not treat this behavior as isolated instances. The cooperative response--telling the husband her feelings, describing the behavior she objects to, and stating a cooperative response both can live with ("I get angry when you slap me; it hurts and I feel degraded. I want you to stop this behavior. When you want to touch me, kiss me; don't slap me.") is likely to be a lot more effective. In fairness to Abby, she does say: What else does he ignore when you speak up?--and, in a way, gets at the idea that this is a pattern. But, other approaches might also work. If the husband finds the wife's objection to the slapping rewarding (rather than the slapping itself), then the wife can probably break the pattern by simply ignoring it--according to conditioning theory, behavior which is ignored will be extinguished. Alternatively, she could make the slapping punishing in a wide variety of ways. Well, all this is just to say that it doesn't help to say a problem is a communication problem--that doesn't solve the problem; specific suggestions might.


Communication skills

A brief article in USAToday (1/21/10, p. 7D) noted that a report from the Association of American Colleges and Universities points to a variety of failures in preparing students for the real world--nothing we didn't already know. What was especially interesting was that USAToday included as a sidebar to this report, the results from a study conducted last fall in which 302 employers were asked what skills they wanted students to have: 89% (the highest percentage)reported that it was effective communication skills(oral and written) and 81% (the next highest) noted critcial thinking and analytical reasoning skills--exactly what we teach in our basic courses. One wonders why so many colleges do not offer their students the opportunity to learn these essential skills--why are they stacking the deck against their own students? I just don't get it!

Same-sex parenting

Here is some research that is sure to knock the bigots' socks off. An analysis of 81 studies shows there is no research support for the belief--widely held but with no evidence to back it up--that the gender of the parents matters to a child's well-being--specifically, that a child needs oppposite-sex parents to develop fully. On measures of self-esteem, social adjustment, and performance in school, children raised by same-sex parents score the same as children raised by married male-female couples. The study, reported in USAToday (1/21/10, p. 4D) and conducted by sociologists Judith Stacey and Timothy Biblarz, is scheduled to be published in the Journal of Marriage and Family. This is unlikely to deter those who are determined to deny civil rights to same-sex couples but it sure makes you wonder where they're coming from and what their real agenda is.


Conversational Coolers and Warmers

Here is a brief article I wrote that appears in the current issue of Etc: A Review of General Semantics, 66, no. 3 (2009), 248-253. What I tried to do was to identify the characteristics of effective and ineffective conversations through this "cooler" idea.

Conversational Coolers and Warmers

In the little-seen but critically-praised 2003 movie, The Cooler, Bernie Lootz (played by William H. Macy) is the quintessential loser; he's estranged from his son, his marriage fell apart, his cat died, and he's all alone. Whatever Bernie does turns bad and he's soon forced by Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin) to work the gambling casino floor as a “cooler”. Because he’s such a loser, Bernie only has to stand next to a winning player to cool the player down, stop the winning streak, and, in effect, turn a winner into a loser.
Although the concept of the gambling casino cooler seems strange, it works as a useful metaphor for lots of communication situations. For example, there are audience coolers who make public speakers wish they never walked to the podium, interviewing coolers who make applicants feel like they have no chance of employment--ever, and small group coolers who make the normally pleasant group interaction a boring and unproductive experience. But, it’s the conversational cooler that is perhaps the most easily recognized.
The conversational cooler makes the conversation awkward, unpleasant, unsatisfying, and, all in all, a not very enjoyable experience--one you want to get over with as soon as possible and not to repeat anytime soon. To extend the metaphor just a bit, the conversational warmer, on the other hand, makes the conversation smooth, pleasant, and mutually satisfying, an enjoyable experience and one you'd likely want to extend and experience again real soon. And the communication question is How. How do coolers and warmers do what they do? Here’s a starter list of ten conversational cooler and the corresponding warmer types.

The Critic
This conversational cooler is critical and frequently finds fault with something or someone. The problem with this is that you never know when you’re going to come under attack yourself and so you're on guard, almost defensive. Conversational warmers, on the other hand, are supportive. They make you feel good and enable you to drop your guard and so you may self-disclose more freely, knowing you're in a supportive atmosphere. Conversational coolers are negative and often echo the voice of doom and often at the most inappropriate times. Conversational warmers are positive; they don’t have their head in the sand but they can see, and talk about, and take joy in the positive side.

The Disconfirmer
This conversational cooler is disconfirming, and rarely acknowledges the contributions or value of what others say. They make little or no nonverbal contact, avoiding eye contact or touching. They might ignore the other person's requests, not respond appropriately to questions, or ignore phone calls or e-mails. Conversational warmers are confirming; they acknowledge the presence and the contributions of the other persons and try their best to understand what others are saying. They're responsive to the other's communication whether the interaction is face-to-face or computer mediated.

The Egoist
This conversational cooler is self-focused and engages in conversation without concern for the other participants. This is the author in the old joke who talked incessantly about his book and then, finally, said, “Enough about what I think of my book, what do you think of my book?” Conversational warmers are other-focused and engage the other person in real dialogue; they really want to hear what you have to say and you can tell from their facial expressions, focused eye contact, and learning posture. Egotistic coolers are usually monologuers; they give speeches. They are the talkers and believe others should remain listeners. Conversational warmers, in contrast, are dialoguers; they talk and they listen. They're interested in the other person, the person's ideas and feelings. They respond to what the other person says and always give others the opportunity to speak. Dialoguers see conversation as a back-and-forth process, with short rather than long speech sequences and frequent feedback cues.

The Passive Participant
This conversational cooler is passive and participates only remotely in the conversation; often they’re preoccupied with their iPhones or Blackberries. They rarely give feedback cues to show they're listening. Conversational warmers, on the other hand, are active and participate in the conversation with interest and attention. Conversational coolers are neutral; they make no effort to feel what you’re feeling. Conversational warmers are empathic; they want to feel what you’re feeling (at least to some degree) and they also let you know that they understand you on some deeper level.

The Cultural Insensitive
This conversational cooler is culturally insensitive, often ethnocentric (believing his or her culture and way of thinking is the correct or superior way and that others are just not as good), and often talks and thinks in stereotypes. They're indiscriminators; they discriminate not between but against. Conversational warmers are culturally sensitive, acknowledging differences with respect, and distinguishing individuals from the group. They rarely commit the fallacy of indiscrimination and mentally or explicitly index their statements--their verbs as well as their nouns.

The Impolite Clod
The impolite conversationalist can do so in one of two basic ways, borrowing insights from sociologists Goffman (1967) and Brown and Levinson (1987) who distinguish between positive face needs (feeling worthy and important) and negative face needs (being autonomous and doing as one wants). Supporting these needs is an act of politeness and attacking these needs is an act of impoliteness. Coolers attack positive face needs by, say, making the person feel unimportant or unequal and using compliments or courtesies or politeness tags such as please and thank you rarely if ever. Conversational coolers are impolite in their tendency to interrupt, often with the goal of changing the topic to one they are more interested in or knowledgeable about. In contrast, conversational warmers are supportive of positive face needs; they’re civil and respectful of the other persons. Treating the other person politely means making the person feel comfortable and important and deserving of respect. Instead of the cooler's interrupting, the warmer asks questions and otherwise encourages the person to continue talking.
The second way coolers are impolite is in their attacking the person's autonomy (negative face needs) by for example imposing on the person's time, demanding rather than requesting, or putting people in a position where they are asked to do anything they wouldn't do of their own accord. To warm the conversation, the opposite would hold--no impositions and, if an imposition has to be made, to preface it with appropriate politeness expressions (please, would you mind) and an understanding that you respect the person's autonomy--(I know you don't like having dinner with my work colleagues and I don't blame you, but this time . . . ).

The Deceiver
This type of cooler may be deceptive in a variety of ways. They might lie by exaggeration where they, for example, lead people to believe that, they earn more money than you do or that their grades are better than they are, or that your relationship is more satisfying than it really is. Sometimes the deceit results from minimizing the facts, minimizing the lack of money (we have more than enough), the importance of poor grades, or relationship dissatisfaction. At other times, the deceit is a simple substitution where you exchange the truth for a lie—for example, I wasn’t at the bar, I stopped in at Starbucks for coffee. Still another is equivocation or being ambiguous and leading people to think something different from your intention. That outfit really is something, very interesting instead of Ugh! And of course coolers can lie by omission, by not sending certain messages, omitting those things that would be seen negatively and just including the positives. Regardless of how they bend the truth, the conversational implication is that you can never be quite sure if what you’re hearing is the truth, a half-truth, or an out-and-out lie. Conversational warmers, on the other hand, are truthful. You don’t have to guess about the veracity of what they say; they have a history of honesty that you can rely on.

The Non-Listener
Conversational coolers are present during the conversation but you never feel they're really listening. They don't give listening cues like head nods and smiles and verbal listening cues such as hmm or I see, and the occasional question. The conversational warmer is the active listener we read about in textbooks. The warmer listens actively to both the thoughts and feelings of the other person and paraphrases the speakers meaning to ensure he or she understands and to encourage the speaker to continue, expresses understanding of the speakers thoughts and feelings, and asks questions of understanding rather than challenge.

The Inflexible
Conversational coolers are inflexible; they don't adapt their communication style on the basis of the situation, the topic of conversation, the person to whom they're speaking, or the channel through which their message is sent. Warmers are flexible and adapt to the different situations. Small talk situations on the elevator require a different style of conversation than does the dinner talk of a close knit family--the cooler doesn't recognize this; the warmer does.

The Mindless Thinker
The mindless thinking cooler is illogical in lots of ways, all familiar in General Semantics and sometimes referred to as cognitive distortions--ways of thinking that hinder straight thinking.
For example, the know-it-alls, rarely if ever using an implicit or explicit etc. Consequently, they don't do much listening; after all, why listen when you know it all. Warmers, on the other hand, admit ignorance and recognize in their own speaking and listening the possibility and the willingness to pursue additional information.
The polarizers think in either-or terms, black or white, good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, for us or against us and consequently present an over-simplified view of the world. Warmers recognize the continuous nature of most of reality.
Static thinkers rarely update their thinking or their statements. What was true yesterday is obviously true today, they assume. Consequently, their perceptions are often inaccurate, not allowing for inevitable change. Warmers see each event, as T. S. Eliot said in The Cocktail Party, "at every meeting we are meeting a stranger."
The fact-inference confuser makes little distinction between facts and inferences and frequently act on inferences as if they were facts and, not surprisingly making lots of mistakes--relational, financial, occupational. Warmers treat facts as facts and inferences as inferences, is prepared to be proven wrong, and is therefore less likely to be hurt if and when proven wrong.
The intensionally oriented confuse the word and the thing, often treating the word as if it were the thing. Warmers, instead, recognize perhaps the most general principle of all: meaning is in people, not in words. The cooler frequently bypasses, failing to recognize that the same word can mean different things to different people and that different words can mean the same thing to different people. The warmer understands how words and things are related and the often disconnect between words and meanings and so checks his or her perceptions and, when in doubt, asks questions rather than operate with false assumptions.

Conversational coolers are all around us but with the insight of Pogo, we will have recognized that we have met the enemy and the enemy is us.

Brown, P., & Levinson, S. C. (1987). Politeness: Some universals of language usage. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Goffman, E. (1967). Interaction ritual: Essays on face-to-face behavior. New York: Pantheon.

Joseph A. DeVito is Professor Emeritus of Communication, Hunter College of the City University of New York and the author of several communication textbooks.


Relevant education

Here's an interesting article on making education relevant--especially interesting is the comment--last para on page 2--that 89 percent of employers surveyed wanted workers who had "the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing."