This discussion of prosocial communication is a preliminary version of a section I'm considering adding to the new edition of The Interpersonal Communication Book. It would be the final section of the last chapter. I'd be very interested in hearing what you think of this section. Any comments, positive or negative, will be greatly appreciated.
In Chapter 10 we looked at the dark side of interpersonal relationships (jealousy and relationship violence) and, in this chapter, we looked at the misuses of power (sexual harassment, bullying, and power plays), other “dark” sides. As a counterpoint to these “dark” sides we need also to highlight the more positive sides of interpersonal communication and relationships or what we might call prosocial communication. Here we consider the nature of prosocial communication, the factors that influence or inhibit such communication, some examples of prosocial communication, and some of its potential effects.
The Nature of Prosocial Communication
Prosocial communication is communication that benefits another individual, group, society, or the entire species in some way. The communication may be verbal or nonverbal or, as usual, some combination of verbal and nonverbal messages.
A simple smile, compliment, or helpful advice would be examples of prosocial communication benefiting another individual’s self-esteem or future behavioral choices. A phone call or text to report a crime or a person in need of medical attention would also be examples of prosocial communication. The publication of research is another example of prosocial communication since it advances our knowledge of some topic in some way. And, to the extent that knowledge is beneficial, the publication of research is prosocial. Speeches or posts espousing accepted values in a culture—whether they be equality, democracy, freedom of speech-–would be considered examples of prosocial communication benefiting the larger social group.
As you might expect the definition of prosocial communication will vary with the culture. And so, while supporting gay rights or women’s rights in some cultures would be considered prosocial, it would not be in others. And the same is true with a wide variety of religious, political, and social issues.
On the Internet both crowdsourcing and crowdfunding are examples of prosocial communication (Sproull, Conley, & Moon, 2004). When you help another person find the right plumber or get opinions on different graduate schools (as you would in responding to a crowdsourcing request), you’re engaging in prosocial communication. Similarly, when you send in a donation for a particular project (as you would in responding to a crowdfunding request), you’re engaging in a prosocial act or at least you assume the request is legitimate rather than a scam. Also needed to be included here are the numerous prosocial communication options for comments on posts.
Prosocial communication is not the opposite of anti-social communication. If you give a homeless person money for coffee, we’d say this is a prosocial act but if you don’t give it, it doesn’t mean that your behavior is anti-social. It’s just not, in this case, prosocial.
And, contrary to what many would think, prosocial communication is not necessarily altruistic. Altruism may motivate the prosocial communication but it is not an essential component. In fact, there is some evidence that altruism is the primary motivation for prosocial behavior generally (Stiff, Dillard, Somera, Kim, & Sleight, 2009). But, prosocial communication may also be motivated by selfishness, the need for approval or as a preface to asking a favor. It does not have to be motivated by positive emotions such as love, empathy, or friendship. In fact, some theorists would argue that all behavior (even prosocial behavior) is motivated by egoism, not altruism (http://www.iep.utm.edu/psychego/).
Factors Influencing Prosocial Communication
A wide variety of factors can be identified that may influence prosocial communication. Some factors encourage and others inhibit the expression of prosocial communication.
One factor is that of similarity. Similarity encourages prosocial communication; you’re more apt to engage in prosocial communication with those who are similar to you than with those who are different—whether in sex, in age, in culture, or in religion--than you are with those who are unlike you. Dissimilarity often reduces the likelihood of prosocial communication.
Your relationship bonds will influence your prosocial communication. As you’d expect, you’re more likely to engage in prosocial communication with those you are friends with or those you love. This seems partly due to the expectation (or perhaps obligation) you have towards friends and family and partly due to your wanting to do good things for friends and family (that is, to people you like). With enemies or with disliked others, prosocial communication is likely to be inhibited.
When someone engages in prosocial communication that benefits you, you’re more likely to reciprocate and return prosocial communication. This is simply another example of the law of reciprocity—you are apt to engage in behavior that is similar to the behavior of others; you tend to give back what you are given.
Your history of reinforcement will influence your prosocial communication, as it will any form of communication. If you’ve been rewarded for prosocial communication, you’d be more likely to continue to engage in and even increase such communication. If you were punished for it or if it was ignored, you’d likely decrease such communication. Even expressions of gratitude increase the likelihood of prosocial behavior and communication (Grant & Gino, 2010). Similarly, the expectation of reward will influence your prosocial communication. We live in a world that, at least on the surface, rewards prosocial communication. Those who engage in prosocial communication seem to be liked more than those who don’t. And so, you might engage in prosocial communication because you anticipate that it will lead others to reward you in some way, perhaps to like you more.
Your personality affects your communication and certain personality traits, for example, altruism, will encourage prosocial communication and other personality traits, for example, selfishness, will likely lead to less such communication. Some research finds that the prosocial orientation depends on two major personality traits: other-oriented empathy and helpfulness (Penner & Orom, 2010).
The teachings of your culture and with those with whom you come into contact will influence your tendencies to engage in prosocial communication. Your culture has taught you about the rules for prosocial communication and you likely follow these unconsciously internalized rules. For example, collectivist cultures such as Venezuela, Indonesia, Pakistan, Guatemala, and China emphasize prosocial communication more than individualist cultures such as the United States, Australia, Canada, Italy, and Denmark. It is, for example, extremely important in collectivist cultures to be supportive of the other person, to praise the other person, to not call any errors to attention, to agree rather than disagree—all prosocial communication. This doesn’t mean that these communications are not supported in individualist cultures; they are, but just not as much. In addition to the rules of the culture, you also learn to engage in prosocial communication from parents, from teachers, and from peers. You may be praised by your parents for saying nice things about your kid sister or notice that those who engage in prosocial communication seem to be liked more than those who don’t.
And, because culture influences the gender roles we learn, your gender will also influence prosocial communication. Generally, research finds that both genders engage in prosocial communication equally but in different ways. Women seem to engage in more prosocial verbal communication while men are more likely to engage in more prosocial nonverbal communication (Dickman & Eagly, 2000). For example, a man is more likely to go into a burning building to rescue someone or to break up a fight and a woman is more likely to express positive feelings and give compliments.
One additional factor should be noted and that is the situation that arises when you’re in a crowd and someone is in need of help. Research shows that in these situations, you are less likely to help. This tendency is referred to as the diffusion of responsibility (Darley & Latane, 1968). The idea here is that people feel they needn’t do anything since someone else in the crowd is likely to do it. A related factor influencing whether or not you offer to act prosocially is your view of the crowd. When you make your decision to act or not to act (that is, to help the person in need), you may take your cues from the crowd and if the crowd does nothing, then you figure you shouldn’t either. Appropriately enough, this tendency is referred to as pluralistic ignorance (Latane & Darley, 1970) and can lead to a variety of negative consequences (Fisher, et al., 2011).
Examples of Prosocial Communication
Throughout your course and textbook, numerous examples of prosocial communication have been identified. Here are just ten to remind you of the varied ways in which following the principles of interpersonal communication may lead to prosocial communication.
· Communicating with cultural sensitivity. People benefit in their self-view when their cultural beliefs are understood and respected.
· Listening empathically. When you listen empathically, you’re performing a prosocial communication act by providing a supportive and understanding ear.
· Responding appropriately to the emotional expression of others. When you offer comfort and support to the grief stricken, you’re performing a prosocial communication act.
· Confirming. Communications that acknowledge the importance and contributions of another are likely to have a beneficial effect while disconfirming messages are likely to yield no such benefits and perhaps a variety of negative responses.
· Advising. When you offer advice, assuming it is asked for, you are performing a prosocial communication act by sharing what you know or think with another person in an effort to comfort or reassure them.
· Complimenting. When you compliment someone for a job well done or for looking good, you’re performing a prosocial communication act by helping the other person to feel more positively.
· Mentoring/Sharing. When you mentor someone, you’re performing a prosocial communication act by sharing with them your expertise and experience—making them more efficient workers or better speakers, for example. Teaching in all its forms would be included here.
· Communicating politely. When you respect a person’s need for both positive and negative face, you’re engaging in prosocial communication.
· Argue fairly and constructively. When you engage in conflict fairly and constructively you show respect and confirm the other person. So, when you’re argumentative rather than aggressive, you’re engaging in prosocial communication.
· Responding to the dark side of interpersonal communication. When you confront bullying or sexual harassment constructively (and safely) you’re performing a prosocial communication function.
Effects of Prosocial Communication
Prosocial communication most obviously has an effect on the other person. As the examples given above illustrate prosocial communication benefits other people by making them feel better about themselves or enabling them to do what they do more effectively and/or more efficiently.
But, your prosocial behavior also has an effect on you; you feel better about yourself for having done something good for someone else. In fact, there is considerable research showing that personal pleasure and happiness often comes from helping others (https://thinklivebepositive.wordpress.com/category/helping-others-makes-you-happy/).
And, in many ways, prosocial communication benefits the society as a whole when, for example, you campaign for clean water or when you argue against injustice. Even when you mentor a young person, for example, you’re influencing the larger society by helping this person do a better job—be a better bus driver (benefiting the passengers), or teacher (benefiting students), or store clerk (making life easier for harried customers). Each act has ripple effects and prosocial communication has positive ripple effects.
Exercises and Discussion Questions
Giving and Receiving Prosocial Communication
Here are two scenarios which have the potential for prosocial communication. Examining these situations will further clarify the nature and function of prosocial communication. The first scenario focuses on your making prosocial communication choices and the second on the prosocial communication you might like to receive from others.
Giving Prosocial Communication
One of your close friends has been having a pretty awful time; failed two courses, lost a great part-time job, and was dumped by a long-time romantic partner. Your friend call you; tells you all this and pauses, waiting for you to say something.
1. Identify two or three choices for prosocial communication, select the one you think best, and explain why you think this is the best choice.
2. In what way might this choice benefit the other person?
3. In what way might this choice benefit you?
4. In what way might this choice benefit the larger social group or society as a whole?
Receiving Prosocial Communication
At dinner with four of your closest friends, you mention that you are feeling depressed lately and are thinking of quitting college.
1. Identify two or three choices for your friends’ prosocial communication that you might find useful.
2. In what way might these choices benefit you?
3. In what way might these choices benefit your friends?
4. In what way might these choices benefit the larger social group or society as a whole?
Defining Prosocial Communication
There is no universally accepted definition of prosocial communication. Some theorists define it as behavior that benefits another but with no thought of personal reward; others define it as behavior that is intended to serve a prosocial function. Here are a few questions about: Where is prosocial communication?
a. Is it in the intention of the communicator? Would a totally destructive bit of advice be prosocial communication if there was the intention to help. For example, would a friend’s advice on how to dress, that leads the person into a long period of depression, be prosocial if the friend’s intentions were good and were intended to help rather than harm the friend?
b. Is it in the non-expectation of gain? Some definitions of prosocial behavior define it as behavior that benefits others without the expectation of any personal gain. So, does the real estate salesperson engage in prosocial communication when she convinces a potential buyer to buy a house—that is sure to (and actually does) increase dramatically in value—when her motivation is the commission she’ll earn from the sale?
c. Is it in the message? Consider this: you’re having coffee with your romantic partner and announce your desire to break up. Your partner is overcome with shock and goes to the restroom. Almost immediately after getting up, a stray bullet is fired and would have hit your partner had your partner not gotten up. Was the breakup speech prosocial communication?
d. Is it in the effect? Let’s say, Jim wants to bankrupt John and so convinces him to invest all his assets in a particular stock. Contrary to Jim’s expectation, the stock soars in value and John becomes a multi-millionaire. Was Jim’s communication prosocial?
So, in your opinion, where is prosocial communication? How would you define prosocial communication?
1. How would you describe an insincere compliment in terms of prosocial communication? A forced smile?
2. What role does emotion work play in prosocial communication?
3. How would you describe the rules of netiquette generally or the rules for communicating on any one of the varied social media sites in terms of prosocial communication?
4. In what way does Facebook, Twitter, or any of the online dating sites promote prosocial communication? Can you find examples that might discourage prosocial communication?
5. How would you describe the prosocial behavior in general and the prosocial communication in particular exhibited by the typical superhero?
6. How would you explain the role of prosocial communication in developing and maintaining friendship and/or romantic relationships? What role does prosocial communication have on the immediate and extended family?
7. How would you describe your own prosocial communications? Consider, for example, such concepts as the contexts in which such behavior occurs, the channels used, the feedback, and the effects.