ABCD stands for A Beginner’s Communication Dictionary and is primarily addressed to students (but also to instructors) and anyone interested in communication. My purpose here is modest and simple—it’s to elaborate on some of the central terms in communication that your textbook—even if you’re using one of mine—may not have clarified sufficiently. Textbook authors are under great pressure to not add pages when they do a revision; if something is added, something must be taken out. And that’s not easy to do; everything seems so important (at least to the author). So, there often isn’t enough space to include more extended definitions.
I will try to go beyond what I say in my texts though I may use that as a base or take-off point. Hopefully these definitions will expand or supplement or provide additional perspectives on the terms defined in your text—rather than simply repeat what’s in the text. Another value of these definitions (I hope) is to reinforce the terms discussed in your text and course; just reading the definition again with perhaps different examples and in another format will, I suspect, help you learn the concept on a more meaningful level.
Some of these words are common words given special meaning in communication; noise and feedback are good examples. Other words are basically academic jargon; impression management and impression formation are examples. All, however, are important to understanding and learning about communication.
My intention is to post one definition each week for the next 14 or 15 weeks (covering a semester), probably over the weekend, and then see what happens. If these prove useful, I’ll continue; if there are easier and better ways to cover such terms and if this proves ineffective, I’ll turn attention to something else. My goal is to find interesting ways to supplement the traditional textbook with additional materials that we’d probably all recognize are useful to students learning the theories and skills of communication. The question, I guess, that needs exploration and that I’m trying to address, is what materials are most important as supplements to the textbook and how can these materials be most effectively presented. Posting these definitions on the blog is one attempt in this direction.
I also intend to keep these definitions fairly brief and hopefully following Albert Einstein’s suggestion that everything should be made as simple as possible, but never so simple that significant factors are ignored or distorted. I’ll also try to provide suggestions for further reading when appropriate. All of these definitions should be accessible through the descriptor/key word ABCD.
First, however, let me say something about the importance of terms and their definitions to your academic study of communication. As you already know—just from having listened to lectures and having read textbooks in different subject areas—each discipline has its own vocabulary. And, to make matters more confusing, some use the same word in vastly different ways. The term culture, for example, means one thing in anthropology and quite another in biology. If you defined culture on an anthropology exam as it’s defined in biology, you’d be marked incorrect; the meanings are totally different. In the same way, family means one thing in sociology and quite another in linguistics. And, as you also already know, communication has its own vocabulary, consisting of words of jargon, developed specifically to talk about communication, and regular words used in specialized senses.
There are several reasons why these different vocabularies were developed, why they’re maintained, and why they’re ever expanding.
• Each discipline focuses on somewhat different phenomena and therefore each needs specific terms to refer to these phenomena. “Message” is a useful concept in ordinary talk but in communication we need to make finer distinctions; after all, not all messages are the same. Taking just one example: some messages refer primarily to content—to, say, the movie you just saw—and others refer more to relationships—to, say, who gets to make the final decision or the last word. And so we talk about content messages and relationship messages as well as messages (in the more general sense).
• The specialized and technical language of a discipline enables researchers and theorists in the field to communicate more efficiently and more precisely. The distinction between content and relationship messages is just one example.
• Knowing the specialized vocabulary may enable you to identify more clearly or notice or remember certain things more easily. If you can readily label something, you’re probably more likely to notice it and be able to recall it at a later time. The linguistic tag (the name, the label), it’s assumed, enables you to more easily store the information in memory and be able to recall it. For example, once you understand the very elementary distinction between content and relationship messages, you’ll start noticing messages that are primarily focused on content and distinguishing them from messages that are primarily focused on relationships. With further insight, you’ll be able to see quite clearly when misunderstandings and conflicts are caused by the failure to recognize this distinction between these two kinds of messages. And you’ll be able to use this knowledge in your own messages. For example, when a message is primarily relational (“I can’t stand it when you ignore me!”) and you respond as if it’s primarily about content (“I do not ignore you”) you miss the chance to make real contact with the other person’s feelings. A relationally oriented message such as “I know I sometimes get wrapped up in my own world and seem to block out everyone else. . . .” might have been more effective. This is simply one of the skills you’ll acquire and one that can be clarified and enhanced with this specialized vocabulary.
And this is about as good a way as I can think of to explain the nature of “communication skills”. Textbooks differ widely on what they consider a skill even though they all use the term skill. I like to think of the term skill as the ability to do something. This skill will likely depend on your knowing something first. But, just knowing something is not sufficient for skill mastery; you need to be able to do something better or different than you did before you acquired the skill. And that’s what a skill is: the ability to accomplish your communication goal, to do something better, more effectively, more efficiently, more persuasively, more passionately—or whatever your particular goal is.
So, these are some of the reasons why the vocabulary you’ll learn in this course is an important part of learning what communication is and how you can communicate more effectively. At the same time that you’ll learn the subject by learning its vocabulary, you will (I hope) gain a deeper appreciation for the power of language generally.
I invite whoever might read these definitions (students, instructors, blog surfers) to add examples, correct any misleading statements, clarify anything that is not clear, extend the definition to other areas, suggest additional references, or note any research results that might be relevant to the definition. All you have to do is leave a comment to the post of the definition on which you want to expand/clarify/exemplify. Or, if you prefer, e-mail me at email@example.com.