The “Problem” of Communication

In our reading this week, Peters claims that we have a narrow and limited way of thinking about communication. We dream of perfect, ideal communication (as if we’re striving for telepathy); we get frustrated when we miscommunicate; we blame communication as the “problem;” and then we often stop communicating altogether (“solipsism”) or we just keep getting frustrated. But Peters argues that the “problem” of communication is not that communication fails and not that we miscommunicate; the problem is the way we think about communication.

Here are a few examples that demonstrate the way Peters says we usually think and talk about communication (and remember, he wants to challenge these limited views of communication).

From “General Information about Communication Problems”

“Almost all conflicts involve communication problems, as both a cause and an effect. Misunderstandings, resulting from poor communication, can easily cause a conflict or make it worse. Further, once a conflict has started, communication problems often develop because people in conflict do not communicate with each other as frequently, as openly, and as accurately as they do when relationships are not strained.”

This excerpt once again represents a “Transmission Model” or “standard view of communication” that believes we just need to learn to communicate more effectively–to use the tool of communication better. And it suggests that more communication, more honesty (truth), and more clarity will somehow fix communication.

From “Solutions to Your Top Two Communication Problems” by Dr. Brenda Shoshanna

Without effective communication, no relationship stands a chance. … When we are fighting, we want more than ever to be understood and words go flying back and forth like arrows.

[C]ommunication consists not only of talking, but also listening and hearing what is being said. … it is crucial to realize that each person can only truly “hear” what is being said if they are willing to put aside their own point of view and really be available to know the heart and mind of the other.

These excerpts give an example of how we act as if we truly could create some direct link between our minds. We desire to be understood perfectly (telepathy).

From High School Musical 2, “You are the Music in Me”

I admit: I’m a HSM fan. … but to the point. Many love songs about “connecting” and finding true love also shape and reveal the way we think about communication.

It’s like I knew you before we met (Before we met)
Can’t explain it (Ohh ohh)
There’s no name for it (No name for it)

I’m saying words I never said

And it was easy (So easy)
Because you see the real me (I see)
As I am

You understand
And that’s more than I’ve ever known

To hear your voice (Hear your voice)
Above the noise (Ohh ohh)

And no, I’m not alone

Their voices cut through the “noise” and they connect in a way where they understand each other perfectly … Gabriella sees the “real Troy,” as if communication was able to merge their souls.


Expanding the range of “communication”

In our first reading, Chandler started to point out a few problems and questions with the Transmission Model. For example, if communication merely sends and receives messages as clearly as possible, where do the ideas and information that we transmit come from? You should be familiar with the specific limitations that Chandler identifies with this way of thinking about communication: (it doesn’t account for social / cultural context; it doesn’t account for change over time; etc.) The notes on Oncourse summarize a few of the problems and questions. We’ll discuss most of these questions throughout the semester.

On your blogs, think of examples where communication seems to do something different or more than simply transmit information. In class I mentioned the Preamble to the U. S. Constitution. This “communication” didn’t merely transmit facts or knowledge that already existed; it invented a country. I also mentioned Pluto’s planetary status — if communication merely sent info, how can a discussion among a bunch of scientists change the nature or the “truth” of an orbiting rock?

Here’s another example — the Coca-Cola Happiness Factory (try to ignore the creepy mutilating murder of snowpeople!)

If we only think of communication as transmission, how would we describe what’s going on in this commercial? What message is Coca-cola sending or conveying? It seems like there’s a LOT going on to say simply “Buy Coke!” There’s much more going on here that has to do with the way communication, culture, identity, ideas, etc. all interact, but if primarily think of communication as sending / receiving, we can’t make as much sense of this commercial.

“What we’ve got here is — failure to communicate!”

You’ve probably heard this famous line from the movie Cool Hand Luke (1967).

We often think of communication as something that either works well or fails; we’ve either communicated clearly and perfectly or we get frustrated by problems with miscommunication; we’re either skilled communicators or flawed communicators. When we think of communication from the “transmission model” perspective (arguably the way most of us learn to think about communication) we usually think along these lines. We think we only need to study how to use the tool or machine of communcation clearly and carefully.

On the first day of class, we drew simple pictures of how we think communication works. Most of them looked a lot like the “transmission model”:


OR, like this:

Someone has an idea or message, we put it into a simple, clear “package” of words or pictures, send that information through communication, and another person opens the “package”  to discover the idea or data. If anything gets in the way (“bad” communication, “noise,” lack of clarity, etc.) then “what we have is — failure to communicate.” That is what we’ve called the transmission model of communication or the standard view of communication.

We see messages everywhere that encourage us to think about communication in this way, not just standard communication textbooks.  Think of cultural messages that talk about or present communication this way (for example, commercials, song lyrics, movies, etc.). Then on your team blog provide some examples of the many ways we are taught to think of communication as a TOOL or machine to transmit messages as clearly, noiselessly, and trasnparently as possible. As you discuss and comment on your group’s examples, think about whether those examples take any of the broader ways of thinking about communication that Chandler mentions into account.