Communication is a key part of our social world. In this lesson, we’ll talk about the major principles of interpersonal communication, including different kinds of meaning in communication and how context shapes this.

What Is Interpersonal Communication?

Think about your day-to-day life. What is one thing that you do every single day? Maybe a few things come to mind, but one thing we do is communicate with other people. Communication is how we navigate our social world.

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We communicate for a lot of different reasons, including to fulfill personal and emotional needs, to communicate that we’re in danger, to make friends, to stay in touch with family. Interpersonal communication is not simply a conversation between two people: it is a system of meaning we use to share messages with one another. We communicate all the time with the people around us.

The stranger who held the door for you this morning and who you smiled at afterwards: this was interpersonal communication, though it wasn’t personal in the sense we normally think of. In this lesson, we’ll talk specifically about interpersonal communication, including some of the major principles that shape how we communicate.

Communication Principles

So, we know that interpersonal communication is important in our day-to-day lives. But people like psychologists and communication experts study communication in a more in-depth way. They’ve come up with some specific ideas about how we communicate.

First, and this goes back to the point we made at the very beginning, interpersonal communication is inevitable. This means that we can’t avoid communicating. Whether it’s through talking, facial expressions, or body language, we’re always communicating. Imagine what our social world would be like without communication. Difficult to do, right?

Interpersonal communication is also irreversible. In other words, once you say it, it’s said! You can’t take back something you say to another person. If you say something hurtful or rude to someone, you can apologize for it later, but you can’t undo the fact that you said it. In today’s world the same is true for social media – if you put something out there and people see it, you can’t undo that.

Next, interpersonal communication is unrepeatable. This one might seem a little odd. Certainly you can always repeat something you said, right? In this case, unrepeatable is getting more at the context where communication happens. You can never recreate the exact situation where you delivered a message. This is kind of like the old saying: ‘You never get a second chance to make a first impression.’

Now that we know some basic points about interpersonal communication, let’s talk a little bit more in-depth about how it works.

Communication Types

Interpersonal communication is all about meaning. There are two different ways that this works. First, we talk about meaning on a basic level. If a teacher says, ‘Write an essay,’ this means exactly what it says. This is called content meaning. Think of content meaning as the literal meaning of communication. If your friend greets you in the morning with a good morning, ‘good morning’ is the literal meaning of this exchange!

Now, there is also a relationship meaning. This refers to the position of a teacher vis-a-vis a student. The teacher is a more powerful and authoritative role here. The relationship between the two speakers will impact the kind of communication that happens. The relationship meaning tells us about how the communicators related to one another. For instance, because the teacher is the presumed authority, when she says, ‘write an essay,’ the student will interpret that as meaning, ‘I better write that essay because my teacher is in charge of the classroom.’

Interpersonal communication is also thought of as a transactional process. This means that it takes place within a dynamic system and the context of that system – whether you’re at work, or home, or out at a restaurant – impact how we are communicating. Think of it like an exchange. If your friend asks you what you’re doing on Friday night, you’ll respond with your plans for the night instead of, say, a completely random story about what happened at work today. This is because you are both actively engaged in the same communication. It means that when people are communicating, everyone involved is actively participating. It’s not simply the case that one person sends a message and another receives it.

Interpersonal communication can also be ambiguous. This means that sometimes it’s difficult to tell what people mean when they say something, or that something might have multiple different meanings. For example, let’s say you are talking to a friend and you say something that offends him. You apologize, and he accepts, but you aren’t sure if the situation has been resolved. This is because oftentimes our communication is ambiguous. We’re not quite sure of the exact meaning of something someone said.

Finally, interpersonal communication is purposeful. That means that we make choices when we communicate, and these choices depend on what our purpose in that situation is. For example, are you trying to teach someone something? Are you trying to comfort a friend who is upset? Sometimes we might try to communicate in order to persuade someone of something. In each instance, we’ll choose our words carefully to get our point across.

Lesson Summary

Interpersonal communication is how we navigate our social world. It’s a system of meaning we use to share messages with one another. It happens within a dynamic system, where we communicate through words, gestures, and facial expressions, both with people we know and with strangers.

We know that interpersonal communication has a content meaning, which is the literal meaning of an exchange. It also has a relationship meaning, which tells us something more about the two people involved and how they relate to one another. Additionally, interpersonal communication is thought of as a transactional process, meaning that it takes place within a dynamic system and the context of that system, such as at work or at home.

We also know that interpersonal communication is unrepeatable and irreversible, meaning we can’t take back what we say. It can also be ambiguous, meaning sometimes we’re just not entirely clear about what a communication meant. We also communicate purposely, depending on the context and the message we’re trying to get across.

Communication is all around us. We can’t really avoid communicating with one another. Imagine how strange a world that would be!