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Old Saturday, November 16, 2013
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Default Introduction to Communication Theory

Introduction to
Communication Theory

recent advertisement for AT&T Wireless has a bold headline that asserts, “If only communication plans were as simple as communicating.” We respectfully disagree with their assess-
ment. Mobile communication plans may indeed be intricate, but the process of communicating is infinitely more so. Unfortunately, much of popular culture tends to minimize the challenges associated with the communication process: We all do it, all of the time. Yet one need only peruse the content of talk shows, personal ads, advice columns, and organizational performance reviews to recognize that communication skills can make or break an individual’s personal and professional lives. Companies want to hire and promote people with excellent com- munication skills. Divorces occur because spouses believe they “no longer communicate.” Communication is perceived as a magical elixir, one that can ensure a happy long-term relationship and can guarantee organizational success. Clearly, popular culture holds paradoxical views about communication: It is easy to do yet powerful in its effects, simultaneously simple and magical.
The reality is even more complex. “Good” communication means different things to different people in different situations. Accordingly, simply adopting a set of particular skills is not going to guarantee.

success. Those who are genuinely good communicators are those who understand the underlying principles behind communication and are able to enact, appropriately and effectively, particular communica- tion skills as the situation warrants. This book seeks to provide the foundation for those sorts of decisions. We focus on communication theories that can be applied in your personal and professional lives. Understanding these theories—including their underlying assump- tions and the predictions that they make—can make you a more com- petent communicator.


This text is concerned with communication theory, so it is important to be clear about the term communication. The everyday view of commu- nication is quite different from the view of communication taken by communication scholars. In the business world, for example, a popular view is that communication is synonymous with information. Thus, the communication process is the flow of information from one person to another (Axley, 1984). Communication is viewed as simply one activity among many others, such as planning, controlling, and man- aging (Deetz, 1994). It is what we do in organizations.
Communication scholars, on the other hand, define communica-
tion as the process by which people interactively create, sustain, and manage meaning (Conrad & Poole, 1998). As such, communication both reflects the world and simultaneously helps create it. Communication is not simply one more thing that happens in personal and professional life; it is the very means by which we produce our personal relationships and professional experiences—it is how we plan, control, manage, per- suade, understand, lead, love, and so on. All of the theories presented in this book relate to the various ways in which human interaction is developed, experienced, and understood.


Because we believe that one of the goals of studying communication theory is to make you a better communicator, we should articulate more clearly the nature of communication competence. Research indicates that communication competence is most often understood as achiev- ing a successful balance between effectiveness and appropriateness (Spitzberg & Cupach, 1989). Effectiveness is the extent to which you achieve your goals in an interaction. Did you get the raise? Were you able to convince a subordinate that timeliness is important? Did you per- suade your spouse to clean the bathroom? Appropriateness refers to ful- filling social expectations for a particular situation. Did you assertively ask for the raise, or was it a meek inquiry? Were you insistent or wishy- washy when discussing your employee’s tardiness? Was your interac- tion with your spouse demonstrative or did you passive-aggressively pile dirty towels on the floor? There are many cases in which a person is effective without being appropriate; consider a job applicant who lies on a resume to get a job for which he or she is unqualified. That person might be very effective in getting the job, but is such deceit appropriate? On the other hand, many times people are appropriate to the point of failing to achieve their goals. For example, a person who doesn’t wish to take on an additional task at work, but says nothing because he or she fears causing conflict, might be sacrificing effectiveness for appropriate- ness. The key is that when faced with communicative decisions, the com- petent communicator considers how to be both effective and appropriate. We believe that the theories described in this book will help you achieve your communication goals by providing indication of both what should be done as well as how you should do it.


The term theory is often intimidating to students. We hope by the time you finish reading this book that you will find working with theory to be less daunting than you might have expected. The reality is that you have been working with theories of communication all of your life, even if they haven’t been labeled as such. Theories simply provide an abstract understanding of the communication process (Miller, 2002). As an abstract understanding, they move beyond describing a single event by providing a means by which all such events can be understood. To illustrate, a theory of customer service can help you understand the poor customer service you received from your cable company this morning. Likewise, the same theory can also help you understand a good customer service encounter you had last week at a favorite restaurant. In a professional context, the theory can assist your organi- zation in training and developing customer service personnel.
At their most basic level, theories provide us with a lens by which to view the world. Think of theories as a pair of glasses. Corrective lenses allow wearers to observe more clearly, but they also impact vision in unforeseen ways. For example, they can limit the span of what you see, especially when you try to look peripherally outside the range of the frames. Similarly, lenses can also distort the things you see, making objects appear larger or smaller than they really are. You can also try on lots of pairs of glasses until you finally pick one pair that works the best for your lifestyle. Theories operate in a similar fashion. A theory can illuminate an aspect of your communication so that you understand the process much more clearly; theory also can hide things from your understanding or distort the relative importance of things.
We consider a communication theory to be any systematic summary
about the nature of the communication process. Certainly, theories can do
more than summarize. Other functions of theories are to focus attention on particular concepts, clarify our observations, predict communication behavior, and generate personal and social change (Littlejohn, 1999). We do not believe, however, that all of these functions are necessary for a sys- tematic summary of communication processes to be considered a theory.
What does this definition mean for people in communication, business, and other professions? It means that any time you say a communication strategy usually works this way at your workplace, or that a specific approach is generally effective with your boss, or that certain types of com-
munication are typical for particular media organizations, you are in essence
providing a theoretical explanation. Most of us make these types of sum- mary statements on a regular basis. The difference between this sort of the- orizing and the theories provided in this book centers on the term systematic in the definition.

Type of Theory Example
Commonsense theory
• Never date someone you work with—it will always end badly.
• The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
• The more incompetent you are, the higher you get promoted.

Working theory
• Audience analysis should be done prior to presenting a speech.
• To get a press release published, it should be newsworthy and written in journalistic style.
Scholarly theory
• Effects of violations of expectations depend on the reward value of the violator (expectancy violations theory).
• The media do not tell us what to think but what to think about (agenda-setting theory).

The first summary statements in the table describe what is known as commonsense theory, or theory-in-use. This type of theory is often cre- ated by an individual’s own personal experiences or developed from helpful hints passed on from family members, friends, or colleagues. Commonsense theories are useful because they are often the basis for our decisions about how to communicate. Sometimes, however, our common sense backfires. For example, think about common knowledge regarding deception. Most people believe that liars don’t look the per- son they are deceiving in the eyes, yet research indicates that this is not the case (DePaulo, Stone, & Lassiter, 1985). Let’s face it: If we engage in deception, we will work very hard at maintaining eye contact simply because we believe that liars don’t make eye contact! In this case, com- monsense theory is not supported by research into the phenomenon.
A second type of theory is known as working theory. These are gen-
eralizations made in particular professions about the best techniques for doing something. Journalists work using the “inverted pyramid” of story construction (most important information to least important infor- mation). Filmmakers operate using specific camera shots to evoke par- ticular emotions in the audience, so close-ups are used when a filmmaker wants the audience to place particular emphasis on the object in the shot. Giannetti (1982), for example, describes a scene in Hitchcock’s Notorious in which the heroine realizes she is being poisoned by her coffee, and the audience “sees” this realization through a close-up of the coffee cup. Working theories are more systematic than common- sense theories because they represent agreed-on ways of doing things for a particular profession. In fact, these working theories may very well be based on scholarly theories. However, working theories more closely represent guidelines for behavior rather than systematic representations. These types of theories are typically taught in content-specific courses (such as public relations, media production, or public speaking).
The type of theory we will be focusing on in this book is known as scholarly theory. Students often assume (incorrectly!) that because a theory is labeled as scholarly that it is not useful for people in business and the professions. Instead, the term scholarly indicates that the theory has undergone systematic research. Accordingly, scholarly theories
provide more thorough, accurate, and abstract explanations for com- munication than do commonsense or working theories. The downside is that scholarly theories are typically more complex and difficult to understand than commonsense or working theories. If you are gen- uinely committed to improving your understanding of the com- munication process, however, scholarly theory will provide a strong foundation for doing so.


The final topic of this chapter is evaluating theory. Earlier we sug- gested that all theories have strengths and weaknesses; they reveal cer- tain aspects of reality and conceal others. An important task that students and scholars face is to evaluate the theories available to them. We are not talking about evaluation in terms of “good” versus “bad” but evaluating the usefulness of the theory. Each of you is likely to find some of the theories presented in this text more useful than others. Such a determination is likely due at least in part to your own back- ground and experiences, as well as your profession. We would like to challenge you to broaden your scope and consider not just the useful- ness of each theory to you personally but the usefulness of the theory for people’s personal and professional lives in general.
A number of published standards can be used to evaluate theories (e.g., Griffin, 2003; Littlejohn, 2002; West & Turner, 2000). All are appro- priate and effective tools for comparing the relative usefulness of a given theory. Because this text is geared toward working professionals, however (or those who wish to soon be working in the profession of their choice), we believe that the following five criteria best capture the way to assess the relative usefulness of communication theories in the communication, business, and related professions. Note that we are talking about the relative usefulness of the theory. We are not talking about either/or, good or bad, weak or strong. Instead, we hope you look at these distinctions as continua that range from very useful at one end to not particularly useful at the other end. A description of these criteria is in Table 1.2.
The first area of focus is accuracy. Simply put, the best theories cor-
rectly summarize the way communication actually works. Recall, how- ever, that we are referring to scholarly theories. As such, we do not mean accuracy in terms of whether the theory accurately reflects your own personal experience (although we would hope that it does!). Instead, when we use the term accuracy we are suggesting that system- atic research supports the explanations provided by the theory. Thus, in assessing this quality, you should look at research studies that have used the theory and see whether the research supports the theory or fails to find support for it.
A second way to evaluate theories is practicality. The best theories
can be used to address real-world communication problems; in fact, Lewin (1951) said, “There is nothing so practical as a good theory” (p. 169). Clearly, there are some profound theories that have changed the way we understand the world that aren’t actually used by most

Area of Evaluation What to Look For

Has research supported that the theory works the way it says it does?


Have real-world applications been found for the theory?

Has the theory been formulated with the appropriate number (fewest possible) of concepts or steps?

Does the theory demonstrate coherence within its own premises and with other theories?

To what extent does the theory make clear an otherwise complex experience?

people on a daily basis (Einstein’s theory of relativity, or Darwin’s theory of evolution, for example). In terms of communication theories, however, theories that are accurate but can’t be used in everyday life are not as good as theories that have great practical utility. For example, a theory that can help a person make better communicative decisions in his or her interactions with coworkers is better than a theory so abstract that it cannot be used by an individual in daily communica- tion. Thus, a theory with more applications is better than a theory with- out practical uses. In assessing this criterion, you should look not only for how the theory has been used in the research literature but also whether the theory has made the leap to professional practice.
Succinctness is the third way to evaluate a good business or profes-
sional communication theory. Succinctness refers to whether or not a theory’s explanation or description is sufficiently concise. Importantly, succinctness does not mean that the theory is necessarily easy to under- stand or has only a few short steps; because the world is complex, the- ories trying to explain the world are often fairly complex as well. Instead, what we mean by succinctness is whether the theory is for- mulated using as few steps as possible. The “three bears” analogy works here. Theories that have extra steps or include variables that don’t help us understand real-world experiences would be considered overly complex. Theories that do not have enough steps, that don’t

delve beneath the surface, or that don’t have enough variables to understand real-world problems are too simple. Theories that include no more and no less than necessary to understand a phenomena thor- oughly are considered just right; they are appropriately succinct. The best way to think of succinctness is to compare how much of the com- munication situation is explained by the theory in proportion to how many concepts are being used to explain it. The larger the situation and the smaller the number of necessary steps or concepts, the more succinct the theory.
The fourth way to evaluate a theory is to consider its consistency.
The most useful theories have both internal and external consistency. By internal consistency, we mean that the ideas of the theory are logi- cally built on one another. A theory that proposes at one point that cooperation among team members guarantees success and at a differ- ent point proposes that competition is more effective than cooperation has a logical flaw. Similarly, theories that “skip” steps do not have much internal consistency. A theory predicting that age is related to the experience of jealousy and that one’s expression of jealousy affects the future of the relationship, but then fails to tell us how the experience of jealousy is related to the expression of jealousy, has a logical gap. As such, it does not have strong internal consistency.
External consistency, on the other hand, refers to the theory’s coher-
ence with other widely held theories. If we presume that the widely held theories are true, then the theory under evaluation that disagrees with those believed supported theories also presents a logical problem. As such, the notion of consistency, whether internal or external, is con- cerned with the logic of the theory. The most useful theories are those that have a strong logical structure.
The final area for evaluation is acuity. Acuity refers to the ability of a
theory to provide insight into an otherwise intricate issue. Earlier we said that theories evaluated as “succinct” are not necessarily easy to under- stand because the real world is often complicated. A theory that explains an intricate problem, however, is of greater value than a theory that explains something less complex. Think of acuity as the “wow” factor. If, after understanding the theory, you think “wow, I never considered that!” the theory has acuity. If, on the other hand, you think “no duh,” the theory does not demonstrate acuity. To illustrate, a theory that explains a complex problem, such as how organizational cultures can influence employee retention, is a more useful theory than a theory that explains a relatively straightforward problem, such as how to gain attention in a speech. Those theories that explain difficult problems show acuity; those that focus on fairly obvious problems demonstrate superficiality.
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