The Contextual View
One way of defining interpersonal communication is to compare it to other forms of communication. In so doing, we would examine how many people are involved, how physically close they are to one another, how many sensory channels are used, and the feedback provided. Interpersonal communication differs from other forms of communication in that there are few participants involved, the interactants are in close physical proximity to each other, there are many sensory channels used, and feedback is immediate13. An important point to note about the contextual definition is that it does not take into account the relationship between the interactants.
The Developmental View
We have many different relationships with people. Some researchers say that our definition of interpersonal communication must account for these differences. These researchers say that interacting with a sales clerk in a store is different than the relationship we have with our friends and family members. Thus, some researchers have proposed an alternative way of defining interpersonal communication. This is called the developmental view. From this view, interpersonal communication is defined as communication that occurs between people who have known each other for some time. Importantly, these people view each other as unique individuals, not as people who are simply acting out social situations
Functions of Interpersonal Communication
Interpersonal communication is important because of the functions its achieves. Whenever we engage in communication with another person, we seek to gain information about them. We also give off information through a wide variety of verbal and nonverbal cues. Read more about the various functions of interpersonal communication and then complete the interactive activity and the quiz at the end of this unit
One reason we engage in interpersonal communication is so that we can gain knowledge about another individual. Social Penetration Theory says that we attempt to gain information about others so that we can interact with them more effectively. We can better predict how they will think, feel, and act if we know who they are. We gain this information passively, by observing them; actively, by having others engage them; or interactively, by engaging them ourselves. Self-disclosure is often used to get information from another person.
Building a Context of Understanding
We also engage in interpersonal communication to help us better understand what someone says in a given context. The words we say can mean very different things depending on how they are said or in what context. Content Messages refer to the surface level meaning of a message. Relationship Messages refer to how a message is said. The two are sent simultaneously, but each affects the meaning assigned to the communication. Interpersonal communication helps us understand each other better.
Another reason we engage in interpersonal communication is to establish an identity. The roles we play in our relationships help us establish identity. So too does the face, the public self-image we present to others. Both roles and face are constructed based on how we interact with others.
Finally, we engage in interpersonal communication because we need to express and receive interpersonal needs. William Schutz2 has identified three such needs: inclusion, control, and affection.
-Inclusion is the need to establish identity with others.
-Control is the need to exercise leadership and prove one’s abilities. Groups provide outlets for this need. Some individuals do not want to be a leader. For them, groups provide the necessary control over aspects of their lives.
-Affection is the need to develop relationships with people. Groups are an excellent way to make friends and establish relationships.