What is Communication?

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Q. "Sir, Would you like to tell me what is communication and its origin. Include full details. I shall be very thankful to you for this act of kindness."
[Editor's Note: Spelling errors corrected.]

A. This question came in to Margot Beutler and Cynthia Lockley through request@stc.org (in 1999 when stc.org was run by the chapters). When we first read it, we thought, "Oh, boy, what am I ever going to say? And, is this a put-on or what?" We sent it out to a variety of people to see if someone had a good suggestion for an answer. As we circulated it amongst others, it became a very interesting exercise. We got a variety of interpretations of what is being asked and related responses. Here are seven thoughtful interpretations and responses to this question:

  1. "You asked us to tell you about communication. Let me try to respond briefly.

    In a very broad sense, communication means to give or exchange information.

    Many species of non-human animals and even insects communicate with each other, and there are many books on the subject of how monkeys warn each other of danger and of how bees tell others from their hive where to find honey by a sort of dance.

    We, in the Society for Technical Communication (STC), are primarily interested in communication among people. The Society is a professional association whose members work in areas related to giving people clear information. STC is over 50 years old, with 150 chapters, 19 SIGS, and 25,000 members worldwide.

    The origin of communication is a topic studied by linguists, animal behaviorists, and scientists who study evolution. It is not an issue that we address in the Society for Technical Communication. Most of us work on issues of communicating today and in the future, rather than studying the past.

    Some of us are editors who help scientists or medical researchers explain what they do clearly enough for others to understand. Many of us work in high technology, helping software and hardware companies develop products that are easy for people to use. Today, many of us develop Internet and intranet sites, finding ways to help people get to the information they need quickly and giving them that information in ways that they can easily understand.

    People communicate with words and with pictures, so the Society for Technical Communication includes writers, technical illustrators, graphic artists, and many people who combine these skills. People also communicate in many different languages, and many of us in the Society for Technical Communication are concerned with communication across languages and cultures.

    I hope that this brief response has helped you to understand both "communication" and the Society to which you sent this request."

  2. "I think there are three main types of communication: technical, news media, and interpersonal. Technical communication pertains to conveying instructions and procedures. Radio and TV communication and the print media convey news, general information, and human interest stories. Interpersonal communication pertains our ability to connect with other people through a discussion of thoughts and feelings, in which our ability to listen is just as important as our ability to talk.

    I imagine the question is about technical communication and its origin as a field. The field is as old as engineering —the Romans and the Aztecs needed instructions—but it became a well-known field when technology wormed its way into our everyday lives in the form of computers and microprocessors. No one needed a technical guide for a campfire or a wood stove, but you certainly need one for today's modern oven with all its gadgets.

    And of course, the one bit of technology that has really made technical communication a prominent field is the desktop computer itself."

  3. "This is a really complex question. At the University of Maryland, there is a degree program in communications that is broken down into journalism, telecommunications, and psychology—the abstract study of communication, among others. Its complexity is only belied by its diversity. I did a quick book search in Amazon.com and found 13,916 titles on communication covering verbal and non-verbal, business, marriage, sex, lies, advertising, print, radio, digital, workplace diversity, and intergenerational communication. That was in the first 50 titles and doesn't include the study of communication, which was broken down into human and non-human, verbal and non-verbal, and behavioral.

    My suggestion to the questioner would be to go to the nearest university graduate or undergraduate library and do a little research or go to a collegiate bookstore and peruse the communication texts. I have a definition for you, a general description, and a list of references. Hey, throw technical on top of communication, and you have another layer of complexity.

    Interestingly enough, I just proofed a paper for my niece, who is studying communication 101 this semester, so this information is from her paper or rather my memory of it. I think they are using the DeVito book as their text.

    Definition

    If you want to know where the word communication originated, it is from the Latin word, communicare, which means to impart or participate. Communicare has the root, communis, which means common. It can be a noun as well as a verb in English, and was first used (or the first time it was found in writing) in the 14th century. It has multiple meanings. Communication is an act or instance of transmitting. It is the information communicated or a verbal or written message. It is the process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior or exchange of information as well as a system for communicating (telephones) or a system of routes for moving troops, supplies, and vehicles. In this modern age of computers and telecommunications, it is also the technology of the transmission of information. Basically, communication refers to union with or union together with. There are two other words come from the same base words: community and communion. I guess the ancients believed that engaging in communication in some mysterious way a commonality or true union was achieved

    General Description

    It all comes down to the transferring of messages or exchanging of information or ideas. It is the exchange of meanings between individuals through a common system of symbols, concerned scholars since the time of ancient Greece. All told, there are probably more than 125 published definitions of communication depending on the field of endeavor, but given the complexity of the concept and the importance of the process, we should not wonder at the multiplicity of definitions.

    Communication covers a wide topic area. Any definition of a topic as broad as communication would be too general, too complex, or too fragmented to be of much use. We can explain various aspects of communication with definitions, but they would not be unified. One way to define communication is to explain the process of communication.

    Applying the term process to communication means that it is an ongoing event. In our social interaction with others, we are communicating. Communication is the process whereby we attempt to transmit our thoughts, ideas, wishes, or emotions to others. Although for our purposes, communication involves only the information, thoughts, ideas, etc., that we want to transmit to a specific audience. The goal of communication is the acceptance of the sender's message by the receiver. If the receiver understands the meaning of a message that asks for action but fails to act, the goal of communications is not achieved. If the receiver does respond to the message by taking the appropriate action, the goal of the communication has been achieved. I had a communication teacher who said that communication always occurs, it just isn't always the communication you intended.

    The process of communication is referred to as a process to emphasize that it is always changing, always in motion. It is a series of actions, which involves the sender, the message, and the recipient. That is very simplified because there are other elements to complicate things. The sender and recipient are easy to understand. The message is a signal or combination of signals that serves as a stimulus for a receiver. The message has to go through a channel, which is the vehicle or medium through which signals are sent. This channel may convey the message visually or aurally, for example.

    Interfering with the messages is noise, which is anything that distorts the message intended by the source, anything that interferes with the receiver's receiving the message as the source intended the message to be received. There are three types of noise: physical noise, psychological noise, and semantic noise.

    The first type of noise interferes with the physical transmission of the signal or message. Psychological noise includes biases and prejudices, in both the sender and receiver, that lead to distortions in receiving and processing information. In semantic noise, the interference is due to the receiver failing to grasp the meanings intended by the sender. This includes jargon, technical, or complex terms as being examples of semantic noise.

    The process of communication may be disrupted in several ways. The sender's senses may inaccurately perceive the object or event: by permanent or temporary damage to the sensory organs; by psychological or emotional damage to the decoding mechanism; or by forces that interfere with the sender's perception and interpretation of the message. Finally, the sender may inaccurately transmit information regarding the message.

    A good understanding of communication, a dynamic process in which people strive to convey meaning to one another, is fundamental in gaining understanding of events, objects, and other people. The definition and model presented here lay a sound foundation which may facilitate understanding of the process of communication.

    References

    Anderson, J. A. (1987). Communication research: Issues and methods. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

    Colson, C. (1989). Against the night. Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications.

    DeVito, J. A. (1986). The communication handbook: A dictionary. New York: Harper & Row.

    Habermas, J. (1984). The theory of communicative action, vol. 1. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

    Mambert, W.A. (1971). The elements of effective communication. Washington, DC: Acropolis.

    McQuail, D. & Windahl, S. (1989). Models of communication. In E. Barnouw, G. Gerbner, W.

    Schramm, T. L. Worth, & L. Gross (eds.), International encyclopedia of communications, vol. 3 (pp. 36-44). New York: Oxford University Press.

    Weekley, E. (1967). An etymological dictionary of modern English (Vol. 1). New York: Dover Publications."

  4. "This may be taking the easy way out, but I'd give him a synopsis of the info provided on p15 of the Membership Directory—what STC is, how it evolved, our mission, and our goals."
  5. "I suspect that he wants to know what the Society does and a little of its history, but I wouldn't bet the store on it."
  6. "The only thing I would add to 'see a dictionary' would be to point out that communication can also be connotative; i.e., subjective and not quantifiable, and in that sense, not 'define-able'."
  7. "No response." (another form of communication).

Many thanks to (in alphabetical order): Astrid Adler, Connie Kiernan, Bob Kleinfeld, Debbie Lange, Ginny Redish, Leslie O'Gwin Rivers, and the no responders.

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Last modified: September 16, 2017
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