Goals of communication

It’s tempting to think about communication as just about transmitting information. It would follow that the quality of communication can be measured by how well the idea in the head of the person listening matches the idea in the head of the speaker that she wishes to convey. To be sure, plenty of communication is best characterized as a means to an end:
“So, the trash.”
“Trash, it’s everywhere. I know.”
“I mean, the particular trash in our garbage can.”
“It’s such a wasteful society we live in. I totally feel your pain about the waste of it all. You try to be conscientious, but everything comes in so much packaging.”
“No, I just want you to take out the trash.”

We convey such information in order to modify the behavior of the listener in some related way. But I would venture that the majority of words spoken in our day-to-day lives are not about transmitting information, not the kind that serves a specific purpose. We also communicate as a means of forming social bonds, of establishing social relationships.
“How about that weather, huh?”
“Yeah. Crazy.”
“Hey, now that we’ve established this bond, you know, over our shared experience of the weather, maybe it’ll be less awkward next time we pass each other in the hall?”
“Yeah, I feel so much closer to you now. I won’t look away so pointedly next time we may chance to make eye contact.”

The goal of such communication is not related much to what is transmitted, but the fact that we share something. One may still argue that communication of this type is a means to an end. But there is also communication for its own sake. We just want to connect, to feel less alone.
“I just tripped on this sidewalk and broke my ankle.”
“Oh my God. Do you need help?”
“It’s just a perfect end to a lousy day. I mean, my boss bitched me out this morning. I was all distracted, rerunning the conversation in my head and coming up with retorts, carrying all these grocery bags. I didn’t see the crack.”
“Hey, should I call 911 or something?”
“I mean, you ever had one of those days, where just everything goes wrong? It feels like the world is against you?”
“I could at least try to help you up?”
“No, I’m good. I just needed to vent.”
“Oh yeah. Well. I know what you mean. We all have those days.”
“I feel so much better now. Well, except for my ankle.”

This is the kind of communication that we crave when we’ve been alone. It’s not that we’re starved for information. We can watch movies and read books. We can even read the news and be sure of having a set of shared information with plenty of other people. One can still get awfully lonely without having two-way communication for its on sake. I would speculate that this third type of communication has fallen off as the first two types, mediated by technology, have increased as a proportion of our lives. I wonder if this has something to do with why everyone seems to be in therapy.

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