Communication and Meaning

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Chapter Two
Communication and Meaning
Chapter Objectives
By the end of this chapter you should be able to do the following:

Define communication.

Explain what it means to say that communication is a socially con-
structed process.

Describe how fault and blame are linked to the message transmission
view of communication.

Identify seven features of your world of meaning.

Reflect on the ethical standards that influence your communication

Discuss the role of culture in collaborative meaning making.

Define the term “nexting.”
Chapter Preview
So here you are in the first “regular” chapter of this interpersonal
communication text. The fact that you are reading these pages
means that you have decided—or someone has decided for you—to
learn more about communicating interpersonally. If you are enrolled
as a full-time student, you may also be studying chemistry, English, po-
litical science, or psychology. The content of some of those courses
may seem obvious by their titles, but most every one begins by orient-
ing you to the subject matter through definitions. This text does, too.
So what is interpersonal communication?
Our response to this question is likely to be more involved than you
might expect. And before we are done, some of you might even be ask-
ing yourselves, “When are they going to get to the part I should memo-
rize for the test?” Others might be thinking that you know what com-

Part I Understanding Communication
munication is because you’ve been doing it in one form or another
since the day you were born, so what’s the point of some elaborate
Our answer is, first, that this whole book essentially develops the
two definitions that are explained in this chapter and the next, “com-
munication” and “interpersonal communication.” And second, we
don’t want to take the risk of assuming that everybody starts with the
same understanding when our experiences tell us that students come
to this course with different cultural and individual experiences of
communication that shape all their contacts with others. So defini-
tions matter.
Fundamentally, communication is a general term used to label the
processes through which humans collaboratively construct meaning.
Meaning is what makes the human world different from the spaces in-
habited by other living beings—worms, dogs and cats, and even, so
far as we now know, dolphins and chimpanzees. Since humans live in
worlds of meaning—rather than worlds made up only of objects, or
“things”—the process of constructing and modifying these worlds goes
on literally all the time. This is why communication is such a major
part of human living.
To understand what we mean when we say that humans live in
worlds of meaning, consider the part of your world that’s your “home.”
What’s most important about it is not how many square feet it has, how
tall it is, where it’s located, or the color of the bedroom walls (objective
features), but what it means to live in a place this small or this big, how
the wall color affects you, and what it means to live where your home is
located. Similarly, the transportation part of your world is significant
not simply because you travel by bike or on a bus, in your own old or
new car, on foot or on a motorcycle, but because of what it means in
your family, neighborhood, and culture to get around this way. And the
meanings of all these parts of our worlds get established and changed
in communication—the written and oral, verbal and nonverbal contact
people have with each other.
When each human being is born, this process of collaborative
meaning-making is already going on around us. Even before we have
developed our abilities to be articulate in our family’s language, we
enter a number of ongoing conversations. In some ways, we enter our
world kind of like a chunk of potato is plopped into a pot of simmering
soup. The soup of human meaning-making will be simmering all the
time we are alive, and communication processes will continue after we
die. Of course, individuals and groups affect their worlds a lot more
than a chunk of potato affects a pot of soup. In fact, much of this book
is about the ethical choices and cultural responses communicators
make, and how these affect their worlds. But although the element of
choice is present in every communication event, it is also important to
keep in mind that the communication process is not one that any indi-

Chapter Two Communication and Meaning
vidual can completely control. Communication is something that we
do collectively, together, as the title of this book suggests. All the time,
everywhere, in all the contacts that make us social animals, humans
are constructing meaning together, and communication is the name
given to this ongoing process.
Interpersonal communication is a subset of this broader process, a
particular quality or type of communication. We develop our definition
of interpersonal communicating in the next chapter. But before we do,
there are enough important points about the process of communica-
tion in general to fill the rest of this chapter.
As we noted, our goal in this chapter is to lay the foundation for
the rest of the book. We provide you with an up-to-date, research-
anchored, and experientially relevant understanding of what human
communication is and how it works. This will prepare you for the simi-
larly important definition of interpersonal communication in Chapter
Views of Communication
Most people don’t go around asking themselves or each another,
“What is communication anyway?” or “How do you define human
communication?” This activity is generally reserved for those of us
who write textbooks. But every day, all of us do say and do things that
indirectly indicate how we would answer these questions if asked. In
other words, definitions of communication “leak out” in the ways peo-
ple engage in or avoid communication with others. The way you under-
stand communication—your definition—leaks out in your communi-
cating too.
For example, when your parent or supervisor at work tells you that
you made a mistake, you might think—or say—“You never told me to
do that!” Your parent or supervisor might respond, “You weren’t listen-
ing!” Here you understand communication as the primary responsibil-
ity of the “sender,” and they are defining it as a process that depends
most on the “receiver.” In addition, both of you are defining communi-
cation as a cause-effect process, because the problem is caused by one
person’s actions/inactions or the other’s.
Each of you has a way of understanding communication, a lens
that you look through as you plan how to communicate and respond to
communication problems. It’s possible that the view of communica-
tion we present in this text may be different from other views you’ve
learned about or experienced in your own life. Our definition or lens is
anchored in a contemporary scholarly tradition. Social construction is
its name, and we are convinced that it is both theoretically sound and
practically useful. We are also convinced that learning to use a social
construction lens will empower you to understand some things about

Part I Understanding Communication
interpersonal communication that you may not have recognized be-
fore. So let’s start by briefly reviewing a common—and incomplete—
way of understanding communication.
Communication as Message Transmission
One commonly held definition of communication is that it is the
process in which ideas are formulated by one person and then con-
veyed to another. This view has been labeled the message transmission
view of communication. From this perspective the success of a com-
municative exchange is judged by how well the message in one person’s
head is transmitted into the other person’s head. The word fidelity is the
term used to label how well message sent equals message received. You
can tell that this view exists in your culture when people say to one an-
other “That’s not what I meant!” or “Perhaps I wasn’t clear, let me try
again.” Deborah Tannen’s (1990) book about communication between
men and women, You Just Don’t Understand!, reinforces several as-
pects of this perspective, including the assumption that understanding
is an individualistic process and that one of the partners can be blamed
if mutual understanding is not achieved.
The message transmission view of communication is grounded in
the practices of public speech, radio, television, and film. People who
look at communication through this lens contend that, to be an effec-
tive communicator, one must construct a message in such a way that it
can be clearly and easily conveyed to an awaiting audience or listener.
The bulk of the responsibility for communicative “success” lies with
the person who sends the message. It is her responsibility to analyze
her audience and determine the most appropriate channel for sending
her message. Some people call this the “hypodermic” view because it
assumes that one person “injects” her ideas into the other person’s
head like a hypodermic needle injects drugs into a vein or muscle.
There are advantages to viewing communication through this lens.
First, it encourages communicators to think about their messages and
meanings ahead of time, and to adapt them to the needs and concerns
of their audiences. This view of communication also draws attention to
the variety of different message elements and modes, including verbal
cues, nonverbal cues, e-mail, face-to-face, telephone, and broadcast. It
is a tidy way of conceptualizing communication. Participants can as-
sess “where things went wrong” and then make choices about how they
might change their patterns of communicating to “fix” the problem.
One significant disadvantage of this view of communication,
however, is embedded in this very talk about “communication break-
downs” and “fixing things.” Communication is much more compli-
cated than the message transmission view suggests. Human interac-
tion does not consist of mechanistic parts that can simply be replaced

Chapter Two Communication and Meaning
In the message-transmission view, this kind of event becomes the model for interpersonal communi-
cating. What are some problems with this move?

when something doesn’t seem to be running smoothly. Communica-
tion happens between unique individuals who constantly make
choices influenced by their cultural experiences and individual value
systems. These choices, sometimes reflective and more often reactive,
help to shape the course of a conversation with other choice making,
culturally influenced persons. In other words, the two problems with
the message transmission view are that it is oversimplified and that it
treats communication as a linear and causal process. Linear means in-
a-line (from one person’s head into the other’s), and causal means that
the process obeys the laws of cause and effect like a rocket engine or
When people define communication as message transmission, they
tend to believe that communication challenges are the fault of, or can
be blamed on, one of the participants, just as you might blame your
parent or supervisor for being unclear, and they say that it is your fault
that you didn’t “get it” because you weren’t listening. To say that a
problem is somebody’s “fault” is to say that they caused it, like the wind
causing a door to slam shut. This view assumes that human communi-
cating is governed by the laws of cause and effect.
Children of all ages invoke the message transmission view of com-
munication when they assign blame as a way of relieving themselves of
responsibility for what happens. You can hear them say, “It’s not my
fault—he started it!” The pattered response is often something like,
“Uh-uh! She hit me first.” And then, “But you looked at me funny!” The

Part I Understanding Communication
problem then is to figure out where a misunderstanding started so the
“cause” can be determined and the “effect” evaluated.
The resulting circle of fault and blame is almost never very produc-
tive or satisfying for the people involved—except, possibly, for the child
who “wins.” The reason is that, as we said, human communication is
much more complicated than the message transmission view says it is.
We will say more about the fault and blame problem in a few more
pages. At this point, you can hopefully see that definitions make a dif-
ference, and that oversimplified definitions create problems.
The definition of communication we develop in this chapter in-
cludes six main points:
1. Meaning: Humans live in worlds of meaning, and communi-
cation is the process of collaboratively making these mean-
Implication 1: No one person can completely control a com-
munication event, and no single person or action causes—or
can be blamed for—a communication outcome.
2. Choice: All communication involves choices, some of which
we actively consider and others that follow cultural norms
and seem almost automatic.
Implication 2: The choices communicators make reveal their
ethical standards and commitments.
3. Culture: Culture and communication are intertwined. Eth-
nicity, gender, age, social class, sexual orientation, and other
cultural features always affect communication and are af-
fected by it.
Implication 3: Your cultures, and ours, affect what we say
about communication in this book and how you respond to it.
4. Identities: Some of the most important meanings people
collaboratively construct are identities. All communicating
involves negotiating identities or selves.
Implication 4: Identity messages are always in play.
5. Conversation: The most influential communication events
are conversations.
Implication 5: The most ordinary communication events are
generally the most significant.
6. Nexting: The most important single communication skill is
Implication 6: Whenever you face a communication chal-
lenge or problem, the most useful question you can ask your-
self is, “What can I help to happen next?”

Chapter Two Communication and Meaning
Communication as Collaborative Meaning-Making
We understand communication to be the continuous, complex, col-
laborative process of verbal and nonverbal meaning-making. This is our
definition of communication. It’s continuous because humans are al-
ways making meaning—figuring out, making sense of, or interpreting
what’s happening—even when we’re asleep. It’s complex because it in-
volves not just words and ideas but also intonation, facial expression,
eye contact, touch, and several other nonverbal elements, and it always
includes identity and relationship messages, culture and gender cues,
more or less hidden agendas, unspoken expectations, and literally doz-
ens of other features that usually become apparent only when they cre-
ate problems. It’s collaborative because we do it with other people. This
definitely isn’t to say that people always agree, but only that we don’t
communicate alone.1 Even prizefighters collaborate, because they
show up at the same time and abide by the rules. Co-labor-ating just
means engaging an issue together, and collaboration can be as anony-
mous as obeying traffic laws and speaking the local language or as inti-
mate as attending to your partner’s lovemaking preferences.
1. Meaning: Humans live in worlds of meaning, and communica-
tion is the process of collaboratively making these meanings.
Worlds of Meaning
By worlds of meaning we mean the more-or-less coherent spheres
of sense, significance, or interpretation that each human inhabits. You
might want to think about your world of meaning as your “reality,” or
your overall view of the way things are. Each of us has his or her own
world of meaning that has been, and continues to be, collaboratively
constructed in relation to others. May people notice that their worlds
of meaning overlap in many ways, and each is as unique as the individ-
ual who inhabits it. We use the term world of meaning to indicate that
there is a wholeness to the sphere of out understanding. The geograph-
ical world (that is, the earth) is roughly shaped like a sphere, and the
sphere is an ancient symbol for wholeness. Even though the human’s
world of meaning changes, potentially with each new communication
encounter, people experience their worlds of meaning as relatively whole.
The following image (Figure 2.1) illustrates the complexity of our
worlds of meaning. You’ll note that, like models of the physical world,
it is also shaped like a sphere. In our model, the sphere has seven over-
lapping, intertwining ellipses that represent each of the seven dimen-
sions of the worlds of meaning construct: physical environment, time,
relationships, spirituality, vocation, language, and technology. Each el-

Part I Understanding Communication
Figure 2.1
Worlds of Meaning
Complex View
lipse is a different shade, and each is always in flux. We’ll show you a
less complex version of the model in a bit that may help you focus on
the common characteristics of each dimension, but for now, let’s focus
on the model as a whole. The purple field surrounding the sphere in
this model indicates that the dimensions of one’s world of meaning are
not floating free, but suspended within, and influenced by, the cosmos
in which it develops. We’d like to make the case that two of the primary
elements of the cosmic “stuff” that surrounds and imbues worlds of
meaning are ethics and culture. The purple overlay here can be under-
stood as the intermingling of ethics (red) and culture (blue).
Whether we simply inherit or actively choose the ethical standards
that guide our lives, the choices we make about right and wrong, good
and bad, what’s appropriate and inappropriate all shape our world of
meaning. We interpret our experiences through the lens of our ethical
standards. The meaning-making process is also embedded in and in-
fluenced by our cultural identities. Together, ethics and culture influ-
ence an individual’s world of meaning and each person’s world. For ex-
ample, the cultural norms and ethical standards for someone raised in
the heart of the Bible Belt of the southern United States are almost cer-
tainly different from the cultural and ethical norms of someone raised
in the rainforests of New Guinea. Even when ethical and cultural ele-
ments are shared in common, each person’s individual world of mean-
ing will be as unique as their life experiences.
What difference does it make if you understand that people have
uniquely constructed worlds of meaning? Each person’s world of

Chapter Two Communication and Meaning
meaning influences the way he or she communicates with others. As
two people communicate, their worlds of meaning are present in the
conversation, shaping their interpretations of one another. Imagine if
you will a conversation between two classmates about whether the
death penalty should be imposed on teenagers convicted of first degree
murder. If the classmates assume that their worlds of meaning overlap
significantly—that their worldviews generally align—it is likely that
they will spend less time explaining the details of their perspectives to
one another. If their worlds of meaning are assumed to be less in sync,
they may have to spend more time and energy coming to understand
one another.
The degree of alignment of our worlds of meaning can both help
and hinder our ability to communicate effectively. Sometimes, when
you assume that your communication partner views the world in the
same way as you do, you can be surprised when you don’t see eye to
eye. Actual similarity can be helpful, but assuming similarity is present
can hinder your quest for understanding and being understood. In the
same way, differences in worlds of meaning can both hinder and help
communication between people. If we have different ethical standards
and come from dramatically different cultures, we may have chal-
lenges finding common ground. On the other hand, acknowledging dif-
ferences in perspective provides the opportunity to learn a new way of
seeing and to collaborate in creating new understanding. Whatever the
initial alignment between worlds of meaning, each person’s world is
molded and shaped in by each communication encounter.
You may find that some dimensions of your world of meaning align
with your communicative partner better than others. That’s why we be-
lieve it is helpful to look at each dimension individually and in rela-
tion to one another. But before we break the model down into smaller
pieces, keep in mind that, while a smaller piece of the model allows you
to understand aspects of each of the seven dimensions in more detail,
we don’t want you to let go of the complexity of the world of meaning.
You can, productively, view each dimension independently or explore
the ways in which two or more dimensions are shaped in relation to
one another—and they are always part of a dynamic and interrelated
Applying What You Know
Think for a moment about someone in your class who you think views the
world in similar ways as you. Then identify someone else who you imagine has a
really different perspective.
After you have read through the seven dimensions that follow, take the op-
portunity to talk to at least one of them and compare at least three of the
seven dimensions. Make note of your similarities and differences.

Part I Understanding Communication
Figure 2.2
Single Dimension
In the next few pages, we develop each of the seven dimensions of
the worlds of meaning that are included in the previous complex image
(Figure 2.1): physical environment, time, relationships, spirituality, vo-
cation, language(s), and technology. Remember that each dimension is
present in an individual’s world of meaning, but the relative signifi-
cance of each dimension can differ from person to person. And keep in
mind that similarities and differences in ethical standards and cultural
norms influence each dimension and the world of meaning as whole.
Earlier we noted that each dimension of your world of meaning
can be viewed as an ellipse. You’ll see that in the illustration above (Fig-
ure 2.2) of a single dimension there are two arrows pointing in oppo-
site directions. Those arrows are meant to indicate tensionality. We’ll
get back to that concept in a moment. First, we’d like you to imagine
that the ellipse on the page is elastic. Imagine that you could stretch it
like a rubber band, making the ellipse larger or smaller, sometimes
even distorting its shape. Each dimension of your world of meaning is
individually in flux, if not fluid, then at least elastic. Your understand-
ing of each dimension has developed and changed over your life time
and will continue to be stretched and shaped by your interactions with
others. No one dimension of your world of meaning is static.
And each dimension is tensional which takes us back to those ar-
rows in the model of the single dimension. It is reasonable for you to be
asking about now, “What do you mean by tensionality?” We’re not talk-
ing about the pain of a tension headache, or the pressure of a tension
rod to hold your shower curtain in place. Both these images do offer in-