Explaining Theories of Interpersonal Communication

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Explaining Theories
of Interpersonal
❖ ❖ ❖
It’s difficult to imagine a profession that doesn’t require you to interact
with other people. You likely use interpersonal communication every
day—to handle complaints from a demanding client, to persuade your
boss to give you some time off, or to comfort a friend dealing with a
difficult relationship. This chapter explains a variety of interpersonal
communication theories, including those that explain how relation-
ships are initiated and developed, theories of how relationships are
maintained over time, and theories that explain why and what to do
when people behave in ways that are unexpected.
Interpersonal communication (IPC) has been defined many ways.
Some scholars define IPC based on the situation and number of parti-
cipants involved (e.g., Miller, 1978). Using Miller’s definition, IPC

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Explaining Theories of Interpersonal Communication 51
occurs between two individuals when they are close in proximity,
able to provide immediate feedback and utilize multiple senses. Others
define IPC based on the degree of “personalness,” or perceived quality,
of a given interaction (e.g., Peters, 1974). In Peters’s view, IPC includes
communication that is personal and occurring between people who are
more than acquaintances. Another view of IPC is a goals approach; that is,
IPC includes communication used to define or achieve personal goals
through interaction with others (e.g., Canary, Cody, & Manusov, 2003).
For the purpose of examining interpersonal communication
theory, we argue that IPC encompasses a number of these definitions.
Interpersonal communication includes those messages that occur
between two, interdependent persons; IPC messages are offered to ini-
tiate, define, maintain, or further a relationship. Interpersonal commu-
nication is more than just saying a polite hello to the salesclerk in our
favorite department store and then scurrying away never to be seen
again. Instead, it refers both to the content and quality of messages
relayed and the possibility of further relationship development. We
present four theories in this chapter that are critical to current under-
standings of interpersonal communication and the relationships that
develop from these communications. First, the systems perspective
takes an interactional view of relationship maintenance by focusing on
repeated and interdependent dealings. The second theory, politeness
theory, clarifies the strategies individuals use to maintain their “face”
or sense of desired public image. Third, social exchange theory evalu-
ates relationships on the basis of rewards and costs; this ratio of bene-
fits to drawbacks explains whether a relationship will continue as well
as whether partners will feel satisfied. Fourth, the dialectical perspec-
tive describes the contradictions individuals inevitably face within
their personal relationships and explains how management of these
contradictions can predict a relationship’s success or failure.
Rather than one specific theory, systems approaches are a constellation
of theories that share common assumptions and concepts. Although we
have classified this approach as an interpersonal communication theory,
in reality systems theories are used to explain nearly all communication
contexts, including small group and organizational communication.

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The core of all systems approaches is a focus on the interdependence
that develops whenever people interact with each other. In this chapter,
we focus on some common assumptions of systems perspectives and
then the axioms of one specific approach, the work of the Palo Alto
Assumptions of the Systems Perspective
A central assumption of systems approaches is that communica-
tion is the means by which systems are created and sustained (Monge,
1973). In addition, systems approaches provide both macro and micro
approaches to studying the communication that takes place in relation-
ships. As a macro approach, systems approaches allow for a recognition
of how larger social institutions (such as a company or, larger still, a
national culture) might influence smaller groups of people such as work
groups or families. As a micro approach, systems theories provide a way
to understand how individuals and interpersonal relationships between
individuals might influence the group as a whole. In short, systems
approaches center on the mutual influence between system members, as
well as between subsystems, systems, and suprasystems.
First, of course, we have to define what is meant by the term sys-
tem. A system is a group of individuals who interrelate to form a whole
(Hall & Fagen, 1968). Examples of systems are a family, a work group,
and a sports team. Any time that a group of people has repeated inter-
action with each other, they represent a system. Systems are embed-
ded in a hierarchy, with systems existing within other systems (Pattee,
1973). Accordingly, a subsystem is a smaller part of the group as a
whole: the defensive line of a football team or the parents in a family.
A suprasystem is the larger system within which the system operates:
the National Football League is a suprasystem for an individual foot-
ball team, and the extended kinship network would be a suprasystem
for a nuclear family.
More than simply focusing on these sorts of interrelationships,
however, there are several assumptions inherent in systems approaches.
Systems theories believe in nonsummativity, which means that the
whole is greater than the sum of its parts (Fisher, 1978). Think of your
favorite sports teams. Some sports teams have few superstars, but
when they work together, they win a lot of games. On the other hand,
some teams have “big-name” athletes, but as systems, these teams

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Explaining Theories of Interpersonal Communication 53
are not successful. From a systems perspective, individuals in and
of themselves don’t make or break the system. Instead, the system
as a whole might work together to create more than what might be
accomplished by those individuals alone. This ability to achieve more
through group effort than individual effort is positive synergy
(Salazar, 1995). Of course, occasionally negative synergy occurs, mean-
ing the group achieves less than the individual parts would suggest
(Salazar, 1995). Nevertheless, the point of nonsummativity is that the
whole is qualitatively and quantitatively different from the individual
A major reason nonsummativity takes place is because of inter-
dependence (Rapoport, 1968). Interdependence means that all system
members are dependent on all other system members; if one group
member drops the ball, literally or figuratively, the group as a whole is
unlikely to achieve its goals. Many of you probably have had this expe-
rience at work, because there are few professional positions in which an
individual operates completely independently. In the example of a news-
paper, the failure of an advertising sales rep to meet his or her deadline
means the editor can’t determine how many pages an issue will have,
which means a writer doesn’t know whether his or her story will run in
that issue and also that the production people can’t do preproduction.
Every member of a system is dependent on every other member.
Another principle central to systems approaches is homeostasis
(Ashby, 1962). Homeostasis refers to the natural balance or equilibrium
within groups. From a systems perspective, homeostasis is not meant
to imply that change doesn’t happen. Instead, it is the tendency for a
given system to maintain stability in the face of change. This effort at
stability can be either functional or dysfunctional for the system. On
one hand, a successful system that achieves homeostasis is likely to
continue to be successful. However, imagine a system that has a great
deal of conflict, which impedes the system’s ability to achieve its goals.
Homeostasis would suggest that efforts to reduce the conflict might
only engender more conflict, because conflict is the “natural” balance
of that group. Thus, systems theory recognizes that when a system expe-
riences a novel situation, whether positive or negative, its members
will somehow adjust to maintain stability, whether that stability is
positive or negative.
A final systems concept of interest in the study of interpersonal
communication is equifinality. Equifinality suggests that there are

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multiple ways to achieve the same goal (von Bertalanffy, 1968). Let’s say
a production group is challenged with the goal of increasing revenues
by 10 percent. They can do so by selling more product, increasing the
prices of the old product, reducing manufacturing costs of the old
product, developing new products, or reducing the workforce needed
to make the product, among other things. In short, there are multiple
paths the group might take to achieve its goals. In addition, at any
given time, there are multiple goals that the group can address. If a
group is not only trying to increase revenues but also trying to increase
employee morale, it might choose to develop new products, which
would simultaneously increase revenues and morale. The group might
decide that morale is more important than revenues, however, and
focus on that rather than the revenue issue.
In summary, systems approaches focus on the communication that
takes place among groups of interacting individuals. It focuses on pat-
terns of communication that exist to sustain homeostasis and achieve
systemic goals. The approach also recognizes the influences of larger
suprasystems as well as subsystems. As a theoretical approach, it is
typically perceived as a description of interpersonal communication,
rather than as providing specific testable principles (Fitzpatrick &
Ritchie, 1992). One specific systems approach, the Palo Alto Group,
has, however, had a profound impact on the study of communication.
We turn to this specific systems theory next.
The Palo Alto Group
In 1967, a group of psychiatrists at the Mental Research Institute
in Palo Alto, California, published a book called Pragmatics of Human
In the book, the three authors, Watzlawick, Bavelas,
and Jackson (1967) presented a model for human communication that
was grounded in systems thinking. Although the book was intended to
focus on interpersonal interaction—and particularly family interaction
with behavioral pathologies—these authors provided a foundation for
understanding all communication.
According to the Palo Alto Group, there are five axioms of com-
munication (Watzlawick et al., 1967). Summarized in Table 3.1, the first
axiom is on the impossibility of not communicating. Widely misinter-
preted and debated, the axiom suggests that all behavior has the poten-
tial to be communicative, regardless of whether the sender intended

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Explaining Theories of Interpersonal Communication 55
Table 3.1
Systems Axioms and Implications for Interpersonal
Implication for Interpersonal Communication
The impossibility of
Interactional partners’ interpretations of
not communicating
your behavior will affect your relationship,
regardless of whether you intended that
Content and relationship
How you say what you say will affect your
partners’ interpretations and will also give
others clues about the relationships
between the interactants.
The problem of punctuation
What you view as the cause and effect is
not necessarily how an interactional
partner will view it. To resolve the
problem, forget about assigning blame.
Digital and analogic
Digital communication can express detailed
meaning if the interactants share the same
set of symbols; analogic communication
can express powerful feelings directly.
Complementary and
Within systems, patterns of interaction
symmetrical communication
develop such that people behave differently
or behave similarly. These patterns particu-
larly illustrate power in the relationship.
SOURCE: From Watzlawick, Bavelas, and Jackson, 1967.
the behavior to be interpreted as a message. For example, according
to this axiom the “silent treatment” is indeed communicative, because
the recipient of the silent treatment is clearly receiving the message:
“I’m angry with you.” Within a work setting, the person who is chron-
ically tardy might be perceived as communicating his or her disinterest
in the work activities. The group member who answers a cell phone
in the middle of a meeting might be perceived as sending the mes-
sage to his or her teammates that “I’m more important than you are.”
Intentionality is a complex issue in the field of communication, with
scholars on both sides of the debate passionate about the role of intent
(cf. Andersen, 1991; Motley, 1991). Nevertheless, the Palo Alto group
is firmly committed to the belief that communication need not be

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The second axiom is that all communication has both content and
relationship levels (Watzlawick et al., 1967). When people interact
with each other, they are sending particular messages, which are con-
sidered the content level. These messages may be verbal or nonverbal.
At the same time that they are sending content, they are also sending
additional information. The relationship level is characterized as how
the content should be understood, particularly in terms of the relation-
ship between the communicators. To illustrate, consider the following
statements: “Peter, can you work on getting that brochure copy done?”
and “Peter, get the brochure copy done.” The content is virtually the
same; however, the relationship level gives us quite different informa-
tion in the two scenarios. The first statement can be understood as a
request, whereas the second can be understood as a command. More
than that, in the first situation you understand that the two people are
on an equal footing and that their relationship is respectful. In the second
situation, the speaker either has a legitimate superior status over the
listener or the speaker is trying to exert dominance over a status equal.
The implications of this information are likely to affect the patterns of
communication throughout the entire system.
The third axiom focuses on the tendency of communicators to
punctuate sequences of behavior (Watzlawick et al., 1967). The gram-
matical definition of the term punctuation refers to the use of marks to
separate sentences, clauses, and so forth. For example, the previous
sentence has a capital “T” to indicate the beginning of the sentence, two
commas to indicate pauses between a series, and a period to indicate
the end of the sentence. Watzlawick et al.’s notion of punctuation
is similar. They believe that interaction is understood by the people
involved in it as a series of beginnings and ends, of causes and effects.
For example, in the example used for content and relationship levels,
Peter might respond to the command by sarcastically responding,
“Why yes, ma’am, right away ma’am, whatever you say, ma’am.” Peter
would likely view the perceived inappropriate command as the cause
of his sarcasm, whereas the person who gave the command might view
his flippant attitude as the reason why she had to give a command
rather than a request in the first place. The point of this axiom is that
although communicators tend to assign causes and effects to interactions,
it is likely that interactants will view the same interaction as having
different causes and effects; punctuation is always a matter of indivi-
dual perception, with no perception being wholly correct or incorrect.

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Explaining Theories of Interpersonal Communication 57
Moreover, Watzlawick et al. argued that differences in punctuation
frequently lead to conflict among system members.
The fourth axiom is that communication entails both digital and
analogic codes (Watzlawick et al., 1967). Analogic codes are those
in which the symbol actually resembles the object it represents. For
example, holding two fingers up to indicate the number 2 is an ana-
logue. Another analogue is crying to represent sadness; the tears are a
physical representation of the emotion. Most nonverbals are analogues,
although this is not entirely the case. Many emblems, such as giving
someone the middle finger or using the okay sign, are not analogues.
On the other hand, few verbal messages are analogues, but there are
exceptions. Onomatopoeia, in which the word sounds like what it
means (words such as buzz, click, etc.), can be considered examples of
analogic communication.
Digital communication is that in which the symbol and the mean-
ing of the symbol are arbitrarily linked (Watzlawick et al., 1967). For
example, there is nothing inherently catlike about the word cat, nor is
there anything particularly democratic about the word democracy. The
symbol H O does not in any way resemble water. Instead, the mean-
ings of these symbols are culturally determined by the assignment of
meaning. Most digital communication is verbal, but as with the excep-
tions noted here, some nonverbals, particularly emblems, which have
dictionary-type definitions, can be considered digital. The OK symbol,
wherein you make a circle with your thumb and forefinger, is an
example of digital communication (which is why it has different mean-
ings in different cultures).
All in all, this axiom suggests that communication takes place both
digitally and analogically, but there are strengths and weaknesses
of both means of communication, and communicators have difficulty
translating between the two. How does one adequately capture feel-
ings of frustration in words? Conversely, there are tears of sadness and
tears of joy; analogic communication alone does not allow you to deter-
mine which emotion is being felt.
The fifth and final axiom proposes that interaction can be symmet-
rical or complementary (Watzlawick et al., 1967). When communica-
tors behave in the same manner, they are behaving symmetrically.
For example, Mike is sarcastic to you, you are sarcastic to Mike. Mike
defers to you, you defer to Mike. When the communicators behave in
different ways, they behave in a complementary fashion. For example,

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Mike commands, you defer. Mike is sarcastic, you whine. Notice that
behaving in a complementary fashion does not mean that interactants
are behaving in an opposite fashion, just that the patterns of behavior
are different. This axiom has most frequently been used to study control
behaviors (Millar & Rogers, 1976).
In sum, systems theories recognize the complexities of interaction.
They focus on the patterns of relationships that develop between
people who interact. The Palo Alto Group’s work particularly places
emphasis on how communication happens in interpersonal communi-
cation systems.
Mentioned in the previous chapter, EVT presents an explanation and
specific predictions about what individuals do when others behave in
ways that contradict their assumptions, particularly assumptions and
preferences for personal space. In a somewhat related vein, politeness
theory explains how and why individuals try to promote, protect, or
“save face,” especially when embarrassing or shameful situations arise
Developed by Brown and Levinson (1978, 1987), politeness theory
(PT) clarifies how we manage our own and others’ identities through
interaction, in particular, through the use of politeness strategies.
Building on Goffman’s (1967) notion of identity and facework, Brown
and Levinson (1978, 1987) determined when, why, and how inter-
personal interaction is constructed through (or in the absence of)
Assumptions of Politeness Theory
Three primary assumptions guide politeness theory. First, PT assumes
that all individuals are concerned with maintaining face (Brown &
Levinson, 1978, 1987). Simply put, face refers to the desired self-image
that you wish to present to others; face also includes the recognition
that your interactional partners have face needs of their own. There are
two dimensions to the concept of face: positive face and negative face.
Positive face includes a person’s need to be liked, appreciated, and
admired by select persons. Thus, maintaining positive face includes

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Explaining Theories of Interpersonal Communication 59
using behaviors to ensure that these significant others continue to view
you in an affirming fashion. Negative face assumes a person’s desire to
act freely, without constraints or imposition from others. Importantly,
it is difficult to achieve positive and negative face simultaneously; that
is, acting in a way so that you gain others’ approval often interferes with
autonomous and unrestricted behavior.
Second, politeness theory assumes that human beings are rational
and goal oriented, at least with respect to achieving face needs (Brown &
Levinson, 1978, 1987). In other words, you have choices and make
communicative decisions to achieve your relational and task-oriented
goals within the context of maintaining face. Notably, Brown and
Levinson posited that face management works best when everyone
involved helps to maintain the face of others. In other words, because
“everyone’s face depends on everyone else’s [face] being maintained”
(Brown & Levinson, 1987, p. 61), it is in your own best interest to make
decisions that uphold this mutual, and rather vulnerable, construction
of face.
The final assumption, and despite the understanding of face as
mutually constructed and maintained, PT maintains that some behav-
iors are fundamentally face threatening (Brown & Levinson, 1978,
1987). Inevitably, you will threaten someone else’s face, just as another
person will, at some point, threaten yours. These face-threatening acts
(FTAs) include common behaviors such as apologies, compliments,
criticisms, requests, and threats (Craig, Tracy, & Spisak, 1993).
Politeness theory, then, ties together these assumptions to explain
and predict how, when, and where FTAs occur, as well as what indi-
viduals can do to restore face once endangered. Discussed next, we
clarify strategies used to uphold and reclaim one’s own face and
present strategies that pertain to maintaining or threatening the face of
Preserving Face
As stated earlier, face is the self-image that individuals desire to
present to others as well as the acknowledgment that others have face
needs of their own. To create and maintain this desired self-image,
individuals must use facework—specific messages that thwart or min-
imize FTAs (Goffman, 1967). Preventive facework strategies include
communications that a person can use to help oneself or another avert