The purpose of this paper is to provide a definition of human communication. Though there are many concepts and theories related to human communication, this paper will look at the Shannon-Weaver model of communication. Also, this author poses that perception is the foundation for all human communication.
Human Communication Defined
There are many ways to define human communication. Not inclusively, human communication consists of the production and reception of various types of information, including oral, written, signed, or gestured. Purvis (2016) states “…communication between human beings does not always involve the transmission of information, but also the transmission of emotion and how that may be perceived.” There are three points of conceptual differences in attempts to define human communication: level of observation, intentionality, and normative judgment.
Level of observation includes definitions that are broad or restrictive. “Sending messages by phone” is a very restrictive example due to the limitations it places on the way messages transmitted. Intentionality refers to intent vs. no intent; some definitions include purposeful statements while others do not. Normative judgment includes definitions that may or may not include a statement of accuracy of effectiveness, such as “an exchange of ideas” which implies that information was successfully received (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011). These dimensions detail the various ways in which communication can be described and can include hundreds of concepts; each definition serves a different function and promotes different types of research. Each of these contributes to the complexity of communication theory and the research surrounding it.
Research in this area is strongly related to factors other than definition. Time and location (and the impact these things have on definitions) are very important pieces of communication. In the US, human communication studies grew substantially after the first world war (Littlejohn Foss, 2011, p 5). As technology advanced, the research into this area has become more important and applicable. Another point of difference in communication is in regards to culture.
Communication is different depending on Eastern or Western cultures, due to the individualistic versus collective natures of our different societies. There are also extreme variances in relation to non-verbal and symbolic communication between cultures as well. Innocent hand gestures in the United States may convey an entirely different (and perhaps offensive) message in the UK, Middle East, etc. Every culture has multiple, varying definitions of communication, and with this comes several different theories and models. One of the notable models of communication is the Shannon Weaver model.
Shannon Weaver Model
The Shannon Weaver model of communication provides a good explanation of how the communication process works. This model focuses on a specific pathway: sender, message, channel, receiver (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011, p 52). This model should be thought of as a loop, rather than linear. Each step in the process has multiple components: the information provided here is far from exhaustive.
The first component, the sender, involves the encoding and sending of the message. This will be influenced by various factors such as subject matter knowledge, intent, emotion, location, etc. Secondly, the message itself is an important piece of this model. When thinking of the message, context is a crucial consideration in this component.
With the transmission of any type of message (verbal, electronic, etc.) there are numerous elements involved. Grammar, punctuation, and wording are just a few of the important parts of written communication. Verbal messages are interpreted differently depending on pitch, tone, inflection, as well as some of the factors listed for written communication. Also, consider non-verbal communication in visual settings, such as eye contact, movements, expression, and gesturing.
There are several ways transmission can occur. These channels can be verbal, electronic, written, etc. and each of these transmissions can be interrupted. Interruption can result from several things, but noise is one of the most obvious.
The last part of the model is the receiver. This is where the message ends up. The receipt of the message is dependent on several factors. Some of these include the receiver’s ability to receive the message, whether the message needs decoded, and the ability to understand the message that was received.
Though this model provides a good example for how communication of how the communication pathway is structured, there are other factors that significantly impact how messages are sent and received. Communication is strongly influenced (I would argue that it is always influenced) by perception. The sender’s perception will influence how the message is sent, and the receiver’s perception will influence how that message is interpreted. These perceptions may or may not be similar, which can result in miscommunication.
Perception can be thought of as “the active process of assessing information in your surroundings,” (McGaan, 2016, p 1). Perception is unique to the individual and is strongly influenced by communication. Think of perception and communication as an unending cycle where communication influences perception and perception influences communication. Perception is the foundation on which all communication is based. It is important to note that no two individuals will share the same perceptions. Understandably so; no two individuals have experienced the exact same things! There are several factors that influence how our perceptions are developed.
Factors Influencing Perception
There are many different things that impact how our perceptions evolve: physiology, past experiences, culture, and present feelings, to name a few (McGaan, 2016, p 1). When considering these factors, it is easy to see just how much perceptions can vary between individuals. As communicators, it is important to be aware of the differences of others, and to use that information accordingly. An awareness of others (along with an awareness of self), can be helpful in avoiding conflict and miscommunication. An awareness of self is particularly important when thinking about the actual process of perception.
Method of Perception
The act of perceiving is a step by step process. Though we use this process all day, every day, we are mostly unaware that it is occurring. Cognitively, the perception process is an advanced tool that has evolved over our lifetimes. This process consists of three components: selecting, organizing, and interpreting information.
The selection process refers to the information that we choose to pay attention to. Stimuli is everywhere; there is no way to take in every cue around us. Due to the infinite amount of information around us, our mind chooses what data is important. How we select information is unique; we will not all select (or be stimulated by) the same material. There are a few different reasons as to why we choose to recognize the information that we do.
The basis of selection is salience. Salience is the degree to which something attracts our attention in a certain setting (Schmitz, 2012, p 2). There are a few things that impact whether information is salient, and to what degree. The first of these reasons is visual/aural stimulation. Things that attract attention, such as bright lights or loud sounds, can become salient because they are attention grabbing.
Note that these types of stimulation are subjective; what is extremely noticeable to one individual may not elicit any type of response from another. Another issue influencing salience is expectation. Though we can find both expected and unexpected information salient, context is again important. An example would be whether you notice the sound of an engine. If you are expecting a visitor, you may be waiting for the sound of the car’s engine outside. That is expected information. Alternatively, if you live in a quiet area and are not expecting a visitor, the unexpected sound of an engine may become salient as well.
Other factors that impact what information we choose to take in are needs/interests. Understandably, we pay attention to information that will somehow meet any needs we may have. If you are a starving grad student who hasn’t eaten all day, someone walking by with a pizza will probably get your attention. This is because your hunger needs tell you that this information is important. However, if you just ate a whole pizza, you probably would not notice the person with the pizza.
We also pay attention to things that interest us; why wouldn’t we focus on things that we enjoy, right? However, we tend to “stick with what we know” which limits new experiences. Often, we are accidentally exposed to (or forced into) something new. Maybe you had to research a certain topic for class, only to find that you enjoyed the material and wanted to learn more. Perhaps a friend asked you to attend a sporting event, exhibit, ballet, etc., that you would not have chosen to attend on your own, and you decided that you really liked whatever it was.
Each of these things have an impact on the information that we select, and they make up only the first step in the perception process. Think of all the ways we can differ from one another solely on the ways in which we select information. There are also differences in what we do with the info that we pick.
Organization is the second part of the perception process. This refers to how we sort and categorize information. This is based on innate and learned cognitive patterns. Our cognitive systems do this extremely well, but again, it is unique to the individual. Littlejohn and Foss (2011, p 158) state that, “Constructs are interpretive schemes that identify something as within one category or another…the category is itself an interpretation.” Categorization occurs by using patterns. There are many different types of patterns that we use to identify and sort the information that we take in. Just a few of these patterns include proximity, similarity, and differences; be aware that this is not an inclusive list.
Proximity refers to the way we tend to group things together that are close together. An example of this would be if you are waiting for a table at a restaurant, and the hostess assumes you are with the person standing next to you. The hostess has used proximity to group you together, simply because you were close to one another. Keep in mind that this may or may not be an accurate assumption.
In addition to grouping objects together that are close to each other, we also tend to group things together that appear similar. Objects that share visual characteristics such as size, shape, texture, color, orientation, etc. will be mentally placed together. Alternatively, objects that deviate from the pattern will be viewed as different and excluded. Again, keep in mind that what seems similar or different to you might not appear to be to someone else.
One of the most efficient ways in which we organize information is by using schemata, patterns of thoughts or behaviors. There are many types of schemata, including cultural, situational, self, relationship, etc. A good example would be dining at nice restaurant (in the US). The situational schema should be similar between individuals of our country: walk in, wait to be seated, get menus and give drink orders, order food, etc. If while waiting to be seated, the waitress asked for your food order, you may be confused because this goes against the situational dining schema that you have developed. We have schemata for all types of situations, people, relationships, etc. Though schemata are mainly helpful, they can also be wrong. Schemata play a large part in bias and stereotyping, which we will talk about with interpretation.
Interpretation is the last part of the perception process. This is what we do with the information we have selected and organized. How one individual interprets a message can vary greatly from another. It is influenced by several things (many of them have been listed previously); generalization, stereotypes, bias, and attributions all play a role in the ways that we interpret information as well. Schemata are an important part of this step. As formerly mentioned, though schemata are usually helpful, they can also be incorrect and are largely responsible for stereotyping and attribution errors.
Macias (2016) states “…communication is all around us…we just need to be able to perceive it.” While we all perceive the communication around us, we may observe different communication messages, or interpret the same message in different ways. This does not just apply to verbal messages and non-verbal cues; we also send messages with our behaviors.
I mention behavior as a means of communication here because it is important when thinking about the types of errors that occur with perception. We are talking about logical processes, and as I stated, our cognitive systems are extremely efficient. Perhaps too efficient, if we are not capable of the kinds of awareness that I spoke of earlier. This extreme efficiency is the basis for generalization and stereotyping (which differ from one another) and things like fundamental attribution error and actor-observer bias.
Stereotyping is oversimplifying characteristics of a person or thing, whereas generalization is making a general statement that includes all individuals in a specific category. Think back to when I spoke of the ways in which our brains sort and organize information and you can easily see how these concepts apply. Fundamental attribution error and actor-observer bias are common and, as business communicators, something to pay attention to. It is normal for us to assign negative judgments about behavior internally for someone else, but blame external factors when judging the same behavior by ourselves.
For example, a co-worker is constantly late to work. Fundamental attribution error causes you to make negative assumptions about this person; they’re lazy, irresponsible, etc. However, if you are constantly late to work, actor-observer bias causes you to over emphasize the role of external factors and underemphasize your own personality. You view your behavior differently than you view the same behavior in others. Ultimately, your co-worker is lazy and you are a victim of circumstance.
Obviously, these types of reasoning are based on inaccurate observations and improper perception of characteristics. This means that the probability of arriving at the wrong conclusion is high. Knowing that these subconscious and commonplace errors in perception are likely, we can start to recognize these tendencies in our day to day activities. This is particularly important in business communication.
Perception in Business Communication
Perception management is an important part of business communication. Peters (1987 p 258) states, “The customer game is won or lost on the front lines.” Indeed, the individuals with face to face customer interaction will determine how a business is perceived. Though first impressions can be inaccurate, they are crucial! It is important to know yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, and the ways in which you perceive your environment, individuals, situations, etc. It is just as important to know your audience.
Consider the needs and wants of your audience and adjust your communication to fit them. Learn as much as you can about your customers, clients, employees, etc. Consider the perceptions of these individuals when you communicate. Pay attention to the subconscious ways in which your (and their) cognitive systems can alter your individual perceptions of one another, as well as influence the ways your communication is interpreted, respectively.
There are several ways to improve perception: empathetic listening, self-reflection, and perception checking are just a few of these. Try to avoid generalizations, stereotypes, prejudice, and rigid schemata. Once you are aware of these tendencies, it is easier to consider them when interacting with others. Watch for the automatic attributions that you assign to others and simply be conscious of what is going on cognitively so that you can adjust your perceptions and interpretations when necessary.
In conclusion, the basic communication pathway influences, and is influenced by, perception. Perception is the basis for all human communication. It is fundamental. Each topic covered here was done briefly, so keep in mind the complexity of every area that was covered. This is not meant to be inclusive; this is just a very small glimpse into several complex, logical processes. It is not surprising that miscommunication is a common occurrence when considering the numerous ways in which we can differ in our perceptions and interpretations. The more we can be aware of these differences, the more effective we can become as communicators.
Littlejohn, S. & Foss, K. (2011). Theories of human communication. (10th ed). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.
Macias, C. (2016). Class discussion.
McGaan, L. (2016). Communication and perception. Fundamentals of Communication.
Peters, T. (1987). Thriving on chaos. Harper and Row: New York.
Purvis, C. (2016). Class discussion.
Schmitz, A. (2012). A primer on communication studies. Retrieved from: https://2012books.lardbucket.org/pdfs/a-primer-on-communication-studies.pdf. (original authors and publishing unknown)