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An Explorit "Science Bytes" article by Evelyn Buddenhagen (1994)

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by Evelyn Buddenhagen (1994)

At first thought, it might seem to us that communication is far too simple a subject to explore. After all, we all know that we do it, we do it all the time, and we are surrounded by myriad species of communication devices. But the actual complexity of communication is mirrored in a study in which about 2,600 different definitions (means) of communication were identified, ranging from personal invitations to the Ten Commandments. Given that complexity, then, it is not too surprising that communication has been analyzed in at least 50 different ways in fields as diverse as psychology, architecture, art, drama, history, linguistics, or, computer science.

From the broadly illustrated means of communication, a sense of order has emerged in considering the general types or categories of communication:


This category includes all of the means of communication that rely on the use of signals, signs, symbols, icons, gestures, and proxemics.

Signals are patterns of interruptions of something that might otherwise continue unperturbed. A flow of smoke rising from a hilltop can be interrupted to become a series of puffs of smoke that communicate a message. Or, silence can be interrupted by the sound of a finger tapping on a table that would communicate a nonvocal message.

Signs probably exist in all cultures and have very specific meanings that convey messages quickly, conveniently, and without ambiguity . They can be as common as pictures or drawings, hand signs, or badges. They may be uncommon to our culture, but certainly not in the culture of their origin, e.g., body adornments.

Symbols represent abstractions on a personal level. They serve as metaphors for a wider range of understanding within a cultural context and often represent rather complex ideas that might require tedious or involved verbal explanations. Wedding rings, for example, are symbols that, like pictures, are worth thousands of words.

Icons occur as an assortment of different symbols that represent something in a cultural or social context. Paintings or buildings for special uses can be considered as icons to communicate ideas.

Gestures or body language in communication have been dignified through scholarly efforts that resulted in a new name - kinesics. From the precise translations of street gestures to carefully learned movements in drama, hundreds of nonvocal clues are not only rich expansions of our communication repertoire, but are the unique devices for communicating the intent or feelings behind spoken or unspoken words. Closely related to this area is the special category of proxemics that includes the kind of communication conveyed by body positions, body odors, angles of vision, and time as a determinant of communication.


None of the above forms of nonvocal communication should be strictly isolated from verbalized communication. Frequently, combinations of vocal and nonvocal methods are used that blur the distinctions between the two groups. Human vocalization, from its obscure origins to its highly evolved array of language, symbolic sounds, music, cries, and laughter, remains a primary tool for human communication. Intricate subtleties of thought, culture, history, emotions, etc. are able to be communicated selectively and precisely through language. It is said that the word "drunk" can be expressed through more synonyms than any other word in the English language; the social and cultural implications of such verbal diversity can be readily speculated.

An exploration into the vast world of Human Communication must, of course, include technological tools. Tools have evolved from such things as cave paintings, drums, and body adornments to the telegraph, telephone, computers, and satellites. Others that evolved in the age of technology are the wireless radio, newspapers, motion pictures, and television. This decade is a showcase of intricate and far-reaching systems and networks in communication. Devices have been designed that can manage increasingly greater volumes and speeds over vast distances. Such designs have come with the emergence of new understanding of the electromagnetic spectrum and of new materials such as glass fibers or ceramic fibers filled with fluid.

If we apply an analytic approach to human communication, we can dissect the components of various communication systems into their primary parts based on generic functions. Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver, two U.S. mathematicians, developed a linear model of communication that represents general forms of technical communication systems. The components are: (l) the originator or source of the communication, (2) encoder, or means of inserting the message into the system, (3) the message, or the material being communicated, (4) the channel, or means of transmitting the message onward, (5) the decoder, or a component that transfers the message directly to the recipient; and, (6) the receiver, as an individual or group.

While the Shannon-Weaver analysis seems to offer an efficient and predictable model, the very nature of its human connection demands a consideration of the human-driven psychological and emotional nuances behind the messages. Technological devices can enable more people to communicate more information at personal and global levels, plus all the subgroups in between. How does this affect understanding and interrelationships within self, among individuals, within communities? What questions should we ask of ourselves, as a world society, as we are influenced more and more by communication?



l. How many different communication devices, methods, or means do we use in a day? Have each person in your family make a Communication List that would include every single means of communication that he or she used. Classify them according to: (a) nonvocal; (b) vocal; (c) mass or public communication. Compare your lists and the items in each category. What did you find out about each other through this activity?

2. What does the following statement really mean? I know you think you heard what I said, but what you don't know is what you heard is not what I meant to say?



  • Archer, Dane and Robin M. Akert. (l990). How well do you read body language? In The Best of Psychology Today. Paul Chance and T. George Harris, eds. pp. 2l0-2l6.
  • Ekman, Paul. (l975). Universal smile: Face muscles talk every language. Psychology Today 9:35-36+.
  • Gordon, G.N. (l984). Communication. In Encyclopedia Britannica. 4:l005-l0l0.
  • Rosenthal, Robert et al. (l975). Body talk and tone of voice: The language without words. Psychology Today 8:64-68.


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