Tag Archives: communication models

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The Certainty of Narrative Form

We think and produce our thoughts, necessarily coming to terms with the requirements of the story format.

An academic rhetorician gets to be absolutely certain about very few things.  But there is one core concept of human communication that is mostly unchallengeable. Simply stated, it is that our world is mostly understood and communicated to others through the structure of narrative.  As the essayist Joan Didion once noted, “We tell stories in order to live.” We may have myriad theories of “ways of knowing,” but few can match the simple story structure as a representation of how we process events.  The story format is nothing less than our primary way to process nearly all human events.

kenneth burke

Building on the work of master critic Kenneth Burke, we can count on a story structure to generally have five parts that are either explicit or sometimes assumed but not said. His “pentad” formalized the structure. Narratives come with:

Agents—those engaged in an action—often verbal
Acts—what is actually attempted in a given situation
Agencies—the specific terms and locutions sources of narratives choose to use
Scenes—events or locations that give the action meaning
Purposes—known or assumed intentions of agents for their actions.

Name almost any human transaction and it is possible to spin out the stated or implied elements of the pentad. When the leader of North Atlantic Treaty Organization recently chose a public setting (scene) to announce Turkey’s agreement to allow the admission of Sweden to be a member, all of the pentadic elements were in their place. Every member must agree on new members, with Turkey holding out for a year. So, when they finally agreed, it was important to put on a show of unity (purpose). The NATO leader stood next to both presidents, in front of the three relevant flags on an otherwise sparse stage. And the announcement (act) used diplomatic language (agency) to emphasize the sought after unity that had been the goal of intense private negotiations. Burke would have noted that the expected elements of the pentad were all confirmed in the moment. The scene was as it needed to be to satisfy various international audiences. The three leaders were the necessary agents fulfill the act.  It also meant that one of the principals could not be absent. The addition of an American flag would have been out of place. And the President of Turkey kept his about reservations about Sweden mostly to himself.

This is all obvious. But that’s the point. This simple form is embedded in virtually any news reporting across all media. Narrative form requires how certain rhetorical acts will be played out. No element is missing or out of place. One could swap out any of these elements with different choices and the nominal unity of the moment would begin to unravel.

We read the components of narrative almost intuitively. And we reserve most of our criticisms for those acts that seem to be in tension with any other part of this pentad. We know how to behave at a wedding or funeral. We know how to be “diplomatic” around a person with a short fuse.  And we guess–endlessly–about the motives of others. In short, we study or produce rhetoric, coming to terms based on what Burke described as the normative “ratios” between the pentadic elements. This is usually life as we wish it to be. If an event is unsatisfying, we can look for a tension that may exist between any two of these five elements. In the unlikely event that we should we want comedy, then we can go ahead and misalign scene and act, agent and agency, or act and purpose. If a comedy of failed expectations does not follow, embarrassment surely will.

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Are We Losing Our Kids to Conversational Silence?

Auguste Renoir, The Conversation Wikipedia.org
                      Auguste Renoir, The Conversation

When did the idea of a direct conversation with another become so problematic?

For those of us who study human communication, direct face to face conversation is usually the fundamental model for understanding all other forms. When two or more people are in the same space addressing each other, their exchanges are likely to contain all of the critical yardsticks for measuring successful interaction. These essential processes include awareness of the other, the potential for immediate and unfiltered reciprocity in an exchange, and access to all the visual and verbal feedback that comes with direct person-to-person contact. All other channels of communication—including the devices that extend the range of human connectivity—alter or diminish one or more of one of these processes. And though it may not seem like it, altering or reducing a conversational asset is a big deal.

Until the advent of widespread electric telegraphy in the 1850s direct communication with another in the same space has always anchored human communities. The very idea of a sociology of human relationships is mostly predicated on the expectation that we have direct and real-time access to each other.

Even so, the default model for understanding how we maintain our social nature is increasingly at odds with the ways we now live. What has changed most dramatically are the preferences of younger Americans who are less eager to seek out conversation as a problem-solving tool.

We are kidding ourselves if we believe the false equivalency that lets “social media” substitute for living in the social world.

The most interesting research on this subject is from Sherry Turkle at M.I.T., who has been documenting the well-known drift of the young away from direct interaction to alternate channels that enlarge connectivity but diminish communication richness (Reclaiming Conversation, 2015). The platforms are well-known, including Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and other forms. Under the misnomer of “connectivity,” changes in technology and adjustments to them are slowly schooling younger generations to prefer communication that is mediated and intentionally isolating. We are kidding ourselves if we believe the false equivalency that lets “social media” substitute for living in the social world.

Turkle notes a wholesale flight away from direct conversation and toward electronic messaging.  In the words of many of her interviewees, meeting directly with someone is “risky,” “too emotional,” “an interruption,” and “anxiety producing.” As a high school senior she interviewed observed, “What’s wrong with conversation?  I’ll tell you what’s wrong with conversation!  It takes place in real time and you can’t control what you are going to say.”

Responses like these suggest a desire to escape the burdens of acquiring the essential rudiments of what psychologists sometimes call “social intelligence,” meaning the ability to navigate through many essential and unavoidable relationships that unfold in real time.

It has always been true that some conversations are difficult.  But this kind of face-work is also the essential work of a complex adult life. As Turkle notes,

Many of the things we all struggle with in love and work can be helped by conversation. Without conversation, studies show that we are less empathic, less connected, less creative and fulfilled.  We are diminished, in retreat.  But to generations that grew up using their phones to text and messages, these studies may be describing losses they don't feel. They didn't grow up with a lot of face-to-face talk.

Of course there is always a risk among the old to assume that progress has been overtaken by regression. To paraphrase the Oscar Hammerstein lyric from Oklahoma!, it’s easy to believe that “things have gone about as far as they can go.” Even so, it’s worth remembering that forms of mediated communication are usually not additive, but reductive. Texts, e-mails, and even video games start with various fundamentals of communication, but almost always take something away.  It may be immediacy.  It may be full interactivity.  But the most consequential of all is a reduced intimacy that happens when humans are not in the same space breathing the same air.