Tag Archives: psychology

The Impoverished language of Communication Description

In communication analysis, personal dispositions are often mistakenly converted into an ersatz psychology of the other.  

One of the ongoing challenges of talking about communication is that the language we use to describe effects and outcomes is hopelessly narrow.  Unlike other disciplines that have the obvious advantage of describing the material world, the language of rhetorical description seems relatively static and impoverished.  If we believe someone had a strong reaction to something said to them, we talk about the message’s “emotional” power, as if we were saying something important and decisive. But there’s rarely been a more useless word invoked as an ostensibly meaningful term of description.  Aristotle awkwardly used the idea 2500 years ago in one of the first rhetoric texts, and it still hangs around like an unwanted guest.

I’m as guilty as the next.  For over forty year, my own works of communication analysis have been filled with words like “expressive,” “media,” “interactions,” and “feelings,” as if these ideas were precise or even proximate units of meaningful exchange.  At best, such terms are mostly empty placeholders, begging for refinement and at least some operational detail.

We clearly need a richer lexicon that more thoroughly suggests the many nuanced responses that messages can elicit from receivers. Perhaps this is an essential function that is better carried by narrative film and literature. Poetry, the novel, and even music may often give us more precise pictures of the inner mental states we produce when we address others.  Even the standard “reaction shot” that a film director chooses when one character delivers bad news to another more clearly communicates authentic effects.  A face can register what our sometimes hackneyed language misses.

For example, take the challenge of naming intentions: a subject vital to understanding what individuals can possibly mean by their actions and words.  As I noted in The Rhetoric of Intention, the resources of ordinary English language seem inadequate to address the uncertainties and possibilities of reasons behind acts. There can be no question that we possess a rich vocabulary of feelings and affective states (“upset,”  “annoyed,” “excited,” and the like).  But we have no similar linguistic depth that would give us a lexicon of rhetorical intent.  We describe another’s likely reasons in an endless variety of available verb forms (i.e., “asserted,” “argued,” “pleaded”); but there are no exact counterparts for what should be the complementary “whys” of motivation. Instead attributions are made mostly by inserting imprecise qualifiers in front of clumsy and inexact interpretations of attitude. For instance:  “He may want her to make the first move,” “She doesn’t seem to be motivated by the money,” “Maybe he’s depressed,” and so on.

It’s not difficult to explain this mismatch between an important communication principle and its paltry vocabulary. This deficit is partly a consequence of the natural human compulsion to think deterministically. In our hardened presumption to find a language of first causes that can match the sciences, we mostly fall back on the inadequate language of psychological disposition.  The lexicons of psychology function as ill-fitting surrogates used to label all sorts of personal attitudes.  It’s as if every clinical word of description—common terms like “paranoid,” “depressed,” or “anxious” –is its own self-defining effect. The idea of jealousy, for example, is explained when we conclude that it springs from “envy,” or perhaps a “sublimation” of some sort arising from within. Personal dispositions are thus mistakenly converted into an ersatz psychology of the other.  In the process, we hardly notice that the rhetoric behind these labels remains mostly unnamed.

In practical terms, we could reform our usage by promising ourselves to depend less on empty but popular fallback terms of communication description, among them: “emotion,” “media” “feelings,” “rational,” and so on.  In their place there might be better terms that incrementally move us a little closer to naming the processes of communication with more precision.  My own preference is for a lexicon that would favor terms like “meaning” and “understanding:”  what is our best estimate of what we think receivers took away from a message?—“empathy” and “acknowledgement:” can we make a judgment about whether the needs of receivers were understood by the sender?—and was the message functionally “dialogical?”—meaning that we want to know if its source strived to make the receiver a true partner in the exchange. These attempts at greater precision are small steps, to be sure.  But they are a useful start.

Empathy: Finding Ourselves in Others

It is virtually impossible to think of the effects of most forms of complex discourse—from film to talk therapies—without addressing the capacities of key agents to acquire understandings that privilege compassion over judgment.

In spite of its obvious place as an essential feature of the fluent communicator, the capacity for empathy is unevenly distributed across any population.  But it remains a central capacity necessary for individuals engaged in complex and highly interactive forms of communication.

Empathy is a bond created by recognition of oneself in someone else’s experience.  Or, as Martin Hoffman ingeniously describes it, empathy is “an affective response more appropriate to someone else’s situation than to one’s own.”  It simultaneously acknowledges the authenticity of another’s feelings and suggests the momentary creation of a more personal shared experience.  It is a reminder that we are not alone, even when we feel estranged from other people.  Empathy happens when we meet the challenge to imagine the inner lives of others.

The word itself was not the invention of academic psychology, but grew from German aesthetic theory at the beginning of the 20th Century.  As I note in my book, The Perfect Response, Robert Vischer was looking for a way to express the idea of projecting oneself into another object (Einfühlung).2  He wanted to find a vocabulary that would help in the analysis of the individual’s response to the visual arts.  Had he not discovered so fitting a term, others would have surely had to invent it.  It is virtually impossible to think of the effects of most forms of complex communication—from film to talk therapies—without addressing the capacities of key agents to acquire empathetic understanding.

To some extent we seem hardwired for simple forms of empathetic responses.  Psychologist Daniel Goldman describes an unlearned “primal empathy” that flows from simple contact with others.We and other primates are naturally inclined to “read” facial and physical expressions, converting them into tentative understandings about what others may be experiencing.  The threshold of awareness can be measured at the margins, as when a primate or infant is able to recognize itself (as opposed to an unknown or threatening alien) on a reflective surface. This kind of “mirroring” begins a sequence of consciousness that includes thinking as if they were the other. “I know how you feel” may be a cliché for the ages, but it reasonably describes what we take to be relatively faithful inferences made in limitless ranges of situations.

Even at the human end of the scale there are no guarantees.   Sometimes the more we know about another person, the less of a connection we feel.  But the reverse usually happens.  Familiarity with an individual and their world increases the likelihood that we will recognize some of their experiences as our own.

In clinical settings focusing on mental health, empathy still functions as a core value in client centered therapy.  The idea of talk therapy without a supportive and accurate listener is almost unthinkable.  If quick and critical judgment is the poison of too many troubled relationships, empathy and full consciousness of how each party is feeling is a necessary antidote.  This therapy is predicated on the suspension of judgment long enough to understand another.   Not surprisingly, the inability to be sympathetic is a recurring symptom in various disorders, including paranoia, narcissism, and the antisocial personality.

Because empathy is a subjective experience, it is easier to observe its basic impulse than to accurately map its affective meanings.  We can strive for objective measures of it, but its sources are always bound in alignments and understandings unique to the individual. Thus the great paradox of empathy is also the paradox of communication:  we live in the isolation of a unique private consciousness, even while the quest for certain understandings pulls us out of ourselves and toward others.


1 Martin Hoffman, “Empathy: Justice and Moral Judgment,” in Empathy and Its Development ed. by Nancy Eisenberg and Janet Strayer (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 48.

2 Gary C. Woodward, The Perfect Response: Studies in the Rhetorical Personality (Lexington Books, 2010), 27.

3 Daniel Goldman, Social Intelligence (New York: Bantam, 2006), 84-88.