Interpersonal communication typically involves communication within a dyadic relationship. As a result, interpersonal communication is pervasive throughout one’s life. In a single day, an individual may experience interpersonal communication with their mother, their best friend, their teacher, their spouse, and many other individuals. Interpersonal scholars are interested in how meaning is shared within these relationships, how relationships are developed and terminated, how identity is managed in relationships, and much more.
Defining Interpersonal Communication
Defining interpersonal communication is no easy task. While most scholars cannot agree on one single definition, there is a general consensus that interpersonal communication is the sharing of meaning and messages between people who share some level of interdependence. This meaning can be shared in-person, via a computer-mediated channel, or through audio or mobile technologies, and it can be verbal or nonverbal in nature.
Given the wide latitude offered in this definition, interpersonal communication has a very large scope in its research. As a result, interpersonal communication overlaps heavily with other disciplines like health communication and family communication. While interpersonal communication research is usually focused on interactions between two people, there are some cases of high intimacy and interdependence that extend this definition to a small group (e.g., a nuclear family).
Most often, interpersonal communication research is focused on romantic relationships, friendships, family relationships, relationships between colleagues, and doctor-patient relationships. However, given the definition outlined above, it is clear that interpersonal communication extends to a vast number of one-on-one interactions, both formal and informal. To illustrate this, a teacher and student experience interpersonal communication during office hours, as do a coach and an athlete’s parent, along with a police officer and the person they just pulled over. In all of these relationships, interpersonal communication takes place.
Interpersonal communication researchers are interested in how various factors influence interpersonal communication outcomes. As with most communication researchers, they investigate how messages are encoded and decoded, how the context and channel of communication affect communication outcomes, and how individual aspects of the communicators affect the nature of the communication. To illustrate, review the following research questions:
- When a supervisor displays anger to a subordinate, how does this affect subordinate motivation?
- How do parents manage the revelation that a child is adopted, and what outcomes result from different tactics?
- When a teacher discloses personal information to a student, how can that affect the student’s perception of that teacher?
- If a couple is choosing not to have children, how do they manage this information, and what rules do they use to decide when to share it?
In reviewing these questions, it becomes clear that they could be examined from various angles. For example, in the first question it will matter whether the anger is directed at the employee, the employee’s colleague, or a third-party vendor. It would also matter whether the employee felt responsible for the anger and how often the supervisor shows anger in the day-to-day working relationship. Interpersonal communication researchers are driven to answer questions like this in the research they conduct.
Common Relational Interpersonal Communication Theories and Constructs
As a broad area of study, there are many theories and constructs related to interpersonal communication. As mentioned above, interpersonal communication scholars typically examine the communication that occurs within romantic, platonic, and familial contexts. While there are certainly theories and constructs that apply to more formal contexts, this section discusses some of the most common theories and constructs used in the study of relationships in interpersonal communication. Students should examine the following theories and constructs to gain a better understanding of this area of study. Ultimately, this may help students understand whether or not they have an interest in exploring this area of research.
Additionally, while some of the theories and constructs articulated below may have originated in the study of interpersonal communication, they are not exclusive to the discipline. Other sections in our Introductory Guides to Communication Research will reveal that other disciplines borrow from one another, applying well-established theories from one discipline to another.
Uncertainty Reduction Theory: This theory outlines the basic process communicators go through to gain knowledge about other people. This theory suggests that most people want to reduce uncertainty when meeting someone new because it allows them to predict and explain their behavior during interactions. When there is high uncertainty people feel anxiety due to the inability to predict and plan behavior. Therefore, humans have a goal of reducing uncertainty in interpersonal relationships.
This theory states that we reduce uncertainty through passive, active, and interactive strategies. Passive strategies tend to involve observation. Active strategies involve tactics like asking others for information, looking the person up online, and showing up where they will be. Interactive strategies involve communicating directly with the individual a person is trying to learn more about.
Social Penetration Theory: This theory addresses the process individuals use to get to know each other better, with a specific interest in how information is shared. This theory suggests that communicators share information with others that moves from shallow levels to more intimate levels over time. Likewise, an individual may start discussing one or two topics in a new relationship, but over time this expands to a variety of topics.
Thus, this theory suggests that relationships develop through sharing information that progressively grows in breadth and depth. To illustrate, it would be normal during an initial conversation for someone to share where they are from or what they do for work. This information lacks depth, which is normal in an initial interaction. In contrast, it would be shocking to meet a new person and have them share about their problems with alcohol, insecurities about their weight, or difficulties in their marriage.
Self-Disclosure: As seen above, social penetration theory touches on two aspects of self-disclosure: breadth and depth. In total, there are four dimensions to self-disclosure: breadth, depth, frequency, and valence. Frequency is the rate at which individuals share information relative to the number of interactions they have over a given time period. Valence is the positive or negative nature of the disclosure (e.g., “I earned an A on the exam” vs “I was caught shoplifting”).
In addition to these four factors, self-disclosure is also viewed through the lens of appropriateness. This is not a core dimension of self-disclosure given that it is assessed through the other dimensions. For example, if a supervisor disclosed information of great depth on the first day of a subordinate’s new job, this would often be considered inappropriate.
Communication Accommodation Theory: This theory explains how and why individuals adjust their behaviors based on the behaviors of those with whom they are interacting. In some situations, communicators tend to mimic the behavior of their partner(s) in a communication interaction. Likewise, this theory also addresses the observation that, at times, communicators will contradict the behavior of their communication partner(s). The former behavior is called convergence, while the latter is called divergence. Both forms of accommodation can be seen in the way communicators use their nonverbal and paraverbal behavior (i.e. the tone, pacing, inflection, and pitch of one’s voice, which convey meaning independent of the content of what one says), along with the actual words they choose to use.
For example, if a professional early in their career is spending time networking with older, more accomplished professionals, they are likely to use more professional language, dress like those older professionals, and reflect their nonverbal behavior while communicating. In this case, the young professional is converging. On the contrary, a communicator may lower their voice during an argument in an attempt to diverge from their communication partner who is raising their voice. This may be done so that the first communicator can show how calm they are, but it might also be done to motivate the other communicator to converge and lower their voice.
Face Negotiation Theory: The concept of face — the self-image we present to others — acts as the foundation for this theory. According to face negotiation theory, humans go through the act of facework in social settings. Facework consists of the communicative behaviors we use to build our ideal face in the presence of others. Facework also involves supporting and impeding others as they work to build their public face. For example, a person may brag about a new job promotion with the goal of building a positive public face. This person’s friend might point out that they are bragging, simultaneously tearing down the face of the person bragging while attempting to build their own public face.
It is important to note that effective facework varies from culture to culture. As one might imagine, the act of sharing one’s accomplishments would be much better for building face in a culture that values individual achievement (e.g., the United States), while this would be less effective in a culture that values group achievement (e.g., China). Likewise, facework varies from relationship to relationship. Building positive face in a marriage will look different than in a sibling relationship, which will look different from a friendship. Researchers interested in face negotiation have questions about how face is managed across a multitude of different contexts and relationships.
Relational Dialectics Theory: This theory is founded on the basis that a relationship is a place where opposing desires are managed. This theory describes these opposing desires as dialectics and suggests that these are a source of friction in relationships. For example, the integration-separation dialect is one dialect that is experienced in a relationship. Integration is the extent to which we have practical and psychological closeness with a relationship partner. On the other hand, separation is the extent to which we have practical or psychological distance from a relationship partner.
To illustrate, a couple who shares an apartment, and bills, and a car will feel more integrated than a couple who is simply dating and seeing each other for dinner and a movie once a week. This theory suggests that we try to manage this dialectic and that even the most integrated relationships involve management of this dialectic. As an example, a couple married for 20 years probably does not want to spend all their time together and the husband may go on a run once a week with his friend, while the wife gets coffee with a friend of hers.
Integration and separation is just one of the primary dialectics involved in relationships. There is also the stability-change dialectic and the expression-nonexpression dialectic. Stability-change involves wanting continuity while still desiring novelty in a relationship. Expression-nonexpression involves the desire to share private information with others while also wanting to keep some information private.
Identity Management Theory: During relationship development, relational partners work to establish who they are as individuals while also establishing the nature of their relationship. This theory addresses a variety of ways that individuals seek to establish their personal and relational identities, but it takes a special interest in how culture plays a role in this process. For example, if a Latina woman grew up in an urban area, but married a white man from a rural area, they would experience stark cultural differences. This would require identity management for each person to ensure that they retained their own cultural uniqueness while establishing a shared identity within the relationship. Indeed, it would be unlikely that this couple would spend their life together practicing entirely Latin cultural traditions. Yet, it would be equally as unlikely that their relationship would eliminate these traditions entirely.
As one might imagine, a relationship of this type results in situations in which individual cultural identities are mutually exclusive — the self-other face dialectic. In the example above, the wife is likely to have a greater cultural pressure to take care of her parents in old age than her husband. As the parents age, there may be a point where the couple needs to decide if and when they want her father to live with them. With different cultural expectations, this couple may experience friction, forcing them to negotiate this situation based on their own cultural backgrounds and the nature of their specific relationship.
Communication Privacy Management Theory: In every relationship, individuals are required to negotiate openness and privacy. As such, every relationship is a constant negotiation of public and private information. This theory suggests that individuals have boundaries around their information and want control over who can access that boundary. Maintaining strong boundaries can ensure safety and security, while opening boundaries can create intimacy and develop relationships. On the contrary, strong boundaries can delay or prevent the development of relationships, while having open boundaries creates vulnerability and risks the sharing of private information. The tension between needing to share and needing to protect information exists within every relationship. Likewise, each relationship contains shared information, some of which is public and some of which is private to the relationship.
As an example, imagine a close friendship in which one friend loses their job. He or she may choose to keep this information to him or herself, or he or she may choose to share it with a close friend. In sharing this information, he or she has opened a privacy boundary and allowed this friend to access the information. In doing so, the friend now has the choice to reveal this information to others or keep it to him or herself. This is where relationships tend to see friction because individuals develop rules for information sharing, and those rules may be implicit or explicit. In this example, the jobless friend may expect his or her friend to keep this job loss a secret. Given that this is a relatively personal experience, he or she may assume the other person knows to keep it confidential. Because this rule was implicit, the friend receiving the information may make the assumption that because the two friends are very close with a third friend that this third friend is already aware of the job loss. Thus, when the second friend talks to this third friend and mention the job loss, they may not feel they have done anything wrong. Yet, the friend who lost the job may feel that a privacy rule was violated. In his or her mind, the nature of the information should have made it clear that it was private.
Ultimately, this theory is interested in how individuals share and manage information within relationships. This includes how individuals make the decision to share, how rules are established, how boundaries are managed, how partners in a relationship manage rule violations, and much more. Researchers examine questions related to these parts of the theory across various relationships to gain a greater understanding of how privacy is managed.
Theory of Planned Behavior & Social Cognitive Theory: It is worth mentioning that these two theories, while initially conceived of in the realm of the interpersonal, are now widely associated with health communication. The Theory of Planned Behavior suggests that there is predicative power in knowing if an individual has the intention (and the skill) to initiate an action or behavior. In other words, this theory posits that if an individual has the intention to do something, they probably will.
Similarly, Social Cognitive Theory suggests that human beings are socialized learners. Put differently, individuals observe the actions and behaviors of others, internalize that action or behavior, and eventually replicate what they observed.
Emerging Trends in Interpersonal Communication: The Dark Side
While there is no singular theory to interpersonal communication’s dark side, interpersonal communication researchers are increasingly examining areas of relationships once thought to be taboo. This area of study is built on the metaphor of dark and light, suggesting that all facets of interpersonal communication have some level of each. Indeed, romantic relationships are often thought of through a positive lens. However, if the dark side metaphor is applied, new areas of study emerge. For example, a researcher may begin to think about codependence, infidelity, or abuse through a communicative lens.
Another intricacy that emerged from the study of the dark side of interpersonal communication involves arguing and fighting. By and large, arguments between friends or spouses are generally thought of as a negative event. However, research in this field shed light on the age-old adage that “it’s not what you argue about, it’s how you argue.” Research further yielded that couples, both romantic and platonic, who argue with a purpose and do not devolve into fights filled with ad hominin attacks, actually better manage their relationships. Moreover, an argument will often involve forgiveness and reconciliation, which may ultimately strengthen the relationship. While “fighting” in relationships is negative, research continues to show that “arguing,” when done properly, is a positive force. Scholars continue to examine these “gray areas” in interpersonal communication, which have relevance in the improvement of social bonds at both the personal and the greater societal levels.
Interpersonal communication research is a popular area of study for many graduate students given its broad scope and application across many facets of life. Students interested in learning more about interpersonal communication should review the following resources:
- Communication Accommodation in Intercultural Encounters – Howard Giles and Kimberly A. Noels
- Communication Privacy Management and Health and Risk Messaging – Sandra Petronio and Maria K. Venetis
- Identity Management Theory: Facework in Intercultural Relationships – Tadasu Todd Imahori and William R. Cupach
- Interpersonal Communication Across the Lifespan – Carla L. Fisher and Thomas Roccotagliata
- Relational Dialectics Theory – Leslie A. Baxter and Dawn O. Braithwaite
- Self-Disclosure – lumenlearning.com
- Social Penetration Theory – University of Minnesota
- The Dark Side of Interpersonal Relationships – University of Minnesota
Topics in Interpersonal Communication
This article examines an interpersonal communication theory that attempts to explain how humans utilize different strategies to reduce uncertainty in social interactions.