In the preface to Reflect and Relate, McCornack (2010) claims to offer a "fresh perspective on interpersonal communication," (viii). Admittedly when I read this, I balked. Certainly every textbook claims to be "fresh," and besides, people have been communicating with each other since the time of Neanderthal grunting. What could I possibly learn about communication from a textbook? After keeping an open mind and giving the book a chance, though, my initial cynicism waned. I began to appreciate what McCornack was trying to achieve with Reflect and Relate, which was to fill in the gaps that many other textbooks on communication leave empty. The informal and personal tone of the textbook helped to engage me, and the "self-help"-style exercises did as the author suggested and encouraged genuine self-awareness. Before reading Reflect and Relate, I would not have thought it possible to write a textbook that was at once designed to be scholarly and informative and also meaningful for the reader personally. Chapters are directed to real life issues such as romantic relationships, and not just board meetings and other communications situations that most students will have very little experience with either now or in the future. Reflect and Relate is titled appropriately, too, as by reflecting on my own communication styles and habits, I am already noticing improvements in the way I relate to others.
On page 27, I was asked to reflect on a "devastating relationship event" that I experienced. Having had all too many "devastating relationship events," this self-reflection exercise caught my eye and made me pay attention. I sat down in front of my computer and for the first time wrote out how I felt in several of these relationships. I said things that I should have said to my partner. Those things left unsaid might have avoided the relationship crises. As I look back with the perfect vision of hindsight, I can see why and how the principles of interpersonal communication can transform someone's life. If I had communicated more effectively, I might still be with one or another of my past partners, living in a different city, and with a different job. Interpersonal relationships are the crux of our existence.
Information on barriers to effective communication comes not just from personal experience but also from research. In the chapter on emotions, McCornack (2010) elucidates the latest research in psychology and sociology that shows how emotions affect every area of our lives. I was particularly moved by the research on jealousy, which McCornack (2010) claims is "toxic to interpersonal communication and must be managed effectively for relationships to survive," (p. 132). Fear is also noted to be a problem. McCornack (2010) also points out four challenges that are common impediments to healthy relationship development: lack of empathy online; anger; passion; and grief (p. 132).
The anecdote the author offers about the online encounters with students rang a bell because I have also received email messages in all capital letters sounding like the person is shouting at me. I believe that the problem is with the communicator, not "listening" to the way they "sound" when they are typing in this manner. The author is too tactful to point out that his students lack manners or respect, but I would say that the younger generations have been raised without a clear idea of what it takes to be a good communicator online. Online communication rules have evolved haphazardly, and we are learning them as we go. I often make the mistake of responding immediately to an email when I am angry, regretting my decision later. The advice to wait a day before sending the draft is good advice. Sometimes I assume I need to respond immediately, when it is only a self-gratifying feeling to send an angry email as if I am getting revenge on the person. Such angry thinking is patently self-destructive and destructive to relationships. The main problem with online communication difficulties is related to the lack of emotion being imparted. We use emoticons to overcome this problem, but sometimes emoticons are inappropriate (because they are unprofessional) or forgotten. Even when we use smiley faces or winks to suggest that we are being lighthearted and joking, the person on the other end has no context. Typically, we communicate using hand gestures and eye contact. Our voice conveys emotion. When we communicate with email, though, there is nothing but the words we type. This can cause many problems.
As King (2000) points out, all interpersonal communication is contextual. The message about online communication underscores this concept. No communication can be considered out of context, without losing a great deal of its meaning and relevance. When we interact with people, we bring with us a history: our values, beliefs, and worldviews. Our culture impacts our communication. A lot of research has been done recently on the differences in communication styles between different cultures. The "high context/low context" variable is indeed one of the most important to understand in a diverse setting. Although I am still trying to get a grasp of exactly what the differences are between higher and lower context cultures, I gained a lot from learning this concept. People within low context cultures spell everything out, because it is not to be assumed that the other person knows what you are talking about. Thus, low context cultures are more likely to be diverse and heterogeneous cultures that need to process information in a direct way. High context cultures are more likely to be homogenous, because it is presumed that everyone knows the context of the discussion. It can be difficult to shift between higher and lower context cultures, which is one of many challenges of inter-cultural communication.
Another important cultural dimension of communication relates to time. I come from an "m-time" culture, as the textbook points out. However, my mother's side of the family is from a "p-time" culture. When we visit or interact with my mother's side of the family, many conflicts arise due to different perceptions of the value or meaning of time. My mother grew up in a "p-time" place where there was not much emphasis placed on exact meeting times with friends. People were more relaxed, and valued the moment. When she moved to the "m-time" culture, she gradually assimilated as she needed to survive in the office environment where time was "of the essence." Now, when she goes to dinner with her family she forgets that they are still on "p-time." She fumes with anger when they show up "late" to dinner. For them, they are not late. They were taking the time to look good and get her gifts. My mother does not see it this way; she only feels they are being disrespectful of her time. If only my mother could read the Reflect and Relate book on interpersonal communication and see that it is her new concept of time that is leading to a breakdown in communications, she would have fewer conflicts with her family members.
In addition to time, personal space issues become an interpersonal relationship area of potential conflict. I have had many struggles in this area, because when I travel I have to surrender the concept of personal space that I hold dear. There are many countries that do not have much concern for barriers and boundaries. I was using my computer once, and a stranger came and looked over my shoulder at what I was doing. I was shocked, but when I saw the look on his face, I could see that he was just curious about what I was doing and did not mean any harm by it. He did not have his own computer, and because it was an object of curiosity for him, he thought it was ok to share my space to look at the screen.
Most of what I have read or heard previously about communication comes down to a simple equation of messages sent vs. messages received. There is a process of encoding and decoding. Speaking involves the encoding of thought, and listening involves the decoding of the speaker's message. Because there are at least two different people involved, messages can easily be garbled. Misunderstandings can be reduced with better listening. The book goes into much detail about listening, and I tried hard to pay attention because I have been told that I am not a good listener. The author outlines the five step process of listening, including receiving the message, attending to that message, understanding it, responding to it, and finally, recalling that message. There are also different functions of listening, such as listening to comprehend something, to analyze, appreciate, or support. Applied to online communication, it is critical to "listen" to the person and when necessary, ask questions for clarification. I have found that when I ask kindly for clarification, the person on the other end is only too happy to provide me with more information. They realize that the act of asking the…