Back in 1997, so seemingly long ago, I took a class at UW-Madison that turned me from a pre-med student into a double major of communication arts and psychology that would eventually lead me to become the scholar I am today. For this class, we had to write a paper about the communication theories we had been learning about, and, in my “schoolie” over-achiever fashion, I wrote a humdinger of a paper. Here is how I put together the theories that shaped both my personal and ontological perspectives.
There has been one question asked by men and women alike throughout the ages that still eludes attempts at answering. Why am I? There have been many attempts at answering. Theology, philosophy, and psychology have been our tools to build from an invisible blueprint. Perhaps there is a tool they are overlooking. Communication has many outlets and is necessary to do numerous things. However, to simply believe that communication can convey information is severely underestimating its capabilities. Communication can also be an influential force in determining behavior, and it might even go so far as to manipulate thought and emotions. A relatively simple look from a woman can cause a man to follow her anywhere. A moving, emotional and well-developed speech from a professional orator can cause his audience to see his point, to think like he does. The sad puppy-dog eyes a child lays on his grandmother can soften her heart. Whether spoken or not, each situation requires a form of communication to alter a person, whether it be his behavior, their thoughts, or her emotions.
This conclusion can be demonstrated simply by a command that changes a person’s actions, or three little words that when uttered can wonderfully affect the addressee. It can also be explained more quantitatively with published theories from such researchers as Mead and McCombs, Shaw and Gerbner, and Derlega and Hirokawa. Mass media can have an effect on the attitudes of the audience. The way we communicate in interpersonal and intergroup relationships can influence their structure, level and competence. To illustrate and argue my conclusion, I’ll rely on general characteristics of language and non-verbal communication, from the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to Burgoon. Then I will move into how mass media can have predictable and remarkable influences on the populace with powerful theories like Social Learning and Cultivation. Finally, I will discuss relationships by employing ideas about self-disclosure, group decision making and the like. With these instruments, I’ll show how the golem is built.
The evidence for this conclusion can be found in the real world quite easily, even without the necessity of theorizing. It is noted that language can shape context, this being the internal personification of people. Communication can affect emotions through a method called attitude polarization. When a feeling or thought is put into words, the opinion stated can create stronger feelings toward that idea because speaking it also opens it to understanding. This is a politician’s strongest weapon, the art of persuasion, where, through the clever usage of emotional words, the politician can change the emotions, opinions and very actions of those who listen to him. In a society, words persuade a society to pay attention to one type of action over another, an observation described in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. When a society uses different forms of addresses, such as “sir” and “sire,” it causes that culture to give importance to hierarchies; the behavior of the people comes to include worship of kings and queens. When the word “sire” is no longer used in a society, there is no longer any such stressed importance, and that mode of thinking also disappears. Words and labels direct society’s attention and the individual’s loyalties.
Nonverbal clues can also direct a person’s attention. It is hypothesized that our linguistic styles can affect our affiliations. In personal relationships, it is believed a person is attracted to another because of similarities in vocal pitches and linguistic styles. When two people have compatible turnover pauses, they are more likely to become personal. People feel a better connection with another who is, essentially, on the same wavelength; we are attracted to people who share our linguistic style. The same idea can be applied to group interactions. When a person shares the same speech style as those of the group he is trying to join, the group is more likely to assimilate and accept him.
Acceptance in a one-on-one situation can also be influenced by nonverbal codes. As related by the Expectancy Violations Theory, the addressee has expectations of the communicator’s nonverbal way of communicating, and when these expectations are violated, the addressee will respond in a way determined by a reward valence. A reward valence takes into account the communicator’s positive and negative attributes (looks, abilities and status) in a determination of how that person can help the addressee. If a person is in violation, they force us to change our way of thinking, to concentrate more on what is being said and not how it’s being said. They also force us to evaluate them, to judge them. We may not be conscious of such evaluations caused by nonverbal codes, just like we may not be aware of the influence of verbal codes. Simply by standing or approaching in a certain way can influence thought.
Verbal language can greatly influence a person beyond what they might like to admit. According to Blumer’s refinement of Mead’s Symbolic Interactionism, the self is a function of language. Without talk there would be no self-concept, so one has to be a member of a community before concept of self sets in. We naturally give more weight to the views of significant others, but even a chance comment or dirty look from a stranger can have a powerful impact on our self-image. Name-calling can be devastating because the epithets force us to view ourselves in a warped mirror. The grotesque images aren’t easily dispelled. Our “self” and concept of “I” are only defined by the way others see us. We see how they see us through the use of generalized others.
A generalized other is essentially a role-playing ability where we see how others perceive us and what their expectations are for us. People will then take these perceptions and expectations to heart and, in the need to belong, conform to what the others see in us. When a person is called stupid, witless or slow consistently, without any contradictory statements, evidence predicts he or she will become this way. These are what he perceives the other people’s expectations of him are, and what he should strive for. Someone’s opinion has altered his personality to include this trait in his self, his spirit. It is similar to confining him in a box, letting him learn only one way to solve a task, and holding back all other options. Even though this cage is built with words, it is nonetheless confining. However, depending on the context, this confinement can go either way, good or evil. The words can be just as uplifting. It all depends on how they are employed.
Words, pictures and other symbols have been employed in modern times in a way that has many critics running scared while the rest of society relishes it. Now in the age of mass media, communication has the possibility to influence the multitudes all at once. The power of communication becomes even more substantial, affecting viewers’ cognition, attitudes, behavior and even physiology. Even though some theories concerning “broadcasting” seem innocent enough, they could be preludes to possibly darker storm clouds on the horizon.
The Social Learning Theory is a form of conditioning known also in psychology. It states that living things learn through observation, and that they will model behaviors that are rewarded and avoid ones that are punished. When observing, the rewards they see the other person getting become vicarious rewards. When applied to media, this theory has a great effect. When children grow up watching television, it is observed they begin to model their behaviors after what they see are rewarded on a program. This learning can be positive or negative. Positive learning comes from a child watching Sesame Street and learning the numbers and alphabet. He or she watches a child on the program be rewarded for getting the right answer, and the viewer thinks that if the behavior is imitated, the reward will be the same. However, this same form of association can be negative. For example, there has been much controversy recently over such violent programs as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, where the heroes on the program act violently and are rewarded for it. Children, after watching these programs, have been reported to be imitating the violent acts. This is apparently also applicable to adults, especially in commercials; men drink a certain form of beer showcasing beautiful women, and women kill their hair with dyes that promise a new you–and showing a handsome young man. People will model behaviors associated with vicarious rewards as evidenced in media. While this theory concerns itself mostly with mental alterations, there is one that theorizes how media creates changes in the body itself, and what can happen because of these changes.
The Excitation Transfer Theory looks at how being aroused due to a certain stimuli, in the media or elsewhere, can have the physiological reactions transferred into another situation. The main premise is that while a person can control what he or she watches, that person cannot easily control what happens to her physiology from watching it. While watching a specifically arousing episode of The X-Files alone in a dark house, for example, a person might experience terror and trepidation. Even after the show is over, the arousal was so strong that it is slow to decay and stays with her. Later on, she might hear noises outside of her house, over-react and call the police, only for it to turn out to be a cat. Perhaps exaggerated, it demonstrates that the arousal from one situation can carry into the next, altering how that person might have normally dealt with it. Arousal transfer increases the emotional reaction to stimuli experienced in the next context. Not only does the emotion change for the next situation, but because of the arousal, the normal behavior in handling such a context is changed. This theory dealt with the effects of media in an indirect fashion. The last two have media affecting viewers directly.
The Agenda-Setting Theory is similar to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis when it states that the degree and prominence of media coverage of an event or issue determines its social importance. Basically, the media affects what the public thinks as important and thus what issues they will attend. One major way that they are able to do this is with framing. Framing concerns when the news media focus on one aspect of an issue while either ignoring or downplaying any other aspects. These can be seen in just about every news story, and it is due to time constraint, information, and what they think the populace will find interesting. Media frames an issue by creating a perfect mood, selecting interesting context, and having precise selectivity. They not only tell their audiences what to think about, but through framing, they also signal how to think about it. Not only does the news affect what will get told, according to this theory, it also affects how we will see the world and its issues.
Yet the control of the news media alone is made greater when added to mass media–TV, radio and film–and a theory about how the very beliefs about reality are being altering. According to Gerbner, the Cultivation Theory focuses primarily on how media depicts the world as much more violent than it really is, and how people come to unquestionably believe this depiction as real. Yet the applications of the true premise reach into any representation of the world. Television viewers don’t discount everything that they see on television as unrealistic; they implicitly accept some things as representative of their society. People believe in fantasy more than reality, because through this fantasy they are able to see more of the world than they could hope to in their real lives; it is easier to watch the news than to go on a world tour. The more they watch, the more their beliefs will be cultivated by what they see. An affected called mainstreaming states that heavy watchers are more similar in their beliefs. Television homogenizes its audience so that those with heavy viewing habits share the same orientations, perspectives, and meanings with each other. This can have far reaching effects, from fear of violence to pain desensitization, as people come to accept certain frames of reality over looking at the broad picture.
Mass media functions on a broad, generalizing level, and the theories about it focus on this ability to affect the multitudes at once. Studying mass communication is to sociology as studying relational communication is to psychology. Studying how communication affects relationships between two people, a man and a woman or an entire group is more personalized, and definitely on a smaller level. Yet the effect communication can have is just as distinguishable.
Communication can influence the level at which a relationship is defined. The definition of a relationship represents the way partners individually and together think about the relationship and the behaviors that would be appropriate, given that definition. By talking together, a couple can define at what level they want their relationship or at what level it is at. This definition can be agreed upon through subtle channels, sometimes being more implicit than explicit. However agreed upon, this definition will affect the couple’s interactional attitudes and behaviors. This type of defining is called mutually transformative; communication can shape a relationship by defining, redefining and reinforcing it, while a relationship will define how the two communicate. In other words, when a couple decides that it is time to become intimate, they may engage in subtle ways of indicating this, from body language to hints of more personal information. If these strategic communicative movements succeed, then the level of the relationship will be redefined and the behavior of the two people will change accordingly. In the example, I mention intimacy. A method of communication to achieve intimancy is another topic.
Self-disclosure has been described to be the main route to deep social penetration, and that the depth of penetration through self-disclosure equals the degree of intimacy. Self-disclosure is defined as telling the information about oneself that is on a very personal level and thus less likely to be told on a lower level of a relationship. You would not go up to someone on the street and tell them about a traumatic experience you had as a child. However, by definition, you are more likely to tell someone you are intimate with about this experience. In other words, by self-disclosing, one is implying that a relationship has reached the intimate level. In fact, self-disclosure may affect the way partners define their relationships with each other. This form of personal communication may force the partner to define the relationship on terms of intimacy. Self-disclosing can influence a couple’s relationship, but it can also influence the behavior of the person to whom this intimate information is being given.
The norm of reciprocity refers to the tendency for recipients to match the level of intimacy in the disclosure they return with the level of intimacy in the disclosure they receive. In a self-disclosure process, reciprocity is used because the recipient feels the need for maintaining an equity of exchange; seemingly the other person does not like to be outdone and thus divulges something about themselves. However, this process can also be interpreted as a strategic use of communication. If you want to learn something intimate about the other person, self-disclose first. People tend to mete out the personal details of their lives at a rate that closely matches their partner’s willingness to share intimate information. Our partner’s self-disclosure can affect our self-disclosure if we follow the reciprocity norm. It is a power struggle dependent on the level of a relationship. A person is less likely to self-disclose to a stranger because it is not a social norm, and yet less reciprocity is seen in an intimate relationship because it is to the point where intimacy is already achieved. Reciprocity plays a bigger role in the experimenting level because there is still uncertainty to be reduced within the relationship. In this manner, the communication process of reciprocity is important for the formation of new levels of relationships. Communication in the above cases has proven useful in initiating intimacy.
However, research has been done about the communication between the sexes that suggests men and women mean different things when they use the same words, which might complicate the road to intimacy. More intriguing is research done on how men use language to control women. The ever-prevalent public-private distinction in language is a convenient way to exaggerate gender differences and pose separate sexual spheres of activity. The English language, as were many languages on Earth, was created almost exclusively by men, being the dominant gender throughout the ages. Many of the words, especially in the English language, are masculine, and when they are feminine, they are feminine for a man’s purpose. For example, the word “ship” is usually given a female connotation because it became a man’s toy, a man’s love. Women have been forced to give up their “maiden” name in exchange for their husband’s upon marriage, seemingly losing their identity to become a part of their husband. Feminists have thus put forth the idea that the words and language invented and used by men in society are another of their ways to control women. In the English dictionary there are only twenty-two words to describe a sexually loose man while there are over two hundred for a woman. It was another way of keeping women from aspiring. Power discrepancies between the sexes ensure that women will view the world in a way different from men. Almost like symbolic interactionism, saying such things about the attitudes about women and having women aware of this, while living in a staunch Christian society, might make them feel less than worthy of being anything but a devoted wife. Thus, communication on a society wide level could possibly be contributing to the treatment of women in society. A group controlling a group through communication.
Yet communication can affect within a group as well, on many different aspects. A group depends upon the face-to-face communication and interaction of its members, and it is developed through certain levels of communication. When a group first gets together, their communication is cautious, stylized and probing. The members are testing the waters, determining where their position will be, while they are trying to keep phase and still be predominantly agreeable. Through this communication style, they create the orientation phase. The next phase, termed conflict, is where after they have tested the waters they start to enter. Communication here reflects their decision to assert their individuality. They begin to express their own opinions, to make themselves heard. This influences the creative process that this phase is associated with. Here is where ideas are entered in, giving a rich variety from which the group can select and move on. They move into the emergence phase, where disagreement is being suppressed so that the group’s goal can be met. Communication influencing this level is less contradicting as people have secured their roles and now begin to focus on the end. The last phase occurs once there is an agreement, which can only be obtained through some form of communication. Here there is a reinforcement of the overall group identity, and it is a time of celebrating. Each step up the ladder of development was accomplished by accepting a new way of communicating. While communication can affect the group as a whole, it can affect what happens inside one as well.
Within a group, members will seek out different roles in which they can fully partake in the group identity. The role they have, when it is not ascribed to them, emerges from communication patterns. When a person is trying to obtain a certain role, they will communicate nonverbally or verbally, implicitly or explicitly, in a manner they perceive will affect others to agree with his or her proposition. An ambiguous response from the other members will usually affect the person to try again until a certain approval or disapproval is given. Roles emerging in this manner can only be completed through the dynamics of group interaction. We act in certain ways to get certain roles. This nonverbal and verbal behavior can be seen the movie 12 Angry Men. In the movie the assigned jury foreman was not acting like a leader, while Henry Fonda’s character was, and thus he was accepted as one. In theory this attempt at persuasive behavior can be applied to our interaction with the group called society. In both cases, there is a concept of persuasive that is created by certain aspects of communication.
A role coveted in a group is that of the leader. A leader is the person who directs and influences the group towards the goal. The effective leader is one who has commanded of a skill called leadership. Leadership is an influence process that is directed toward goal achievement, and in the event that a task is to be completed, it becomes a tool of communication to complete the tasks. A leader can be very persuasive and dominant, and it is commonly seen that members will conform to his or her authority; this is one of the problems that can lead to groupthink. A leader and those who have conformed to his persuasive communication will help him to apply direct pressure on dissenters who might have been having doubt about the group’s decisions. This conforming way of thinking can also lead to individuals self-censoring themselves as well as creating an illusion of unanimity. In other words, members will use the argument: others are doing it, why not me? Through a persuasive leader the wrong decision may be made. This is the downfall of groupthink, and a downfall of group interaction. However, on most occasions, communication within a group can accomplish things normally not accomplishable without one.
Communication is the only way a group can make a decision. If everyone were to simply sit around, mute and unmoving, nothing would be accomplished. Even internally most decisions are made by “talking it over” with one’s own mind. Most communication scholars believe that discussion among members has a significant effect on the quality of group decisions. Group discussion is a tool or instrument that group members use to create the social reality in which decisions are made. Verbal interaction makes possible many things that ensure a decision will at least have the chance of being the best. Through interaction members are able to distribute and pool information, from which they choose and agree upon alternatives. Any errors in judgment can be caught and corrected before they cause the train to derail. Verbal interaction makes it possible for one member to influence the rest, to make them see his point of view. This can become intensely important in jury decisions, as was seen in the movie 12 Angry Men. Above all else verbal interaction creates agreement. Without agreement the time spent in a group would be for naught. In a sense, because decisions from groups play such an integral and important role in almost every aspect of society, if there were no communication, there could be no society–theoretically, communication creates civilization.
Communication, wherever it is found, is indeed a powerful tool of human beings, and of all animals who utter noises. The combination of all the evidence paints a picture of influential communication that is worthy, if not crucial, of study. Small nuances and changes in nonverbal and verbal communication can cause even unconscious changes on the receiver; this occurs on a personal level, as with proximity, or on a broad level, as with cultivation. People do not have to be consciously aware of what is being directed towards them for their behavior to change. Yet a person who is conscious of what he or she is saying can use this influential aspect of communication to their own goal. From demonstrating oneself in a certain way in a group to employing the power of persuasion, the possibilities for control can be manipulated by someone with the proverbial forked tongue. The implications of both these facets abound.
The conclusion implies that relationships can be controlled by communication as much as by any emotion. It becomes possible that strong feelings for another are heightened even more by non-verbal signals. Words, pictures, gestures and other symbols can shape people and society alike by merely stressing importance, implying that persuasion is a terribly powerful weapon any human can wield. It implies, when in relationships and in everyday roles, the Golden Rule is the main rule to follow, for the best interests of both. It implies that the communication has a duality: it can help us get what we want, but it can help others get what they want from us. The possibility of someone or something gaining control–given a certain time, situation and orator–is greatly increased through the effects of mass media. One of the main reasons Hitler did not affect so many people was that those who saw him on films remarked that he looked evil. Perhaps the next anti-Christ bent on ruling the world will be someone more photogenic. In interpersonal and group communication, it implies that presentation and first impression plays a big role in how the other(s) will interact with you. It also implies that the way to get the upper-hand in such relationships are through strategic and persuasive uses of communication. If all the theories are forerunners of the implications that this conclusion can conjure, and if the implications are warranted, then this aspect of communication is often neglected by everyone but the researcher. These implications are taken for granted by common folk–although politicians, film producers and the like must pay them more heed as neglecting them might mean their jobs and livelihoods.
The unconsciousness way in which many people communicate, however, from children who tease to adults who absorb what television preaches to the preponderance of masculine words, only heightens the possibilities these implications. If everyone were to ponder on what communication can do to each of us every single time we communicate, paranoia would rule. Imagine wondering how every movement of your body affects the person you talk to, and imagine constantly worrying that TV or your lover is trying to control you. Being too aware would wear down the normal person just like going without sleep for days. Thus it becomes necessary to ignore how we subtly affect others. Unfortunately our ignorance implies we are golems, brought to life, controlled, and killed through words and gestures. As a Jewish magician creates a golem out of clay, communication can create a puppet out of a person.