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Communication is always paired with interpretation that shapes how an interaction is understood and what it means. Interpretation is determined by several factors that work simultaneously. A great deal of sensitivity is required to understand how each factor plays out and to what degree it influences perception. Such factors include a person's education, surroundings, cultural context, personal experience, and even his or her current emotional state and mood, all of which affect the communication process and its outcomes.

If we were to consider only the cognitive process by which the mind makes judgments or assertions by combining subjects and predicates in a sentence, then there would be no thought or knowledge without language. Yet this would eliminate the role of emotion, intuition, and those kinds of "understanding" that arise from the heart. When we speak or write, some inner impulse is generated to express a feeling or convey a meaning. Sometimes this expression into words does not occur simultaneously with our feelings, as when we "choose our words carefully."

So how can we communicate most effectively and productively? How can we limit the role of interpretation and reduce the chances that someone's personal background will interfere with receiving our messages accurately? There is no one simple answer because it is nearly impossible to control such communication. Each person is an individual with a unique approach and a unique experience of the world. He or she sees the world through a personal lens or filter while communicating and interacting. Nevertheless, learning about and working to improve communication skills can help us keep this in mind. We remain aware that one simple message can have countless interpretations.

Our international framework makes it especially important to mention that interpretation is also shaped dramatically by cultural factors: habits and conventions that people do not analyze on a day to day basis and that can be very entwined with identity.

A person can understand a generalization: "North Koreans don’t like to talk about their personal lives.” But this does not provide an answer as to how one show behave when one first meets a person from North Korea.

Is my knowledge helpful? Is it actually correct? On one hand, having model-like knowledge about other cultures is helpful because it sheds some light on the world's complexity, but on the other hand in situations like these we often can only act based on our own opinions.

[edit] Four Sides of a Message

The “Four Sides of the Message” is a frequently used communication model that describes patterns of interpretation a person may use. The theory was created by the German psychologist Friedemann Schulz von Thun. It asserts that we relay and receive four different kinds of information with each act of communication:

  • Content or information:

First, there is relayed content; the message contains objective information. No matter what kind of information is at hand, this aspect of the message remains in the foreground. As you're reading this, the foreground of this message is the objective information about the four sides of a message and that this is the initial one.

According to Schulz von Thun, what most people consider the core of the message is only one of four aspects. An example might be: "I am going to the movies."

  • Relationship:

The message also reveals the sender's position towards the receiver, what he or she thinks of him or her. This can be revealed in the choice of words, the tone of voice, and other non-verbal accompanying signals. The receiver has an especially sensitive ear for this facet of the message, because it involves him or her not only as the recipient of communicated information, but as a person treated (or mistreated) in a particular way. In the example of the communication of this theory, the reader develops different feelings based on the way the information is presented, whether it is through a cordial approach, authoritative lecturing, or even a neutral treatment that does not concern his or her personality.

In the second example, “I’m going to the movies” can be understood as “WE are close friends and you could come with me.” Or it could be understood simply as an indication that the person will not be available starting at 7 p.m.: “WE are colleagues, but I’m not going with you to the movies.” Or even as a sign of a quarrel: “I am going to the movies (by myself).”

  • Self-disclosure:

A message not only contains objective information about the situation and relational aspects that involve the recipient, it also gives information about the sender who initiated the interaction and encoded the initial information. Without going too deeply into this aspect, from a few words we can conclude that the sender can express him or herself in English, has done some reading, and has some understanding of the Theory of Four Sides of a Message etc.

“I’m going to the movies” can be understood as “I am tired,” or “I’m looking forward to this evening,” or “I’d like to invite you too.”

  • Appeal:

Almost all messages are intended to have some impact on the receiver. Hence, the message also serves to cause the receiver to do, or not to do, and to think or feel certain things. This attempt to influence can be more or less blatant. The appeal aspect has to be separated from the relationship aspect, since the same appeal can be combined with completely different types of information about the relationship. The appeal of this text is to give information about the theory, but also to help people to better understand the complexity of communication and interactions among people.

“I’m going to the movies” can be understood as "Please, come with me.“ Or as: "Please let me have some time to myself and let others know that I will not be available after 7 p.m.” Or: “I don’t want to see you today.”

According to this model, misunderstandings occur when two people are concentrating on different aspects of a message and do not consciously address or hear all the relevant parts of a message.

[edit] Language without words: body language

Language is often reduced to verbal communication. It may seem that non-verbal communication only attracts our attention in extreme situations: A coach whose face has turned red, running and yelling at the edge of the field. Or a deliberate glance that says it all. But actually, body language plays a role just as important as verbal communication. With knowledge about intonation and body language, we can shape situations more effectively and maybe understand them without words.

Body language also differs according to social and cultural background. And if the recipient of the message does not know how to interpret it correctly, misunderstandings will occur.

[edit] Habitus: Grammar of the social framework

Body language, spoken language, and embedding of the communication in a certain cultural context all combine to create a complex presentation of a person: his or her "way of life" or "charisma.”

Sociological research emphasizes the importance of this "habitus." In many cases it helps people determines if they want to communicate and work together, and, if so, how they will go about it – “There is a good chemistry.” Pierre Bourdieu attributes this “chemistry” to social structures. A person is not born with all these characteristics, but “the grammar of the social framework” is illustrated in him or her: A person's habitus makes it possible to define his or her social status and rank. At best, it can be communicated without being stated directly: Two anthropologists might recognize each other at the conference by their language, associations, selection of food at the buffet, or by their clothing. The habitus strongly shapes our style of communication. To be able to understand more clearly how a person is seen by others and how our own words are understood by others, a person must be conscious of his or her own habitus.

[edit] Literature

Bourdieu, Pierre, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. Richard Nice, Harvard University Press 1984.

Schulz von Thun, Friedemann : Miteinander reden: Störungen und Klärungen. Psychologie der zwischenmenschlichen Kommunikation. Rowohlt, Reinbek 1981.

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