1.2.0: Shared Meaning and Context

In this section, we will discuss how we use communication to create shared meaning and how the meaning created is influenced by four types of context: physical, relational, individual, and cultural.


1.2.1: Shared Meaning

© Cathy Guisewite; reprinted with permission for use in Interpersonal Communication Abridged Textbook (I.C.A.T.)
(Image: © Cathy Guisewite; reprinted with permission for use in I.C.A.T)

Shared Meaning: 
While what we mean is usually very clear to us, others may decode/interpret our messages differently from what we intended resulting in a lack of shared meaning.


In communicative interactions, the goal is usually to create shared meaning. Shared meaning is achieved when the receiver attaches a similar meaning to the message that the sender meant to convey. In other words, shared meaning occurs when what was intended by one was similarly interpreted by the other, and/or what was interpreted by one was what was intended by the other. For example, let’s say we were at a bar and winked at someone to express interest in them. If they likewise interpreted our wink as interest, then shared meaning has been created. However, if they interpret our wink as an eye twitch, then shared meaning has not occurred. As we know from our experiences, shared meaning is not always achieved in interactions or may require additional clarification. That is because the various factors, or context, surrounding our messages can influence how those messages are produced, interpreted and coordination. There are four main types of context to take into consideration in interpersonal interactions- physical, relational, individual, and cultural- which are discussed in the following subsections.


1.2.2: Physical Context

The physical context is the environment where the communication takes place, such as a bedroom, hallway, or bar. Within the environment, factors like the size of the space, the temperature, and number of other people present will shape the communication that occurs (DeVito, 2014). For example, a noisy, crowded-bar might limit communication or create external noise that interferes with your ability to hear the message. On the other hand, a quiet coffee shop with a fire might encourage communication. Physical space even operates in what we typically think of as virtual spaces, like social media. For example, Twitter limits the amount of characters in a tweet, thus messages communicated via this platform are often concise and abbreviated (DeVito, 2014).


<a href="https://unsplash.com/photos/g1Kr4Ozfoac?utm_source=unsplash&amp;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_content=creditCopyText">Brooke Cagle</a>, <a href="https://unsplash.com/search/photos/friends-drinking-coffee?utm_source=unsplash&amp;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_content=creditCopyText">Unsplash</a>
(Image: Brooke CagleUnsplash)
Physical Context: The physical context is the environment where the communication takes place. Think about how a coffee shop or bar might encourage communication, whereas a loud concert might prevent it. Also, think about the objects present in the physical environment. Do you think technology, such as a phone or computer, could be a barrier or distraction?


1.2.3: Relational Context

The relational context pertains to both the type of relationship that we have with a person and our previous history of interactions with them. Communication norms and rules vary based on the type of relationship people have, such as whether they are a friend, family member, supervisor, significant other, etc. For example, communication norms and rules that apply to a supervisor-supervisee relationship are different from a romantic relationship. In addition, we also share a communication history consisting of previous interactions we have had with a particular person and this will influence the meaning behind messages. For example, let’s say we asked our partner to pick up milk on the way home from work. When they arrive home, we might say “Did you get it?” While this might not make sense to another person viewing the interaction, “it” is understood as “the milk” based on our previous communications (Verderber, MacGeorge, & Verderber, 2016).


1.2.4: Individual Context

The individual context refers to characteristics that are specifically related to us, such as our cognitive and physical abilities, personality, emotional state, internalized biases/prejudices, past experiences, and/or internal motivations. Individual characteristics are unique for every person and influence how we communicate with others (Alberts, Nakayama, & Martin, 2016) and we interpret another communicator’s message. For example, if we are feeling stressed and angry from a long day at work (emotional state), we might interpret someone’s one-word replies as a form of intentional disrespect. When feeling calm and rested, though, we might interpret these same types of replies as a sign that they may be suffering from emotional upset.

The Individual context can also create noise that interferes with the production, reception, and interpretation of a message. For example, physiological processes, such as stuttering, can interfere with message production. Hearing problems may interfere with the reception of the message, as well as our mental state, such as being preoccupied or daydreaming. Individual conceptions of a word also create a type of semantic noise which will influence its interpretation. For example, while you innocently referred to your date’s spending habits as “frugal,” he was offended because he thought you meant he was “cheap.”


1.2.5: Cultural Context

“Culture refers to the learned patterns of perceptions, values, and behaviors shared by a group of people” (Alberts, Nakayama, & Martin, 2016). While culture is often used to refer to large groups of people by country (U.S. Mexico, China, etc.), we also belong to many overlapping co-cultures based on facets of our identity such as race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, generation, religion, etc. Communication is embedded in culture and co-culture because they dictate rules and norms for behavior in interactions. For example, take a co-cultural category such as gender identity, and think about norms for how females and males should (or should not) sit. Females will often try to take up as little space as possible when sitting and will cross their legs, whereas males will typically spread out- a phenomenon that has recently been dubbed ‘manspreading.’). The reason why females sit one way and males another is because we learn norms and rules for behaviors, like sitting, walking, etc. Growing up, females are often explicitly told “cross your legs” and “don’t sit with your legs open.”

Often times, behaviors we think are normal are actually not innate, rather we have learned them explicitly or implicitly via the culture and co-cultures we belong to. Culture and communication are inseparably intertwined as our various co-cultural identities influence how we communicate and how others communicate with us (Alberts, Nakayama, & Martin, 2016). Culture and co-culture may also create semantic noise due to variations in a particular group’s use and understanding of a word or phrase. For example, take the word ‘cool’, one generation may use it in reference to temperature while another may use as a synonym for awesome. Co-cultures also attach experiences and emotions to particular words that another group may not, such as derogatory terms. 


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