4.6.0: Communication Competence

In this section, we will discuss self-presentation, ways in which identities are contextual, and the importance of reflecting on your self-concept.


4.6.1: Effective Communication: Self-Presentation

Consciously and competently engaging in self-presentation can have benefits because we can provide others with a more positive and accurate picture of who we are and in doing so better achieve our communication goals. People who are skilled at impression management are typically more engaging and confident, which allows others to pick up on more cues from which to form impressions (Human et al., 2012).

 There are two main types of self-presentation: prosocial and self-serving (Sosik, Avolio, & Jung, 2002). Prosocial self-presentation entails behaviors that present a person as a role model and make a person more likable and attractive. For example, a supervisor may call on her employees to uphold high standards for business ethics, model that behavior in her own actions, and compliment others when they exemplify those standards. Self-serving self-presentation entails behaviors that present a person as highly skilled, willing to challenge others, and someone not to be messed with. For example, a supervisor may publicly take credit for the accomplishments of others or publicly critique an employee who failed to meet a particular standard. In summary, prosocial strategies are aimed at benefiting others, while self-serving strategies benefit the self at the expense of others.

In general, we strive to present a public image that matches up with our self-concept, but we can also use self-presentation strategies to enhance our self-concept (Hargie, 2011). When we present ourselves in order to evoke a positive evaluative response, we are engaging in self-enhancement. In the pursuit of self-enhancement, a person might try to be as appealing as possible in a particular area or with a particular person to gain feedback that will enhance one’s self-esteem. Self-enhancement can be productive and achieved competently, or it can be used inappropriately. Using self-enhancement behaviors just to gain the approval of others or out of self-centeredness may lead people to communicate in ways that are perceived as phony or overbearing and end up making an unfavorable impression (Sosik, Avolio, & Jung, 2002).


4.6.2: Contextual Communication: Identity and Context

(Image: CCO 1.0)

Identities: Our primary identities are said to be comprised based off of components that are not changeable, such as race or gender. However this is not always the case as people can and do change their gender identities.

We all have what is called our primary and secondary identities. Our primary identities are said to be consistent and are comprised of factors that we usually cannot change, such as ethnicity, race, and gender. While these identities are usually permanent, our awareness of them and the degree to which we acknowledge or align with them changes based on the context. For example, a woman may not really focus on this identity when in a room full of other women, but it may suddenly become salient when she is the only woman in a room full of men.

Secondary identities, on the other hand, are more fluid, dependent, and dynamic. Factors that make up our secondary identities include occupation, relationship status, and the various roles we occupy. For example, you may be a student, office manager, janitor, mother, brother, wife, husband, single, etc.  As with our primary identities, the salience of secondary identities also changes based on context. Right now, as you are reading this and when you are in the classroom, you are enacting your identity of student, learner, or scholar. However, once you leave the classroom you may switch to another identity, such as a parent. While you are still a student (and vice versa still a parent while in the classroom), this identity is placed on the ‘back burner’ and another comes to forefront.

Based on the context, we should be flexible in what identity we enact and may need to shift or highlight one particular identity versus another. This, in turn, will influence your communication and interactions. For example, when you are a student in the classroom you may sit at your desk, answer questions when asked, and discuss communication-related topics. However, if you are a parent, when you get home you might instruct your child or chastise them for not doing their homework. Issues may occur if we do not adapt our identity to the situation. For example, we may enact a particular identity with a group of friends that manifests itself in dressing and speaking a particular way, but enacting this identity in the workplace could have negative repercussions. While it’s important to feel authentic and ‘true to ourselves’, it is also important to realize that who we are is dynamic and changes based on the context. In order to better meet your goals, consider communicating aspects of your identities that are appropriate to the context. 


4.6.3: Reflective Communication: Reflecting on your Identity

As we learned earlier in this chapter, our self-concept and self-esteem influence how we communicate and interact with the world around us. Because of this, it is necessary to reflect on these aspects of our self-perception and how they influence our thoughts, actions, and relationships in both positive and negative ways. In particular, it is important to be aware of self-fulfilling prophecies. 

Self-fulfilling prophecies are thought and action patterns in which a person’s false belief triggers a behavior that makes the initial false belief actually or seemingly come true (Guyll et al., 2010). The concept of self-fulfilling prophecies was originally developed to be applied to social inequality and discrimination, but it has since been applied in many other contexts, including interpersonal communication. This research has found that some people are chronically insecure, meaning they are very concerned about being accepted by others but constantly feel that other people will dislike them. This can manifest in relational insecurity, which is based on feelings of inferiority resulting from social comparison with others perceived to be more secure and superior. Such people often end up reinforcing their belief that others will dislike them because of the behaviors triggered by their irrational belief. Take the following scenario as an example: An insecure person assumes that their date will not like them. During the date they don’t engage in much conversation, discloses negative information about themselves, and exhibits anxious behaviors. Because of these behaviors, their date forms a negative impression and suggests they not see each other again, reinforcing the original belief that the date wouldn’t like them.

The example shows how a pattern of thinking can lead to a pattern of behavior that reinforces the thinking, and so on. Luckily, experimental research shows that self-affirmation techniques can be successfully used to intervene in such self-fulfilling prophecies. Thinking positive thoughts and focusing on personality strengths can stop this negative cycle of thinking and has been shown to have positive effects on academic performance, weight loss, and interpersonal relationships (Stinston et al., 2011).


Back to: I.C.A.T Interpersonal Communication Abridged Textbook > Chapter 4: Identity and Perception of Self