5.4.0: Communication Competence

In this section, we will cover techniques for sending more effective verbal messages, address contextual nuances surrounding the meaning of verbal messages, and discuss the importance of reflecting on our own verbal messages.     


© Dave Coverly/www.speedbump.com, printed with permission for use in Interpersonal Communication Abridged Textbook (I.C.A.T.)
(Image: © Dave Coverly/www.speedbump.comprinted with permission for use in I.C.A.T.)


5.4.1: Effective Communication: Improving Verbal Message Clarity  

In order to increase shared meaning in interactions, it’s important to focus on message clarity. The level of clarity we need to provide in a communicative interaction can vary based on context, who we are talking to, and our communication goal. The language and words we use can range from abstract to concrete. Abstract language covers a broader range of objects, events, and phenomenon without providing much detail, whereas concrete language refers to specific objects, events, and phenomenon that can be observed. For example, ‘fruit’ is abstract as it can refer to a wide range of different fruits, from an apple to an orange. On the other hand, ‘Granny Smith apple’ would be concrete in that it refers to a specific type and color of fruit. The abstraction ladder illustrates how objects, events, phenomenon, and ideas can be described on a scale ranging from abstract to concrete. The bottom rung of the ladder refers to something specific/concrete, and as you move up the ladder the phrasing gets more abstract. When language is more abstract, it leaves more room interpretation; this likewise increases the chances of a miscommunication or shared meaning not be achieved. However, abstracting is beneficial in certain instances as it enables us to communicate more efficiently without using dozens of words to refer to one particular idea or concept. For example, if your partner stopped by the grocery store, picked up the dry cleaning, and dropped off the mail, we might simply say “thanks for doing the errands” versus noting every specific thing.

When producing and interpreting abstract messages, context is key to expressing and discerning what one means and creating shared meaning. While certain situations lend themselves to abstract messages, others lend themselves to more concrete messages. Concrete messages can be useful when it is important that the message be understood, such as when we are interacting with children who are still developing the meaning of certain words and concepts, in professional contexts, or through text and/or email. Parents sometimes expect kids to “behave” before giving kids a concrete sense of what that actually looks or sounds like to them (e.g., “sit still and don’t talk during the movie”).

Professionally, using concrete language is helpful when giving feedback designed to improve performance, when addressing complaints, and/or making requests. How many of us have received feedback such as “good job” or “needs improvement?” What that means might be very clear to the feedback giver, but those phrases could have many possible interpretations in the mind of the recipient. A better form of feedback might look like “The evidence you gave clearly supported your claims” or “Work to provide evidence that clearly supports your claims.” Additionally, when it comes to text or email, don’t just assume the other knows what you are talking about and be as concrete and specific as possible. Texting “You’re ignoring me” is not as clear as saying “I haven’t heard from you in two days.”  The more abstract the words, the more possibility there is for misunderstanding.

However, it’s important to note that sometimes we may intentionally use abstract language, depending on our communication goal. Vague and unclear language may be used as a way to avoid hurting another’s feelings, alluding to something we don’t want to say directly, hinting, or avoiding certain topics. For example, we may use the term “interesting” to describe a friend’s outfit when we really think it’s garish so as not to hurt their feelings.


5.4.2: Contextual Communication: Nuances in Verbal Meanings

Rules for communication guide our behaviors and interactions in a particular context and as the context changes, so do the rules and norms. When it comes to our verbal communication, what is considered ‘appropriate’ language and word choice will vary based on contextual nuances. For example, think of the types of words choices you might make when you are hanging out with your friends versus when you are in an interview. Would you speak to a small child differently and select different words than when you are speaking to an adult.

(Image: CCO 1.0)  

Mouse? Some words have multiple meanings, such as the word mouse. However, context can often help us determine whether someone is referring to a rodent or a computer mouse. If someone said ‘mouse’ in a computer lab, they would probably mean the latter.

In addition, since language is ambiguous and can have multiple denotative and connotative meanings, we must rely on the context not only to determine what words to use, but how to decode the messages of others. For example, the word “mouse” can mean either a computer mouse or a rodent. If someone said the word mouse in a computer lab (physical context), it would likely mean the former, where as if they said it in a pet store, it would likely mean the latter. Cultural context and your co-cultures (the various groups you may belong to based on race, ethnicity, gender identity, generation, etc) also play a key role in meaning making. For example, generations often have differences in what a particular word might mean. The word cool might be used by a younger generation to refer to awesome, where as an older generation might use it to refer to the temperature. So if you were to tell your grandmother something was cool, you may intend it to mean awesome, but she may be think it means cold.

Because words can hold different meanings for different people and vary in what is considered acceptable and accepted, context and should always be kept in mind. As competent communicators, we should strive to use vocabulary the listener understands and only use slang in situations where it is considered acceptable and accepted. For example, we might use slang terms with our friends, but should probably avoid them in professional situations.


Word Choice:

Think of the words “bowel movements,” “poop,” “crap,” and “shit.” While all of these words have essentially the same denotative meaning, people make choices based on context and audience regarding which word they feel comfortable using. .


5.4.3: Reflective Communication: Understanding Biases in Language

Bias has a way of creeping into our daily language use, often without our awareness. Culturally biased language can make reference to one or more cultural identities, including race, gender, age, sexual orientation, and ability. Much biased language is based on stereotypes and myths, both culturally and individually, that influence the words we use. Bias is both intentional and unintentional; sometimes we don’t even realize our words communicate a particular bias, and we have no intention of offending others. However, because others may decode a message differently from what we intend, as competent communicators, we must be aware of how others may interpret (or misinterpret) our words, what biases we may be intentionally or unintentionally communicating, and how our word choice can affect others. While it is unlikely that we will ever completely eliminate bias from our verbal communication or never offend anyone, it is important to be aware and reflective of our communication. Below focuses on five types of biases inherent in language people use: race, gender, age, sexual orientation, and ableness.


People sometimes use euphemisms for race that illustrate bias because the terms are usually implicitly compared to the dominant group (Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 2010). For example, referring to a person as “urban” or a neighborhood as “inner city” can be an accurate descriptor, but when such words are used as a substitute for racial identity, they illustrate cultural biases that equate certain races with cities and poverty. Using adjectives like articulate or well-dressed in statements like “My black coworker is articulate” reinforces negative stereotypes even though these words are typically viewed as positive. Terms like nonwhite set up whiteness as the norm, which implies that white people are the norm against which all other races should be compared.

Biased language also reduces the diversity within certain racial groups—for example, referring to anyone who looks like they are of Asian descent as Chinese or everyone who “looks” Latino/a as Mexicans. Some people with racial identities other than white, including people who are multiracial, use the label person/people of color to indicate solidarity among groups, but it is likely that they still prefer a more specific label when referring to an individual or referencing a specific racial group.


Language has a tendency to exaggerate perceived and stereotypical differences between men and women. For example, the use of the term opposite sex presumes that men and women are opposites. One key to avoiding gendered bias in language is to avoid the generic use of he or she when referring to something relevant to males and females. Instead, you can informally use a gender-neutral pronoun like they or their or you (Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 2010). Other words reflect the general masculine bias present in English. The following word pairs show the gender-biased term followed by an unbiased term: waitress / server, chairman / chair or chairperson, mankind / people, cameraman / camera operator, mailman / postal worker, sportsmanship / fair play. Common language practices also tend to infantilize women but not men, when, for example, women are referred to as chicks, girls, or babes. Since there is no linguistic equivalent that indicates the marital status of men before their name, using Ms. instead of Miss or Mrs. helps reduce bias.


Language that includes age bias can be directed toward older or younger people. Descriptions of younger people often presume recklessness or inexperience, while those of older people presume frailty or disconnection. The term elderly generally refers to people over sixty-five, but it has connotations of weakness, which isn’t accurate because there are plenty of people over sixty-five who are stronger and more athletic than people in their twenties and thirties. Even though it’s a generic phrase, older people doesn’t really have negative implications, whereas referring to people over the age of eighteen as boys or girls isn’t typically viewed as appropriate.

Sexual Orientation:

Discussions of sexual orientation range from everyday conversations to contentious political and personal debates. The negative stereotypes that have been associated with homosexuality, including deviance, mental illness, and criminal behavior, continue to influence our language use (American Psychological Association, 2012). Terminology related to gay, lesbian, and bisexual people can be confusing, so let’s spend some time to raise our awareness about preferred labels. First, sexual orientation is the term preferred to sexual preference. Preference suggests a voluntary choice, as in someone has a preference for cheddar or American cheese, which doesn’t reflect the experience of most GLB people or research findings that show sexuality is more complex. Most people also prefer the labels gay, lesbian, or bisexual to homosexual, which is clinical and doesn’t so much refer to an identity as a sex act. Language regarding romantic relationships contains bias when heterosexuality is assumed. For example, asking a female if she has a boyfriend or a male if he has a girlfriend. Comments comparing GLB people to “normal” people, although possibly intended to be positive, reinforces the stereotype that GLB people are abnormal.

Don’t presume you can identify a person’s sexual orientation by looking at them or talking to them. Don’t assume that GLB people will “come out” to you. Given that many GLB people have faced and continue to face regular discrimination, they may be cautious about disclosing their identities. However, using gender neutral terminology like partner and avoiding other biased language mentioned previously may create a climate in which a GLB person feels comfortable disclosing his or her sexual orientation identity. Conversely, the casual use of phrases like “that’s gay” to mean “that’s stupid” may create an environment in which GLB people do not feel comfortable.


People who are differently-abled or have disabilities make up a diverse group that has increasingly come to be viewed as a cultural identity group. People without disabilities are often referred to as able-bodied. As with sexual orientation, comparing people with disabilities to “normal” people implies that there is an agreed-on definition of what “normal” is and that people with disabilities are “abnormal.” People who fall into the category may prefer the word differently abled or prefer disability to the word handicap.

It’s also important to keep in mind that just because someone is disabled doesn’t mean they are also handicapped. The environment around them rather than their disability often handicaps people with disabilities (Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 2010). Ignoring the environment as the source of a handicap and placing it on the person fits into a pattern of reducing people with disabilities to their disability—for example, calling someone a paraplegic instead of a person with paraplegia. In many cases, as with sexual orientation, race, age, and gender, verbally marking a person as different isn’t relevant. Language used in conjunction with disabilities also tends to portray people as victims of their disability and paint pictures of their lives as gloomy, dreadful, or painful. Such descriptors are often generalizations or completely inaccurate.


Politically Correct?

Since the terms and language we use in reference to people or groups has the power to reveal biases within our culture and ourselves, these messages may have a negative impact over time on the person or group of people who hear them, especially when derogatory terms related to gender, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, etc. are used. Reflecting on and addressing biases in words and using them in a respectful, ethical manner so as not to offend others is important part of being a competent communicator and should not be conflated with the pejorative term ‘political correctness.’ Misuse and the negative connotation of this term has created ill-feelings around respectful and ethical communication. However, holding empathy towards others and being aware of and sensitive to their reactions is not a bad thing, it should actually be something we all strive for in our interactions. Addressing biases means being reflective of our communication, taking responsibility for what we say, holding others accountable for they say, and modifying the language we use. This can be hard at first, as it can make us feel uncomfortable, guilty, or even defensive. It is natural to try to shift the blame to others, tell them they are being ‘too sensitive,’ that we didn’t intend something a particular way, or that they need to ‘toughen’ up. However, a competent communicator is one who can reflect on their (and others’) biases and holds themselves accountable for the effects of their messages on other, whether intentional or unintentional. Throughout history, words have had the power to motivate, elevate, transform, ridicule, and silence. Words have been used to incite violence against others. Some people have very strong reactions to words and phrases, leading them to hurt others or even themselves. Words have been used to incite violence against groups of people and cause others to take their own lives. Words are not just words; words matter.


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