Pragmatics of Human Communication:
University of Colorado at Boulder
Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson (1967) developed a theory of the ‘Pragmatics of Human Communication,” which describes relationships as cybernetic systems. Within these systems communication is looked at as feedback loops, since the behavior of each person affects and is affected by the behavior of each other person (Craig, Lecture, 2009). They developed five axioms to explain how communication systems work and I am going to apply them to an everyday communication problem that has been escalating between two roommates.
The first axiom that Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson address is stated as, “One cannot not communicate.” In interactions not communicating can be seen as a viable contribution to outcomes and can lead to what happens next in discourse. Sometimes non-verbals are also seen as important aspects of the conversation because they can contribute to what is being said as well as contradict the verbal message. When people choose not to communicate there is a meaning behind their actions and therefore anything a person does can be seen as a form of communication. For example if two friends get in a fight and one ignores the other for the rest of the day, there is obviously communication that can be taken from the lack of communication. In this situation we are taught to assume that the non-communication means that someone does not want to talk without them verbally disclosing the information.
The second axiom is that “Communication has a content and a relationship aspect such that the latter classifies the former and is therefore a metacommunication.” The content of the message is what is directly said and the relationship meaning is how it’s said, which defines the relationship (Craig, Lecture, 2009). The specific information (content) transferred is always accompanied by a sort of behavior (relationship), which ties the interaction into a certain context. All communication somewhat implies a commitment and thereby defines the relationship. This is another way of saying that communication not only conveys information, but that at the same time it imposes behavior (Watzlawick et al., 1967).
The third axiom of communication states, “The nature of a relationship is contingent upon the punctuation of the communicational sequences between the communicants (Watzlawick et al., 1967). This means that communication during interaction is perceived in sequences such as he said/she said. Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson use punctuation to describe the complexity of the specific interactions that form a relationship. For example when two people are communicating each participant interprets the interaction from a different perspective and may punctuate the sequence differently.
The forth axiom of communication states that, “Humans communicate both digitally and analogically” (Watzlawick et al., 1967). Digital communication is explicitly stated, whereas analogical communication represents by similarity. For example if someone tells you that they are sad it is taken as digital communication. On the other hand if you see someone crying you can infer from their analogical communication that they are sad. These ways of relying messages, digitally and analogically, can either contradict each other or help to further justify a message. A well-known example of contradiction is when people are being sarcastic or passive aggressive. For example someone says they are okay (digital) but then stomps away (analogical).
The final axiom that Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson purpose states that, “All communication is either symmetrical or complementary depending on whether they are based on equality of difference.” This axiom in a way ties together all of the previous axioms and further proves that communication can contradict or add to a specific purpose. “Symmetrical interaction, then, is characterized by equality and the minimization of difference, while complementary interaction is based on the maximization of difference” (Watzlawick et al., 1967). When participants in conversation work together and mirror each other’s communication there is an equal balance of power, whereas in complementary interactions there is an unequal share of power and dominance can be detected.
Applying the Theory
There has been a specific conflict going on between two roommates, Molly and Kate, which they can’t seem to solve. The trigger of this conflict involves sharing a room and what boundaries have been crossed because of Kate’s involvement in a long distance relationship. These two roommates have best friends for years but Kate’s new girlfriend has shed a new light over their relationship. Kate just got back from India and has been dealing with reverse culture shock as well as being away from her girlfriend for the first time. Molly on the other hand has been very involved with school and has been getting irritated and feels like she has a third roommate. All of the conflicts seem to arise when boundaries are crossed involving personal space and what respectful roommate guidelines should be. The article “Attributions and Communication in Roommate Conflicts,” has described three methods, passive/indirect, distributive, and integrative, which Molly and Kate have come across while dealing with their communication issues (Sillars, 1980, p. 3).
The first axiom described above, “One cannot not communicate,” has caused an uproar in the sense that until recently they were both being passive aggressive and distancing themselves from each other. Passive-indirect strategies suppress conflicts, ignore conflicts, or communicate about conflicts indirectly and ambiguously” (Sillars, 1980, p. 181). Kate has been very unhappy therefore secluding herself in her room and attaching herself to her long distance girlfriend. In return this has been bothering Molly because her roommate is constantly on the phone and she has been retaliating by avoiding going up into their room. Both of these actions are communicating that there is an awkward silence going on between them, but the “not talking” is conveying more of what they feel than they think. Kate is putting off a vibe that she doesn’t want to talk, whereas Molly is putting off a message that she is annoyed and mad about the current situation.
Molly approaches Kate when she feels that their situation isn’t making any progress and frames it in a way so that Kate knows she feels left out and that she doesn’t feel like Kate is making enough effort to turn things around. This can be seen as the second axiom put into play. Molly is directly telling Kate that they need to spend more time together and that Kate needs to respect her space, but she frames it in a way to get empathy and evoke emotion while doing so. The way that Molly goes about relying this information shows that they have a very strong relationship where emotions can become evoked when discussing the content.
The third axioms is portrayed when Molly and Kate talk multiple times about what is bothering the two of them, but somehow their different perspective always end up blaming the other for starting the problem. Every once in awhile the problem will come up that nothing is changing and Molly will once again say that Kate isn’t doing anything to respect her wishes and Kate will say that she’s trying and that she doesn’t know what Molly wants from her. From Molly’s point of view, they talk and find solutions (Kate and girlfriend don’t talk as much, Kate and Molly spend more time together…), everything is good for a few days, then it all starts over again. From Kate’s view, everything is going well, Molly wants to talk again because something isn’t right, they renegotiate what needs to change, and then it starts all over again. This once again brings us back to Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson’s idea that communication is viewed as a feedback loop. Their relationship has taken up this pattern of fighting, talking, pretending, and then fighting again while believing that the other person’s actions are the source of the problem.
The forth axiom is seen when Molly and Kate are falling back to not being happy with each other’s actions but don’t know how to address the problem. In this specific case the analogical messages tend to contradict the digital messages. For example when Molly starts to get annoyed because Kate on average spends 4-7 hours a day on the phone/Skype with her girlfriend, she tends to once again distance herself. She will tell Kate that everything is fine but actions such as, acting short, avoid talking about her girlfriend, and avoiding time spend with Kate analogically convey a different message.
From an outside point of view I believe that Molly and Kate ‘s communication can be viewed as both symmetrical as well as complimentary. In some situations they go off of each other’s feelings and try to maximize equality, but there are also instances where all they do is scream at each other. When one of them has a problem with the other, they are usually very responsive and ready to work through their problems, in these instances I perceive them as complementing each other where the power is shifted back and forth.
Critiquing the Theory
Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson’s axioms of communication were very useful for dissecting this communication problem because they made me look at the interaction from multiple perspectives. The five axioms are a very well structured approach to look at communication as a system because they allow a step-by-step analysis of what is happening. All of these axioms seem like obvious every day assumptions about communication but when you break them down and find their meaning it opens up an insight to something more then the obvious.
As I was writing this paper I found myself thinking back to instances where these axioms came up in my everyday communication patterns. I realized that I had been misinterpreting such things as “not communication” as a form of communication as well as only looking at communication as either content or relational. This interactional view of looking at communication as systems better helps me to understand communication problems not only in communication problems of people in my life but also my own.
One of the things that I noticed about this theory was that Molly and Kate always seemed to end up where they started which was caused by this feedback loop. They were having a problem pinpointing what the problem was, how it started, and successfully playing out positive solutions. Their interaction as a system was so patterned and routine that outside factors such as symbols seemed to have little impact on their communication. Carey’s (1989) theory of communication as ritual could be used to describe not only the reasons why the problem arose in the first place but also the reasons why they are having a hard time solving their problem. As Craig stated, “a ritual is a prescribed collective performance that is symbolically meaningful to the participants” (Craig, Lecture, 2009). This helps explain why it is so important for Kate to talk to her girlfriend so often on the phone as well as what was bothering Molly. From Molly’s perspective her ritual with Kate was spending quality time together in their room doing homework, talking about their day, or even just enjoying each other’s company, but Kate’s new ritual interrupted that. If Molly could come to understand that Kate talking to her girlfriend was a ritual of her everyday life that made her happy she could learn to be more understanding. Kate could also learn that spending quality time with Molly is also a ritual that both of them consider part of their everyday life it would be easier for her to organize her time.
Many theories of communication can be applied to a communication problems, but Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson theory of the pragmatics of human communication analyzes communication as a system to describe interactions. Their five axioms help to illustrate the feedback loop that the behaviors of the participants follow. The specific interaction between Molly and Kate is an example where all five axioms can be put to use and describe why certain interaction patterns develop.
Carey, J. W. (1989). A cultural approach to communication. In Communication as culture: Essays on media and society (pp. 13-23). Winchester, MA: Unwin Hyman.
Sillars, A. L. (1980). Attributions and communication in roommate conflicts." Communication Monographs, 47, 180-200. Print.
Watzlawick, P., Beavin, J. H., & Jackson, D. D. (1967). Some tentative axioms of communication. In Pragmatics of human communication: A study of interactional patterns, pathologies, and paradoxes (pp. 48-71). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.