An Interactional Approach to Communication: Relationships as System
University of Colorado at Boulder
Relationships pepper the human experience with a wide spectrum of feelings and emotions. They are sources of pain, joy, and inevitably, conflict. People often talk of “feeling stuck” or “being in a rut” when describing relationships plagued by argument or boredom. Frustration grows with each failed attempt at change. The Interactional view of communication forwarded by Watzlawick, Beavin & Jackson (1967) helps to explain why relationships are so hard to alter. They propose five axioms of communication, each illustrating how relationships perpetuate themselves through patterns of interaction. These axioms illustrate the dysfunctional communication patterns afflicting Stella, Stanley, and Blanche in A streetcar named desire.
The Interactional Cybernetic Theory of Relationships
Before applying the axioms, it is necessary to understand the basics of the theory. Watzlawick et al (1967) were psychiatrists interested in how communication problems, and the subsequent stress on relationships, can cause mental and physical duress. They came up with the idea of diagnosing relational problems using cybernetics (Craig, lecture, March 6, 2007).
Cybernetics was introduced by Norbert Wiener in 1948. From this point of view, communication is viewed as essentially mechanistic. According to Wiener (1954) humans use communication to control others. This is done by using feedback from the environment. Feedback enables a person to adapt to their surroundings and maintain a baseline level of control.
Watzlawick et al (1967) viewed human relationships as cybernetic systems. Their Interactional view of communication addresses the problem of control in relationships. At times, it is hard to determine whether people control relationships or if relationships control those involved. The participants in relationships are stuck in a cycle of trying to maintain control. Each tries to manage the feedback they give and receive. This leads to patters of interaction aimed at maintaining the status quo or “homeostasis” of the relationship (Craig, lecture, March 6, 2007). The cybernetic system involved in the affiliation becomes self-perpetuating, explaining why relationships can be so hard to change. Watzlawick et al theorized the five axioms of communication to explain how relational communication systems work.
The Five Axioms of Communication Applied to the Characters of A Streetcar Named Desire
A brief synopsis of the play is necessary to understand the communicative environment of the characters. Stanley and Stella are married and living in a small two bedroom apartment in New Orleans. Stella’s sister, Blanche, comes to stay with them as the result of suffering a nervous breakdown. Blanche is trying to hide a checkered past involving sexual impropriety. She is very concerned with maintaining appearances. Her aura of illusion fails to work on Stanley. He and Blanche do not get along. The play deals with the conflict occurring between Blanche and Stanley as they compete for Stella’s affection. This play, by Tennessee Williams, provides plenty of fodder for applying the axioms of communication.
Axiom one: “One cannot not communicate” (Watzlawick et al, 1967, p. 49).
According to Watzlawick et al (1967), all behaviors occurring in an interaction carry a message. Whether communication is intentional or not, all actions mean something. Even sitting is silence next to another can be counted as communication. Silence can indicate reluctance to talk or even relational comfort. Axiom one is illustrated in a communicative exchange between Blanche and Stella.
Blanche: “I was never hard or self-sufficient enough. When people are soft—soft people have got to shimmer and glow—they’ve got to put on soft colors, the colors of butterfly wings, and put a—paper lantern over the light…It isn’t enough to be soft. You’ve got to be soft and attractive. And I—I’m fading now! I don’t know how much longer I can turn the trick.”
[Stella goes into the bedroom and turns on the light under the paper lantern]
Blanche: “Have you been listening to me?”
Stella: “I don’t listen to you when you are being morbid!” [She advances with a bottled coke.]
Blanche [With abrupt change to gaiety]: “Is that coke for me?” (Williams, 1951, p. 79).
Stella ignores Blanche’s attempts at inducing pity. Her reluctance to address Blanche verbally could signify Stella is uncomfortable with Blanche’s revelations. Stella’s hesitancy to respond is not lost on Blanche. She changes the topic to relieve awkwardness and tension. Although Stella may not have intended for her silence to carry a message, it clearly changes the course of the conversation.
Axiom two: “Every communication has a content and relationship aspect” (Watzlawick et al, 1967, p. 51).
The content of a message conveys information with words, while the relationship level of communication “Refers to what sort of message it is to be taken as, and, therefore, ultimately to the relationship between communicants” (Watzlawick et al, 1967, p. 50). In other words, every communication reveals not only explicit information, but also highlights the implicit beliefs each communicant holds about the relationship by the way information is said. The relational aspect of communication includes nonverbal behaviors like facial expression and putting vocal emphasis on specific words. More often than not, relational information is more important than content (Craig, lecture, March 6, 2007). The following conversation between Blanche and Stella demonstrates axiom two.
Blanche: “No, now seriously, putting joking aside. Why didn’t you tell me, why didn’t you write me, honey, why didn’t you let me know?”
Stella: “Tell you what Blanche?”
Blanche: “Why, that you had to live in these conditions!”
Stella: “Aren’t you being a little intense about it? It’s not that bad at all! New Orleans isn’t like other cities.”
Blanche: “This has got nothing to do with New Orleans. You might as well say—forgive me, blessed baby! [She suddenly stops short] The subject is closed!”
Stella [a little dryly]: “Thanks.” [Blanche stares at her. She smiles at Blanche]
Blanche: “You’re all I’ve got in the world, and you’re not glad to see me!” (Williams, 1951, p. 20).
The content expressed in Blanche’s communication lets Stella know, in no uncertain terms, that she doesn’t approve of her living conditions. Stella reacts to Blanche’s disgust by imbuing a dry and somewhat sarcastic tone on the word “Thanks.” Blanche garners relational information from Stella’s vocal quality. She understands Stella is upset and that her opinion does not hold as much sway as it used to. Stella’s feelings about Blanche are conveyed by placing different emphasis on one word.
Axiom three: “The nature of a relationship is contingent upon the punctuation of the communicational sequences between communicants” (Watzlawick et al, 1967, p. 54).
This axiom explains how interactions become patterned and extend throughout the life of the relationship. According to Watzlawick et al (1967) how both partners punctuate their communication organizes the behavior of the participants and becomes a source of blame. Each partner believes the other’s behavior is the cause of the problem. A classic example of the punctuation of a communication is the “Nag-Withdrawal pattern” (Craig, lecture, March 6, 2007). This occurs when partner A nags B; B then withdraws, leading A to continue nagging.
Axiom three is demonstrated throughout the play in the relationship between Blanche and Stanley. Due to space constraints, it is impossible to pick a specific snippet from the play to demonstrate the punctuation of their interactions. Instead of a nag-withdrawal pattern, Blanche and Stanley’s communication is punctuated by an angry sarcasm-hidden insults pattern. Their communication sequence goes something like this: Stanley gets upset and becomes sarcastic; Blanche answers his anger with coolness and educated responses. Stanley gets angrier and Blanche retreats further into her eloquent, yet clearly derogatory, responses. Sarcasm protects Stanley’s sense of manliness and control and Blanche’s intelligent insults protect her ego. Needless to say, each thinks the other is the source of misery.
Axiom four: “Human beings communicate both digitally and analogically” (Watzlawick et al, 1967, p. 57).
According to Watzlawick et al (1967), the digital aspect of communication represents messages through words, and the analogic aspect signifies the message through nonverbal behaviors. Nonverbal messages are indicated by “Posture, gesture, facial expression, voice inflection… (etc.)” (Watzlawick et al, 1967, p. 55). Confusion can easily arise as contradictory messages can be sent through digital and analogic codes (Craig, lecture, March 6, 2007). Contradiction occurs when the words of a message don’t match with nonverbal signals. This can take a toll on relationships.
Axiom four is expressed in an interaction between Blanche and Stella. Stella has just found out about Blanche’s sexual misconduct back in Laurel, Mississippi. Stella is shocked and upset. Blanche, unaware of Stella’s new knowledge, is taking a bath and asks Stella for a towel.
Blanche: “What’s the matter honey?”
Stella: “Matter? Why?”
Blanche: “You have such a strange expression on your face!”
Stella: “Oh—[She tries to laugh] I guess I’m a little tired!” (Williams, 1951, pp. 101-102).
The following excerpt shows a contradiction between Stella’s digital and analogic communication. Her words say “I’m fine,” while her facial expression says differently. Blanche is confused by her contradictory messages, later becoming suspicious that Stella has found out. People generally believe analogical information over digital.
Axiom five: “All communicational interchanges are either symmetrical or complementary, depending on whether they are based on equality or difference” (Watzlawick et al, 1967, p. 59).
According to Watzlawick et al (1967) symmetrical relationships are based on equality, with partners tending to have similar behaviors. Complementary relationships are unequal in power, with one partner taking a dominant or “one-up” role and the other, a submissive or “one-down” role (Watzlawick et al, 1967, p. 59). Symmetrical relationships take on a competitive air, while those in complementary relationships may become stuck in their roles.
The characters in A Streetcar named desire show both types of relationships. The relationship between Blanche and Stanley is symmetrical. They are competitive, sparring verbally with sarcasm and insults. Stanley and Stella exemplify a complementary relationship, with Stanley taking the one-up role and Stella, the one-down role. The symmetry of Blanche and Stanley’s behavior leads to an escalation in conflict, with Stanley generally “winning” the argument through brute force. The complementary style of Stanley and Stella’s interactions has led to a concretization of roles, with Stanley always being right, and Stella living in a submissive state.
A Critique of the Interactional Theory of Relationships
I found it easy to apply the five axioms of communication to both A Streetcar named desire and everyday life. It is true that all communication is bound to contain most, if not all, of the axioms. However, one major flaw of this theory is that it views communication and human relationships from a fatalistic point of view. Watzlawick et al (1967) contend relationships are difficult, perhaps even downright impossible, to change. The only real hope offered is if both partners engage in explicit metacommunication, which is as Craig (2007) asserts, is “rare” (lecture, March 6).
One benefit of the Interactional view is that it can point to where communication has gone awry. By focusing on interaction sequences from a removed standpoint, it is possible to see how each partner’s communication style is negatively affecting a relationship. Researchers, Ellis and Maoz (2003) turned the Interactional view of communication into a way to resolve conflict.
Ellis and Maoz (2003) were studying groups locked in a long and seemingly hopeless conflict— the Israelis and Palestinians. According to Ellis and Maoz, a key component to resolving conflict is to become aware of the different communication codes and patterns used by different groups. It is often the different cultural approaches to communication that can make conflict worse.
Similar to the views expressed by Watzlawick et al (1967), Ellis and Maoz (2003) believe the issue of control is at the base of any conflict. They suggest using a mediator to overcome control imbalances. This enables the participants in conflict to achieve an equal playing field and become aware of their ineffective interaction patterns. Ellis and Maoz discuss using Interactive Conflict Resolution to overcome relational difficulties.
Interactive Conflict Resolution uses a mediator to establish a forum for equal communicative exchange (Ellis & Maoz, 2003). The mediator uses a variety of techniques to accomplish conflict resolution, including: shifting the interaction sequence from casting blame to one of taking responsibility; role playing, with each participant taking the other’s point of view, and making each side aware of how cultural codes can twist communication to mean something different than what was originally intended.
If Interactive Conflict Resolution has been used with some success to resolve international conflict, why not apply it to interpersonal conflict?
As relationship interaction patterns take on a life of their own, it would be necessary for the characters of A Streetcar named desire to make use of a mediator. This third party; uninvolved in the interaction patterns of Stella, Stanley, and Blanche, would be able to shed light on their communication styles. The mediator could use techniques outlined in Interactive Conflict Resolution.
First, Blanche, Stanley and Stella could stop blaming each other for their conflict. Blanche would need to see how her educated responses made Stanley feel excluded and how her neediness made Stella shoulder too much responsibility. Stanley would need to work on controlling his temper. His outbursts unevenly distribute power in his favor and make true exchange with Blanche and Stella impossible. Stella would need to accept her fault in becoming Blanche’s enabler. Catering to Blanche’s every whim has denied Blanche the opportunity to develop self-esteem.
Secondly, each could take part in the role playing outlined by Ellis and Maoz (2003). This would allow Blanche, Stanley and Stella to place themselves in each other’s shoes. Perhaps this would encourage compassion and the development of alternate points of view.
Finally, by learning the cultural codes followed by each group, they could learn where miscommunication arises. Stanley came from a very different upbringing than Stella and Blanche. Stanley was the child of poor immigrants and Blanche and Stella came from a privileged background. Blanche and Stella could understand Stanley’s sarcasm and temper in a different light. Perhaps these were necessary tools for surviving life on the streets. Alternatively, Stanley could understand Blanche and Stella’s cool and educated demeanors as products of their upper class social world. If he chose to mirror their behavior, perhaps they could get closer to reaching a resolution.
The Interactional Cybernetic Theory of communication offers readers an insight into the patterns of human relationships. Change is possible if those involved in a relationship are able to place themselves outside their communication patterns. Through application of the five axioms of communication, each participant could discover their roles and responsibility. By choosing metacommunication over predictable patterns of conflict, perhaps each person could bring more joy and less pain to their relationships.
Ellis, D. G., & Maoz, I. (2003). A communication and cultural codes approach to ethnonational conflict. The International Journal of Conflict Management, 14, 255-272.
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.
Wiener, N. (1954). Cybernetics in history. In The human use of human beings: Cybernetics and society (pp. 15-27). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Williams, T. (1951). A Streetcar named desire. New York, NY: Penguin Books.