Coordinated Management of Meaning
University of Colorado at Boulder
Throughout the semester, we have studied numerous communication theories. Their purpose is to help understand exactly what happens when we interact with others. We might not necessarily agree with all of the theories, but the idea is to develop tools to evaluate situations we may encounter. Often, when the theories are explained in the readings or lecture, it is beneficial to apply the concepts to a "real life" situation. Using this approach, I will use a situation that many of us have faced, or will face, and analyze it according to a particular communication theory.
Explanation of theory
In the late 1970's, W. Barnett Pearce and Vernon Cronen introduced their theory of Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM). Their primary findings indicated that talk creates the social environment in which we participate. Prior to Pearce and Cronen, the common method of observing communication was through a transmissional view. This taught theorists and scholars to focus on the pieces of conversation while ignoring the overall effect of the interaction. CMM theory examines interactions from a participants point of view, and is able to get a feel for the interaction as a whole through this process. Outside observation does lead to learning about the interaction, but participating in the interaction leads to more in depth study of communication patterns.
CMM theory relies on three basic processes in interactions. A participant consciously or unconsciously experiences coherence, coordination, and mystery. Each step further clarifies and explains how we create social realities when we engage in conversation. The first step, coherence, describes how meaning is achieved in conversation. Each time we enter into dialogue, we have expectations for that new situation. We can still recognize, however, that all interactions are unique and we are able to adjust to new experiences. Constitutive rules are another term to identify the "rules" for interactions. We use constitutive rules to interpret behavior and attempt to make sense of what is going on in our conversations.
Pearce and Cronen noted that each story we tell (another way to discuss the concept of coherence) will hold different interpretations depending on several factors including: episode, relationship, self-concept, and culture. Each element helps us to understand and relate what happens in each interaction. An episode is thought of as the specific "rules" or "routine" for each interaction we engage in. The relationship between the persons in conversation also determines how a speech act might be interpreted. A story told to a friend might be completely different that the exact same instance explained to a stranger. Self-concept relies not only on how the people in interaction perceive themselves, but also the type of environment they create for the other participant. Culture also plays a very important part in the stories we tell. Our culture, the culture of others can affect the role of communication interaction.
The second process for persons in conversation is the concept of coordination. This concept recognizes that each person has a set of rules that govern their behavior. These rules influence how individuals accent the qualities we want others to see. Each person operates from their own set of rules, but they can be coordinated to coincide with others. Regulative rules are the guides that we use to guide our actions and aid in coordination. Coordination occurs when in a particular interaction we move from sense making and try to live. This idea was referred to as "stories lived" by Pearce and Cronen and it directly relates to the notion of rules in CMM theory. The appropriate responses and rules for behavior that govern the appropriate response. Coordination especially emphasizes the notion that we all have different beliefs, morals, and ideas concerning "good" and "bad," but just because they are different doesn't mean that a mutual outcome cannot occur.
Finally, another process for persons in conversation is the concept of mystery, or stories unexpressed. This concept describes anything in a communication interaction that is altogether unexplainable. It is the feeling or strong attraction, hate, or of "clicking." These experiences, although unexpressed, directly contribute to the interaction and the way we create our social environment. In using coherence, coordination, and mystery, we create the basis for our social interactions. Whenever we, as humans, interact, we see and make sense of the interaction through our talk.
Although the primary emphasis of CMM theory rests in the hands of looking at the communication process through a participatory view, outside participants can also recognize the construction of reality. Once a person develops awareness concerning communication interaction, they are able to see it in other interaction. Further, this knowledge can be applied to similar situations. CMM, therefore, sees each conversation as a complex interconnected series of events and each participant affects and is affected by the other.
Explanation of case
Being part of a long term "couple" provides challenges not necessarily anticipated in the initial dating stages. Beyond the basic relationship dialects are some rather large events, one of which is the mandatory meeting of parents. For even the most calm person, the first interaction with your significant otherÕs family can seem intimidating. From one point of view, the actual situation isn't much different from others you've been in, but another point of view illustrates that when you really care for someone, you want their parents to enjoy your company. According to CMM, many of the opinions either side generates about the other is largely based on the interaction and conversation shared.
Application of theory to case
When meeting a boyfriend or girl friend's parents for the first time, there are many expectations presented in the new communication event. CMM's concept of coherence can help us to make sense of the situation. We have past experience that relates and contributes to our expectations of this initial introduction. We have met other parents, other adults, other significant other's parents. We understand the role of small talk in conversation, as well as pleasantries involved in new introductions. Combined with past experience, we hold current expectations for the interaction. We want to make a good impression, act polite and not offend anyone. We also expect that they are somewhat "normal" people, but if they aren't we can adjust to the situation.
Just as we have expectations and experience for this encounter, so do the parents we are preparing to meet. Perhaps they have never met one of their children's college boyfriends or girlfriends. Perhaps their expectations are very muted. They may interpret meeting you as yet another introduction to yet another date. In addition, they may or may not want to impress you as well, or convey a certain message about themselves.
However, there is one more key component for the coherence phase of a relationship, constitutive rules. In helping both me and the parents make sense of the situation, these rules also help to create our own social environments. During the meeting, if the parents are warm, friendly and eager to engage in conversation, constitutive rules would help me determine that this is an environment I feel comfortable participating in. If the parents are rude, obnoxious, and sarcastic, the we would rely on constitutive rules to gather meaning about the environment they were creating.
During this introduction to a boyfriend or girlfriend's parents, the beliefs and values I hold most important will surface during the interaction. This exemplifies the concept of coordination in CMM. The way I present myself will be a direct correlation to the ideals I hold true in my own life. Also, these beliefs can influence our decisions for many controversial topics. If I am a firm believer in pro-choice abortion, and during the course of conversation this comes out, the parents will learn what values I hold true. If, for example, the parents are staunch pro-life supporters, our rules would not coincide. As CMM theory illustrates, we can hold different values and have a successful interaction if both of us agree on the outcome. In this case, it might be avoiding that subject for the remainder of the encounter.
Regulative rules provide the appropriate ways to act, based on the meaning we gather from the interaction. In the example of the abortion issue illustrated, regulative rules would play a large part in coordinating our separate methods of acting. My own set of regulative rules might take over and reinforce my values. So, instead of shouting, "I HATE PRO-LIFE SUPPORTERS, THEY ARE COMPLETELY IGNORANT," my rules would prompt me to listen respectfully to their side of the argument, possibly maturely point out my feelings on the subject, or decide to remain quiet. These rules are directly based on the rules for behavior we determine for ourselves.
Included in the initial reactions on both sides of the introduction is the concept of mystery. Strong feelings of connectedness or detachment can be explained through part of CMM theory. When applied to meeting a boyfriend or girlfriend's parents for the first time, the concept of mystery can describe the initial reaction we might have to each other. If we click, or sense on immediate disliking, both feelings can be better understood through the concept of mystery. The unexplainable phenomena that occurs during the course of the interaction directly influences our conversation and interaction.
Although this example may seem rather straightforward when directly outlined according to this theory, is actually understood much differently without the beneficial explanation of CMM. The first time meeting a boyfriend or girlfriend's parents can be filled with stressful anticipation. It is easy to get wrapped up in the idea that they are expecting you to act in a certain way, or that you should act in a certain way. However, the situation can be explained differently when looking at this situation through the "lens" of the CMM theory.
To begin, CMM theory primarily looks at how we co-create our own realities through communication. When meeting that special someone's parents for the first time, the nervousness or anticipation felt is created by one's own reality. The thought of something going wrong, or making a bad impression is based on nothing but one's own interpretation of the event. During the actual course of the conversation, the interaction will be mutually created based on the experiences and values of the people involved. One of the CMM theory's main points rests on the idea that reality is made, not found. Any action we make is subject to the affect of other. Similarly, we have an effect on others for our interactions. This concept reminds us that not only do we construct our reality, but it is constantly changing and adapting as a reaction to our interaction. So, in meeting with parents for the first time, what they say as well as what I say will create our reality. Since I am a direct participant in this process, I must rely on the natural occurrence of interaction.
Secondly, instead of focusing on the tiny, cause and affect details of the interaction, CMM theory lends to examine the entire interaction as a whole. This eases tension when thinking about the initial meeting with a boyfriend or girlfriend's parents because instead of focusing on the small parts of communication, CMM is more interested on the larger flow of communication interaction. Both myself and the parents will coordinate our actions to cause an environment that we can both share and feel comfortable participating in. Paths can cross, concepts can be disagreed on, but the interaction can be an overall success. Although it is possible to examine each detail of the interaction, the climate, the words said, the nonverbal messages, it is impossible to determined exactly what will happen in the interaction as a whole. That is where the importance of a participatory view truly explains the concept of interactions.
Even though they are not always conscious, coherence, coordination and mystery are all constantly at play. Once a person can recognize the "big picture" of interactions, Pearce and Cronen note that they can actually develop a third person perspective. This third person perspective allows one to look at the situation from an outsiders perspective, applying the concepts of CMM to the situation. In meeting a boyfriend or girlfriend's parents for the first time, the third person perspective can be useful in determining what is going on in the interaction, as well as using past experience to make sense of the interaction. When meeting parents for the first time, I can relate back to times when I met other parents, especially other boyfriend's parents. The processes of coherence, coordination, and mystery can then be applied to the new communication situation.
Critique of Theory
Using the humanistic standards for evaluating a theory is a useful way to examine Pearce and Cronen's CMM theory. A new understanding of people is reached in two areas. First, it views communication from a participant view. This allows communication to create meaning and serve a function other than just transmitting information. Our language, words, and rules do not simply serve the function of relaying information, but to bring understanding and reality to our lives. Secondly, CMM recognizes that our talk is the primary socialization process of human life. We can better understand ourselves and others interactions by realizing that what we say and how we say it constantly creates our perceptions of a social world.
In looking at communication this way, CMM is able to help clarify the values of humans. Instead of focusing on the "why" of communication, the humanistic approach focuses on the meaning and "how" behind the interactions. In using coherence, coordination, and mystery in communication interactions, we realize that how we act are assumptions of how we perceive others. Our set of assumptions may be completely different than those of another person. CMM theory exemplifies the notion that even if two people do not see things from the same point of view, communication can still be successful. This success is important primarily because the two parties can arrive at a point of interaction in which they know they are coming form different sides, but they can still find an outcome to suit both of their needs.
Aesthetic appeal is realized by looking at old material in a new way. Instead of the traditional transmission view of communication, CMM looks at interactions and the meanings we create. This makes what we do and not "is" what we do. Many theorist agree with the notion of CMM theory, providing a definite community of agreement. It questions the values of the transmission model and provides an alternate way to look at communication.
CMM theory promotes reform in because it examines the way we see communication. When we realize that our social world is constructed byusÓ and our conversations, we can better understand how to react when misunderstandings occur. Instead of fighting about details, CMM theory promotes explaining viewpoints to reach understanding. To further examine the way we see communication is proof in the theory itself. Pearce and Cronen are continually changing and adjusting terms and concepts for the theory. This redefines the very nature of the theory. The fact that we are continually creating our social environments is proof in the adjustments in the theory by the theorists.
Although CMM theory does hold when evaluated by humanistic standards, it does have several areas in which its limitations are noticeable. The first is its use of too many terms. The initial reading of this theory provided extreme difficulty for me. Pearce and Cronen definitely understand their theory, but when they attempt to make others understand from their point of view, confusion results from the terminology. Depending on which revision of the theory one reads, different vocabulary is used to describe the events surrounding CMM theory. Coherence, stories told, and constitutive rules are all terms which explain roughly the same concept of how we interpret communication events. To further confuse scholars studying their theory, Pearce and Cronen often switch or use alternating terms to describe the same concept. "Rules," "games," and "grammars" are all used interchangeably. With proper explanation, this might work, but I found difficulty attaching new meanings and definitions to words that I already have set meanings for.
When held to the scientific standards for evaluating theories, CMM theory falls short in several areas. To begin, the data of CMM theory is never truly explained. As previously mentioned, the vocabulary varies from writing to writing. This inconsistency limits how Pearce and Cronen explain their concepts in a straightforward manner. Also, CMM theory has trouble focusing on exactly what is important in the interaction and has trouble pinpointing exactly what is crucial in communication interaction.
CMM theory also falls short of scientific standards when attempting to predict future events. CMM theory focuses on the "now" or how we create our social environments. It neglects to predict how the theory can affect future events, or even what will happen in future communication situations. It looks primarily at what happens when we enter a new communication interaction, and explains the process of creating our own social world through our talking, but it neglects to foretell what could happen or why we create this environment.
CMM fails the scientific standards for good theory in the area of simplicity. CMM theory could not be described as simple by any standard of the word. Overall, it is an extremely broad theory with many terms, views and loopholes. This theory deals primarily with examining interactions from a participatory view, yet the authors neglect to note that they in fact create their own realities themselves when developing this theory. Thinking of our social worlds being created primarily from communication is a rather large concept to grasp. Our social environments are complex by their own standards, but when attempting to pinpoint an exact source of their existence creates an even more complex area. The theory itself is so large and so broad, it is difficult to determine exactly what the main points or the overall simplifying statement include.
CMM theory also neglects to have a hypothesis that is testable. While the theory aims at creating the social environment in which we engage in, it is impossible to determine error in the theory. It seems that anything can occur in a communication interaction, and social constructionists would view the act as part of the way the environment is created. it is essentially difficult to disprove the notion of CMM theory because its entire notion is based on the way we interact. For these reasons, there is no "right" or "wrong" or specific method that is testable in determining its validity.
To improve CMM theory would require a few adjustments. From a humanistic view, the theory is relatively strong. The scientific standards for evaluating theories are where the theory has innate weakness. To improve CMM's limitations would require defining terms. A set of terms, instead of several terms for each concept, would vastly improve the clarity and structure of the theory. Instead of switching terms continually throughout the processes of the theory, certain words and definitions need to be decided on and kept. Confusion prevails when the terms and ways to understand the theory are continually changing.
Above all, Coordinated Meaning of Management is a useful theory when examining communication interactions. It focuses its central themes on the ritual of communication and the part it plays in defining our world. Unfortunately, CMM has an abundance of terms to relay the same basic message. Aside from the terminology, CMM provides a different scope to view real life situations, even one as stressful as meeting a boyfriend or girlfriend's parents!
Griffin, E.M. (1997). A First Look at Communication Theory. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
Pearce, W.B. (1989). Communication and the Human Condition. Southern Illinois University, Carbondale: Ill.