"Miscommunication" and Problematic Talk

Nikolas Coupland

Howard Giles

John M. Wiemann

Equivocal Communication is the product of 10 years' research: 19 different experiments, testing 14 different scenarios, with several hundred subjects. The research commenced as a series of planned experiments, successively devised to test hypotheses as these developed during the research. In its final stages, the project included ethnographic field studies analyzing mass-mediated interviews between reporters and politicians.

The authors show that it is unhelpful to regard equivocal speech as deceit: prescriptive and judgmental models equating equivocation with deceit hinder depth understanding of this phenomenon. Equivocation results from conflict situations such that any clear or direct answer will lead to negative consequences for the speaker (termed an "avoidance : avoidance" situation). Equivocation springs from the communication situation, not the speaker's intrapsychic flaws (the same speaker, in a situation where directness is not penalized, will speak directly). An approach to equivocation via discourse analysis, explored in context, is preferred.

The speaker's communication situation is regarded as a communication "field." Possible messages represent different "paths" out of this field, each with different negative or positive consequences. When all paths have negative consequences, strategic ambiguity is used as a way out. Faltering non-verbal "messages" are not communication "leakage": they are meant to reinforce verbal equivocation as part of an integrated message. Though discontinuities may occur within an equivocal conversation (as when a reporter tries to lure a politician into making damaging or contradictory statements), the person under questioning will hold them to a minimum, to ensure the maximum coherence for his or her overall statement.

There are pressures towards equivocation on both parties to such conversations: strategic ambiguity may be necessary in complex organizations to maximize chances for flexibility in organizational reactions. Equivocation may be a responsible and effective way out if both parties are not to prejudice their organizations' futures. Many new research possibilities open up with this approach to equivocation.

The authors' development of standardized, reliable measures of equivocation represents a considerable achievement. Haley's basic definition of a "disqualified" communication theory involves the basic four elements of a message-sender, content, receiver, and context (I am sending this message to you in this situation). These elements are suppressed in schizophrenic communications: the speaker does not take a position on/dissociates from some--or all--of them. This framework proved to apply, for one or more of these four elements, to all instances of equivocation. (There is a succinct statement of the limitations of rules-based approaches where equivocal discourse is involved.)

The authors' use of lay participants as judges of degrees of equivocation is noteworthy. They used them because expert judges, oversensitized to the issues, often skew or overinterpret the findings. Use of lay judges necessitated development of a sensitive, yet easy-to-apply, standardized instrument for measuring. Used as collaborators, these judges were carefully trained, then carefully debriefed and listened to as they explained their ratings. This introduced a heuristic dialectic into the research process. In one case, the judges' comments revealed why an experiment had produced anomalous findings; in many cases their comments led to the development of further experiments or measuring instruments. (These experiments did not involve context-stripped, logical positivist questionnaires.)

"Miscommunication" and Problematic Talk, which follows and builds on Equivocal Communication, provides an integrative analysis of scholarly work on miscommunication and problematic talk. Miscommunication is studied via accounts of research in fourteen social contexts: ageist, computerized, gendered, intercultural, legal, mass-mediated, medical, non-native, organizational, and telephonic communications, plus communications with children and with the disabled. For this reviewer, Chapter 8, on "Openness, Uncertainty and Intimacy," was the best of a mostly outstanding collection; the introductory overview chapter was also excellent.

The authors view miscommunication as a concept that has been loosely used. The term resists simple definition. Communication is always open to (mis)interpretation, especially if, as is often the case, discussants do not share a model of what constitutes good communication in their particular context. Besides, some discourses (e.g., ageist or gendered discourses) are basically problematic, a reality of which the speakers may be unconscious. Indeed, certain situations produce pervasively and intrinsically flawed, partial, or problematic communications: intercultural communications, communications with non-native speakers and those between superiors and subordinates where there is marked imbalance of expertise/knowledge and power.

Equivocation may be desirable, in a no-win situation: vagueness may permit, or call forth, creative interpretations of instructions in complex organizations/situations; often, a rough and ready working consensus is all one can expect. Such "miscommunications" are the stuff of daily life--wherein "good" communications are somewhat the exception to the rule. Arguably, the basic communication skill is the management of such miscommunications.

So the "Polyanna perspective" (that "good communication" is forthright, honest, open, and prosocial--whereas deceptive or hostile communication is indicative of lack of skill or poor socialization) belongs in books on the etiquette of communications. It may be an unconscious expression of white, Western, middle-class values. For instance, research indicates that satisfied couples do not behave as the "ideology of intimacy" suggests. They do not work on their disagreements and differences, constantly examining their feelings. They agree to disagree, speaking to one another "in a neutral or positive tone"; they collusively negotiate differences and tensions; they equivocate; each maintains illusions about the other, exaggerating similarities and good qualities in that other. Some degree of secrecy and deception would appear to be part of the working consensus in their lives, as in most people's.

The authors view such consensus as the best we can expect in daily life. It allows us to develop, in some form of heuristic dialectic with others, as circumstances indicate--or dictate. Action requires the absence of disabling opposition, rather than open, honest, and prosocial messages, in the workplace as in the home. Further, the "honest, open, prosocial" model of communications assumes that each individual is relatively stable, and fully and consciously aware of his or her self as a social and relational entity. This viewpoint ignores the social construction of the self through discourse with others--the continuously re-negotiated self--and the language/discourses in which this re-negotiation occurs, language/discourses which are variously flawed (generally at an out-of-awareness level, on the part of the self ). It also ignores strategic self-revelation and misdirection of the other by "openness."

The conduit metaphor fares little better than the Polyanna perspective, being seen as involving an "epistemology of objects," with the individual (rather than the relational network) as focus. Packages of information transport the sender's message--if well communicated--via a channel to the target, if the latter is a good listener/receiver: relationships are objectified as composed of ever-increasing stores of knowledge about the other person.

The authors prefer an epistemology of "patterns" in relationships between a self and a continuously changing network of others in a variety of relationships with that self. A constant, recursive dialectic, in process between this self and these others, leads to changes in the self and the selves of the others in the relationship. Thus relationships are inherently dialectical and capable of sustaining a variety of levels and kinds of discourse. So the process of relating is inherently problematic and apt to involve contradictory messages. These are variously interpretable, as behaviours take on new meanings, and the context and the interpretive skills of the participants change. Hence discourse analysis, conducted by an analyst who has some degree of an insider's sympathy for, and understanding of, the context, provides the best chance of co-constructing the message sender's intent and strategy.

These books indicate the degree to which currently dominant models of communication are now in question. They provide a counter-view to the "conduit theory" of communication and the "Polyanna perspective." They stress that achieving perfect communication is at best problematic, and that assessment of communication as "imperfect" often depends on the perspective and context from which the assessor views that communication. The books also indicate a shift to constructivist research approaches, demonstrating the contribution of feminist research and researchers. They are likely to be useful as ancillary reading for many courses in communication studies.

Equivocal Communication is an important book, likely to have considerable effect on its field. Would that Sage had manufactured a product to match the contents. I had to almost wrestle to hold the book open to read it. Eventually, I gave up and cracked it open. Now I will have another Sage page-shedder. A book that will be used for frequent and close reference is markedly less useful if it does not open flat. Technology for producing reader-friendly books that lie flat when opened is available: six such binderies are operating in the U.S. and Canada. Otabind, a Finnish-Dutch technology, achieves this feat and produces spines 20% stronger than those of books bound by conventional methods. It would be a service to readers if Sage would show leadership in this feature of publishing, too.

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