Monday, February 21, 2011


Students who take more than one class from me get accustomed to hearing fresh riffs on a running analogy. Here, I'm going to set down the extended dance mix as a pre-writing exercise before I submit it to the National Communication Association convention in the GIFTS (Great Ideas For Teaching Speech) division.

Communication is like the weather.
  • The weather is a complex system made up of a brain-mangling array of inputs, all mixed together in a system so complex and chaotic that we can't master it. Weather forecasting is not an exact science, and people are (for the most part) comfortable with that. But it's also not meaningless speculation, on a par with horoscopes: there are some observable signs that are powerful predictors of certain kinds of weather. Furthermore, weather follows cycles, with certain weather events being more likely at certain times of day or year. Communication is similarly impossible to map precisely, but is subject to forecasts of varying reliability, and those probable events also tend to wax and wane cyclically.
  • If communication is like the weather, then culture is like the climate. The climate yields the raw materials for weather, along with a landscape that channels or obstructs the development of weather systems, but the weather also renews the climate: a wet climate will generate rainy weather, and the rainy weather re-moistens the wet climate. Furthermore, if I move a few feet in any direction, it's unlikely the climate will change much, but as I travel dozens, hundreds, thousands of miles, I'm likely to see large variations in climate. However, that curve isn't smooth: at particular spots far removed from my point of origin, I might find that original climate substantially reproduced. Similarly, culture supplies the raw materials and the parameters for communication, but communication renews or changes the culture. If I move a few feet, I'm not terribly likely to find that the culture has changed (although I might stumble into a different co-culture, much like stepping from sunlight into the shade), but a longer journey increases the likelihood I'll find cultural difference. Still, there are places very far apart that are pockets of substantially the same culture.
  • Technologically mediated communication (the internet, cell phones) is air conditioning. We create a pocket of weather carved out from the surrounding weather for our comfort. Similarly, we use technologically mediated communication for very self-serving self-presentation, and to overcome physical barriers (distance, an expectation of non-contact) that would otherwise interfere with our communication choices.
  • Verbal communication is air, and nonverbal communication is water. These are the newest riffs on this analogy -- in fact, I just thought them up this morning. Deprived of either one, we don't live long, but either can harm us if they're polluted. Air is influential (barometric pressure, wind), but water provides many of the most important clues about imminent events -- think clouds -- and is the easiest to feel and the only one that can be seen. Still, even water that can only be observed indirectly can impact comfort and structural integrity: humidity can make us sweat and can ruin documents and artifacts. Finally, water manifests in many distinct states: vapor, liquid, snow, ice, sleet, dew. Correspondingly, we can't be mentally healthy for long if deprived of communication, but toxic communication can injure us. A lot of us think of words as the substance of communication, but nonverbals provide many of the clues that predict the development and outcome of a communicative encounter. Nonverbals tend to engage more of the senses; only blind people ordinarily employ touch in reading, and it's not possible to smell or taste a word. Chronemic messages are only indirectly observable, but make a big difference in human comfort and relational stability. And, yes, nonverbals come in many forms, from voice qualities to touch to posture to the rest of a very long list.

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