The Basic Communication Process
In this appendix, I will discuss the process involved in communication, and while I do that, the essential simplicity of exchanging messages may appear to recede a little. However, although the conceptual elements of communication include various complexities, their overall effect is just to enable that simple phenomenon we all know, the sharing of information.
I think quite a large proportion of the apparent complexity found in discussions about communication results from a lack of agreement about terminology. Consequently, different authors sometimes use a different word for the same thing, and they sometimes use the same word for a different thing!
Imagine being taught to fly a plane by a number of different instructors, if each instructor meant something completely different by the words "up" and "down". That is how I tend to feel when I read articles about communication theory; and the feeling is even more intense if I tiptoe apprehensively around the borders of the closely related field of semiotics.
I will try not to make you feel that way, as you read this appendix. Wherever possible, I will use words in their usual sense, as given in any English dictionary. If I cannot avoid using a word in a special sense, I will explain what I mean by it when I first use it, and make sure that it is listed in the Index.
In principle, the task of transferring information from one or more people to one or more other people could hardly be simpler. The information just has to be moved from "here" to "there" and/or "there" to "here". Nevertheless, the mechanism involves quite a number of steps. I will discuss these steps under the next heading, and, as promised, I will give each of them a plain English name and a plain English description.
However, in order that my description does not find itself marooned in splendid but irrelevant isolation, I will also show where various terms derived from other models of communication can mesh with my model. They certainly should be able to. After all, no matter how many models there may be, they are all descriptions of the same process!
I will consider the basic elements in terms of one-way communication between one or more people ("the sender") and one or more other people ("the receiver"). These elements are exactly the same in the case of two-way communication. To reply, the sender and receiver swap roles, but everything else stays the same. In other words, the direction of information flow is different, but the process itself is not.
While reading about the steps in the communication process, it may all seem a bit simplistic and mechanical. However, the concepts used to describe communication are deliberate simplifications, which leave both its content and its subtleties to the imagination. The more you learn about communication, the more you will appreciate its underlying complexity. However, this will not make your own communication more complicated. On the contrary, it should become less so.
It is interesting to notice that, although the steps associated with the sender do not all have the same names as the steps associated with the receiver, most of the communication process is nevertheless symmetrical. The receiving part of the process effectively reverses the steps made by the sending part of the process, in order to retrieve the original information.
However, as discussed under Information and Meaning, near the beginning of the book, because human beings do not have identical minds or identical sense organs, and because many other factors also influence meaning, the meaning attributed to the same information by two people will never be exactly the same. Therefore, although the process of communication is symmetrical, and can be made fairly reliable, the results of communication may not be either of those two things!
In other words, as I have stressed frequently in the book, even though it exists within each individual mind, meaning is never fully transferable. All communication is subject to this limitation, whether we like it or not (and we usually don't).
Factors such as the choice of words, the surrounding words and sentences, various language features, sentence structure, timing, stress, intonation, and the overall structure and organisation of the message, all exert an influence on the meaning ultimately attributed to a communication performed using words. So do the individual characteristics of the sender and the receiver, as well as any other messages (often non-verbal) that they are exchanging at or about the same time.
The pre-existing knowledge of both parties, the relationship between them, the method and form of delivery of information, the purpose of the communication, the audience for which it is designed and the overall situation in which it takes place, including both local and distant events, also play their part.
Many of the factors mentioned above influence non-verbal communication, as well as spoken or written communication. In either case, meaning is not, and never can be, fully transferable. The deliberately simplistic representation of the communication process which follows must be viewed in the light of the above remarks, and those made in the book itself.
I will comment below on each of the elements shown above. However, when discussing one element, I will frequently refer to others. This is because they are not mutually exclusive; indeed, they are considerably interlaced. Completely separate discussions would therefore be artificial, if not impossible, and would also result in a lot of repetition.
In most situations, the sender must possess some cognitive capacity, as the information will usually need to be processed and directed to some extent. Sometimes, part or all of that processing may be provided by someone other than the sender, who will then require fewer innate resources.
While communication between people must have at least one person at each end of the process, some of the steps in the process can be provided by a machine, and often are. In unusual circumstances, some of those steps could be provided by an animal (such as a St Bernard rescue dog) or conceivably by inanimate objects. The concept would still be the same.
Meaning is a word most people use quite often, and usually without the slightest uncertainty about its – er, meaning. It is not uncommon to advise a child, or for that matter an adult, to "say what you mean – and mean what you say". This sounds simple enough, but the more you think about it, the more this idea of meaning seems like anything but child's play.
Sometimes, I think I know what I mean, but I cannot even express it to my own satisfaction. At other times, I read or hear what others have expressed, but I am not at all sure what they mean by it. There are also probably many occasions when I think I know exactly what another person means, but in reality my idea is not even close to what was actually intended.
In some contexts, the definition of meaning is fairly simple, and has to do with significance, importance, consequence or intention. However, in a more general sense, meaning often refers to something that is understood in a person's mind, and I think that goes a long way to explaining the rather slippery nature of the concept. After all, where is the mind? If you cannot find the mind, how can you examine what is "in" it?
Meaning is generally agreed to exist, but it is rather hard to pin down. Even within the mind, what form does meaning take? Sometimes, the meaning in our minds is represented in a form reminiscent of one of the five senses. Alternatively, we might represent it in words, numerals or other symbols. However, some ideas simply do not fit those forms; they are abstract. These abstract ideas certainly have meaning for their owner, but I wonder how they could be transferred to anybody else.
Indeed, the transfer of any idea to another person raises quite a few questions. In the absence of telepathy, an idea surely could not get into another mind unless it had somehow got out of the first mind and crossed whatever it is that separates the two minds. How could that be achieved? At the very least, the idea would need to be represented in a form which could exist outside the first mind and be accessed by the second mind.
Well, I guess it's a good thing I promised to refer to all the wrong terms under all the right headings, because I have already started doing just that. Two examples of representation have crept into this discussion of meaning – representation in the mind, and representation outside the mind. To add confusion to complexity, any type of representation, and also whatever it is representing (or re-representing) is sometimes referred to as information, which is my next topic.
Information is another common word, but, like meaning, it can get a little complex if you think about it much. In general usage, depending on the context, information can mean a message received and understood, a collection of facts from which conclusions may be drawn, or knowledge which has been acquired in some way, such as by learning or experience.
In the above examples, information is a rather abstract idea. For example, the information in a bank statement is a sort of virtual counterpart to the numbers on the paper. However, the bank statement itself might also be referred to as information. Instead of saying "Here is a document in which the information you require is represented as alphanumeric symbols printed on paper" we might just say "Here is the information you require".
Quite a few other words can be used as synonyms for information. It is sometimes called content, substance, message, or even (with some help from the context) thing. I hope all this doesn't seem too clear, by the way. If it does, I can only apologise. I will do my best to remedy the situation, starting with an example which should take the level of confusion to new heights.
Hmmm, perhaps I am joking. We'll see. Let's say that I have learned the way to my home. That acquired knowledge is certainly information, and it could come in quite handy, but where does it live? Somewhere in my brain, presumably. However, I can't consciously translate the neuronal electrochemistry which my brain employs, no matter how much I want to get home. Even if I could measure the behaviour of those useful little electrons and molecules, it probably wouldn't mean anything to me. What should I do?
Fortunately, the information which I need to get me home is in my mind as well as my brain. In my mind, I have a representation of the way home, and that does mean something to me. It is information, but the mind represents it in various ways, such as a mental picture of the territory, or a series of distances and turns. Information always has to be represented somehow or other, whether it is inside or outside the mind.
Am I giving you the impression that the terms meaning, information and representation mean more or less the same thing, but in slightly different ways; except when they mean slightly different things, but in more or less the same way? I do hope so. There are two very important caveats, though.
The first is that, while meaning may be closely related to information and representation for a given person, my meaning may not be closely related to your meaning – even when the information and its representation are the same. The second caveat is that, while there are many ways of representing and re-representing information, they are all equally useless as regards communication unless they are transportable.
From the point of view of the basic communication process, the element which I have called "representation" means a transportable representation as mentioned above. Of course, if the information is already represented in a transportable form, this step is conceptual rather than actual. However, if it is not, then a transportable representation must be created.
It would be more logical, really, to talk of re-representation (unless referring to the very first representation of an idea in its owner's mind). Indeed, there are layers and layers of different representations possible for any given piece of information. In the mind, some ideas have an abstract representation. Others are represented as pictures, sounds, feelings, tastes or smells. Still others are represented in the form of words or numbers.
Outside the mind, most of the mental representations referred to in the previous paragraph can be re-represented, with varying degrees of accuracy, as images, sounds, alphanumeric characters, musical notation and so on. Those things can then be re-represented as a digital file consisting of binary numbers. Any of these representations which are transportable can be pressed into service as the element of communication which I have referred to (rather loosely) as the representation element.
Some information needs to be re-represented in a carefully chosen way in order to make it transportable. On the other hand, some things are in a transportable form when we first encounter them. For example, a painting, which is a representation of something seen or imagined by the artist, could simply be carried or mailed to the receiver.
Sometimes, the appropriate representation involves a number of steps. A good example is the way in which abstract thoughts, which are next represented mentally or sonically as words, are finally transported as text. To achieve this, the words, which were originally defined by their sound, are re-represented in a graphical form, as writing or printing. That is done by applying something visible, such as ink, to something stable and portable, such as paper.
The resulting document might be handed or posted to the receiver. Alternatively, it might be further re-represented on microfiche, having the same appearance when magnified, but taking up very little room when stored. On the other hand, it might be re-represented, via a digital camera, as a digital image file. If retyped on a word processor or computer, it could be re-represented as a digital text file. The last two can be sent by any method capable of transferring binary data (e.g. e-mail).
In other words, this representation step can vary from not being necessary at all, to involving quite a complex procedure. Talking of complexity, I think this is a good time to fulfil my promise to show how some other communication terms can be made at least partially compatible with the model of communication I have been describing.
The terms I have in mind are modality, format and medium. I have avoided these terms simply for the sake of clarity, because they are used differently by different authors when discussing communication, in addition to having quite a few other meanings in other contexts. However, I will say a little about them here, and then I will leave them in peace again.
The representation of information is sometimes called the modality of the information. However, when applied to communication, the word "modality" is also used to refer to the type of information, the sensory system receiving the information, or the combination of a type of representation and its physical form or vehicle. In general usage, modality has still other meanings, often carrying a sense of category, sort, type or method. Therefore, when the term modality is encountered, it is important to remember that, unless it has been defined by the author, it might mean almost anything.
Format is another term which is sometimes used for a representation, or alternatively for a representation plus its physical form or vehicle. The general usage of the word format has to do with how things are arranged and presented, and it also has various specific meanings unrelated to communication. It is thus at least as variable in meaning as modality, so it also needs to be defined whenever it is used.
Like modality and format, medium has numerous general meanings, as well as various specific meanings when applied to communication. In the latter context, it often refers to a transportable representation – but not always.
Back to Topic
However you look at it, representation of information is a fascinating, and apparently quite enormous, topic. Fortunately, though, it is not necessary to go into great detail about representation in order to understand the basic communication process. Instead, we can simply note that information must be represented in a transportable form if it is to be communicated.
The most common representations used in communication between people are probably natural languages, both spoken and written. Language is discussed briefly in Appendix 2, so I will not go into it here. The digitised form of written language is a frequent interim step when the information must travel far. Digitisation of information is discussed briefly in Appendix 4.
There will always be some cases where it is not possible to perform the transportable representation step – in which case, no transmission will be possible. Some ideas simply cannot be moved from one mind to another. Alternatively, as mentioned earlier, successful transmission will still result in a somewhat different meaning in the mind of the receiver. This issue will be discussed again under Receiver's Meaning, below.
As soon as the information is represented in a transportable form, it is ready to be dispatched. Although obvious, this step should not be taken for granted, because it is the last chance to reconsider the undertaking. It is usually not possible to recall information once it has been sent, so if there is any doubt about the wisdom of sending it, this is the time for second thoughts! After that, the sender simply has to perform whatever action is necessary to start the chosen method of transmission.
The transportable representation now has to be moved from sender to receiver. This is generally referred to as transmission. Transmission can be as easy as handing over a letter, or as complicated as sending radio signals to reach an astronaut in space at a given time and location. In either case, the concept itself could hardly be simpler. The remaining steps must then be completed by the receiver.
Whereas some (or conceivably all) of the sender's tasks might be performed by external agencies as discussed previously, there are three things which the receiver cannot delegate. The receiver must be sufficiently accessible for arrival to occur, and must also possess and employ both sensory capacity (so that the represented information can be relayed to the receiver's brain) and cognitive capacity (so that the input received by the brain can be processed sufficiently to be understood). These are the prerequisites for the perception step discussed soon.
As mentioned above, the receiver has an indispensable role in enabling the arrival of messages. That role is to be accessible. Accessibility can be achieved in many different ways, such as having a postal address, an e-mail address, a telephone number or any of the many other possible entry points for incoming messages. If, on the other hand, there is no way at all for a message to arrive, then communication will be unsuccessful – like a message in a bottle, lost at sea.
The way in which the represented information arrives is also significant. It depends partly on the type of transmission which is used, and partly on the way in which the message has been represented for transport. Neither of these alters the content of the message, but they can certainly alter the frame of mind in which the content is processed by the receiver. Therefore, it is wise to consider both form and method of delivery as being important aspects of any message, rather than purely mechanical steps in the communication process.
Consider a message crudely written in blood on a torn sheet of newspaper, wrapped around a brick and thrown through a closed window in the early hours of the morning. It will certainly be received and processed very differently from a neatly written message on a beautiful card attached to a gift-wrapped parcel brought to a birthday party by an invited guest.
The importance of this tendency for the communication process to bleed through into the message, influencing its palatability, changing the meaning attributed to it, or (frequently) both, was expressed very succinctly by Marshall McLuhan when he said "the medium is the message".
McLuhan also suggested that it was worth pondering the terms "massage", "mass age" and "mess age", as interesting alternatives to "message", when considering communication. In fact, three years after the publication of the book from which the famous quote above is taken, he actually co-authored a book called "The Medium is the Massage".
The term perception is sometimes applied to sensation alone, as in the phrase "sensory perception". However, I am using it here in its more common meaning, which includes two closely linked processes. The first is sensation, which is the only way information from outside the receiver can get into the receiver's brain. The second is sufficient cognitive activity to allow that sensory input to be recognised, if it has been encountered before, or to be noted as a new phenomenon, if it has not.
Before sensation can occur, a further short transmission step, to which I have not given a separate heading, is needed. We usually take sensation for granted, but in fact our sensory organs do not send any useful messages to the brain until they are stimulated in the correct way.
For example, a document or a picture needs light waves, reflected from its surface, to carry the represented information to the eyes of the receiver. Similarly, sound waves are needed to carry an auditory representation to the ears – and so on. In some cases, the appropriate stimulus will have been employed throughout the transmission step, but otherwise this interim step is necessary to get the information to the receiver's brain.
An opera singer can transmit an auditory signal to everyone in the audience by creating sound waves with the vocal cords which reach all the ears in the auditorium directly. On the other hand, if you send someone a recorded voice message, it will not reach their ears until the stored information has been decoded, amplified, and finally transduced into sound waves by a loudspeaker or headphones.
Even when the information received by a sensory organ reaches the brain, the communication process is not complete. Some sort of interpretation, which varies greatly according to both the message received and the mind receiving it, is still necessary. In the case of a printed document, the characters are usually recognised, decoded into words and at least partially understood, in the single operation called reading. Further cognitive activity then continues for a variable period of time, as discussed under the next heading.
If the document is printed in a foreign language, an extra processing step called translation will be needed before any interpretation can occur. The same will apply if it is written in a secret code, in which case the step is called deciphering. If these steps can be completed successfully, the situation will then be similar to the one discussed above. However, translation from one language to another is not an exact science, and some nuances of meaning may be altered or lost.
This is a rather misleading heading, because I am actually going to combine my discussion of information at the receiving end of the communication process with the next heading, Receiver's Meaning. When discussing meaning and information from the sender's perspective, I used separate headings, but explained that the two were closely related. This time, I will use a single heading, but explain that the two elements, though considerably interlaced, are not identical.
The perception step discussed above results in the transportable representation of the information originally provided by the sender being accessible to the brain and mind of the receiver. It is then either recognised or classified as something new, and in most cases some further processing also occurs. It is tempting to declare the communication process complete at this point.
However, as mentioned at the outset, there is still one vitally important aspect of communication to consider. The information, which has now been received, was originally an attempt to represent the meaning understood by the sender. Now it will be used to provide meaning to the receiver. Attribution of meaning by the receiver is virtually inevitable, once the information has arrived – but that meaning will rarely, if ever, be identical to the meaning originally intended.
The meaning attributed by the receiver can be influenced, as mentioned earlier, by the form in which it is represented and the way in which it arrives. It is also, inevitably, influenced by the knowledge, experience and emotions of the receiver. Naturally, the information itself has a very considerable influence on the meaning attributed to it. However, that influence is clearly not the only one involved.
Although it may seem obvious enough, that simple fact about communication is really of tremendous significance. It means that, although the message can be controlled, the meaning cannot. That is not to say that the meaning attributed to a message is completely divorced from the meaning originally intended. However, it does mean that transferring meaning is not a simple matter – and certainly not an exact science.
What if you want to share your intended meanings as accurately as possible? In order to do that, communication has to become an art, as well as a science. The elements described in this appendix only provide a basic idea of the processes involved. The book itself is intended to encourage the beginnings of effective communication. Beyond that, further understanding of the vast territory involved in the transfer of meaning is something which may be improved throughout life.
I have referred to the need for some cognitive activity in association with most of the steps of the basic communication process. Cognitive activity usually continues after the communication has been completed, in order to reflect further on what has been received, integrate it with existing thoughts and feelings, and formulate an answer if desired.
Theories about the ways in which the human mind goes about these things are outside my scope. However, I will mention a few related ideas in passing. Various sets of mental tactics or rules are often useful when approaching particular mental tasks, though they may not always be employed consciously.
The rules we refer to as logic are often useful when processing qualitative content. The rules we refer to as mathematics are always necessary when processing quantitative content. The rules we refer to as statistics are frequently applied (though often misapplied) when processing probabilistic content.
It is also quite common to consider the processing of information under the headings semantic, syntactic and pragmatic. The semantic aspect of communication involves things with an agreed meaning, such as words. The syntactic aspect involves the agreed rules, such as grammar, which govern the relationships between semantic elements.
The pragmatic aspect of communication involves the actual meaning ultimately attributed to the received information. This is sometimes called the impact which that information has on the receiver. As we have seen, the same information can have a very different impact on different people.
Regardless of the way in which the processing is done, communication between two or more people always involves three personal aspects in addition to the basic communication process previously described. Firstly, people experience emotions, and their emotions both influence, and are influenced by, the content of the communication.
Secondly, people have a tendency to employ two or more means of communication simultaneously, mixing them in real time and also making judgements about the weight they give to each. Thirdly, people have a tendency to start processing, attributing meaning and responding, while they are still in the act of receiving the rest of the message. This all adds to the complexity – and richness – of interpersonal communication.
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(Click the number of a footnote to return to its reference in the text)
 Semiotics (sometimes called semiology) is the study of signs and their role in representing and conveying meaning. A sign, in semiotics, is anything that stands for something else. So far, so good – but from that point on, this discipline, which is of potential significance to virtually every field of human study, sometimes generates more confusion than clarity – partly because of a lack of agreement about terminology.
 As usual, other meanings may be understood in specific contexts. For example, in computer science, information usually means data which has been entered, processed, stored or transmitted.
 Distinctions between the brain and the mind are complex, and lie beyond the scope of these notes. However, brain is more often associated, in common usage, with the physiological aspects of sensation, cognition and action; while mind is more often used in association with, for example, awareness, thought, emotion, reason, creativity and choice.
 McLuhan, M. 1964. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Many editions and publishers, the first being Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.
 McLuhan M. and Fiore, Q. 1967. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. Bantam, New York.
 This classification of information processing was suggested by the Vienna Circle, also known as the Ernst Mach Society, a group of philosophers who used to meet at Vienna University in the early 1920s.
 See Appendix 2 for a less simplistic view of grammar.
 This makes it possible to send or receive contradictory messages simultaneously. The importance of the congruence of messages received simultaneously is discussed in various parts of the book.
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