How Do We Communicate?
Have you ever thought about what we mean when we use the word 'communicate'? Perhaps someone has told you that you are a good communicator - what do they mean by that? Although we tend to associate the term 'communicate' with verbal expression, it might surprise you to know that speaking is the least common way that people communicate with one another, or interpret the world around them.
Generally speaking, human beings have three systems of communication: verbal (talking), non-verbal (body language or tone), and visual (writing or symbols). Rather than choosing one of these ways to communicate, we tend to use a combination to express ourselves or interpret others at any given time.
Traffic lights are a good example of how these three things work together to communicate. If you were stopped at a red light and it suddenly turned green, how do you know that it means that you're supposed to drive? The person in the car with you might tell you that it is your turn to go (verbal), people behind you could be honking their horns (non-verbal), and, obviously, the light is green, which you understand to be a symbol that it is safe to proceed (visual).
The most recognizable form of communication is verbal communication, which are the actual words that come out of your mouth while you are speaking. In the context of communication, verbal communication is the least effective because it is dependent on the extent of a person's vocabulary, their ability to use words correctly, and put together sentences in a coherent and accessible manner.
If you were to ask me for directions to a particular place, whether or not I could get you there using only verbal communication would depend entirely on my vocabulary and your ability to understand that vocabulary. For example, say that the directions that I am giving you requires you to go around a rotary or traffic circle. If I didn't know what those were called, I wouldn't be able to explain it and you would likely get lost because my directions did not indicate such a feature.
In terms of communicating, it is non-verbal communication, like body language or tone of voice, that gives meaning to much of our verbal communication. For example, if you've ever been in an argument with a significant other, how do you know that they're upset with you? In some cases, they might actually tell you precisely why, but more often than not, it is their non-verbal communication that is effectively expressing their emotions.
Sticking with the example of giving directions, my non-verbal communication would probably be more meaningful than simply relying on the words that are coming out of my mouth. I could point to indicate which direction that you are supposed to go in, through my tone of voice you might be able to pick up on which directions are most important, and when it came to something that I didn't know the correct word for, like a rotary, I could motion with my hand to indicate that you'd be going around a big circle.
Although the statistics tend to vary from study to study, most researchers agree that we tend to rely most on non-verbal communication when we are attempting to convey something to another person. In the case of me giving directions, it is the non-verbal communication that is likely to get you where you want to go.
The third type of communication is visual communication, which, in addition to writing, includes a vast collection of signs and symbols that are often specific to a particular culture or region. Right now, for example, I am engaged in visual communication because I am writing this lesson to convey information to you, the reader.
Art is a good example of visual communication because it conveys just how simple or complex this type of communication can be. Think of some paintings from the Romantic Period (c. 1800-1850) and imagine what they convey. When you view these paintings, the artists aren't present to explain what they mean, so you are left with only visual communication to interpret the intentions of the artists and meanings of the paintings.
While it can be a very effective means of conveying something, visual communication is also incredibly complicated because it often relies on signifiers, which are physical forms of a sign such as an image, color, printed word, sound or facial expression. The traffic light, for example, is a signifier because you know that red means stop and green means go - but what about blue? Unless you live in a part of the U.S. that uses blue traffic lights, this symbol would be an ineffective visual communicator because you have no idea what it means.
Systems of communication refer to the three ways that human beings express themselves, which includes verbal (talking) non-verbal (body language or tone), and visual (symbols). Rather than choosing one of the three to communicate, it is more likely that you use a combination of the three to convey meaning.
Among the three, verbal communication is one of the most ineffective means of communicating because it relies on a person's vocabulary and is contingent upon other people possessing an equivalent understanding of that vocabulary. Non-verbal communication, on the other hand, is very effective because it expresses tone and body language, which tend to be easier for people to naturally understand and interpret. Finally, visual communication is the use of signs or symbols, like writing, to convey something. Of the three, visual communication is perhaps the most complicated because it requires that the recipient understands the signifiers, which are the physical forms attached to the symbols.
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