Unethical Communication: Definition & Behaviors

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  • 0:03 Communication Ethics
  • 0:32 Ethical and Unethical…
  • 1:41 Interpersonal Communication
  • 2:15 Institutional Communication
  • 2:49 Unethical Behaviors
  • 5:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Communication is an extremely important part of every society. In this lesson, we're going to talk about unethical communication and see what sort of behaviors harm ethical interactions.

Communication Ethics

The communications revolution of the last decade has fundamentally changed the ways that modern people interact, share information, and otherwise communicate. Communication is a big part of our lives, and this means that it is powerful. Anything with that much power needs to be examined, which is why a number of scholars spend their time examining issues of communications ethics. Can communication be moral or immoral? Let's find out.

Ethical and Unethical Communication

Scholars of communications ethics, along with historians, sociologists, psychologists, and others, have long noted that language has power. Our societies are built around shared systems of communication; we develop culture through the ways we communicate our ideals with each other, and even our personal identities and psychological well-being can be impacted by our ability to communicate with others. Language can be used to support an ideology, emotionally wound, rally the masses, or inspire devotion. Keep in mind that language is only a small portion of communication, and that non-verbal forms of communication can be just as influential.

So, communication is powerful, and therefore has ethical boundaries. Communication used to improve interpersonal relations or to bring moral changes to society is ethical communication. Communication used to undermine relationships or encourage social immorality is unethical communication. The exact definitions of these depend on the ethics system of your culture, but most people agree that ethical communication builds positive relationships, while unethical communication impairs them.

Interpersonal Communication

Unethical communication can be very damaging, but impacts people differently at different levels. Let's start with interpersonal communication, or the systems of exchange between individuals. Communication is the centerpiece of interpersonal relationships, through which people build trust, express emotions, and establish connections. Ethical communication encourages this, while unethical communication undermines interpersonal relationships. This can be extraordinarily damaging, as much of or psychological and social well-being depends on healthy relationships.

Institutional Communication

While unethical communication can hurt interpersonal relationships, it can also undermine healthy social relationships. Institutions, from companies to entire governments, have moral and ethical obligations to communicate transparently and without bias or prejudice. As groups of authority, institutions have the power through their communication habits to influence the communication systems within a large group of people. Unethical communication practices at the institutional level tend to favor a few people over the majority, specifically those in power.

Unethical Behaviors

Now that we understand the ways that unethical communication can impact people on personal and social levels, let's explore some behaviors commonly accepted to be unethical.


Our first unethical communication behavior is plagiarism. Plagiarism describes the un-credited use of someone else's ideas. We see it often in writing, when an author steals from other writers. Plagiarism hurts trust and the credibility of publishing institutions, undermining a society's ability to communicate openly and freely. However, plagiarism is about more than just writing. In the colonial era, European empires had a strong habit of taking responsibility for any positive event or development, while blaming negative events on the local populations. This created a structure of power that was biased against local populations. It has only been with the on-going post-colonial studies of the 20th and 21st centuries that many instances of cultural or social plagiarism are being uncovered.

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