To date, many communication scholars investigate the concept of communication from the standpoint of the traditions that have considered context as the fundamental component for the most favorable understanding of meaning in any communicative behavior (Romero-Trillo & Maguire, 2011). The present paper illuminates contexts that give any instance of communication its meaning.
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The term ‘context’ has been defined by Bosco et al (2004) as “…a series of factors that contribute to reconstructing the meaning intended by a speaker in a communicative exchange” (p. 467).
A thread of extant literature (e.g., Berger 2005; Hargie, 2010 ) demonstrates that the core of any communicative behavior is shared meanings between people as we don’t merely exchange words when we communicate; rather, we always endeavor to comprehend what each other’s words and behaviors stand for , represent, or imply.
Following this description, Bosco et al (2004) argue that known contextual factors come into play to assist individuals in a communicative exchange to reconstruct meaning.
The first contextual factor that will be discussed is pattern. Available literature demonstrates that for people to be able to share meaning in any communicative exchange, their communication must reveal a pattern that is grounded on elements that are recognizable, repetitive and repeatable (Romero-Trillo & Maguire, 2011).
The patterns of communicative exchange that people are used to, and that they share with others in their social interactions, facilitate them to behave in new but related ways, and to comprehensively understand new forms of behavior (Leeds-Hurwitz, 1989). A patterned behavior such as a communicative instance, according to this particular author, implies that it is not only guided by rules and principles, but is predictable, observable, and analyzable.
In an expressive act “do you like wine?’ posed by one woman to her boyfriend, for example, the boyfriend may be guided by the contextual factor of pattern to respond differentially depending on how he understands his girlfriend’s communicative intention. If the couple has been engaging in drinking, the boyfriend may respond “Yes, please”.
However, if the couple has just met, the boyfriend may respond ‘I have a tumbler of wine with every meal’. This example serves to demonstrate how communication is behavior with a pattern as it shows the ordered forms of responses that can be given by the boyfriend depending on the shared meaning of the communicative exchange.
The second contextual factor is organization, which denotes that there exist standardized and known ways of doing things that people engaged in interpersonal communication must follow every time they wish to communicate if they expect to realize the meaning of their communication (Berger, 2005).
Organization, according to Hargie (2010), brings order into the communication process, thus is instrumental in ensuring agents in a communicative instance benefit from the internalization of meaning. A simple example is that it would be practically impossible for a native Chinese with no formal training in English to communicate with an Englishman with no formal training in the Chinese language.
This example demonstrates that the Englishman and the Chinese must follow standardized and known ways (train in each other’s language) if they wish to communicate.
The third contextual factor deals with rules. It is clear that every instance of communication is guided by rules, although people learn to interact with others communicatively without necessarily being able to state the rules or principles that guide their interaction (Romero-Trillo & Maguire, 2011).
This implies that the rules and principles that guide our communication with others operate below our level of consciousness as they are not always subject to conscious intent (Leeds-Hurwitz, 1989). This particular author introduces the concept of practical consciousness, which implies the knowledge of how individuals communicate with others appropriately using the rules that they know but which they are not supposed to verbalize in the practical sense.
Leeds-Hurwitz (1989) also introduces the concept of tacit knowledge to demonstrate how a lot of our knowledge of communicative interaction is 1) unspoken during the communication process, 2) hidden from the communicators’ awareness, and 3) kept in the background as people interact and communicate.
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In my interactions with friends (see appendix for transcript), I overheard one ardent football fan telling her male friend that the ‘Pensioners’ would win the match by three goals. The male colleague refuted this claim and said the ‘Citizens’ would win the match by a two-goal margin. Although we shared the same table, I could not participate in the discussion since all I knew was that the match involved ‘Chelsea’ and ‘Manchester City’ football clubs.
However, the two ardent football fans were able to communicate and identify meaning as they shared some rules which guided their communication but they were not under any obligation to express these rules; that is, give them direct discursive expression (Leeds-Hurwitz, 1989).
The last contextual factor relates to the observable nature of communicative interaction, which holds that individuals can learn to observe social action – deliberately and closely – with the view to describe the underlying patterns (Leeds-Hurwitz, 1989). To a large extent, this factor relates to the non-communication cues formed by people when they are engaged in communication.
Indeed, extant literature demonstrates that behavior can be observed as it naturally occurs in the everyday world and in real-life situations (Romero-Trillo & Maguire, 2011). When patronizing a bar, for example, a person can observe the non-verbal cues of most women patrons to describe underlying patterns of behavior even without necessarily communicating with the subjects.
Some movements and body positions, sustained eye contact, sexy facial expression and telling body language, for instance, are enough observational characteristics to communicate to a male patron that he might be dealing with a sex worker.
Berger, C.R. (2005). Interpersonal communication: Theoretical perspectives, future prospects. Journal of Communication, 55(5), 415-447.
Bosco, F.M., Bucciarelli, M., & Bara, B.G. (2004). The fundamental context categories in understanding communicative intention. Journal of Pragmatics, 36(3), 467-488.
Hargie, O. (2010). Skilled interpersonal communication: Research, theory and practice. Oxford: Taylor & Francis.
Leeds-Hurwitz, W. (1989). Communication in everyday life: A social interpretation. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.
Romero-Trillo, J., & Maguire, L. (2011). Adaptive context: The fourth element of meaning. International Review of Pragmatics, 3(2), 228-241.