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  A suitable phrase to define communication might be ‘Social interaction through messages’, which was coined by John Fiske in his book Introduction to Communication Studies (1990). Nevertheless it is a difficult word to define. The problem lies in its being a human activity so common that everyone recognizes it and takes it for granted. Not only does ‘communication’ take place when we talk or write to one another, it is also in how we dress, do our hair, or in what kind of car we drive. It is how we walk, stand, sit or dance. It is how we decorate our living spaces. It is what we perceive as important (and therefore choose to include within the camera frame) when we take a family snapshot.

However, despite such a range of inclusions, it is generally agreed that as a process, regardless of the stress put upon certain aspects and whatever the theoretical frames of reference employed, communication has five identifiable and fundamental elements: sender; receiver; channel (or mode); message; and effect. Thus, in the most basic terms, for any communication to take place a sender initiates a message, then encodes it (that is, translates it into a signal or signals, such as marks on paper—writing, drawing—Morse code or television signals). This is then sent, or transmitted, via a channel or medium (such as a book, telephone, television or clothes) to a receiver who decodes the message. In decoding the message, the receiver interprets it in some way and then usually returns a signal (answers) indicating whether the message has been understood or not. For example, a city executive (the ‘sender’) turning up for work in a grey suit and white blouse (the ‘channel’ or ‘medium’) is communicating something of her attitude to work. She may have intended to impress her boss (the ‘receiver’) with her seriousness and professionalism. Such an intention would be her message. Her communication would probably elicit (the ‘decoding’) a response of approval (the ‘effect’) from her boss. In the communication process this response constitutes a return signal, and in the example it might well be silent, even unconscious. If, however, the same executive arrived wearing studded leather jacket, jeans and a shaved head her boss\'s response signal might well be highly conscious, due to surprise (the ‘effect’) and confusion (the result of attempts to decode the message), and would probably be loudly articulated. Or the communication channel chosen for this might take the form of a written message, for example, her dismissal notice.

The central process of communication as detailed above has been subjected to study by two distinct methodologies of analysis identified (by John Fiske in the book named above) as the ‘process’ and ‘semiotic’ approaches. The ‘process’ school of study is linked particularly with psychology and sociology, while the semiotic school is more often linked with the arts and linguistics.

The ‘process’ school sees communication as the transmission of messages, a process by which, in Fiske\'s words, ‘one person affects the behaviour or state of mind of another’. If the effect of the communication is different from that intended by the transmitter, the process school will examine the process to see why it produced a failure of communication. The ‘semiotic’ school sees communication as the transmission of messages, or texts. These are products of a specific culture, and are therefore subject to a variety of interpretations by the people concerned. That is to say that cultural differences between sender and receiver may alter the intended meaning in a communication and create misunderstanding. But such misunderstanding is not regarded as a measure of failure, rather as one of cultural difference; it may also create new meanings.

Communication is a subtle, complex and continuously fluctuating process, affected by a multitude of factors both external and internal. Two of the more important such elements are noise (either physical or semantic), and redundancy (together with its opposite, entropy).

‘Noise’ is anything which impedes or interferes with the message, and was not intended by the sender. Physical noise is interference to the communication channel: a hissing telephone line, for example, or ‘snow’ on a television screen. Semantic noise is any distortion to the message affecting its reception yet not intended by the sender. Thus it can refer to interference to the sender, the receiver, the message or the effect.

‘Redundancy’, in communication terms, means that part of a message which is predictable or conventional. It is an essential feature of our language. It exists to combat the effects of noise: by saying things more than once we reinforce the message, reducing the chances of misinterpretation. The opposite of redundancy is entropy, which refers to anything which is surprising or unpredictable. It can be seen, for example, in such artistic works as poetry, where the effect sought is one of unique and challenging expression.

Certain forms of communication receive specific attention. That described above is interpersonal communication. But when we talk to ourselves, either in an inner monologue or by processing impressions about the world around us, we are engaged in interpersonal communication. All our inner thoughts, our responses to others, to the weather, to traffic, to television or print, to our wellbeing and our moods in general, all form a silent discourse which continually changes and in turn alters our perception of the world.

There is also a view that the communication process does not necessarily have to occur between two or more people. It might be argued that it also exists between a person and an inanimate object. We are not considering here some people\'s predilection for talking to pets or plants, but, for example, to the products made by artists. If no one sees a painting, can it be said that no act of communication has taken place in making that painting? Possibly, though the artist might argue that it had; that his or her communication was with the painting in an act of self-address. Thus the process would be artist (‘sender’)—subject matter (‘message’)—materials (‘channel’)—artist\'s self (‘receiver’)—artist\'s regard for product (‘effect’). Not only that, but even if the painting is consumed by others, their interpreting (‘decoding’) of its ‘message’ may be different for each consumer. Each perceives the work according to his or her different values, culture and social background.

Finally, there seems to be common agreement that it is impossible not to communicate. Even remaining utterly immobile, straight-faced and ‘expressionless’ constitutes a form of communication, albeit a negative one. We may not want to think that we are influencing others by everything we do, but it is arguable that even by trying not to we are still exerting an influence, however unintended. Everything we do is open to interpretation; communication constantly takes place. RG

Further reading Len Masterman, Teaching The Media.



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