A question that involves a lot of different areas of study. Behaviourists; biologists – both human-focused and zoologists; anthropologists; linguists; even archaeologists and paleontologists. And it’s something very important to the Autistic community, and to the broader autism community (incorporating allistic parents, allies, etc.), because of the difficulties with speech that come with “classical” (aka Kanner’s) autism, and the difficulties all autistics have, to one extent or another, understanding body language and social behaviour.
This question just happened to occur to me as I was driving back from my new residence to my parents’ house (where I now live only on the weekends, so that Imber and I aren’t separated for long – I need my puddy-tat!), having forgotten some stuff that I meant to bring over yesterday evening. (Heck, there’s still some stuff I forgot, but it wasn’t as important as what I did fetch, so I wasn’t going back.) And the question won’t leave me alone, so I thought I’d better start writing.
(And as I started writing this post out – not that I’m finishing it tonight – I realized that it really needs to be a series of posts. So, this is #1 – just what is communication, anyway?)
Well, first of all, let’s look at the dictionary for a “basic” definition of the word “communication”.
1 the imparting or exchanging of information or news: direct communication between the two countries will produce greater understanding | at the moment I am in communication with London.
• a letter or message containing information or news.
• the successful conveying or sharing of ideas and feelings: there was a lack of communication between Pamela and her parents.
• social contact: she gave him some hope of her return, or at least of their future communication.
2 (communications) means of connection between people or places, in particular:
• the means of sending or receiving information, such as telephone lines or computers: satellite communications | [ as modifier ] : a communications network.
• the means of traveling or of transporting goods, such as roads or railroads: a city providing excellent road and rail communications.
• [ treated as sing. ] the field of study concerned with the transmission of information by various means.
–The New Oxford American Dictionary, Macintosh OSX.9 version
So, that’s one definition. Here’s another, from Wikipedia this time:
Communication (from Latin commūnicāre, meaning “to share” ) is the activity of conveying information through the exchange of thoughts, messages, or information, as by speech, visuals, signals, writing, or behavior. It is the meaningful exchange of information between two or more living creatures.
One definition of communication is “any act by which one person gives to or receives from another person information about that person’s needs, desires, perceptions, knowledge, or affective states. Communication may be intentional or unintentional, may involve conventional or unconventional signals, may take linguistic or non-linguistic forms, and may occur through spoken or other modes.” 
Communication requires a sender, a message, and a recipient, although the receiver doesn’t have to be present or aware of the sender’s intent to communicate at the time of communication; thus communication can occur across vast distances in time and space. Communication requires that the communicating parties share an area of communicative commonality. The communication process is complete once the receiver understands the sender’s message.
Communicating with others involves three primary steps:
Thought: First, information exists in the mind of the sender. This can be a concept, idea, information, or feelings.
Encoding: Next, a message is sent to a receiver in words or other symbols.
Decoding: Lastly, the receiver translates the words or symbols into a concept or information that a person can understand.
There are a variety of verbal and non-verbal forms of communication. These include body language, eye contact, sign language, haptic communication,and chronemics. Other examples are media content such as pictures, graphics, sound, and writing. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities also defines the communication to include the display of text, Braille, tactile communication, large print, accessible multimedia, as well as written and plain language, human-reader, augmentative and alternative modes, means and formats of communication, including accessible information and communication technology. Feedback is a critical component of effective communication.
—Wikipedia article “Communication”, accessed Friday Jan. 24th, 2014, at approx. 23:55 hrs.
So. That was just the introductory paragraphs of the Wikipedia article. It goes on to talk about not only human communication (and the different varieties thereof, not to mention barriers – which include such things as assumptions, cultural misunderstandings, language barriers, and attitudinal barriers), but also animal, plant, and bacterial communication. Yes, even bacteria communicate.
I think the Wikipedia article sums it up reasonably well, with its “three primary steps” explanation. But (and yes, you knew there was a “but” coming, right?)… that leaves the definition open to argument and problems. Some of which are mentioned in the previous paragraph, about the barriers mentioned further on in that Wikipedia article.
I have a cat – Imber, mentioned above. (Who stars as my profile picture, actually – well, a sepia photo of her; she’s actually a very pretty grey tabby, like the storm clouds her name references.) She has… a few different vocalizations, and there are some I recognize from experience (with both her and other cats – I’ve never not had at least one cat, all the way back to two years before I was born! ;)). “Mommy-cat, where are you?” is one I learned very early on from her. “Come with me! Hurry up!” is another one – this is a squeak/meow, accompanied by a very impatient little cat darting between my bedroom door and the stairs as I get dressed in the morning, wanting to be let in to the bathroom where the cat food is. (Despite the fact that it has a pet door. Yes, I spoil her terribly. I do know that.) The growls, snarls, and hisses that she applies when she feels threatened, I learned very quickly once we moved to Newfoundland – she and Thor, one of my parents’ cats, do not get on.
But… other than that, and her activity of nuzzling me when she feels like she wants attention, or wants to feel reassured… um, actually, I’m starting to think that Imber is a bad example. I know her too well. Okay… hm. Pets in general seem to be a bad example, because of how well I get along with them and know them.
Okay, let’s move on to humans, then. This is where most of the problems are encountered, anyway. We don’t really need to know what one bacterium is communicating to another (unless it involves something medical, and then it’s the doctors and researchers who study that), but we do need to understand our fellow humans.
And I’ve got an example, from my own experience, of how easy misunderstandings can be when you have different experiences.
Mom, when we lived in Toronto, used to cook dinner every big holiday for the family, which included my sibs, my aunt, my grandmother, and our “adopted” aunts (very close family friends). Generally there were 10 of us for these dinners (unless Auntie Jen was just in the mood for dessert; we used to joke that she always knew when dessert was ready to be served, because that was exactly when she would show up). I always assumed, naturally enough to my mind, that if Mom needed help with anything, she would ask for it. After all, how was I supposed to know that something needed doing? Mom and my sisters, on the other hand, assumed that if I wanted to help, I would just pitch in.
Expectations and assumptions, especially unspoken ones, are dangerous when one is trying to communicate efficiently. Because of that misunderstanding between us, Mom and my sisters would get irritated with me, because I wasn’t helping, and I didn’t really understand why, because surely if they wanted (or more importantly, needed) help, they would ask me, right? (It didn’t help that I needed serious alone time during family gatherings, and didn’t understand it, just followed my instincts – and because none of us knew that I was ASD, none of us realized just how much I needed it, let alone that I did need it. So I could never give reasons why I was happy enough to say hi to everyone, and stay upstairs for about fifteen minutes or so, and then escape back down to my room to read my latest book.)
Okay, this has turned into a rather long rant, and it’s gotten kind of off-topic. Not completely, but my original topic was “What is Communication”, and I was planning to go on to look at various types of communication, and what that means for autistics and allistics. I’ve done a bit of that, I guess, sort of… but it’s a good thing that I decided that I would make this a series. It’s going to need the space!
So, I’m actually going to post this now, rather than waiting until later to do so, and we’ll see what happens. Consider this just a basic introduction to the topic(s) I plan to cover.
Communication problems expressed visually: http://xkcd.com/1028/
Really like this comic. Especially text part explains why so important to not blame just one person (in my case, self of course since am nonverbal) for communication problems. (Text is: “Anyone who says that they’re great at communicating but ‘people are bad at listening’ is confused about how communication works.”)
Not able read all the words you wrote, but your title question made self think of comic right away.
Heh! First of all, thanks for replying. Secondly, great comic! It basically covers what I was saying about Wiki’s article about the 3 primary steps to communication, only visually! 🙂
My cat impressed me with his communication skills the other night. I woke up around 5 am with him standing on my chest, meowing into my face. I told him that he didn’t need anything because I fed him before I went to bed and I had just cleaned his box that morning, so he needed to let me sleep.
He meowed some more and finally I got up to go to the bathroom. He jumped up on the sink and then very deliberately, he licked the faucet, then looked at me, then licked the faucet, then looked at me. I realized, “oh! You are out of water!”
So I went in and, sure enough, his water was bone dry (he has one of those water bowls with a hopper that holds water for days and days.)
I thought it was a very clever bit of communication, because Fermat has never needed to tell me that he was out of water before — I am usually very good about cleaning and refilling it when it’s about half-empty but it had somehow slipped away from me this time. I was very impressed with how clearly he was able to communicate his unusual need to me.
I think one of the reasons why it’s easy to understand cats is because the context of their interaction with us is so limited. Like… the possible ways of me communicating with the checkout girl are not limited in theory, but in practice, the context of both of us only interacting at the checkout lane limits what we might say to each other. She won’t suddenly ask me my opinion on birth control, or tell me how much she hates her mother. (Although, if she did, I would have no idea how to respond. Even unexpected questions like “do you know these are three for two?” faze me because they’re not in my supermarket scripts, lol).
This is very true. (Although Imber seems to find more and more ways to communicate: “I need you, Mommy-cat! Where were you? Why don’t you live here all the time any more? Thor was mean! Sancho was mean! Mew is grouchy! Mommy-cat! Pay attention to me!”…. Heh.) And yes, the limited number of scripts for cat and human interaction does help. So does the fact that they can be more obvious with their body language.
I’m actually going to go more into depth on non-verbal language soon, because that’s what we covering in Social Thinking Group today!