What Is Communication?

The Art of Communication - Verbal and Nonverbal

In the movie Cool Hand Luke (1967), the Captain (played by Strother Martin) says to Luke Jackson (Paul Newman), "What we've got here is a failure to communicate. Some men you just can't reach."
(Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Communication is the process of sending and receiving messages through verbal or nonverbal means including speech or oral communication, writing or written communication, signs, signals, and behavior. More simply, communication is said to be "the creation and exchange of meaning."

Media critic and theorist James Carey famously defined communication as "a symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired and transformed" in his 1992 book "Communication as Culture," positing that we define our reality via sharing our experience with others.

Because there are different kinds of communication and different contexts and settings in which it occurs, there are many definitions of the term. More than 40 years ago, researchers Frank Dance and Carl Larson counted 126 published definitions of communication in "Functions of Human Communication."

As Daniel Boorstin observed in "Democracy and Its Discontents, the most important single change "in human consciousness in the last century, and especially in the American consciousness, has been the multiplying of the means and forms of what we call 'communication.'" This is especially true in modern times with the advent of texting, e-mail and social media as forms of communicating with others around the world.

Human and Animal Communication

All creatures on earth have developed means in which to convey their emotions and thoughts to one another. However, it's the ability of humans to use words to transfer specific meanings that set them apart from the animal kingdom.

R. Berko expresses in "Communicating: A Social and Career Focus" that human communication occurs on the public, intrapersonal and interpersonal levels wherein intrapersonal communication involves communication with the self, interpersonal between two or more people, and public between a speaker and a larger audience either face-to-face or over broadcast like television, radio or the internet.

Still, the basic components of communication remain the same between animals and humans. As M. Redmond describes in "Communication: Theories and Applications," the communication situations share basic elements including "a context; a source or sender; a receiver; messages; noise; and channels, or modes."

In the animal kingdom, there exists a large variance in language and communication between species, coming close to human forms of conveying thought in several cases. Take the vervet monkeys, for instance. David Barash describes their animal language in "The Leap from Beast to Man" as having "four acoustically distinct kinds of predator-alarm calls, evoked by leopards, eagles, pythons and baboons."

Rhetorical Communication — The Written Form

Another thing that sets humans apart from their animal cohabiters is our use of writing as a means of communication, which has been a part of the human experience for over 5,000 years. In fact, the first essay—coincidentally about speaking effectively—is estimated to be from around the year 3,000 B.C. originating in Egypt, though it wasn't until much later that the general population was considered literate.

Still, James C. McCroskey notes in "An Introduction to Rhetorical Communication" that texts like these "are significant because they establish the historical fact that interest in rhetorical communication is nearly 5,000 years old." In fact, McCroskey posits that most ancient texts were written as instructions for communicating effectively, further emphasizing early civilizations' value of furthering the practice thereof.

Through time this reliance has only grown, especially in the Internet age. Now, written or rhetorical communication is one of the favored and primary means of talking to one another — be it an instant message or a text, a Facebook post or a Tweet.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Communication?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 10, 2018, thoughtco.com/what-is-communication-1689877. Nordquist, Richard. (2018, April 10). What Is Communication? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-communication-1689877 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Communication?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-communication-1689877 (accessed April 24, 2018).