The Definition of Communication in 2019

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What is Communication. Illustration by Cleverclip

What is Communication? The Attempt at a Definition

The Gabler Business Encyclopedia contains two different definitions of the term communication. On the one hand, the definition refers to the communication sciences and, on the other hand, the term is defined completely differently in the economic context with reference to organizations. 

Briefly broken down, the term is defined scientifically as the process of the transmission of news and the exchange of information and summarizes gestures, facial expressions, and language. From an economic point of view, on the other hand, the focus is on the organizational structure and one speaks of one- and two-way communication or differentiates between the type of organisational integration. 

This distinction between classical communication in everyday life and communication in organizations is common. But is it still sustainable in 2019? What is communication today and how has it changed our mindset, our daily lives and our dialogues and receptivity to messages?

The importance of verbal and non-verbal communication for human beings

We communicate constantly. Even if we deliberately do not communicate among our fellow human beings and stare at the ground, we communicate exactly that: that we do not want to communicate. Contrary to spoken or written language (verbal communication), there is also the non-verbal level, which consists of gestures, facial expressions, and body language. Non-verbal communication in social behavior plays a decisive role in people. This also becomes clear when you look at body language, gestures and facial expressions of different cultures. 

The famous psychologist Prof. Dr. Friedemann Schulz von Thun also shows in his model that communication can not only be broken down into verbal and non-verbal aspects but can also be distinguished between the factual-rational and the emotional level. However, the boundary of this distinction is by no means the same as that of verbal and non-verbal communication. Rather, Schulz von Thun has come to the realization that every kind of communication is conducted on both the factual and the emotional level. Here complex role distributions, relationships to each other as well as contents play an equally important role. Schulz von Thun describes this circumstance with his famous “four-ear model“. He distinguishes between four levels of communication:

  • Content (What is being talked about?)
  • Self-revelation (What does what is said say about the speaker?)
  • Relationship (What is the relationship between speaker and receiver?)
  • Appeal (What is the purpose of what is said?)

The model is primarily used for diagnostic purposes when there are conflicts or disturbances in communication. But you can also ask yourself what it means if all four levels are reduced to a few channels. Because through our modern forms of communication, a channel reduction takes place. However, the communication levels themselves cannot be reduced. 

“Channels can be reduced, but communication levels can’t. “

Too many levels of communication in too little channels – how does this fit together?

If one connects the above-mentioned insights and transfers them to our modern age, one quickly recognizes the effect that occurs through channel reduction: If one breaks down communication to the verbal level only, an essential part of the social component is lost and the scope for interpretation and misunderstanding increases, since the gaps in communication levels that would otherwise be filled with non-verbal elements must be closed exclusively through verbal communication; consciously or unconsciously.

The question quickly arises as to how social media can actually be if much of the communication takes place verbally; And what does this mean for corporate communication? The distribution of content via new messenger tools, employee apps, e-mails, blogs, intranets, etc. is one of the core elements of many new concepts in corporate communications.

They often rely on being able to distribute information faster, more efficiently and more directly – but predominantly in written form. Even with instructions and the exchange of ideas, non-verbal aspects of communication are consciously and deliberately avoided.

But are modern forms of communication automatically less social? Or has communication in times of emojis and voice messages simply changed in such a way that one has to redefine the concept of communication?

New communication channels and their impact on society

In order to approach the question of what communication is in 2019 and how to define it, one must first look at whether and how the way we communicate has changed society. 

By definition, communication always means dialogue, because there is always at least one sender and one receiver. Aristotle already realized that the art of rhetoric was a conviction, but not persuasion or the imprinting of one’s own opinion. Also in school many – if the rhetoric was still taught – certainly learned from the rhetorical triangle of ethos, pathos, and logos. This is primarily about balancing credibility (ethos), emotions (pathos) and argumentation (logos) and communicating with the audience at eye level. The basis for this is the relationship level.

If all three areas are addressed equally at the relationship level when communicating information, insights, and knowledge, what is said not only reaches the listener better, but also contributes to authenticity, recognition and active dialogue.

In addition, Sigmund Freud’s famous iceberg model also confirms that only a small part of the message of a piece communication is directly perceptible at around 20%. This is pure information at the factual level. The remaining information at the relationship level (80%) remains hidden, but has a decisive influence on the content of a message. 

Under this premise, there is a very clear impact on the transmission of messages and communication in our digital age. By reducing the channels to the purely factual level, decisive elements of communication are lost, which, depending on the type of information, are even more important for the message than the written or spoken language itself. 

“Channel reduction means important elements of communication are lost.” 

What effects are already visible today?

There is a discrepancy between the scope of communication needs on the one hand and the choice of appropriate channels on the other. For the transmission of factual information, data and facts, written content via indirect communication is certainly much better suited than direct dialogue, because thanks to modern tools, content can be called up again and again, is stored and knowledge can be collected.

The need for communication is constantly increasing. Agile teams, diverse interests, social media and more complex tasks in companies require more intensive communication than was the case a few years ago. Here, digital tools help to meet communication needs without having to spend the whole day going from one person to the next and seeking dialogue. At the same time, this change in the type of communication and the type of communication channels has led to a change in the mindset of people. This is shown by market analyses as well as surveys on changes in attitudes towards life over the last generations.

The increase in the amount of information that is poured on us results in a sensory overload, which in some respects results in a decrease in the capacity to absorb certain information. Our personal filter, which evaluates new information within fractions of a second and either saves or discards it, has gained significantly in importance. There is a clear tendency to recognise that we have become much more receptive to emotional speeches, audiovisual content and videos than we were a few years ago. This becomes clear, for example, in studies that certify an enormous increase in the conversion rate of up to 86% as soon as websites work with videos instead of images and text on their home page.

We are practically longing for emotions that are underrepresented in everyday communication due to the changes mentioned above. Due to the great increase in communication at the factual level, personal conversations have become significantly more important and a more balanced work-life balance has also become increasingly important for most people, because in everyday working life a part of the social component is lost due to the decrease in the relationship level in the dialogues. 

“…we’re longing for Emotions”

Importance for the improvement of communication in companies

From the company’s point of view, a number of recommendations can be derived from these findings. Thus, direct addresses on an emotional level have become increasingly important for well-being and balance in corporate communication. Executives who work exclusively via email, social media and other digital media will find it increasingly difficult to reach employees at all.

Communication at eye level is the keyword here. It is certainly not a good idea to constantly increase the number of digital tools for corporate communication and to reduce the number of direct conversations. As well as technological development can help to store information and knowledge better, it is also important to be able to compensate for the loss of the relationship level whenever possible and to carefully weigh up the communication channels. Otherwise the motivation in the team cannot be kept high, the individual members of the organisation increasingly need social balance and a distinctive dialogue culture cannot be established. However, this is of decisive importance for the innovative strength of a company. 

For external communication, it means increasingly relying on emotional speeches and establishing a corporate culture or mission statement that appeals to the target group. Only those who know the needs of the target group and are able to address them in a targeted manner are heard. Video messages, explanatory videos, storytelling and visual content in general is the magic word in a world where a real emotional relationship has become a rarity.

„…Visual Content is the magic word.“

Importance of interpersonal communication

Even though the digital world may in part suggest otherwise: Man is and remains a social being and direct communication at eye level has not lost its importance. On the contrary, with the increase in communication in general and the simultaneous reduction of channels, an increase in communication at the factual level and a lack of emotional level, the importance of direct communication has even increased significantly.

Although emojis, voice messages, likes and co. offer compensation to a certain extent, this does not change the fact that even an influencer with thousands of friends, followers or fans can become emotionally or socially lonely. The danger of this has presumably even increased over the last few years. Despite new possibilities to communicate digitally, exchange messages and make appointments, we should always bear in mind that communication is much more than words written or transmitted by voice message. 

“Direct communication has gained importance.”

Summary and findings

Our communication has changed and so have we. Information is perceived differently, direct conversations have gained in importance and we must recognise that fast, direct and continuous communication via digital media is not only beneficial. 

To understand this, you only have to keep one thing in mind: The use of new forms of communication only leads to a certain extent to more communication. A large part also leads to the suppression of other forms of communication. This in turn leads to conversations increasingly being conducted at the factual level, resulting in an emotional desire for the emotional level. Have the channels of our communication shifted? Yeah, definitely. Have the communication levels of the communication models shifted? No! The emotional level still plays an important role. Relationships, dialogue at eye level and authenticity have gained in importance in times of Facebook, Whatsapp, Youtube & Co. We have become more receptive to emotional, authentic and visual stimuli, which can be attributed to the sensory overload of factual content in everyday life and in corporate communication. 

This insight is just as important for everyday professional life, for managers and teams as it is for our communication in our private lives. Changing conditions lead to changing expectations and requirements. Even in modern times of written exchange, communication must therefore not be understood as a mere transfer of knowledge and information. Rather, we should increasingly consider the aspects of social and verbal communication at the relationship level and actively incorporate these into our everyday life, corporate marketing, external image, philosophy and communication concepts of corporate communication. 

The definition of the concept of communication therefore inevitably includes an understanding of what constitutes a successful dialogue.

Communication is the verbal and non-verbal exchange between people. A credible and authentic dialogue must be conducted in such a way that none of the levels of dialogue is under- or over-represented. The selection of suitable channels plays a very important role.