I was recently asked a very interesting question – “How many different types of communication are there?”

I opened my mouth to answer, but paused and engaged the brain first; because really, what is not communication? When you stop and think about it, just about everything we say, we consciously and unknowingly do is communication.

In fact it is just like that old philosophical question “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” We communication philosophers can ask “If I am alone in a room can I communicate?”

A quick check with good ol’ Wikipedia has this to say

“Communication is a process of transferring information from one entity to another. Communication processes are sign-mediated interactions between at least two agents which share a repertoire of signs and semiotic rules.”

If the action of communication is a two way interaction it appears that I cannot communicate alone in a room. “Unless of course” my fellow breakfast table philosopher interjected “You catch sight of yourself in a mirror and communicate the information to yourself that you have not brushed your hair yet!”

Having fixed that problem, I returned to the consideration of the problem of communication. If we accept the definition above – and that is substantially the same in most dictionaries – then it appears that communication is something we do in company with others. So then can we choose to withhold communication?

You know, I don’t think we can. What would you do, if you choose not to engage in communication? You could turn your back on the other; you could sit in silence; you could pick up a magazine to read and disengage from the group. But if you visualise the scenario, wouldn’t any of those actions be itself communicating an attitude or a choice?

With my well known propensity to talk under wet concrete, I know that any such action that I tried would be met by comments like “What are you sulking about?” Trish is not always known for her subtlety!

Even poker faced card players are communicating a decision not to reveal their emotions. Silent communication can be a very powerful thing: a raised eyebrow; a wink; a smile or a nod is powerful way of transmitting messages.

But then, I am writing this blog sitting here in Queensland, alone in my study. You are reading it – where ever – and am I not communicating my thoughts, ideas and opinions to you? So there has to be another dimension to communication. Perhaps we can call it remote communication.

We still need a minimum of two people to communicate but it doesn’t need to be immediate or personal. I was reading a book last night written in 1726 by Jonathan Swift. Swift obviously cannot communicate immediate or verbally, but by writing it and publishing it he put his ideas out into the world to be picked up and read by others.

It’s like that “tree – sound – forest” question. Sound only exists when there is someone to hear it, otherwise the vibrations merely fade away unheard. Likewise communication only exists when there is someone to communicate to. So in Gulliver’s Travels, Swift can only begin to communicate with me when I pick up the book and begin to read it. It doesn’t matter that he died centuries ago, he still communicates with me through the written word. And what about listening to music – doesn’t that also communicate ideas and emotions to us long after the musician has died?

It is the same with films, DVDs, videos and all that electronic stuff – it can be put into the world but it communicates nothing until there is meaningful interaction with others. I may ring you, but if you failed to pick up the phone, there is no communication. I may leave a message but if you delete it before you have listened to it then there has been no communication.

So back to the interesting question “How many different types of communication are there?” I smiled and said “There’s an awful lot – let’s talk about them – and that’s one!”

Michele @ Trischel

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