Communicating Across Boundaries Essay, Research Paper
Boundaries are everywhere. Boundaries surround careers, streets, property and especially people. They are social, political, cultural and professional. One of the first things we learn as children is to stay within the lines; never overstep our boundaries. Communicating within one’s boundaries can be difficult. Even more complicated however, is attempting to communicate across those boundaries.
Miscommunication and misunderstanding are common when members of different groups converse (Mulac, Erlandson, Farrer, & Hallettet, 1998). Uncertainty in communication occurs especially with communication across gender boundaries. Men and women must follow boundary rules when communicating. Boundary rules are social conventions that protect the primary activities of a relationship?(Wilson, Roloff & Carey, 1998). Men and women also have certain roles in society that can affect these boundaries. When people communicate in a way that is not congruent with their role, then miscommunication may occur. At the core of many of these miscommunication instances is the problem that the exact same two words can carry different meaning for those involved in the conversation. When this occurs, it is as if the participants possess different dictionaries, providing them with conflicting denotative meanings for the same words and gestures (Mulac et. al, 1998).
The first article examined was an article on (mis)communicating across boundaries: interpersonal and intergroup (Petronio, Ellemers, Giles & Gallois, 1998). They propose the idea of boundary “Fit and Misfit”. People use boundaries to help them fit into their environment. We fit into our environment by drawing lines around those things that are important to us, and we control them through rules. This idea hits the mark. Many times people let others know what is and what is not appropriate
conversation material. For example, people usually don’t like to discuss their salary with others, and they show this by perhaps never opening a paycheck in front of others or by simply never talking about money issues, even around family. In order to obtain successful communication across boundaries, one must have the desire to fulfill a need through communication with others. Within a social environment, people desire both to maintain a level of autonomy from others and to find satisfying connections, so that the motivation to fulfill the boundary demands of others has to meet some need for the individual (Petronio et. al, 1998). That is the idea of boundary fit.
Because of the vast classifications of boundaries, communication is hindered. Messages need to be re-routed. When a person changes the meaning of a message, boundaries remain restricted and impermeable. In communication between men and women, a woman’s use of backchannels (e.g. “yeah” and “uh-huh”) makes the message unclear to men (Mulac et. al, 1998). Males learn that questions are used to control a conversation. For example, if a father is yelling at his child and the child asks “why?”, the father more often than not will respond with “I’m the one asking the questions!” Females learn that the use of questions within a conversation help keep the conversation going. Women use more minimal encouragers than men. Because of this gender boundary, men believe that women are fickle because they seemingly offer agreement, then take it back (Mulac et al, 1998). Also, because men use backchannels infrequently, women believe that men are not listening to them and are not interested in having a conversation with them. (Mulac et al, 1998). This argument has not been tested empirically. Even though this argument may raise a strong level of interest and seems to be popular, it is not concrete. It is almost certain that the use of backchannels and minimal encouragers, or lack there of, can help or hinder communication across the gender boundary.
A study done by Wilson et. al examined factors that inhibit expressing concerns about another’s romantic partner. It was reported that out of 100 respondents, many (46%) had a problem with their friends romantic partners’ daily habits. However, only about 50% of the irritations were expressed to the friend, and fewer than 10% to the partner (Wilson et al, 1998). Those who did not express anything did not want to cross any boundaries. This study found that if one were to communicate these problems across the boundaries, their friend would get upset. Also, many of the respondents said that crossing this boundary would affect all of the people involved permanently and they did not want that (Wilson et. al, 1998). This research portrays the fact that not only do individuals have boundaries that are the gatekeepers of personal information, but also relationships have boundary rules that regulate external intervention. This study did not have any information on the origin of these rules. However, it did pose some questions regarding the issues created by boundary rules. For example, a friend is supposed to be there when help is needed or when things are not going well. A friend is supposed to always be supportive through thick and thin. When a friend is criticizing another’s partner they are not being supportive. Hence, they are breaking boundary rules.
When individuals communicate across boundaries, whether they are personal, sexual, or even cultural, they must put their messages together in a way that minimizes negative reaction. In order to figure out why and how individuals communicate across boundaries, we must look at the formation of their messages. The three studies mentioned failed to do that. One study did acknowledge the fact that it may be useful to examine the degree to which friends understand the obstacles that they face during communication (Wilson et. al, 1998).
Most of the research done by Mulac on gender differences has found that women ask more questions than men do when attempting to communicate across the sexual boundary. They reported that in small problem solving, women asked three times as many questions as men (Mulac et. al, 1998). Perhaps the most important element required to avoid miscommunication across the gender boundary is to obtain shared meaning among those conversing. There is no evidence of shared meaning when men and women converse (Mulac et. al, 1998). The simple fact that shared meaning is a major problem of poor communication can be a sure indication of what happens when communicating across cultural boundaries. If people of the same culture can not consent on the meaning of the same word, then crossing the cultural boundary successfully when communicating must seem impossible. The Wilson study was a sample drawn only from the United States, so it is of no use when examining cross-cultural boundaries.
People deal with communication boundaries every single day. When an individual is in an intimate relationship, they must cross not only the gender boundary, but the romantic boundary as well. Typically, children learn appropriate patterns of communication between the ages of 5 and 15 (Mulac et. al, 1998). They learn to distinguish their own behavior, with the behavior of the opposite sex. Stereotypically, masculinity and femininity are the norms. For instance, when a boy is trying to communicate his opinion with another boy who disagrees, the boy who disagrees will immediately stand up and argue that point. When boys are together there is a tendency for competition to come about and hierarchies to form, as well as many attempts to gain superiority. When girls are together there is a tendency to lean towards group agreement and harmony. It is because of this social contrast between groups of boys and girls we can see many differences in communication.
Communicating across boundaries can be a very difficult thing. A common bound between the three articles discussed seemed to be that in order to communicate across boundaries an individual must be able to understand the other person’s message. Rules govern communication across boundaries. Boundary rules also restrict how people communicate their feelings and concerns, especially towards their friends. Due to its brevity, this paper did not even delve into such things as emotional boundaries and feelings in communicating.
If interpersonal communication had a handbook that was completely universal and informed every person of every culture and sex exactly what words mean, and if everyone shared the same knowledge of topics, conversation would be simple. Unfortunately there are so many factors that influence and hinder communication. If we have an understanding of each other and ourselves, some of those factors could be diminished.
Carey, C., Roloff, M., Wilson, L. (1998). Boundary rules: Factors that inhibit expressing concerns about another’s romantic relationship. Communication Research, 25, pp 618-640.
Ellemers, N., Gallois, C., Giles, H., Petronio, S. (1998). (Mis)communicating across boundaries: Interpersonal and intergroup considerations. Communication Research, 25, pp 571-595.
Erlandson, K., Farrar, J., Hallettet, J., Mulac, A. (1998). “Uh-huh. What’s that all about?”: Differing interpretations of conversational backchannels and questions as sources of miscommunication across gender boundaries. Communication Research, 25, pp 641-668.