Chapter 1: Introduction to the field of Communication Studies

1.3 What is Interpersonal Communication?

Learning Objectives

  1. Distinguish between intrapersonal and interpersonal communication.
  2. Define interpersonal communication
  3. Explain the characteristics of interpersonal communication

Now that we have a better understanding of Communication is defined, the transactional nature of communication and the overarching principles of communication, lets take a closer look at the focus of this class: Interpersonal Communication. To begin, lets distinguish between intrapersonal communication and interpersonal communication.

Intrapersonal Communication

Intrapersonal communication is communication with oneself using internal vocalization or reflective thinking. Like other forms of communication, intrapersonal communication is triggered by some internal or external stimulus. We may, for example, communicate with our self about what we want to eat due to the internal stimulus of hunger, or we may react intrapersonally to an event we witness. Unlike other forms of communication, intrapersonal communication takes place only inside our heads. The other forms of communication must be perceived by someone else to count as communication. So what is the point of intrapersonal communication if no one else even sees it?

Intrapersonal communication serves several social functions. Internal vocalization, or talking to ourselves, can help us achieve or maintain social adjustment (Dance 51). For example, a person may use self-talk to calm himself down in a stressful situation, or a shy person may remind herself to smile during a social event. Intrapersonal communication also helps build and maintain our self- concept. We form an understanding of who we are based on how other people communicate with us and how we process that communication intrapersonally. The shy person in the earlier example probably internalized shyness as a part of her self-concept because other people associated her communication behaviors with shyness and may have even labeled her “shy” before she had a firm grasp on what that meant. We will discuss self-concept much more in Chapter 2 “Communication and Perception”, which focuses on perception. We also use intrapersonal communication or “self-talk” to let off steam, process emotions, think through something, or rehearse what we plan to say or do in the future. As with the other forms of communication, competent intrapersonal communication helps facilitate social interaction and can enhance our well-being. Conversely, the breakdown in the ability of a person to intrapersonally communicate is associated with mental illness (Dance 55).

Sometimes we intrapersonally communicate for the fun of it. I’m sure we have all had the experience of laughing aloud because we thought of something funny. We also communicate intrapersonally to pass time. I bet there is a lot of intrapersonal communication going on in waiting rooms all over the world right now. In both of these cases, intrapersonal communication is usually unplanned and doesn’t include a clearly defined goal (Dance 28). We can, however, engage in more intentional intrapersonal communication. In fact, deliberate self-reflection can help us become more competent communicators as we become more mindful of our own behaviors. For example, your internal voice may praise or scold you based on a thought or action.

Of the forms of communication, intrapersonal communication has received the least amount of formal study. It is rare to find courses devoted to the topic, and it is generally separated from the remaining four types of communication. The main distinction is that intrapersonal communication is not created with the intention that another person will perceive it. In all the other levels, the fact that the communicator anticipates consumption of their message is very important.

Interpersonal Communication

Interpersonal communication is the process of exchanging messages between people whose lives mutually influence one another in unique ways in relation to social and cultural norms. This definition highlights the fact that interpersonal communication involves two or more people who are interdependent to some degree and who build a unique bond based on the larger social and cultural contexts to which they belong. So a brief exchange with a grocery store clerk who you don’t know wouldn’t be considered interpersonal communication, because you and the clerk are not influencing each other in significant ways. Obviously, if the clerk were a friend, family member, coworker, or romantic partner, the communication would fall into the interpersonal category.

Interpersonal communication can be planned or unplanned, but since it is interactive, it is usually more structured and influenced by social expectations than intrapersonal communication. Interpersonal communication is also more goal oriented than intrapersonal communication and fulfills instrumental and relational needs. In terms of instrumental needs, the goal may be as minor as greeting someone to fulfill a morning ritual or as major as conveying your desire to be in a committed relationship with someone. Interpersonal communication meets relational needs by communicating the uniqueness of a specific relationship. When thinking about interpersonal communication, Adler and Proctor (2017) identify the following characteristics of communication that makes it more interpersonal in nature.

Characteristics of Interpersonal Communication 

1. Uniqueness: Our interpersonal interactions are characterized by unique, idiosyncratic rules as opposed to social norms. A nickname you have for a friend, or a code word that only you and your family use when communicating with each other are examples of uniqueness that characterize interpersonal communication.

2. Irreplaceability: Our interpersonal interactions express the feeling that the other person/people are not replaceable in our lives. If we lose a best friend, we dont simply substitute in a new best friend.

3. Interdependence: An interpersonal relationship, and thus the communication, reflects the connectedness we have with the other(s). Our lives and actions are woven together, thus discussion  between a married couple about taking a job out of town would illustrate the interdependence of their relationship. Similarly, if our best friend is sad because their family pet passed away, we may feel sad too after talking with them. This is because our lives are interdependent and what happens to our friends can affect us as well.

4. Personal Disclosure: Interpersonal relationships are characterized by interactions where ALL the parties are disclosing personal, significant information with one another. In impersonal relationships, we offer superficial information (e.g., “How are you?”, “Ok, and you?”). In our interpersonal relationships both/all parties would reveal how they are truly feeling (e.g., “Sad because my dog passed away and I’m anxious about the start of a new quarter of college.”, “Ah, I’m so sorry to hear about your dog. I had my childhood dog pass away when I was 15 and it was a really hard time for me. I …..”).

5. Intrinsic rewards: Communication in interpersonal relationships expresses our appreciation for the relationship because of who the other person is, not what they have to offer (i.e., extrinsic reward). In 8th grade, our “best friend” might have been the kid whose family had a swimming pool (extrinsic reward), whereas now our  best friend is the person who we find to be honest and trustworthy (intrinsic characteristic).

Two additional features of interpersonal communication not discussed by Adler & Proctor include free will and addressability.

6. Free will: Interpersonal interactions reflect the free will of the other(s) to make decisions, form opinions, express feelings, etcetera. While we may like some of our families decisions, we may not like all of them. Encouraging and supporting others to share what they are truly thinking or feeling without fear of punishment (e.g., breaking-up, name calling) is an important feature of interpersonal communication.

7. Addressability: A final feature of interpersonal communication we will discuss this quarter is the aspect of adddressability. In the United States, we typically view the use of terms of address (e.g., first names, nick names) as a marker of an interpersonal relationship.


In the remaining  chapters, we will look at influences that affect our interpersonal communication will others, and skills to help us communicate more effectively.

Key Takeaways

  • Intrapersonal communication is communication with oneself and occurs only inside our heads.
  • Interpersonal communication is communication between people whose lives mutually influence one another.




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