Skip navigation

The phrase ‘communicative style’ gets thrown at me a lot.   It’s a psychological term, and a linguistic term, and it is a perfectly legitimate phrase, but it also occasionally gets used in a way reminiscent of a conversational flashbang grenade, startling and distracting while confusion is slipped in.

So what is a communicative style?

It’s talked about a lot in “RELATIONSHIP ADVICE” areas.  Somewhere between psychology and life counseling is the dark heart of relationship counseling, and in there people talk about this a lot, saying a lot of rubbish about making sure to “know your communicative style.”


COMMUNICATIVE STYLE is the way in which a person shares information through language.  Each individual has their own communicative style.  In a sense, it overlaps with the linguistic term IDIOLECT, which is a person’s unique dialect—because we all have our own unique way of talking, blah blah blah.

OBVIOUSLY, though, we don’t all have completely mutually exclusive unique dialects, because OTHERWISE WE WOULDN’T BE ABLE TO COMMUNICATE, and you would just be reading gibberish.  Which raises the question of WHY ARE YOU READING GIBBERISH? YOU HAVE BETTER THINGS TO DO WITH YOUR TIME.




The idea is that you should know the way you talk, and know what you mean when you say things.  In other words, in an ideal world everyone would possess a certain degree of metalinguistic awareness, which in English means that you know the way you talk.  Think about the myriad subtleties of meaning that can be attached to just a word, like ‘best friend.’ [Ted, say I’m your best friend!]   Or ‘relationship.’

Because, as was once pointed out to me in a vain attempt to change the subject, any sustained interpersonal contact is a relationship.  A relationship is, esentially, the interaction between any two things that relate to each other.  So you have a relationship with your friends, with your best friends [TED], with your parents, your barista…etc.  But obviously when you’re talking about a RELATIONSHIP, you’re probably not talking about your barista (all that caffeine fries the frontal lobe and short-term memory anyway).


IN A RELATIONSHIP between you and ANYONE, an understanding of communicative style is IMPORTANT—knowing how you talk.


In the U.S., we crazy American-speaking people tend to ask permission in a way that is rather assumptive.  “I’m gonna do X, want to come with?” In contrast, in Japan, the method of asking permission is much more subtle and negative, something that has been described more as “do you want to not do X?”

ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF COMMUNICATIVE STYLE might be how you talk about DISLIKING things.  Do you use passive voice? Do you soften it with hedge words? “This isn’t my favorite thing.” “This does not please me,” etc? Or do you just say straight out, “I don’t like this?” Do you make a strong claim? “This sucks!”  Understanding how you talk about things—especially your feelings—is key to understanding your own communicative style.  Which is key.

You see, the thing about a communicative style is that if you can’t communicate, it’s not an effective communicative style.  So if you’re talking to someone and trying to communicate, and they’re not getting the message, that’s a failure of communication, and if you want to get the word across, it’s on you to phase shift and try another tack.  I’m sure we’ve all had moments like this—it happens quite often.

There is a tendency to talk about “failures of communication” as if they were third-party things.  Something due to a “failure of communication” is an unavoidable accident in these viewpoints—an event we can try to avoid, but in vain.

Is this my viewpoint? Well…yes and no.

Remember that language cannot take place in a vacuum.  There is no communication unless there is interaction.  And if I’m talking to someone and trying to advance a point, it’s on me to make sure that point gets across.  As an agent in a conversation, it is my role to communicate clearly.

So what is communicative style?

Communicative style is how you convey information.  It is a continuum, separated by degrees of subtlety.  It is a mechanism that should be ever-changing, sliding back and forth from direct to indirect as needed to get your point across.  It should be in constant flux, because language is in a constant flux.  In communicative style we find many useful tools—from subtle social cues to blisteringly obvious come-ons—and also many harmful habits—like passive-aggressiveness and mixed signals.

“So what’s the point of this blog post?”  You might ask.  And good thing you did, because I almost forgot to include one.

How much were you thinking about this before the post? How often do you think about the way you communicate with others?  This is a two-page post that can’t even begin to capture the infinite subtleties of interpersonal relations.  But in the days and weeks to come, we’ll explore this subject further, simultaneously investigating the wonders of psychology and anthropology and also letting me subtly vent about my deepest interests.  So think about your communicative style. It’s unique.  No one else expresses their feelings in the same way you do.  Think about that.

Think about the people you talk to.  Your friends, and your enemies.  The people you kinda like, but wish they would go away.  The people you really like; like, like like.  The people who write sentences like that last one.  What are you saying to them when you’re communicating with them?  What are they hearing? The two are not necessarily the same thing.  And that’s something to chew on.  That’s metalinguistic awareness.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: