Chapter 1 – Introduction to Communication and Communication Theory in Nursing

Communication is Learned

Most people are born with the capacity and ability to communicate, but everyone communicates differently. This is because communication is learned rather than innate. As you have already seen, communication patterns are relative to context and culture.

As discussed earlier, context is a dynamic component of the communication process. Culture and context also influence how you perceive and define communication. Western culture tends to place more value on senders than on receivers, and on the content rather than the context of a message, like the Transmission Model. These cultural values are reflected in our definitions and models of communication. Western culture also influences communication within the healthcare domain. However, you may not have been socialized within a Westernized culture, and you may not be caring for someone who was socialized within a Westernized culture. Therefore, it is important to reflexively examine how your own culture, beliefs, and norms influence your communication, and to be aware of how you communicate.

A key principle of communication is that it is symbolic. This means that the words making up language systems do not directly correspond to something in reality. Instead, words stand in for or telegraph something. The fact that communication varies so much among people, contexts, and cultures illustrates the principle that meaning is not exclusively inherent in the selection of words. For example, let’s say you go to France on vacation and see the word poisson on the menu. Unless you know how to read French, you will not know that the symbol (word) is the same as the English symbol fish. Those two words don’t look the same at all, yet they symbolize the same object. If you went by how the word looks alone, you might think that the French word for fish is more like the English word poison and avoid choosing that for your dinner. Putting a picture of a fish on a menu would definitely help a foreign tourist understand what they are ordering, because the picture is an actual representation of the object rather than a symbol for it.

All symbolic communication is learned, negotiated, and dynamic. You know that the letters b-o-o-k refer to a bound object with multiple written pages. You also know that the letters t-r-u-c-k refer to a vehicle with a bed in the back for hauling things. But if you learned in school that the letters t-r-u-c-k referred to a bound object with written pages and b-o-o-k referred to a vehicle with a bed in the back, that would make just as much sense, because the letters don’t actually refer to the object – the word itself only has the meaning that is assigned to it.

Everyone is socialized into different languages, but we also speak differently based on the situation we are in. For example, in some cultures it is considered inappropriate to talk about family or health issues in public. However, in other cultures, it wouldn’t be considered odd to overhear people in a hospital waiting room talking about their loved ones who are currently in surgery. Additionally, some communication patterns are shared by very large numbers of people and some are particular to groups – nurses, for example, who have their own terminology and expressions that might not make sense to others. These examples aren’t on the same scale as differing languages, but they still illustrate how communication is learned, and how rules and norms influence how we communicate.


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Remixed with original content and adapted, with editorial changes, from:

Communication in the Real World: An Introduction to Communication Studies by University of Minnesota. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


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Introduction to Communication in Nursing Copyright © 2020 by Edited by Jennifer Lapum; Oona St-Amant; Michelle Hughes; and Joy Garmaise-Yee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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