Communication Competence and the Myths of Culture and Peace
Sebastian Mahfood
February 8, 2001

            Communication competence is generally defined as the ability to hold a viable conversation with one or more people from any given group.  Applied to William Donahue's interactive/interdependence model of peace, its meaning expands to include the ability to hold a viable, mutually supportive, dialogic relationship with another entity, whether that be a person or a nation of persons.  Because a community represents the coming together of individuals within its own cultural paradigms, communities can generally be said to be functionally competent in the discursive relations between members of their own groups.  While consensus is not a prerequisite for peace within any community, cohesion is, and it is the loss of group solidarity through internal strife or external pressure that creates instability and conflict.  A lack of group solidarity is in part what distinguishes a community from a society, which may comprise a group of individuals gathered around a common tradition but which also includes a large enough number of disparate traditions as to preclude cohesive communication competence between them.  A community, therefore, is interdialogic, while a society is not necessarily so.  Based on these thoughts, the purpose of this first integration essay will be to demonstrate how the application of communication-competence-based models of discourse onto the body politic should necessarily generate attitudes requisite to the successful growth of the community and its maintenance of peace with neighboring communities. 

            Lasswell's 1948 message transmission theory offers that "a convenient way to describe an act of communication is to answer the following questions: Who/ Says What/ In Which Channel/ To Whom/ With What Effect," and he posits that "the scientific study of the process of communication tends to concentrate upon one or another of these questions" (Leiss 128).  The communication competence model, furthermore, is defined by Wiemann as "the ability of an interactant to choose among available communicative behaviors in order that he may successfully accomplish his own interpersonal goals during an encounter while maintaining the face and line of his fellow interactants within the constraints of the situation" (25).  Because communication competence is regulated by factors external to the dialogue itself, e.g., the race, age, gender, regional background, primary group, language, socio-economic status, political views, and others, I would argue that the communicative behaviors available to either participant are culturally bound.  For competent communication to occur, therefore, one or several of the participants in any dialogic exchange must transcend their base cultural limitations and envision the other not as other but as part of humankind, e.g. as part of self.  Steier calls this an act of translation, which "builds on an awareness of these different conversations [read cultural interactivity] as ways of structuring and sustaining realities and requires an attempt to see a world or worlds in others' terms” (76).   He argues that for this to work, we have to realize that what is happening during communicative acts is actually a “translating [of the] reciprocators' conversations into the language of our professional community" (76).  Translation of this sort, while inherent in our interpretation of the speech acts of others, can, of course, lead to misapplication or misunderstanding of the speaker’s intent.  For that reason, I would argue that, as a way of reconciling with others our own cultural biases, the competent communicant must derive the source of his or her inspired conversation from general human nature and gradually through the course of the dialogue particularize the direction of the discourse to the time, place, and instance in which it occurs.  Instead of considering Lasswell's theory through the parts into which it can be deconstructed, therefore, it is imperative that the base the theory provides be considered holistically throughout the conversation within every speech act.

            Transcendence is a difficult concept to effect, and this is primarily due to the abstract nature of its definition within society.  If a society is comprised of disparate cultures, then transcendence in communication competence is somewhat already being applied.  The degrees to which it is being applied ought, then, vary the further one is removed from the primary group of which he or she is a member, but I would argue that the same process of transcendence that needs to take place between cultures already takes place within cultures, and if it takes place within cultures, it does so to the same degree between them, with any differences being based entirely on perception and not fact.  For example, my wife and I live in the same house, work in similar fields of education, come from the same generation, enjoy similar interests and activities, and are otherwise functional members of a new primary group of our own creation; however, we are separated by gender concerns, an income disparity, family background, and differences in taste and pet-rearing strategies (and that comes before any consideration of how the particulars of a day's events or our interactions with others progressively shape us in ways distinct from how we shape one another).  Yet, we are able to enjoy the connubial felicity our communication competence with one another generates through an act of transcendence (and the act of translation can be included in here, too) whenever we come together.  A similar act of transcendence occurs between disparate cultures, only this time we expect it to do so and brace ourselves for it to the effect that there is a greater degree of necessary transcendence perceived between the dialogic pair.  Ultimately, what I am arguing, is that culture is the mode through which we develop a sense of self and other, but that it really exists only as a means of self/other identification and not as the thing itself, which is humanity.  Transcendence, then, is a rather nebulous term because it operates under the myth of culture and is in fact a system created by that myth to enable us to deal with it.

            A myth, of course, does not have to be true to have power to effect change in society--it merely has to have value--and the myth of culture has value in our dealings with people who are not prima facie like ourselves.  To what imagined degree I make allowance in my discourse patterns between a young, attractive white woman and an old, withered black man, then, can be quantified in an observation of the ease (or difficulty) of my discourse, the language of my body, the pace of my conversation, and other extrinsic traits of corporal fluency, and qualified in the manner in which I engage in the discourse, the strain with which I approach the person and the subject being discussed, the motivation I have for involvement, and other intrinsic characteristics of mental preparedness.  While it is harder to quantify the distinctions between my discourse with two young beautiful women or two old withered men, all other factors, if that is possible, being equal, it is not more difficult to qualify the distinctions I place on the value of the dialogue in any given context.  One woman’s conversation might be more pleasing than the other woman’s or one man’s conversation might be more interesting than the other man’s even though I might carry myself in a similar mien with both members of either group.  Predicated on the type of encounter I have with any given representative of any given race or gender, I might inductively come to assume a certain attitude about that particular race or gender and then deductively apply that attitude to all of its representatives.  Stereotyping of this sort is how we shape our perceptions of culture both within our own cultural paradigms and outside of them, and it helps us to develop discursive patterns of interaction that lead to communication competence.  The ability to see that for what it is, then, provides the opportunity to gaze into the humanity within the stereotype.

            Conflict occurs when people cannot see beyond the paradigms their cultures have helped them to create in the responses these cultures have to the society of which they are a part.  Conflict, however, is not always a destructive thing because it provides opportunities for the greater peaceful development of bridges between communities that ideally take the shape of ever-integrated Venn diagrams progressively churning cultural identities into a single community of dialogic participants striving for the common goal of happiness, which parallels Wiemann et alia’s new model of competent communication as one that is process-oriented, generally appropriate and effective for a given relationship (36).  Essentially, this model of “competent communication produces optimal distribution of control, expressed affiliation, and orientation to goal” (36).  Wiemann et alia’s model is extremely effective for me in its breakdown of context into cultural, physical, and relational factors and in its breakdown of the individual into self-concept, cognitive skills, and behavioral skills.  These combined with interactional goals, relational history, future expectations, and the complexity and reflexivity of the process (the former referring to adjustments made within the relationship, the latter to cross-situational generalizability of experience) produce the image of a dynamic, interactive community that can transcend itself (39-40).  While this “relational model of competence places an emphasis on the communication process [and] not on relational outcomes” (40), it is the multi-dimensional process that is more important than any perceived outcome along the linear historical plane it encompasses.  Conflict, in essence, is what makes this progressive development possible; in short, conflict keeps the peace.

            Communicative conflict between cultures or within cultures is different from ideological conflict in that the latter case is based on disagreement with the motives or actions of others whereas the former case is based on misunderstanding of those motives or actions.  Cahn defines conflict as “refer[ing] to the general concept of any difference or incompatibility that exists between people” (59), and he allows that “before partners can engage in effective problem solving, faulty cognition needs correction” (55).  These are salient perspectives, but they need to include the distinction I have drawn above between healthy and unhealthy conflict.  The difference lies not so much between positive forms of conflict and negative forms of conflict, but rather in attitudes by which conflict itself is understood and addressed, for, after all, the opposite of conflict is not peace, but complacency.  Peace is, according to the psychological definition provided by Donahue, an “integrative, collaborative interaction, conducted in the context of nonfrustrating circumstances, that does not avoid conflict, or capitulate to the other's demands" (71).  It is the friction between individuals within a given community and between communities in a given society that gives humanity its character through the growth opportunities it provides, and that is where the concept of communication competence is most necessarily applied.  Lannaman addresses this point quite well in his explication of how society has come to deal with itself during the last century of its progressive communicative interaction: “If modernism dissolved the unity of social community by championing the individual,” he writes, “postmodernism involves the interaction between the fragments" (122).  Cultural identity, it can then be said, necessarily leads to cultural awareness, which almost certainly leads to multicultural integration and intercourse.  If that leaves us with a metaphysical kind of fragmented symmetry as the only means by which to know ourselves, then that is something with which our current chronotopical dispositions are necessarily forced to deal.  Communicative competence, then, becomes not the way in which we deal with others, but the way in which we deal with the greater extensions of ourselves.

            This brings us to the conclusion that human happiness is a generative process of peace through conflict, which is fundamentally different from the traditional notions of peace as the absence of conflict or conflict as an interruption in the state of peace.  Donahue adds that "accomplishing peace among nations, organizations, groups, and individuals means understanding those parties and how they negotiate their complex social order.  Only by tapping into that social order can we begin to help parties build something constructive for themselves.  Every mediator lives by this rule" (87).  I would qualify that on the grounds that the emphasis should be placed on the objective gerund “understanding” and not on the subjective gerund “accomplishing.”  In either case, “means,” as a linking verb, morphs the two concepts into one.  Communication competence turns into more than the general coherence and success of dialogic interactants by creating an overriding theory of the growth of human potential through the struggle to transcend the perceived barriers that classify humankind.  Without the other, we lose sense of self because we lose the juxtaposition of self-within-other with whom we can dialogue to strengthen the dynamic nature of the individual in microcosm and of the society in macrocosm.  Peace is only achieved through praxis, and it is not an end in itself but a process that is governed by the attitude engendered in the active reflection that praxis is.  As a process, peace becomes life-sustaining in the same sense in which it is life-long, and that is why the current notion of peace as a static development in the progressive growth of humanity is more mythical than real, for its power currency is predicated on its value and not on its fact.


Cahn, Dudley D. “Conflict Communication: An Emerging Communication Theory of Interpersonal Conflict.” Emerging Theories of Human Communication. Ed. by Branislov Kovacic.  New York: State University Press, 1997:  (45-64). 

Donahue, William A.  "An Interactionist Framework for Peace." Emerging Theories of Human Communication. Ed. by Branislov Kovacic.  New York: State University Press, 1997:  65-87. 

Lannamann, John W. "The Politics of Voice in Interpersonal Communication Research."  Social Approaches to Communication.  Ed. by Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz.  New York: Guilford Press, 1995: 114-34. 

Leiss, William. "Risk Communication and Public Knowledge." Communication Theory Today.  Ed. by David Crowley and David Mitchell.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994: 127-39. 

Steier, Frederick.  "Reflexivity, Interpersonal Communication, and Interpersonal Communication Research." Social Approaches to Communication.  Ed. by Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz.  New York: Guilford Press, 1995: 63-87. 

Wiemann, John M., Jiro Takai, Hiroshi Ota, & Mary O. Wiemann.  "A Relational Model of Communication Competence."  Emerging Theories of Human Communication. Ed. by Branislov Kovacic.  New York: State University Press, 1997:  (25-44).