If you were to distinguish interpersonal communication or IC, from communication in general, how many people would you say IC involves? Many people would say IC involves fewer people, often just two. Perhaps because much IC involves only two or three people. But if it were then an exchange between ‘a homeowner and a plumber would be interpersonal but a family conversation wouldn’t be. The number of people involved is not always a good criterion for defining IC.’
Another suggestion is that intimate contexts define IC. Would that mean ‘a couple on a first date in a romantic restaurant engage in more IC than an established couple in a shopping mall? Context doesn’t necessarily show what is unique about IC. What distinguishes IC is ‘the particular quality or character of interaction; what happens between people, not where they are or how many are present.’
The prefix inter means “between.” IC literally occurs between people. In a sense all communication happen between people, yet many interactions don’t involve us personally. Communication exists from a continuum from impersonal to interpersonal.
Martin Buber, a philosopher, presents three levels of communication: I-It, I-You, and I-Thou.
I-It communication is very impersonal. We treat others almost as objects, eg. salespeople, restaurant servers or clerical staff who are not often treated as people but as instruments to take orders and deliver what we want.
What do you do when someone hands you leaflets in malls? How do you respond to a homeless person who asks you money for food?
When a person ignores a beggar, it is an extreme form of I-It communication as the beggar is not even acknowledged.
I-You communication accounts for the majority of our interactions. People acknowledge each other as more than objects, more than just its, but they don’t fully engage each other as unique individuals. An example would be a salesclerk who asks, “‘May I help you?” and you respond, “I’m just browsing today.'”
I-Thou communication, as regarded by Buber, is ‘the highest form of human dialogue because each person affirms the other as cherished and unique. When we interact on an I-Thou level we meet others in their wholeness and individuality, not as merely occupants of social roles, but as human beings who we know and accept in their totality- their virtues and vices, hopes and fears, strengths and weaknesses’ (Wood, 2004).
Buber believed that only in I-Thou relationships do we fully become human, which for him meant we discard the guises we use most of the time and allow ourselves to be completely genuine in interaction.
Which among the three levels of communication: the I-It, the I-You, and the I-Thou do you usually engage in? Do you have a favorite or one you least like?