When we mention the word theory to our students, we often watch their eyes glaze over as if it is the most boring thing we could talk about. Students sometimes have the misperception that theory has absolutely no relevance in their lives. But, did you know that you use and test theories of communication on a daily basis? Whether you know it or not, your theories guide how you communicate. For example, you may have a theory that attractive people are harder to talk to than less attractive people. If you believe this is true, you are probably missing opportunities to get to know entire groups of people.
Our personal theories guide our communication, but there are often problems with them. They generally are not complete or sophisticated enough to help us fully understand the complexities of the communication in which we engage. Therefore, it is essential that we go beyond personal theories to develop and understand ones that guide both our study and performance of communication.
Before we get into the functions theories perform for us, let’s define what we mean by theory. Hoover defined theory as “a set of inter-related propositions that suggest why events occur in the manner that they do” (38). Foss, Foss and Griffin defined theory as, “a way of framing an experience or event—an effort to understand and account for something and the way it functions in the world” (8).
Theories are a way of looking at events, organizing them, and representing them. Take a moment to reflect on the elegant simplicity of these two definitions by Hoover and Foss, Foss and Griffin. Any thoughts or ideas you have about how things work in the world or your life are your personal theories? These theories are essentially you’re framework for how the world works, and guide how you function in the world. You can begin to see how important it is that your theories are solid. As you’ll see, well-developed Communication theories help us better understand and explain the communicative behaviors of ourselves and others.