36 Functions of Communication Theory

While theories in many disciplines can be hard for some to understand, in a field like Communication, our theories are important to understand because they directly impact our daily lives. In this respect, they serve several functions in guiding our communication.

Communication Theory and You

Photo of a couple smiling into the camera
Sean De’Bey with Sylfronia King


In elementary school you might have believed in cooties. Or, you might have believed that if a boy was mean to a girl, he must have liked her, and vice versa. In Jr. High and High School, finding a date to the homecoming or prom could be one of the most intimidating things to do. Now, in college, the dating world has once again evolved. The ambiguity between what defines a date and a friendly night out can be frustrating for some and exciting for others. Regardless, when situations like these appear, it is easy to seek advice from friends about the situation, ask a parent, or search the web for answers. Each of these resources will likely provide theories about functioning in relationships that you can choose to use or dismiss when clarifying the relationship’s dynamic situation. What are some theories you’ve heard about how to communicate in cross-gendered relationships?

The first function theories serve is that they help us organize and understand our communication experiences. We use theories to organize a broad range of experiences into smaller categories by paying attention to “common features” of communication situations (Infante, Rancer & Womack). How many times have you surfed the internet and found articles or quizzes on relationships and what they mean for different genders? Deborah Tannen, author of You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversations, argues that men and women talk in significantly different ways and for significantly different reasons. Of course, these differences cannot be applied to all men and women. But, theories on gender communication help us organize and understand the talk of the different genders in a more simplified context so we can understand general patterns of communication behavior. This helps us make appropriate decisions in gendered communication situations.

A second function of theories is that they help us choose what communicative behaviors to study. Theories guide where we choose to look, what we look at, and how we look at communicative phenomenon. Remember back to Chapter 1 where we defined communication study. Theories focus our attention on certain aspects of that definition. If you find that Tannen’s theories regarding how men and women talk differ from your own perceptions, or that they’re outdated, you might choose to more closely study the talk or non-verbals of men and women to see if you can rectify the difference in theoretical perspectives. You likely already do this on a personal level. Googling something as simple as “how to act in a relationship,” will lead you to hundreds of websites and articles breaking down the dynamics of relationships depending on one’s gender. Likewise, if you want to persuade someone to do something for you, you probably have a theory about what strategies you can use to get them to do what you want. Your theory guides how you approach your persuasive attempts, and what you look for to see if you were successful or not.

A third function of theories is that they help us broaden our understanding of human communication. Scholars who study communication share theories with one another online, through books, journal articles, and at conferences. The sharing of theories generates dialogue, which allows us to further refine the theories developed in this field. Tannen’s book allowed the public to re-think the personal theories they had about the communication of men and women. With the opportunity to find countless theories through new books, magazines, the Internet, and TV shows, the general public has the opportunity to find theories that will influence how they understand and communicate in the world. But, are these theories valid and useful? It’s likely that you discuss your personal theories of communication with others on a regular basis to get their feedback.

A fourth function of theories is that they help us predict and control our communication. When we communicate, we try to predict how our interactions will develop so we can maintain a certain level of control. Imagine being at a party and you want to talk to someone that you find attractive. You will use some sort of theory about how to talk to others to approach this situation in order to make it more successful. As in all situations, the better your theoretical perspectives, the better chances for success when communicating. While theories do not allow us to predict and control communication with 100% certainty, they do help us function in daily interactions at a more predictable and controlled level. Notice that when you are successful, or unsuccessful, in your interactions, you use this information to assess and refine your own theoretical perspectives.

A fifth function of theories is that they help us challenge current social and cultural realities by providing new ways of thinking and living. People sometimes make the mistake of assuming that the ways we communicate are innate rather than learned. This is not true. In order to challenge the communicative norms we learn, people use critical theories to ask questions about the status quo of human communication, particularly focusing on how humans use communication to bring advantage and privilege to particular people or groups. For example, Tannen argues that when men listen to women express their troubles, they listen with the purpose of wanting to provide a fix, or give advice. Tannen argues that many times, women are not looking for advice or a fix, but rather empathy or sympathy from their male conversational partners. With this understanding, it’s possible to begin teaching men new strategies for listening in cross-gendered conversations that serve to build stronger communication ties. Critical theories challenge our traditional theoretical understandings, providing alternative communicative behaviors for social change.

Table with 2 columns, five rows.  1st Function: Theories help us organize and understand our communication experiences. 2nd Function: Theories can guide us in choosing which behaviors to study. 3rd Function: Theories help us broaden our personal knowledge of human communication. 4th Function: Theories are tools to help predict and control our communication. 5th Function: Theories can aid us in challenging current social and cultural realities.

While theories serve many useful functions, these functions don’t really matter if we do not have well-developed theories that provide a good representation of how our world works. While we all form our personal theories through examining our experiences, how are communication theories developed?

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Introduction to Communication by Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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