Within the field of psychology there are branches that explore different types of human behaviour. Some of those branches turn their attention to hidden aspects of the human nature, like for example research into our linguistic faculties, other deal with modeling of various situations to better investigate our individual or group modes of action.
But perhaps one of the fields of psychology that deals with the realm of human life which is most familiar to us in our everyday goings-on is the branch investigating interpersonal communication. Interpersonal communication can be most generally defined as our communication with another person or within a group of persons. However, this overall description hides the true complexity and variety of the forms that interpersonal communication can take.
Indeed, to this aspect of our social life we can attribute such fundamental elements of out interaction with people as ability to initiate and maintain conversations or arguments, to listen, to speak privately and publicly, to generate and interpret patterns of nonverbal communication, manifest our unconscious modes of communication, and any other skills that actually enable us to be active members of society. At this point, considering the proximity of the phenomenon of interpersonal communication to our everyday life, we may wonder what are the proper ways of study of forms of interpersonal communication?
Of course, psychology as a strict science has its own standards and methods of investigation. But at the same time I think that we can find a lot of examples of interpersonal communication happening on a regular basis right before our eyes. To see this we may turn to the film “Dinner With Friends” (2001) directed by Norman Jewison, which provides a lot of interesting aspects relevant to the theory of interpersonal communication. Let us take a closer look and discuss such aspects.
The film “Dinner With Friends” tells a story of two married couples – Gabe and Karen, and Beth and Tom – that have been close friends for 12 years, and were spending their time over dinners discussing their relationships, their children, and other matters and interests that friends can share. However, when unexpectedly for Gabe and Karen Beth declares that she and Tom had decided to separate, this event inflicts a profound change in the pattern of their relationships.
As both couples undergo emotional turmoils it turns out that, ironically, their mutual love of cooking may be the only thing that remains between them, while their former friendship is gone. “Dinner with Friends” is mostly built upon conversations as the vehicle to unfold the story. The personages talk a lot about different things, from their love of food to their ideas about the meaning of life, and the director managed to make dialogues in the film very life-like, akin to those that we would expect from really good friends.
In this way, touching upon the theme of the complexity of human relations that is familiar and important to most of us, the film provides very subtle insights into the nuances of friendship, marriage as a very delicate union between people, and divorce as a force that can have profound impact on lives of people. Now, speaking about interpersonal communication we may immediately begin to find examples of it in the film.
Being the direct and the most personal form of interaction, interpersonal communication helps people learn about each other in an intimate way. We can see this in the film, which depicts communication between two people, also called dyadic communication. Dyadic communication occurs in privacy between Gabe and Karen, and Beth
In this regard, it is interesting to point out that as Gabe and Karen perceived their friendship with Beth and Tom as a close one, after learning about the alleged betrayal of Beth by Tom Karen is angry that she had been unaware of the brewing troubles in their marriage. Thus, the previous apparent intimacy of relations between the couples was not completely true, and it could hardly be such. As Karen bitterly says, one can spend the whole life with another person, and in the end it may turn out that the person you fully entrusted your fate to is an impostor.
To this, Gabe thoughtfully responds: “But it can`t be as simple as that”. Indeed, in accordance with the developmental view of interpersonal communication, with time communicators get to know more details about each another, develop ability to partly predict their behavior, and create their own rules of communication. But in the case of the couples from the movie, it seems that their established rules of communication at some point began to lag behind the changing nature of relationships within couples themselves, as most notably was the case with Beth and Tom.
At the same time, being influenced and disturbed by the divorce of friends Gabe and Karen also had to reevaluate their seemingly healthy marriage. This fact hints about another quality of interpersonal communication, which lies in its effect on formation of our self-concepts through confirmation and gradual transformation of our identities. In application to the characters from the film, this can be evidenced by the belief of Gabe and Karen that they knew their friends very well, while in reality this was not the case.
And when tensions between couples develop, Beth reevaluates the nature of gifts that Karen, who considered Beth to be “a mess”, had presented to her. In the scene where Beth declares that she has a new lover and Karen advises her to slow down, Beth observes: “. . . you love it when I’m a mess. Every Karen needs a Beth. ” It is not wonder that such aggressive stance of the person who had been your close friend can surely influence our self-perception. We also may interpret the interrelations between the characters of the film as representative of the small group communication aspect of interpersonal communication.
While it is somewhat difficult to define a small group, some researches propose to consider as small such a group in which each participant can immediately sense and remember the presence of other participants. This definition suits the situations of the personages of the film “Dinner With Friends” very well. Judging from this viewpoint, small group communication between the couples can be interpreted as a dynamical process of receiving inputs, processing the information, and outputting certain behavioral modes.
Input factors are present even before a group forms, and in our case it is the mutual background of the two couples, as Beth and Tom were in the first place introduced to each other by Gabe and Karen; process factors are developments that emerge in the process of communication within group, as exemplified in the film by rapid change of the format of individual relations between the personages themselves, and, consequently, between the couples in the aftermath of the break-up between Beth and Tom; finally, output factors are end results of the communication, and for Gabe, Karen, Beth, and Tom the end results were different, but in all cases prominent.
For Beth and Tom the divorce meant the transformation of their lives, and for Gabe and Karen the separation of their friends from their small group serves as an impetus to come to conscious conclusion that “practical matters outweigh abandon” when it comes to their own family chores. On ground of what we have discussed, we can see that in the end of the film all its personages are deeply affected by the changes in the disposition of their dyadic relations and relations within their small group. In this way, it becomes clear that interpersonal communication has a very important role for all of us because it can influence the most important aspects of our life, friendship and marriage among them.