When I was a young child, my family was invited to spend the day at a lake home. The Memmers had gone to a great deal of trouble, including preparing a meal that included fried chicken. When I chewed on a drumstick, I reacted to the fare, loud enough for everyone to hear, by saying, “This chicken is dry.” Things got quiet all of a sudden. While my mom later agreed my statement was true, it was certainly bad manners to say so. We weren’t invited back.
Manners are the social conventions, the basic rules, about how we should act to get along with others. One such rule is that when people try to do something nice for you, don’t return the favor by saying something that hurts their feelings. We all know the basic rules of manners like not reaching for food across the dinner table, saying “please” and “thank you,” and holding open the door for people coming in from the cold. Of course, there are more precise rules about which direction to pass food at the dinner table, what to say to the bride and groom in the reception line, how the silverware should be arranged, and when to apologize for being late. Some mannerly behaviors are arbitrary conventions which vary from culture to culture, but, nonetheless, violating social norms can be offensive.
Part of interpersonal communication relies upon an understanding of manners and social conventions. Manners are founded on the principle of having respect for others. So is interpersonal communication. As we grow up, we learn not to say the chicken is dry. As we gain skills at interpersonal communication, we learn what to say when someone else comments that the chicken is dry. We want to avoid making social blunders in the first place, but we also want to heal wounds when they occur. Interpersonal communication helps us to satisfy our own needs while taking into account the needs of others.
Interpersonal communication draws some information from the discipline of psychology and applies its lessons to how we communicate with family members, friends, romantic partners, and co-workers. The goal is to understand the role communication plays in how relationships are formed, strengthened, and dissolved.
Having good manners is often required to get a relationship off the ground. Think about how many unspoken rules there are involved in a simple greeting. There are rules about who initiates a handshake, what kind of handshake is appropriate, how long the handshake should last, smiling, making eye contact, and what to say. Instead of doing the American handshake ritual, we could instead have agreed upon, as a culture, an entirely different set of behaviors. When we meet someone we could jump up and down a few times, spin around twice, touch elbows, and sing Adele’s “Hello.” Try that next time you meet someone new. Careful, you may get locked up.
Many of the rule of manners are on how to behave during interactions with people we don’t know well. They may keep us out of trouble. For example, we say “excuse me” when we bump into someone at a concert. If we don’t the bump may be interpreted as a shove. Manners often go out the window when we get to know people well. If you sit at the dinner table with your family and politely say, “Junior, would you be so kind as to pass the gravy when you have a moment?” your family members may wonder if you have a fever. How we should behave depends on the situation. To make matters more complicated, the rules often change over time. Should we, for example, always send out handwritten thank you notes for gifts we receive? Or, is an email sufficient? If you email a thoughtful message showing gratitude for a birthday gift to a relative, it may be well received. Who buys stamps and thank you cards anymore? If you send out a mass e-mail thanking people for wedding gifts, you may ruffle some feathers, especially among the old-timers.
To be skillful at interpersonal communication, you have to be aware of basic customs and understand cultural differences. You need good manners. You have respect others. But, there is more to having good long-term relationships. You have to listen well, understand your own biases and needs, truly care about others, and know what to say to develop, strengthen, maintain, repair, and sometimes end relationships.
It’s not easy, but improving our interpersonal communication skills is worthwhile because our connections to others–our relationships–are what bring us happiness (or cause us pain). Good manners get our feet in the door, but interpersonal communication skills keep our feet out of our mouths and help us walk down the road to satisfying relationships.