Symbolic Interactionism | Build Don't Break Relationships with Communication

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Symbolic Interactionism is a communication and sociological theory that helps us understand how to build relationships through communication. When we communicate we try to reach mutual understanding by creating shared meaning. But what happens when we're not able to achieve a shared understanding? Broken relationships.

Symbolic interactionism.

Well that’s a mouthful! But it comes down to a simple principle: how we communicate is predicated on our treatment of symbols.

Why does this matter? Because symbols have everything to do with how we engage with the people around us. 

Remember, our goal is to build -- not break -- relationships with communication. And symbolic interactionism is deeply intertwined with that.

In fact, we communicate through symbols a lot more frequently than you might think.

Symbols are everything you can think of. They can be people, places, things, time, words, numbers, letters, designs… literally anything that has additional meaning ascribed to it. 

At first blush, you might be thinking, oh well, that’s easy. Each symbol has one agreed-upon meaning. I’ll just memorize the pairs and be done with it.

Well, I hate to break it to you, Explearners, but symbols aren’t always that easy to decode.

Here’s why: symbols are polysemous in nature.

This means that people can ascribe any number of different meanings to symbols. And to make things more complicated, people are not always in agreement of what those meanings are. 

As you can imagine, this can make things tricky when you want to establish an understanding with the person with whom you are communicating.

Let’s look at two examples to illustrate this:

Example 1:

Fred planned a big surprise birthday extravaganza for his girlfriend, Klara. To catch her off guard, he throws the party a few days before her actual birthday. Clever right? Well, after being surprised, Klara freaks out and leaves her own party. Fred thought she’d be happy, but instead she was furious. 

Why? 

Because this party is being held before her birthday and in her culture, celebrating a birthday before the actual date is considered bad luck! 

Sadly, this topic was never discussed (it was a surprise, after all), so Fred had no idea he was committing a huge cultural faux pas! And now he’s got a furious girlfriend to contend with. Yikes!

In this example, the symbol is the act of celebrating a birthday before the actual birth date. Fred and Klara treat this same symbol very differently: one viewed it positively, the other negatively. Confusion abounds.

Let’s have a look at another example.

Example 2:

Aylin and Natalya are really close friends from college. During a recent coffee date, Natalya was devastated when she found out that Aylin had just gotten engaged. 

Wait, shouldn’t she be happy for her friend?

Well, the reason Natalya was so upset is because she felt Aylin should have informed her much earlier, way before she actually got engaged. In her mind, that’s what friends do. So by not disclosing the information until now, Natalya feels like maybe they aren’t great friends after all.

But let’s now look at it from Aylin’s perspective. Aylin comes from a cultural background where people believe in the nazar, mati, or “evil eye”. In such cultures, people usually keep exciting news private for fear of inciting envy and potentially jeopardizing the favorable situation. In the U.S., we call this “jinxing”.

It had nothing to do with how close she felt to Natalya. In fact, Natalya was the first person she told about it! Instead, it had everything to do with a deep cultural belief.

So in this example, the symbol is withholding information. For Natalya, that was an insult. For Aylin, it was a cultural necessity.

Had Natalya known that her friend was so superstitious, she would have been better equipped to handle the surprise and less angry at her friend.

Wow, human interaction is such a beautiful complex and intricate system, isn’t it?

In today’s lesson, we’re going to look at a few strategies for navigating this complexity resulting from symbolic interactionism so that you can keep your cool and thrive in even the most confusing social situations.

So stick around.

Language is a vehicle through which we communicate. But language does not exist in a vacuum.

Language is influenced by culture and society.

And a big part of society revolves around symbols.

But the problem with symbols is that not everyone agrees on their meaning. The examples in the intro show how big a problem this can be, even among close friends.

Now the reason I am sharing all of this information is to highlight the extent to which our version of life is profoundly shaped by our understanding of symbols. And our treatment of these symbols will influence our communication. 

That’s right. The meaning we ascribe to everything we encounter in our day-to-day lives will determine what information we choose to share with people, how we relay that information, and how we interpret the things people say to us.

This phenomenon is known as symbolic interactionism. 

When we communicate, we aim for shared meaning. That allows us to understand each other.

But what happens when we do not achieve shared meaning? That’s when we run into miscommunications and misunderstandings, which might result in breaking a relationship instead of building a relationship.

Needless to say, that’s not good.

Knowing that symbols inform how we communicate with others and that the meaning of these symbols varies from person to person, what should we do here?

To come up with some strategies, we’ll take a look at both sides of this frustrating situation:

First, we’ll look at what to do if you’re the person who holds certain cultural and societal beliefs that you know are different from the person you’re interacting with. We’ll call that Person A.

Then we’ll look at the person on the other end who is unaware of their own cultural knowledge gap. We’ll call that Person B.

Let’s start with Person A.

Person A:

Alright, so if you have your particularities and peculiarities that you know are different from the worldview of the person you are communicating with, what should you do? 

The most important thing is to share the underlying belief system that you’re operating under with the other person so that they don’t assume the worst or take something personally.

If you ascribe specific meaning to something, and you have a hunch the other person doesn’t, see if you can articulate that meaning to the other person. 

One way to do this is to share past experiences (both positive and negative) that have led you to believe certain things, defining your sense of reality. Stories go a long way.

You can also discuss the cultural beliefs that you were raised with so that they have a better understanding of how you interpret certain symbols.

This approach will not only strengthen your relationship with them, it will also expand their worldview and improve their interactions with other people.

Pretty cool right?

Now let’s look at Person B.

Person B:

What do you do if you’re the person on the other side of the table? In this case, you’re not necessarily aware of, or prepared for, the gap in understanding.

In such a situation, you might feel a sense of insecurity or confusion.

But before we make it all about us, let’s first remember to respond, not react.

To do so, consider the following:

  1. Have an open mind

Give them the benefit of the doubt by assuming they have your best intentions at heart. If they did something that offended you, embrace the likelihood that it wasn’t intentional. Accept the fact that you might not fully understand their motivations.

(2) Pay attention to contextual communication clues

Pay close attention to their nonverbals, tone of voice, prosody, and micro-expressions. If they are laughing or smiling, they probably think they are delighting you, so if you feel offended, it’s probably due to a gap in communication. 

If you notice that they have gone quiet, or are fidgeting, it’s probably because they are doing something that makes them uncomfortable.

Once you’ve picked up on these contextual clues, it’s your job to close the communication gap between the two of you. 

Before you react, try to collect more information to understand why they are behaving the way they are. Try to get a clearer picture of their motivations and what constraints they are working with.

The more you can get in their shoes, the closer you will get to a mutual understanding.

----

Wheh, nice work! That was a gnarly one. But hopefully these examples and strategies helped deepen your clarity on the topic.

To recap, symbolic interactionism is a communication and sociological theory that highlights how much our belief systems shape the way we think, which influences how we communicate.

We ascribe meaning to symbols (which include people, places, things, etc) and we are basing that association on our own experiences, cultural background, superstitions, and worldviews.

Remember that humans create society and symbols are socially constructed.

But there is not one overarching society, just as there is not one absolute meaning ascribed to each symbol that exists.

There are myriad meanings embedded in the symbol, making symbols polysemous. There is no absolute truth.

In other words, reality is relative.

And thus, people’s definition of the situation (which is a term Goffman created) can vary. And if it does, then it will be more challenging to create shared meaning in social interaction.

Our job as effective and considerate communicators is to be mindful of the reality that not everyone’s definition of reality is the same. 

It’s up to you to learn as many of those symbolic interpretations as you can. That is the value of interacting with people from different linguistic backgrounds, cultures, countries, faiths, social groups, and people heralding from all walks of life.

Why’s this important? Because things that are so deeply inculcated in us can make us close minded, intolerant, impatient, and unempathetic.

Adopting an open mind will help us keep our value judgments in check, and hopefully get us to think twice before writing this person off as X and the other as Y.

If you’ve been on this channel for a while you know that we espouse inclusivity, diversity, and acceptance, which humans can co-create through understanding. 

How do we reach understanding? Through effective communication and social interaction. 

A deeper understanding of symbolic interactionism will go a long way toward strengthening these skills.

Now that you understand symbolic interactionism, and our strategies for building relationships, not breaking them, I’d love to hear what you think. 

What strategies do you use when you are trying to create shared meaning with people who might have differing worldviews from your own? 

What are some ways that you maintain an open mind during social interaction and set value judgement aside or leave the superstitions out of your communication?

Share whatever is on your mind with us in the comments below.

And, if you loved this lesson, please be sure to let me know. You can give this video a thumb’s up on YouTube and if you haven’t done so already subscribe to join our tribe of Explearners so you never miss a lesson. If you ring that bell, you’ll get notified about new lessons and our weekly live streams. 

Email this video to a friend or coworker who also wants to supercharge their social skills. 

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And remember, check out our other lessons on our blog. 

With that, have an awesome week, Explearners. 

Thank you so much for joining me and I’ll see you next time for your next Explearning lesson.

Happy Explearning 😊