Updated: Aug 30, 2019
This blog post exists because, a few nights ago, I was having a conversation about another conversation I'd had years ago, haha. (So meta!) I was recalling a Philosophy of Communication scholar saying we live in an age where people do not "know their role." At the time, the comment seemed somewhat elitist (or something), but I now realize there are times when adhering to this idea could help people improve their communicative practices, especially between conversational partners whose hierarchical roles are unequal in the workplace, school settings, etc. Once a faux-pas occurs, it is out there, bouncing around and potentially creating problematic interpersonal relationships.
Fast-forward to tonight, when I came across Berger's (1979) article, "Beyond Initial Interaction: Uncertainty, Understanding, and the Development of Interpersonal Relationships," which appeared originally in the edited collection titled Language and Social Psychology. (I had a scanned copy of the article from a class I had a while back.) Interestingly, Berger starts out with some references to foundational theories that historically served interpersonal communication, including theories from psychology, sociology, and—you guessed it—sociolinguistics.
There is some discussion of the "role" issue in this article, too. Citing Jones and Davis (1965), Berger (1979) says, "When actors conform to norms and rules, they are behaving like all other members of the social group which share these norms and rules. The actor is not distinctive and is thus not perceived as an individual with a unique personality" (p. 125). This idea tells us that normative behaviors, as described from Jones and Davis's "correspondent inference theory," present expected and "predictable" behaviors, which are difficult to analyze and evaluate (Berger, 1979, p. 125). When a speaker (or "actor") deviates from expected behavior, the other person then has something to analyze and can assess the quality of the interaction. From that initial point—because two strangers can never meet again for the very first time—future communication will be shaped by the previous interactions and impressions.
Many facets of one's role can emerge when, say, (1) a new acquaintance insults you, or (2) an established friend or family member unexpectedly blurts out something hurtful or rude. The relational closeness can be of great importance when assessing the severity and type of [possibly irreversible] interpersonal damage that occurs. Essentially, Berger's (1979) article explores the notion that an initial interaction with another person can shape the resulting impressions that set the tone for future interactions. Speaking outside of one's expected role can create interactional friction of sorts.
It's getting late, as it's about 2:00 a.m. here, so I need to cut things off for now. However, I do plan to re-explore the theories in this foundational article to see how they might apply in the same or similar ways today. I'm hoping to complete a paper on workplace communication soon, too, so this could be important to building that discussion.
The conversation will continue. (I didn't even talk about the "stage" metaphor yet!)
Berger, C. (1979). Beyond initial interaction: Uncertainty, understanding, and the development of interpersonal relationships. In H. Giles and R. N. St Clair (Eds.), Language and social psychology (pp. 122-144). Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell.