An understanding of interpersonal communication is an essential ingredient in cooking up good relationships. Interpersonal communication lies at the junction of our cultural understanding and construction and consequently, each of these components influences one another in more ways we can imagine. Language is perhaps the most pertinent tool in communications, we may infer to the semantics of each lexicon in the language to understand Language as a component on its own. But this is neither the only nor the foremost element of importance in communication due to the complex process by which culture and communication influence each other. There are cultural etiquettes that regulate the appropriate expression for the language. And from real life observations of people who get in trouble for not following the appropriate etiquettes indicates to me that how something is said may weigh more importance than what is actually said. Although it may not be all true in the case of romance studies (there is not exactly a way to say "you need to put on some deodorant" romantically). Nevertheless, the understanding for this rule of expression can only enhance what you want to get across to your love one.
Broadly speaking, communication style varies from one ethnicity to another due to the nature of the construction of the language. Theorists have distinguished digital, verbal communication, and analogic, nonverbal communication, components within languages (Bennett, 17). Depending on the language, some weigh more toward one form of communication than the other. English would be an example of a language that weighs more for the digital form of communication. In "Basic Concepts of intercultural communication", Bennett parallels this phenomena in English to computers by describing the wordsí symbolization of "categories of phenomena in the same arbitrary way that on/off codes symbolize numbers and operations in a computer". Contrarily, analogic form of communication "represents phenomena by creating contexts which can be experienced directly" (Bennett, 17). This distinction is obvious by comparing languages of different origination, for example, Japanese and American. This distinction has direct implication for their romantic expression. A person who grew up in the Japanese culture may refrain from saying, "I love you" to his or her lover, but use nonverbal cues to get the point across. To someone who grew up in the American culture, this kind of treatment from a lover maybe considered "cold" due to the absence of the usual format of expression. Another thing to consider is that the speaker maybe more perceptive to picking up verbal or non-verbal cues due to their language training which give rise to the possibility that certain cues are automatically tuned out from their reception.
Although the digital and analogical distinction is harder to make between Russian and English because of their common Indo-European descent, there are yet other elements of differentiation in communication that can be recognized. For example, the personal space in Russia is much smaller than America, hence the conversation distance between speakers is much closer than the comfortable range for an American. Likewise, the comfortable conversation distance for an American may offend a Russian for he/she may perceive this greater distance as standoffish on part of the American. This element of differentiation plays out interestingly within the realm of romance because the American culture tends to associate such close space with intimacy. Iíve collided head on with this concept while carrying out fieldwork on a few of my Russian colleagues. By applying my understanding of personal space as someone who has been brought up in the American culture, I read their close contact with each other to mean that they were dating each other or possibly married. I was at a complete befuddled when I found out that they were just casual friends; it was really frustrating for someone who earnestly believed that they are well tuned to nonverbal cues.
Along the same lines of personal space, method of greeting also varies significantly between that of the Russian culture and the American culture. In Russia, it is quite a prevalent etiquette to greet people with "hearty handshakes", hugs and kisses (Turkington, 210). This form of greeting is applied across the gender. Problems arise when an American male is confronted with such greeting because theyíve been raised in a culture where same sex contact is seen as a taboo and thus such greeting can be easily perceived as an intrusion of personal space. It can be also be misleading if such warm welcomes are interpreted as "romantic" advancements.
So far, weíve looked at interpersonal communication and its specific implications of culturally constructed meanings. Now weíll approach romance from the other side of the spectrum; seeing what the culture constructions implicates about communication. Romance as a cultural construction contains slippery definitions. This is due to our ever-changing cultural identity. Religion is one such changing cultural phenomena. In "Consuming the Romantic Utopia," Illouz speaks of the borrowing of love from the religious sector, calling this process the "secularization of love". At this point, itís interesting to ask why this secularization takes place, why religion changed as a cultural phenomenon. One thing to keep in mind is that culture is an embodiment of various components interrelated to each other and affecting each otherís functions.
Before the dawn of twentieth century, religion and the domestic sphere are linked together by their position as the authoritarian figurehead of the moral distributor and enforcer. This can be examined from the vast difference in the practice of "dating" from the 19th century through the 20th century. In the etiquette book Websterís Ready-Made Love Letters published in 1890, "calling" was noted as the proper way to court a lady. Calling involves the men to establish a "visitorship" status with the girlsí parents in order to take his next step (Illouz, 55). This sets up the domestic sphere as the central ground for dating under the watchful eyes of the authoritarian figures. With the rise of capitalism, romance begins to take place outside the domestic sphere, aided by technological advancements such as the automobile. Its arrival spawns an unprecedented growth in the commercial entertainment industry that a dating couple may leisure themselves with. Thus, the official term for dating changed into "going out". With it, the dating arena moves from the private to the public sphere where the automobile serves as a getaway private confine that allows for more freedom in exploring avenues of intimacy.
So what does this movement imply for the issue of interpersonal communication of romance? It adds to the pool of communication symbols. Capitalism brought with it a culture of consumerism where romance is commodified to boost sales. Commodified romances are depicted as images such as couples walking on the beach, couples dinning under lit candles, and perhaps just champagne bottles. These images nearly always portray a sense of luxury and thus when they project back into the reality, atmospheric luxuriousness becomes translated into romance itself. Within Americaís capitalistic society, buying power has become synonymous with romance.
This is an interesting point of comparison to the Russian society where economics has just begun to take a foothold. In our group survey, when asked if economic factors are important in a romantic relationship on the scale of 1 to 5 with1 being the least important, the American result averaged at 3 while the Russian averaged at 2.33 in importance. Another item in the survey also show similar correspondence. When asked what the individuals would do or say to express their love, a majority of the Americans answered with buying gifts or taking their dates out to dinner while the Russians responded that they would say "I love you". An act involving no exchange of commodities. This demonstrates the discrepancy of economics and its correlation to our ideals in expression of romance.
However, romance isnít just about expressing oneself in a culturally acceptable manner or going to places with the right atmosphere. There is an element of personal involvement in creating romance. To shed some light on this subject, it is helpful to look at what makes a date unromantic. When asked to list factors that would make a date unromantic in our survey, 60% of the responses contain inattentiveness in one form or another (ex. "not listening", "checking out other people", or simply "leaving"). Assuming that no one likes to argue or fight for a romantic time, confrontations provide another avenue for this study. In my case study, when subjects are asked to describe the circumstances under which a confrontation had taken place within their relationships, the common complaint is still yet forms of inattentiveness. The following is a passage taken from my case study interview:
Interviewer: Can you recall an instance where an argument took place in your relationship? If you can, would you describe the circumstances?
Subject: Yea, there were arguments, He didnít want to listen to what I have to say and didnít want to understand me.
Having identified inattentiveness as a strong link to unromantic happenings, it is important to give the person you are with the consideration of having your attention when they are expressing themselves. Now the question becomes "in what ways does attentiveness manifest itself?" It does so both verbally and non-verbally. When attention is given, one will be able to make comments that are relevant to the conversation and inputs of this sort are what make a conversation interesting. In face-to face conversations, body language plays a crucial role in communicating attentiveness. Behaviors such as maintaining eye contact and facing the speaker are two of more formidable signs of attentiveness.
Attentiveness is the gateway to empathy. Communication theorist Milton J. Bennett defines empathy as "the imaginative intellectual and emotional participation in another personís experience" (Bennett, 207). When a participation of this sort takes place, one can more easily understand why people act the way they do whereas the lack of empathy can easily lead to misunderstanding, thus confrontation. But if the element of inattentiveness is missing, empathy is near impossible to come about.
Romance is a shared experience and this is why empathy plays such a formidable role. Through empathy, people step beyond their own consciousness and into that of their loverís so that they share each otherís emotions, which can be accounted for as intimacy. Itís interesting that when case study subjects are asked to describe their most intimate moments, they are often moments of silence. This silence may seem contradictory to the idea of romance at first glance because of its lack of verbal communication. But with an exception of "love at first sights," these moments more often than not occur after a surmountable verbal exchange had taken place and experience shared so that empathy can be facilitated. In this light, silence is read as the moment of mutual understanding, a moment where the feeling of closeness is so great due to the empathetic ability to feel one anotherís most sacred emotions.
However, empathy cannot be taken as Tao to eternal love nor world peace. There are many other factors governing the success of interpersonal communication, especially in the area of romance. Factors such as personality and individual communication style are incredibly hard to account for in a relationship despite any depth of understanding. However, by dissecting the elements that makes up culture and correlating these elements to our different understandings in the communication of romance, we see the marvelous cooperation between communication and culture at work.
So far, we have identified the main elements of communication and explored how culture interplays with the construction of romantic communication. In the next three sections, the research directs to specific context where such interaction can be observed.