Why do we communicate? What is the purpose of speaking?
There’s a social theory that seeks to answer these questions. It’s called symbolic interactionism. Attributed to George Herbert Mead, its basic premise is that we create meaning through our social and communicative interactions, which makes this an important theory for speakers to understand.
Sometimes we can get caught up in the details of presenting. What should I do with my hands when I speak? How do I develop an attractive slide deck? How do I get my audience’s attention? And these are all great questions and important concerns. But sometimes we need to step back and examine our roots. We need to remember why we are speaking in the first place.
In their text, Symbols, Selves, and Social Reality, Sandstrom, Lively, Martin, and Fine give a summary of this helpful theory.
“Symbolic interactionism stresses that you, as a human being, have the ability to think and use symbols, and thus, exercise an important element of freedom as you interact with others and formulate your actions. Your freedom, however, is not unlimited. Instead, it is conditioned by your social experiences, contexts, and relationships. It also comes with the price of responsibility. As you exercise your freedom and decide how to act, you need to consider not only how your choices are affected by others, but also how they will affect others.”
As we look at three questions prompted by this important theory, let’s step back. Let’s be reminded of why we do what we do as presenters and reaffirm our purpose.
This question gets at the concept of agency which is important for symbolic interactionists. And for speakers. Agency is the belief that all human beings have free and creative choice. One of the benefits of this particular theory is that it helps us examine our choices. Symbolic interactionists believe that many of our choices flow out of communication and relationships. More than we might realize at first glance.
For example, watch a group of people seated around a table for a meeting. If one person picks up his phone or takes a sip of water, others will probably do the same. While the followers might say they exercised agency, free choice, they were really persuaded by seeing someone else perform the action first. So symbolic interactionism asks us to reevaluate where our choices originate from in order to truly exercise individual freedom.
This reminds us that many of the linguistic choices we make are governed by our relationships and contexts. This might help us perform a sort of inventory on the words we typically use when we speak. Why are we choosing these words over others? Social interactionism reminds us that we have control not only over what we say, but also over how we chose to say it. The symbols that we choose to use, the words and images we include in our presentations, are a matter of personal choice. And those choices will affect our audiences in different ways.
Humans work together to create meaning and shape the world. This is what symbolic interactionists call joint action. The Sandstrom text mentioned earlier defines it like this: it’s “what people do together.” It is just that simple and just that hard. Whenever more than one communicator is present, all parties are active participants—even if they are in the audience. All communicators bring past experiences, knowledge, and biases into the setting.
As speakers, we have to understand that when we deliver presentation, we aren’t simply downloading information into mindless containers. Our communication doesn’t happen in a void. The theory of symbolic interactionism reminds us that when we present, we are quite actively building something together with our audience members. This might prompt us to ask, what is it that I hope to build with my audience?
Perhaps the most important concept of symbolic interactionism for speakers is that of responsibility. Coupled with agency, the fact that we have the freedom to make choices, is the reminder that choices have consequences. Speakers should always feel this burden of responsibility resting on our shoulders. Every word we choose to speak is actively shaping reality and society whether we intend it to or not.
In the example of the man who picks up his phone during a meeting, he might not have consciously meant to influence others to check their phones as well. And yet, his choice had direct influence on those around him. When we present in front of an audience, we will naturally be more aware that our decisions influence our audience. This is a burden well worth remembering.
Symbolic interactionism is rich theory for speakers to study. From reevaluating our symbolic choices, to viewing our audience members as active participants, to remembering the responsibility we hold, this important communication-based theory puts into perspective why we do what we do.
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