The term “interpersonal communication” refers to messages sent and received between two people. Most of our daily lives involve interpersonal communication on some level. When many people hear the word “interpersonal,” they immediately think of intimate relationships, but this is only one small fraction of the types of interpersonal interactions we have daily. Whether we are communicating with our spouse or dating partner, communicating with a coworker, communicating with a physician or therapist, or communicating with a random stranger, you are engaging in interpersonal communication. Interpersonal communication is the way people connect with other people.

William Schutz proposed three main reasons for why interpersonal communication is important to human beings in his Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientations Theory: control, inclusion, and affection.1 The first need met through interpersonal relationships is our need to influence other people. People have an inherent need to control situations and the people within those situations. Whether we are talking about using persuasion attempts to get someone to go out with us on a date or using leadership skills to control what happens in the boardroom, control is a fundamental need for our interpersonal relationships. Most people don’t like thinking about interpersonal relationships as an issue of “control” because that doesn’t necessarily sound nice. It’s essential that we clearly distinguish control from manipulation. Control refers to an individual’s ability to influence another person’s behavior or ideas. When we talk about control, we are talking about influencing another person’s behavior or ideas because it is perceived as the right thing to do. Manipulation, on the other hand, is influencing another person’s behavior or ideas to one’s own advantage, often using dishonest, unscrupulous, and insidious means. Control, in, and of itself, is neither good nor bad.

The second need we fulfill through interpersonal relationships is inclusion. Everyone wants to belong. As humans, we have an innate desire to belong to groups and social communities. At the most basic level, we belong to our families when we are born. As we age, the desire to belong to other groups we deem as positive continues. In school, we may want to belong to sports teams or social groups like a fraternity or sorority. When we enter the workforce, we want to feel like we belong in the workplace or belong within our professions by being a member of professional associations. Our need to feel like we belong is a base need, and we fulfill this need through our daily interpersonal encounters.

The final need we fulfill through our interpersonal relationships is affection. The word “affection” stems from the Latin term affectio, which refers to emotions or feelings. Kory Floyd and Mark T. Morman defined “affection” as having an emotional state of fondness and positive regard toward a specific target.2 As you can see, our understanding of affection is still rooted in the notions of emotion and feeling today. We all want to feel someone else’s positive affection towards us, whether it’s from our parents, coworkers, friends, siblings, children, etc. We also have an innate need to feel affection towards others.

Hopefully, you can see that these three basic human needs—control, inclusion, and affection—are essential constructs to everyone’s daily life and interactions. Furthermore, these are central tenets to who we are as human beings. Much of our success in life is built upon these three needs, so exploring these needs and how people accomplish them effectively is very important. The interpersonal communication strategies we discuss in this book are tools. As with many tools, they can either be used to enhance people’s lives or destruct them. A kind word and smile may make someone’s day, but an evil glare and a cutting remark can just as quickly destroy someone’s day. For this reason, we want you to consider what it means to be an ethical communicator just as much as we want you to consider how you communicate and react to others’ communication with you. Realize that the way you communicate and interact with others will impact their lives as much as it affects yours.

A Note for Students

Welcome to the world of interpersonal communication. We’re happy that you’re going to be joining us for this journey through the fascinating world of relationships in today’s modern world. In addition to this textbook, there’s also a student workbook that we’d encourage you to download and print. You can find the workbook on the Milne Open Textbooks website. The workbook has a complete outline of the entire book, a wide range of activities, 20 unique adult color pages, a 16-week course planner, and so many other features. This workbook is a companion to this textbook. And it’s also available for you 100% free.

A number of the chapters in this text will contain information about research results, so we wanted to explain a couple of basic social scientific concepts before we jumped right into the text itself. A lot of the research in the world of interpersonal communication is based on statistics. Don’t worry; we’re not going to throw numbers at you within this textbook. However, it is crucial to understand a couple of basic concepts related to statistics: relationships and differences.


The first major statistical concept that anyone studying the social sciences must understand is statistical relationships. We don’t want to get too technical in our discussion of relationships, but we do want to explain some of the basic ideas. When we examine relationships, we must have scores on two different variables for a single person. Now the word “variable” simply refers to anything that can vary from person-to-person: for example, your height, weight, public speaking anxiety, best friend relationship satisfaction, etc. There are thousands of possible variables that social scientists studying interpersonal communication can examine. However, we generally don’t examine a single variable in isolation. We’re more likely to examine two or more variables.

To help us examine the idea of relationships, we’re going to use an article from Melissa Wanzer and Melanie Booth-Butterfield that examine someone’s “humor orientation.”3 The variable “humor orientation” is measured by a survey, which you can learn more about on Steven Booth-Butterfield’s website. Humor orientation is the use of jokes and joking during interactions with other people. In this study, the researchers had Person 1 complete the Humor Orientation (HO) Scale (self-reported HO) and had Person 2 complete the HO about Person 1 (other-reported HO).


One of the first significant findings in this study was a positive relationship between someone’s perception of another person’s humor orientation (other-reported HO) and their popularity (social attractiveness). The term “positive relationship” here simply means that as someone’s score on the HO measure went up (people were seen as using more jokes and joking during their interactions with others), the more popular they were viewed by other people. In a positive relationship, the opposite is also true. People who were not viewed as using jokes and joking during their interactions were viewed as less popular by others. In essence, in a positive relationship as scores on one measure go up, the scores on the other measure go up. As scores on one measure go down, then scores on the other measure go down.


The second type of relationship we find using statistics is called a negative relationship. A negative relationship occurs when scores on one variable go up and scores on the second variable go down. In the Wanzer and Booth-Butterfield study, the researchers found that people who viewed themselves as having a strong humor orientation (higher scores on the HO scale) reported lower levels of loneliness. As scores for someone’s HO went up, then scores for reported loneliness went down. Again, the opposite is also true. As someone’s HO went down, their scores for reported loneliness went up.

No Relationship

The final type of relationship regularly found in research by interpersonal communication scholars is no relationship between two variables. In essence, not finding a relationship between variables means that, as scores on one measure went up, scores on the second measure didn’t go up or down at all. Most interesting in the Wanzer and Booth-Butterfield study was when they found no relationship between an individual’s rating of their HO (self-reported HO) and someone else’s perception of their social attractiveness (popularity). In essence, you can think you’re the funniest person in the world, but it will not relate to someone else’s perceptions of social attractiveness.

Note of Caution

Now that we’ve explained the three basic types of relationships commonly discussed in interpersonal communication research, we do want to raise one seriously important point. Correlation does not equal causation. The statistical test that we commonly use to examine relationships is called a correlation. One of the inherent limitations of a correlation is that it cannot say that X caused Y. For example, in the Wanzer and Booth-Butterfield study, we cannot say that someone’s HO caused them to be viewed as more popular. All we can tell when using a correlation is that there is a relationship or that there is not a relationship between two variables.


In addition to examining relationships, researchers are often highly interested in exploring what we call differences. Scholars distinguish between two types of differences: differences of kind and differences of degree.

Differences of Kind

Differences of kind are differences that exist because people fall within a specific category. The class example I always like to use is the behavioral differences between cheerleaders and football players. Cheerleaders will exhibit very specific behaviors (using megaphones, dancing, being tossed into the air, yelling cheers, pumping up the audience, etc.) during a football game. Football players will exhibit a very different set of behaviors (e.g., throwing the football, running with the football, kicking the football, tackling people, etc.). When you have two groups that have very different prescribed sets of behavior, we call this a difference of kind.

Differences of Degree

The difference that social scientists are most interested in is called differences of degree. The term “degree” here means that you are looking and comparing the scores of two different groups on a single variable. Let’s take the concept of height and compare females and males. In a study completed by Max Roser, Cameron Appel, and Hannah Ritchie, the researchers examined a wide range of issues related to human height.4 Based on data that was gathered from 1896 until 1996, the researchers found that consistently males were taller than females. By 1996, males had an average height of 171 centimeters, while females had an average height of 159 centimeters. This difference is what we call a difference of degree.

Now, it’s essential to realize that when we’re discussing differences of degrees, we are comparing two or more groups’ scores on a single outcome variable (in this case height). At the same time, just because we find that the average male is taller than the average female does not mean that there are not really short males and really tall females. In fact, research has shown us that there is generally a much broader range of heights among males than there is between males and females. The same is also true for females; there is a broad range of different heights of females. However, differences of degrees are not interested in the really short males or really tall females (or really tall males and really short females). Instead, differences of degrees are examined by looking at the average male’s height and comparing it to the average female’s height.

So, there you have it. You’ve now learned two very important concepts related to the statistics interpersonal communication scholars commonly use.

A Note for Professors

We want to start by thanking you for adopting this Open Educational Resource textbook. We know that you have many different textbook options available to you today. We hope that you find this book to be both very student-friendly and scholarly-based. Our goal with this project was to create a textbook that could compete with the costly texts currently on the market. Interpersonal communication is one of the most commonly taught courses within the field, so we realized that a massive need existed for a textbook that could be highly competitive and freely available.

If you haven’t asked for access to the instructor materials available for this book, please check out the Milne Open Textbooks website to request access. We understand that instructors’ resources are vital, so we created a comprehensive instructor’s manual that includes note outlines, activities, and a test bank. Furthermore, a full set of PowerPoint presentations are freely available. Lastly, if you didn’t adopt the student workbook at the same time you decided to adopt this book, we would highly encourage you to do so. The student workbook, which is also free, is aligned with the teaching notes, which makes for a cohesive set of items.

1 Schutz, W. C. (1960). FIRO: A three dimensional theory of interpersonal behavior. Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
2 Floyd, K., & Morman, M. T. (1998). The measurement of affectionate communication. Communication Quarterly, 46(2), 144-162.
3 Wanzer, M. B., & Booth-Butterfield, M. (1996). Are funny people popular? An examination of humor orientation, loneliness, and social attraction. Communication Quarterly, 44(1), 42-52.
4 Roser, M., m, C., & Ritchie, H. (2019, May). Human height. Our World in Data.


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Interpersonal Communication Copyright © by Jason S. Wrench; Narissra M. Punyanunt-Carter; and Katherine S. Thweatt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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