"I Didn't Say That!": How Metacommunication Messes With Relationships (Part 2)



(Eds. note: This is the second in a 5-part series on the potential pitfalls of metacommunication and how they impact our relationships.  For more on the sociological history of the "metacommunication" term and a quick introduction on how it often plays out in our everyday lives, see Part 1). 

Kelly walked into the house after work exhausted. Her roommate Cara was busily getting laundry started while perky music blared from her iPad station. Why did Cara have to always include loud music in her household chore routine? This was one of “those things” they had talked about over the past two years they lived together. Kelly loathes loud, busy music in the house.

“Hey, Kel...how was your day?” Cara asked with typical enthusiasm yet without eye contact.

“It was good. My meeting went well.” Kelly responded, wondering if Cara remembered about the weighty conference she had today with her boss. “You?”

Cara looked up to see Kelly’s “I’m irritated” face; the one with the set jaw. She suddenly realizes how loud the music is and walks over to turn it down.

“Yeah, it was great. Tim surprised me by showing up to take me to lunch and I got to introduce him around. And it was his suit and tie day at work,” she smiled coyly as she glanced over at her friend.

Two women talking images

Kelly headed back to her room to change. Cara wondered why she often allowed conversations to end so abruptly by just walking away. Cara knew Kelly was sensitive to comments about Tim, especially since her recent break up. Was she offended? Hurt? Jealous? Oh, well. She certainly wasn’t going to bring this up, especially since their last interaction about Tim resulted in Kelly being in tears. And she had some errands to run anyway.

This situation is a good example of how metacommunication affects relationships. Here’s how these two friends could interpret the verbal and non-verbal communication between them based on this brief interaction:

  • Kelly walking in to Cara’s loud music leads her to think Cara is being insensitive to her friend’s aversion to blaring music in their apartment. She knows what time Kelly gets home from work. Why couldn’t she have just kept the volume down some?
  • Cara greeting Kelly in her typical perky way without eye contact makes Kelly feel like Cara is superficial and not genuinely interested in Kelly’s day...again.
  • Kelly’s facial expression alerted Cara to something being wrong and she quickly turned down the music. She hoped to open up to confide in Kelly about developments with Tim and didn’t want to start the evening off wrong.
  • Kelly leaving the room without commenting on Tim’s surprise visit tells Cara she’s upset...about something...again. And it was probably Tim. So much for telling her that he actually told her he loved her last night.

Metacommunication Complicates Relationships

Can you related to the amount of communication that happened between these two friends in their 40-second interaction? I certainly can.

Metacommunication complicates relationships in two ways. First, it’s sometimes based in reality and our perceptions are correct. Cara rightly interpreted Kelly’s irritation over the music. Kelly’s suspicion that Cara was more interested in talking about her day than asking about such an important meeting was true. Yet often our interpretations of metacommunication are incorrect. Cara wasn’t being insensitive about the music; in fact, when she got home she thought to lower the volume before Kelly got home but she lost track of time. And Kelly wasn’t jealous of or offended by her reference to Tim’s visit. She was simply eager to get out of her uncomfortable clothes before she returned to the kitchen to get food and draw Cara out about how things were going with Tim.

Avoiding the pitfalls of metacommunication can happen by doing something simple but hard: ask questions. Why do we assume we know what others are thinking, feeling and communicating through facial expressions, silence, lack of eye contact or walking out of the room? The answer often is that we’re making judgements based on real or perceived similar attitudes or responses from the person in past situations.

Obviously Kelly noticed the loud music, but she could have asked, “Hey Cara, I’m gonna turn the volume down some, ok?” and then heard Cara say, “Of course! I meant to cut it down before you got home...sorry!” When Cara didn’t ask a follow up to her comment about her meeting going well Kelly could have asked if she remembered it was happening. That would have given Cara the chance to admit she had forgotten and apologize for forgetting about something so important to Kelly.

Cara could have planned to follow with Kelly about stuff with Tim. Had she asked how Kelly felt about her mentioning he had surprised her for lunch she would have learned that Kelly was simply wanting to get out of her skirt and heels and into pj’s so she could ask more about things with him. But when she came out, Cara had left a note saying she was out for the evening.

Asking questions is risky. It’s easier to assume we know what someone is thinking and feeling based on non-verbal “cues” we think we see, rather than risking either being wrong or being right! If we’ve misinterpreted the metacommunication we expose our judgement or error. If we interpreted things correctly we then have to go deeper with the person, which will add more metacommunication on top of the potentially hard words that might actually be spoken!

Whew. No wonder Kelly and Cara -- and you and I -- settle for metacommuncative assumptions. Asking questions can either clear things up quickly or result in unwanted, messy verbal communication. And often it depends on how we ask.

Watch Your Questions

How we ask questions is as important as the words we choose.

  • Ask non-threatening questions. Kelly asking, “I’m gonna turn this blaring music down, ok?” would have been a way to communicate the very irritation she was feeling!
  • Ask questions that don’t assume you know the answer. Cara calling down the hallway to Kelly asking, “Are you still upset about Tim and me moving forward in our relationship cuz you seem a little upset?” would likely have made her feel judged -- because she was judged!
  • Anticipate different answers to your questions that you think. If Cara had asked Kelly about leaving the room she would have heard Kelly just wanted to change her clothes. Based on past experiences would Cara believe her? Or would she doubt Kelly’s honesty? How would Cara’s suspicion of Kelly’s honesty (probably discerned through metacommunication!) affect their relationship?
  • Ask and ask again. If Cara hadn’t left the house frustrated with Kelly and had chosen to ask a clarifying question about why she left the room, Kelly’s response would have provided a great opportunity for Cara to ask yet another question. And then another. And perhaps her final question could be, “I’d love to share with you how things are going with Tim. Are you up for that?”

We have the choice to settle for relationships characterized by assumption and judgement over genuine intimacy and really knowing one another. Asking questions is a hard but fruitful way to take relationships deeper one question at a time.

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