I’d like you to spend time with someone and take note of the meta-messages you send to one another about the status, depth, direction of your relationship. Write a paragraph of two describing what happened and what messages they delivered to you non-verbally (reading between the lines counts as nonverbal) that affirmed, maintained or somehow changed the nature of your relationship.
You may be describing a micro-incident. These are real and have meaning. A meaning deep enough to break up friendships, get you fired, ruin a marriage, or on the positive side begin relationships, deepen friendships, nail a job interview, and give a friend who is feeling lousy a reason to get up another morning and keep going.
The people you know who are good communicators implicitly understand how to communicate with metamessages! And some fully understand it and can explain it to others. Lets join the club and start communicating more effectively.
Post your story and then respond to someone else.
The concept of metamessages traces to Gregory Bateson’s essay “A Theory of Play and Fantasy.” Bateson explains that “human verbal communication can operate and always does at many contrasting levels of abstraction” (1972, 177–78). He illustrates “the seemingly simple denotative level” with the sentence, “The cat is on the mat.” He illustrates what he calls “the metacommunicative level” with the sentence, “My telling you where to find the cat was friendly.” Bateson’s notion of meta-communication is key to his seminal concept of framing. He explains that during a visit to the Fleishhacker Zoo in San Francisco, he observed monkeys at play and wondered how a monkey knew that an obviously hostile move, such as a bite, should be interpreted as play. He concluded that monkeys have a way of communicating the metamessage “This is play,” thus allowing another monkey to correctly interpret the spirit in which a bite was intended. In other words, the metamessage signaled the activity the monkeys were engaged in. Applying the concept of metamessage to human interaction, Bateson further explains, “In these, the subject of discourse is the relationship between the speakers.” He notes that “the vast majority” of metacommunicative messages are implicit rather than explicit. When I refer to messages and metamessages in spoken interaction,
I am adapting Bateson’s framework to distinguish meaning at two levels of abstraction. I use the term “messages” to refer to what Bateson described as the “seemingly simple denotative level,” that is, the meaning of the words as they would be decoded by a dictionary and a grammar. My use of the term “metamessages” derives from his concept of metacommunication, in which “the subject of discourse is the relationship between the speakers” and is overwhelmingly implicit. That is, metamessages communicate how a speaker intends a message, or how a hearer interprets a message—what it says about the relationship that one utters these words in this way in this context
Bateson, Gregory. 1972. A theory of play and fantasy. In Steps to an ecology of mind, 77–93. New York: Ballantine. For more information on Meta-messages Observational Experiment visit: https://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/divisions-diagnostics-and-procedures/medicine/meta-analysis
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