People take face-to-face communication for granted. They never take the time to really examine the process and, as a result, they work on assumption rather than fact. Let’s consider another one of the truly basic laws of interpersonal communication:
Communication consists of two components: content and emotion.*
So, for every message that passes between you and me, there are two parts. The first is the content of the message. This tends to get the most attention, but it is not necessarily the main component of a given communication. For the most part, content is transmitted verbally by what you say and emotion is transmitted nonverbally, by how you say it.
Let’s say we’re seated across from each other at a meeting and I ask to borrow your pen. I could say, ‘May I borrow your pen for a moment?’ This is a reasonable request showing an equal measure of politeness and respect on my part. Or, I could just say, ‘Pen, please.’ This suggests a lesser degree of politeness and a greater degree of familiarity. Or, I could simply point to the pen and say, ‘Yo!’ which, while suggesting a very high degree of familiarity, would be impolite and inappropriate in a professional setting. The content of the message, a request to use your pen, is essentially the same in each request, but the use of the emotional component varied dramatically.
When I’m asked how I evaluate the relationship quality in a marriage or that exhibited between a superior and a subordinate in the workplace, my approach is the same. I focus on the emotional level the in communication between parties by assessing the level of courtesy. If they’re in synch, there’s a level of mutual respect. If they are out of synch, there could be a problem. Emotion is the key. That’s ‘The Hidden Message.’
*I have modified this axiom of communication slightly, but it is based upon the work of Watzlavick, Beaven, & Jackson. The Pragmatics of Human Communication.