Development Cooperation Handbook/Cooperation and Communication/Meta-communication
The concept of meta-communication
The fundamental concept of Pragmatics of Human Communication is the concept of "meta-communication". "Meta" means after, beyond, besides. Like metaphysics, which means that which comes after physics. In mathematical models, the idea of a "meta-level" is very important. For instance, the rules of the game are not a part of what the teams play. Setting the rules is a "meta" level with respect to playing the game. Rules are required for the game, but they are not what we are playing. "Meta-communication" is when we communicate about communication.
So when I am talking to you about my ideas, I am communicating with you; but when I tell you that I like, or dislike, our communication, then I am meta-communicating. Some times meta-communication is open; many more times, it is not explicit. . If I ask you "Have you understood", I am explicitly meta-communicating. But in fact meta-communication is not just something that happens sometimes—like when we say "have you understood what I’m saying?". That is an official meta-communication (or if I tell you that we are now going to speak in Italian, it is officially a meta-communication, because we are setting a code). But the Pragmatic School says that this meta-communication always happens. Every time I am communicating, I’m at the same time meta-communicating. And finally meta-communication is more important than communication itself and it makes sense of the meaning of what I’m communicating.
Let us take the example of communication which takes place during courting. Now clearly meta-communication, in this case, is much more important than what we are talking about. I am courting you. When I ask you "what you’re doing this evening", my real purpose is not to know what you’re doing this evening, but to know if you would be interested in seeing me this evening. And you immediately understand that mine is an invitation, even if you pretend not to understand. The invitation is clearly the meta-communication, while the knowledge of how you planned the evening is what communication is officially dealing with. (And so, in this case the invitation is the real "content" of the communication, while the question of the evening schedule is just the "form"). On the one level I am telling something, on the other, I am asking "how do you perceive the fact that I’m telling you this". What I want to know is your reaction. It is not yet an open invitation, but nevertheless is a clear invitation.. If you want to be cool, you just tell me what you are actually doing, pretending that you haven’t understood that what I said was an invitation. It would mean that you are not interested in the invitation. If, instead, you show you have understood my invitation and you ask "Why"?, you are openly meta-communicating: this would mean that we are focusing on the true issue; we are getting more intimate. But we are meta-communicating in both the cases. If you say "This evening, I’m studying" , your meta-communication will be "thank you for your invitation, but now I am not interested" and from your tone, I will understand if it is a "maybe next time" or "no chance". If you say "Why?", you really ask "why are you interested in what I’m doing?" Now the ball will be back in my field. I have to explain the reasons of my interest for you. I can become more intimate or less intimate or pretend that I just wanted to know. Or I can say "I would like to meet you this evening". Now the ball is again in your court. You have to tell me if you are interested in my interest for you. Now, clearly in this process, the meta-communication is the essence of our communication. And what is being said is absolutely marginal.
Is the body language a meta-communication?
The question raised by one of the trainees was whether body language can be considered a kind of meta-communication. In many cases—yes. But this does not mean that body language communicates only about communication. We can do direct communication with the body and use a different media to express what we mean by "body". I can make normal gestures with the body, like offering food, and say "I do these gestures because I love you". In this case, words are meta-communicating, with respect to how the other person should interpret my body language. And such a pattern will be used in many instances, while we use an audio-visual media. It could happen that you use the audio as a meta-communication on the image or vice versa.
All codes can be used to communicate and all codes can be used to meta-communicate. It is free. We do it all the time and we do not need to study a text on communication to be able to do it. We need to study books on communication only when we want to hide the reasons of what we say and when we want the other to follow what we are saying. Then, we need to be able to manipulate the meta-communication codes when we do not want the other to know our true scopes.
Meta-communication is based on reciprocity and on a hierarchy of levels
This process of meta-communication is based on reciprocity and on a hierarchy of levels. I look at you and you look at me. This is level 1: direct communication. When I try to understand "How do you look at me?" we are on a different step. It is the level 2. And if I try to understand how you look at the way I look at you, then we are on a even higher plane: level 3. This is a meta-meta-communication.
I prefer to take examples from the sphere of the erotic mode of relationships since there is no abstraction in this and each one of us can easily recollect the mood. So we talked about the level 3: let’s make examples of it. I am courting her. How do I perceive her reaction to the interest that I’m showing in her? This is a higher level. It is the real level on which we are playing. The rest of the conversation for us is just an occasion, an excuse. The third level is where we are confronting each other. The other levels were simply the levels of "information". Down there we exchange data. But the third level is the level where we decide what to do with our game. Here, we make the choice. From what happens at level 3, we will decide to go on with the relationship or to stop. Because what really counts is how I think that she thinks of the way I’m thinking about her; and vice-versa.