Resolving to Reduce Mixed Messages – Understanding Interactions’ Content & Relational Levels


I’ve recently learned this is texting slang for “I love you.” It translates to something along the lines of “eight letters, three words, one meaning.” (Back when pagers were the rage, it was 143, representing the number of letters in each word. That’s right, folks – PAGERS.)

The thing is, the idea behind it -“one meaning”- is completely wrong. If any term has multiple meanings, it’s “I love you.” Imagine:

Saying it to Grandma.

Whispering it, for the first time, to that person you can’t stop thinking about.

Stating it to that same person 20 years and several kids later.

Slurring it, at 2 a.m., to that buddy who just stumbled out the party with you.

Each has the same content – those same eight letters and three words – and each conveys affection, but of startlingly different forms. The issue here is that the meaning behind those three words is entirely dependent on the relationship in which it’s said. For instance, when your boss says, “Nice to see you this morning” (content), it’s your relationship that tells you whether they are genuinely glad to see you or passive-aggressively commenting on your attendance. Some others that come to mind are “How did you come up with that answer?”, “Meet me in my office in five minutes,” and “Let me check that out.”

If there’s any resolution we can make to best improve our relationships in this new year, it just might be resolving to remember this seemingly simple point: “every message has both content and relationship dimensions” [1]. These two dimensions of meaning are connected, each informing the other, and they exist in everything you say. They shape our interactions at work and school, with friends and family, with colleagues and strangers, with loved ones and hopeful love interests. When they don’t seem to match, they are a root cause of the dreaded “mixed messages,”  which we’ll get to in a bit.

Behind our words (and actions) there are constantly flowing interactions – relationships -with the individuals in our lives. Communicating means that we create meaning together. Even when we’re not together or not speaking, our relationships develop, strengthen, and even deteriorate as time passes and we each change (sometimes precisely because we’re not together or speaking)[2]. I know it’s basically cliché at this point to state that successful relationships, no matter what kind, require communication. Cliché or not, it’s truth, with the important caveat that we also remember to pursue quality, not quantity, in that communication

Effectively interacting with others means knowing what your relationship is, what you want it to be, and what the moment calls for. With some friends, perhaps that you don’t need to speak is the indicator of how close you are, while with others it would be odd to not have a constant flow of chatter. With a new colleague, you’re unlikely to interact with them the same way on the first day you meet compared to a year later. Or I hope not, anyway. By this time, you’ve likely gone from addressing work logistics and the weather to asking after the latest camping trip and the new puppy. When you shifted topics, it was because your relationship was shifting. Those new topics both triggered and reinforced developing a relationship as colleagues (and maybe even friends) rather than as two bodies in the same space being polite to one another.

Remembering that it’s both our verbal and nonverbal messages that shape our relationships can go a long way in preserving and improving them. I contend that the popularity of Gary Chapman’s 5 love languages, a book that has sold over 11 million copies, is not only because as a national community we extol self-help and want desperately to love well. Rather, Chapman’s love languages help us know what content (physical touch, gift giving, actions, quality time, affirming messages) will match our relational goals of receiving and expressing care with particular people. For those unfamiliar with the “love languages,” the basic idea is to learn how you express love and what fulfills your need to feel loved, and to learn what messages and actions signal love to your partner. Then, crucially, relational success requires acknowledging that each of you may need to receive different messages to reinforce or reinvigorate your relationship together. In other words, you may be interpreting the same content in different ways based on your relational needs.

Mixed Messages

We’ve all been there. Those confusing and frustrating moments when someone says something (“let’s meet up sometime”), and you have no idea if this means they’re thinking about networking, or about sitting together in rocking chairs 50 romantic years from now. (Because those are always the options, right?)

What we say or do matters to help others make sense of what our relationship is and what we’re hoping for from the interaction. “Mixed messages” are those moments when we perceive discord between the content and relational levels of a message; when the content doesn’t seem to fit what we thought our relationship with that person was.

Cross cultural interactions are a crucial place to take this into account because they’re even more complicated thanks to the higher odds of misinterpretation, especially if slang or local idioms are involved! For instance, a friend of mine from Chile learned English largely from watching movies (which, frankly, is very impressive). But occasionally, the content he learned embedded in movies conflicts with our real-life conversations. At a gathering of friends shortly after we met, he asked if he could have some of a dish that had just emerged from the kitchen. My response to “help yourself” was off-putting for him, and it took awhile for us to figure out why. It turns out, when he learned the term through films, it was seemingly always in dramatic moments when someone was being prompted to succeed on their own, or to have something that wasn’t actually intended for them but was in their power to take (I always imagine those scenes where baddies are helping themselves to the hostages’ dinner). This would likely not have been a mixed message if we had known each other longer, but we were each figuring out our relationship with one another. My content – “help yourself” – was intended as encouragement that he was a welcome member of the group, but was initially read by him negatively because of the scenes where he’d seen it used, leaving him unsure of where our burgeoning friendship stood.

Can we avoid mixed messages? No. Well, not entirely. But we can reduce their occurrence, and when they do happen (as they inevitably will), it’s far easier to step back and figure out when that conversation went sideways if we remember that a message’s content level is far less powerful than its relational level. Rather than hemming and hawing over every word, think bigger picture, aiming for conveying your relationship in way they understand.

As we start a new year, resolutions about improving our relationships are common. A positive step toward achieving this is remembering that every message you craft is laden with potential. Each thing that you say to someone is a moment of (re)defining your relationship.

Geeking out on scholarly references:

[1] Go way back to the original: B. Aubrey Fisher and Wayne A. Beach (1979) “Content and relationship dimensions of communicative behavior: An exploratory study” in Western Journal of Speech Communication, 43, no. 3, pp. 201-211.

[2] Amardo Rodriguez offers a solid review and explanation of how communication creates communities through connections between people in his chapter: Amardo Rodriguez,  “Social Justice and the Challenge for Communication Studies” in Social Justice and Communication Scholarship, edited by Omar Swartz (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005, 2012).

For those interested in how content and relational dimensions of messages might work in other settings,  it’s been a topic of discussion among researchers for some time now, such as in a sales or marketing interaction, or in patient-physician interactions.

Shout Outs

To my Chilean friend who helps me work on effective cross cultural communication, whether he realizes it or not.

Cover Image explanation

Some messages are anything but mixed, such as my dog Abbey’s pure joy rolling in whatever it is she’s found this time.



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