The “Why?” of Communication
Seems so simple a question yet it is also decidedly complex. Out of the “5Ws” of journalism (who, what, when, where, why) “why” is the most difficult to address because it asks for something more than mere information. The question “why” requires a response that invokes explanation, reason, or purpose.
Asking “why do we communicate” evokes a similar sense of simplicity and deceptive depth. Seems so simple at first but answering the question forces us to take step back. It’s like thinking about breathing. We do it all day without nary a thought. But stopping to think about your breathing…it’s kind of unnatural. Same with communication. We do it all day, sometimes without thinking about it. It just happens. It’s natural. But to stop and really reflect upon why we communicate? That can give us pause. And that’s my task. And I’m asking big-picture here…think of it as communication with a capital “C.” There’s ample research on all kinds of specific communication motives: why millennials use cell phones; why church members read newspapers; why students meet with instructors in their office (as opposed to raising hands in class); why academics at small Christian colleges pursue scholarship over teaching. The list goes on. But why “Communication” in general? That’s different and a much more imposing question.
When we ask “why do we communicate” we are asking about motives. And when we discuss motives, we must talk about Abraham Maslow.
Most of us are well versed in Maslow and his theory of motives and personality, commonly known as the “hierarchy of needs.” In short, our actions are driven by increasingly higher levels of need fulfillment. At the bottom are biological needs: food, sleep, shelter. As those needs become fulfilled, we long for more sophisticated kinds of needs: belonging, love, esteem. The hierarchy ends with “self-actualization”—the need for an individual to enact his or her purpose, or as Maslow said, “to be true to his own nature.” Put another way, our greatest motive is for self-fulfillment—”the desire to become everything that one is capable of becoming.” If it all sounds somewhat self-serving, it is. If we are going to be all we can be, we must put ourselves and our needs above others. Ayn Rand would be so happy.
The research literature in communication also often views our motives for communication through the lens of selfish, personally-directed motives.
Uses and gratifications theory posits that we engage with media with clear reasons/uses/motives in mind and those reasons tend to be for our personal benefit. We consume media because we want to alleviate our boredom, we seek excitement, we need information, we want to interact with others, and so on. All of these identified uses and gratifications can be viewed as selfish— we have a personal need we must address. Rebecca Rubin’s research on interpersonal communication motives revealed largely similar motives but with a slightly stronger emphasis on personal social bonding. These results can still be seen as selfishly driven—we communicate because WE want to feel closer to others, WE want to be part of the group. Likewise, Kenneth Burke’s grand theory of human communication reduces all of our communicative efforts to one self-directed goal: elimination of our personal guilt.
On a practical level, selfish communication can be beneficial as we go about our daily lives. As Maslow said, we seek shelter, so home buyers will communicate clearly to their real estate agent because they really want THAT house for THIS price. I may not want to cook dinner at the end of a long day, so I will suggest my wife and I visit a favorite restaurant instead (no dishes later either, hurray!). My class syllabi and assignment instructions tend to be wordy and multi-page affairs, because I (selfishly) want to reduce students’ uncertainty and questions. (Pragmatically, it saves class time in the future). So, perhaps selfish communication has a small place in our lives. What I think is problematic is when selfishness becomes the only motive, or the highest motive. And that question takes us back to Maslow.
What most do not realize is that Maslow modified his hierarchy near the end of his life. In 1967, Maslow delivered a public address titled “The Farther Reaches of Human Nature” where he began to describe modifications to his well-known theory of personality and motivation. He had been revising his research for several years leading up to this address, but in 1967, he formally declared there were human motives beyond “self-actualization.” These new motives would fall under a new area of study he called “transhumanistic psychology.”
In a sense, Maslow was wrestling with the question of what happens when our self-actualization needs become fulfilled. What’s next? His answer was that we desire to go beyond ourselves. Individuals, moved by transhumanistic needs, “seek a benefit beyond the purely personal and seek communion with the transcendent; they come to identify with something greater than the purely individual self, often engaging in service to others.” Even prior to this speech, Maslow was tinkering with the idea. In Motivation and Personality, a formal exploration of the hierarchy, he hinted at what was beyond basic selfishness, writing “self-actualizing people are simultaneously the most individualistic and the most altruistic and social and loving of all human beings.” The altruistic element of our “self-actualizing” is what eventually became this new level of motives.
Maslow died a few short years after this presentation and many of his unpublished works, including his journals where he detailed his new ideas about motivation, did not come to light until many years after his passing. By then, his traditional 5-level hierarchy had become “canon.” But, recent research is starting to catch up to Maslow’s new ideas. A recent study suggests that selflessness is actually part of our innate human nature and we prefer pro-social outcomes to personal gain. A second recent study, by Harvard University, reached similar conclusions. Selfishness is learned. It is not our natural inclination. Another researcher warns that “selfie culture,” spawned by the prevalence of cell phones and similar technologies, is hampering our natural ability to empathize with others.
What difference does this make? From a Christian perspective, it has enormous implications.
First, Maslow’s new hierarchy pushes us to think of communication in others-centered ways. The ultimate end of our communication no longer becomes personal pleasure as one study suggested. Rather, our ultimate aim becomes helping others. Certainly, we should strive to meet our own practical needs, but those are no longer the highest reason for being. The simple act of helping another can spawn so many other faith-related outcomes, like community. On this point, I think about Dave Ramsey, the financial advice expert heard on radio stations all across the country. Ramsey encourages listeners to manage their money wisely and live debt-free. However, that is not the ultimate aim in managing finances. Ramsey teaches that you should live frugally and save your money, not so you can take extravagant vacations or retire wealthy. Rather, the ultimate aim of managing wealth is to give it away. We save and cultivate our financial resources so we can empower others. We should think of our communication in the same way—as a means to help others meet their needs and empower them to do the same.
Early in my teaching career, like many other communication academics, I taught the basic speech course. For years, I struggled with helping students overcome speech fright, organize their thoughts, and simply try to clearly articulate their ideas in front of the class. Then, I started using Quentin J. Schultze’s Essential Guide to Public Speaking. If you are familiar with the book, you know it is not a typical “how-to-give-a-speech” book. It foregoes much of the step-by-step process of speech preparation in favor of one key idea: speeches are opportunities to serve others. As I started to incorporate the book into my classes, I could see that freshman students typically approached the speech process as a kind of “me-first” exercise: everyone is looking at me, every word I say is important, my ideas have to be perfect. No wonder so many speeches came off poorly. When I started to show students that speech making is more about the audience and an opportunity (as Schultze would say) to serve others with one’s words, the dynamic of my classes changed forevermore. With students seeing speeches as a chance to serve others (as opposed to speeches being all about themselves), much of the speech apprehension in my classes disappeared. This “servant-speaking” perspective mimics Maslow’s new hierarchy. Our ultimate aim in speech class is not to get the best grade or be the best speaker. Rather, it is to serve others. I now train other teachers in my department to use the book and they continue to see amazing results from students.
Second, Maslow’s revised thinking forces us to confront new ideas about our humanness and to get beyond standard interpretations of human communication behavior. This helps us address what Schultze called the “God Problem” in communication studies. Academics consistently try to dismiss notions of God-human communication or transcendent communication. Secularism assumes a “closed world” of communicative possibilities. Yet, Schultze says, we are continually confronted with God’s presence. It won’t go away. I think about Charlie Peacock’s song “One Man Gets Around.” It addresses the same issue, just from a pop-music perspective. As much as we try to dismiss God, he keeps popping up.
While I am unsure of Maslow’s religious convictions late in his life, his revised hierarchy that places servanthood—a concept highly infused with Christian ideals—at the top of human experience, at least cracks open the door of conversation about God, meaning, purpose, and motives for communication. Much of the research I’ve already mentioned suggests that selflessness is more natural than selfishness. Why is that? Could it be part of the way we are made? Other current research supports the idea of generosity being more beneficial to individuals than selfishness. What’s the explanation for that? Current naturalistic explanations only go so far before they hit the inevitable question of where those motives come from. One researcher noted that psychologists in the late 1960s were reluctant to embrace Maslow’s new thinking about motives simply because they had a predisposition to avoid issues of spirituality or anything having to do with religion. Perhaps this new way of looking at Maslow tells us that the conversation about faith, motives, and communication is far from over.
 Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality (New York: Harper, 1954), 46.
 Rebecca Rubin, et al., “Conceptualization and Measurement of Interpersonal Communication Motives,” Human Communication Research 14 (1988): 620.
 Kenneth Burke, Appendix, in Permanence and Change, 2nd rev. ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954).
 Mark Koltko-Rivera, “Rediscovering the Latter Version of Maslow,” Review of General Psychology 10 (2006): 306.
 Maslow, Motivation and Personality, 199.
 L. Christov-Moore, et al. “Increasing Generosity by Disrupting Pre-frontal Cortex,” Social Neuroscience 12 (2016): 1-12.
 Michele Borba, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Success in an All-About-Me World (New York: Touchstone, 2016).
 Rubin, “Conceptualization and Measurement,” 616.
 Quentin J. Schultze, “The God Problem in Communication Studies,” Journal of Communication and Religion 28 (2005): 1-22.
 Alexander Stewart and Joshua Plotkin, “From Extortion to Generosity: Evolution in the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma,” PNAS 110 (2013): 15352.
 Koltko-Rivera, “Rediscovering the Latter Version,” 309.