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No. 35 – Social Roles in Communication

August 3, 2011

If everyone heard and understood your communications and responded exactly as you intended, then these posts would not be necessary. But in reality, every listener will understand your message to mean something different, even when they all hear the same words.

One of the reasons for this disparity in understanding has to do with your perceived social role, i.e. the position that others see you representing in society. Your “social position or role” can be related to your profession, job title, employer, alumni club, religion, political choice, educational level, income level, neighborhood, family, or any entity of society to which you are now or ever have been associated.

Your audience will interpret your message according to the social role that they perceive you representing. For example, an audience will likely react differently to you if they see you as a technical expert, as a member of the neighborhood, or as a concerned parent, even if you give essentially the same message in all three roles. The audience will judge your credibility differently according to the role they see you playing. Depending on your perceived role, the audience will have different biases related to their perceptions of the motivation behind your communications. Knowing about perceived social roles can be a significant factor in effective communications.

The better you are able to be perceived in a desirable social role, the better are your chances of being understood in the way you intended and the better you will be able to attain your communication goal. For example, who would likely have greater influence on a public audience concerned with radiation risks, a male CHP who presents the facts as an unemotional scientist, or a female (pregnant) expert who presents the same facts as a concerned parent? Which one of these people will the audience likely identify with and believe?

You can improve your effectiveness in public communications by striving for roles that the public will see favorably or you can seek a spokesperson for whom the desired social role is natural. For example, a year ago I was invited to serve as an expert witness on radon in real estate court trial. While I was selected for my knowledge, I later realized that I was also selected because I look and sound like a benevolent grandfather. Attorneys know how to use social roles to influence juries.

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