Communicator style has been conceptualized by Robert Norton (1978, 99) “to mean the way one verbally and paraverbally interacts to signal how literal meaning should be taken, interpreted, filtered, or understood.” Norton was influenced by well over 2,000 years of scholarly writings concentrating upon speech, linguistic, and writing styles, by the soft magic skills of magicians (Norton 1981), and by such prominent social scientists as Leary (1957), Schutz (1958), Bales (1970), and Sandell (1977), all of whom mentioned or alluded to communication styles within their theoretical writings. Perhaps he was most influenced by the work of Bateson (1972) and those scholars and therapists who belonged or were in some way connected to the “interactional view of human behavior” (Wilder & Weakland 1981).
On this basis Norton (1983) viewed communication style as a complex concept that consisted of two interdependent perspectives. First, communication style “is seen as a function that gives form to content” (1983, 19). The way we communicate provides information as to how the interactants are to understand the messages being delivered. “Style messages are signals about how to process content. Style adds to the color, tone, rhythm, and distinct ‘signature’ of one’s communication” (Norton & Brenders 1996, 75). The second sense of communication style “is seen as a function of consistently recurring communicative associations” (Norton 1983, 19). In this second sense, patterns of communication style can be observed by others and these others can associate certain styles of communicating across various contexts and time to an individual. Thus, individuals can, over time, become associated with certain styles of communicating.
As individuals attempt to make sense out of any message that is being sent, they must simultaneously interpret both the content of the message and the style with which the message is sent. This process of interpreting the content message and the style message is referred to as the Law of Gestalt Formation (Norton & Brenders 1996). The style component of the whole message is always powerful because communication style can change the primary message. “The form giving style can negate, contradict, exaggerate, dilute, disconfirm, play down, make nonsensical, obscure, intensify, or weaken the primary message” (Norton & Brenders 1996, 78). It is important to note that nonverbal information is not only a significant part of the selected information a sender uses to trigger meaning, but also a very powerful component of communication style when the nonverbal behaviors are interpreted as significantly reinforcing the message.
Norton (1978) operationally defined communicator style in terms of nine independent variables: dominant, dramatic, contentious, animated, impression leaving, relaxed, attentive, open, and friendly. The dependent variable within communicator style was named communicator image and represented an evaluative consequent: “I am a good communicator.” Each style or a combination of styles can be viewed as adding to an overall sense of what constitutes being a good communicator. On the basis of his conceptualization of communication style, Norton developed a 51-item Communicator Style Measure utilizing smallest space analysis. Each of the nine independent variables (styles) was measured using a five-item scale. Communicator image, the dependent variable, was measured utilizing a six-item scale.
Several of the communication style sub-constructs have received additional attention within the literature. In some instances, this additional research attention resulted in the development of expanded measuring instruments for specific style domains. Norton (1983) reviewed numerous investigations concerning the open, dramatic, and attentive styles of communicating. In each instance, these particular styles are associated with competencies in accomplishing certain interpersonal and relational outcomes. For instance, the open communication style is linked to self-disclosure. However, while openness can be a very successful strategy with which to accelerate the development of an intimate relationship by revealing information previously not known, and can signal that the individual desires to move the relationship beyond the current state by his or her willingness to share previously unknown information, at times openness can also be rather intimidating and inappropriate. An individual who is too open at the beginning of a relational encounter can damage or at least slow down the process of relationship development. In addition, different communicative situations require different levels of openness. Norton (1983, 128) writes “the open communicator allows the possibility of either rejection or disconfirmation, but, at the same time, invites affirmation.”
The dramatic communicator “vividly, emotionally, or strikingly signals that literal meaning is being highlighted or emphasized” (Norton 1983, 130). An individual who has the ability to utilize a dramatic style of communicating is able to signal that the content that is being shared is important. Tension can be created or elevated with the use of the dramatic style. A great deal of research has investigated the use of the dramatic style by teachers within classroom settings. Positive student and teacher outcomes have been associated with the appropriate use of a dramatic communication style by instructors, and several studies have attempted not only to provide a causal link between a teacher’s dramatic style and effective teaching but also to improve teaching by changing the behavior of ineffective teachers.
The attentive style of communication “signals an ongoing willingness to provide feedback that the person’s messages are being processed in an alert and/or understanding manner” (Norton 1983, 154). Attentiveness within any communicative encounter provides positive reinforcement to the sender of a message, signaling that the receiver is actively listening to the message, actively processing the message, and prepared to engage the sender in the conversation. Attentiveness has been strongly linked to competent communication skills. A good communicator is an individual who has an attentive style.
Although Norton’s Communicator Style Measure has not been frequently utilized by communication scholars to capture style within interactions, the conceptualization of the style component of a communication encounter has been investigated within such diverse contexts as the patient–physician interactions, management-worker interactions, and various family relationships such as parent–child, sibling, grandparent–grandchild, marital interaction, and therapeutic interactions. In each of these relational contexts, the way one verbally and paraverbally interacts has been shown to be a significant predictor of successful interaction.
- Bales, R. (1970). Personality and interpersonal behavior. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
- Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind. New York: Ballantine Books.
- Leary, T. (1957). Interpersonal diagnosis of personality. New York: Ronald.
- Norton, R. (1978). Foundation of a communicator style construct. Human Communication Research, 4, 99 –112.
- Norton, R. (1981). Soft magic. In C. Wilder & J. H. Weakland (eds.), Rigor and imagination: Essays from the legacy of Gregory Bateson. New York: Praeger, pp. 299 – 320.
- Norton, R. (1983). Communicator style: Theory, applications, and measures. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Norton, R., & Brenders, D. (1996). Communication and consequences: Laws of interaction. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Sandell, R. (1977). Linguistic style and persuasion. New York: Academic Press.
- Schutz, W. (1958). FIRO: A three-dimensional theory of interpersonal behavior. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
- Watzlawick, P., & Weakland, J. H. (1977). The interactional view: Studies at the Mental Research Institute Paolo Alto, 1965 –1974. New York: W. W. Norton.
- Wilder, C., & Weakland, J. H. (1981). Rigor and imagination: Essays from the legacy of Gregory Bateson. New York: Praeger.ф