A goal-oriented perspective on communication entails the assumption that social interaction is an instrument for achieving objectives. Communication is the means by which something gets done.
Goals have several features. They vary in their level of abstraction. For example, a person who is seen typing at a computer may be writing a research paper, attempting to build a case for tenure, or contributing to communication science. Individuals have the capacity to form and maintain goals at varying levels of abstraction. Goals also show variability with regard to their importance. Certain aims are crucial to life satisfaction for some individuals, whereas others might view the same objective as trivial. Third, some goals are more challenging than others. Achieving a challenging goal demands more resources from the social actor, which may take the form of time devoted to planning.
A distinction can be drawn between primary and secondary goals (Dillard et al. 1989). The primary goal provides the explanation for the social episode. It is the answer to the question: what are the interactants doing? Secondary goals are all of the concerns that follow from consideration of the primary goal. For example, if one individual wishes to give advice to another person, the message source may be concerned about appearing overbearing and thereby giving offense.
Primary goals serve two social functions. One is motivational. They lie at the beginning of the goals-plans-action sequence. Thus, they are primary in the sense that they initiate the process that results in message production. Primary goals also serve a social meaning function. They imbue the social episode with meaning by offering a culturally viable explanation for the communicative transaction. In so doing, they also enable individuals to identify the beginning and ending points of the social episode. Segmentation is valuable for making sense of what might otherwise be viewed as an undifferentiated outpouring of behavior. Although a goals perspective assumes that primary goals have the capacity to provide social meaning, it does not claim that they invariably do so. Sometimes, individual actors have different understandings of the meaning of a particular social episode. In other instances, one party may have a secret agenda that defines the interaction for him or her, but is not shared with the other actor. Finally, the end points of a social episode may be fuzzy. On certain occasions, individuals explicitly mark the start and finish of the episode, but other times they do not.
As noted, secondary goals are concerns that follow from the consideration of a primary goal. One such concern is face. When a speaker wishes to know the time, she may use various linguistic constructions to lessen the threat to the hearer. “I’m sorry to bother you, but . . .” recognizes that individuals have a right to be left alone and that a request for information intrudes upon that right. By including the phrase, the speaker has crafted a message request that will not only obtain the desired information, but also will achieve the goal of respecting the other social actor. Different writers have produced different sets of secondary goals.
Berger and Kellermann (1983) specify the existence of two meta-goals. Efficiency can be conceptualized as the ratio of outcome to effort, where higher values indicate greater efficiency. Social appropriateness is the degree to which a behavior is suitable or fitting in a specific interaction. Meta-goals are distinct from primary goals insofar as they are cross situational concerns that influence how a primary goal is achieved. The notion of metagoal shifts the focus from outcome to process.
There are three ways in which primary and secondary goals relate to one another. In the first case, goals are incompatible. One party may wish to end a relationship, but without inducing any negative affect in the other. Another possibility is that secondary goals are irrelevant to the primary goal. Third, primary and secondary goals may be compatible. Relational initiation offers one context in which goal compatibility might occur. The norm of reciprocity demands that individuals repay favors provided to them by others. When one person asks another for help (e.g., a ride to the grocery store) that he or she cannot immediately repay, the message source is signaling a willingness to enter into a relationship in which reciprocity will occur over a lengthier time period. Such is a defining feature of friendships. The speaker may obtain a ride and, in so doing, also enhance a budding relationship.
The third case is the most desirable of the alternatives, but it is also the least common. Most interactions are a blend of cases one and two. Because there are multiple secondary goals, it is likely that some of them create opposition to the primary goal, while others will be irrelevant. In most instances, the set of relevant secondary goals will constitute a counter-dynamic to the primary goal. To the extent that concern for the set outweighs the desire to achieve the primary goal (and any compatible secondary goals), the individual may view engaging the other as unduly risky and choose not to engage the other person. Knowledge of the relationship between primary and secondary goals can help explain why individuals choose to communicate or to remain silent.
- Berger, C. R., & Kellerman, K. (1983). To ask or not to ask: Is that a question? In R. N. Bostrom (ed.), Communication yearbook 7. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, pp. 342 –368.
- Dillard, J. P., Segrin, C., & Harden, J. M. (1989). Primary and secondary goals in the interpersonal influence process. Communication Monographs, 56, 19 –38.