Understanding and Being Understood


As stated in the introduction, the current dissertation focuses on the influence of intelligence traits and dispositional valuations on understanding and being understood. The first chapter has two objectives. The first section (1.1) provides a description and definition of mutual understanding. Because there has not been much past research specifically focusing on this construct, findings from neighboring fields are discussed to establish the discriminant validity of mutual understanding within a larger nomological network of related constructs. Second, Section 1.2 provides an analysis of the linguistic and social processes underlying mutual understanding. This will set up a framework for Chapter 2, in which the mechanisms by which intelligence and dispositional valuations influence these distinct mechanisms are discussed.

1.1  Mutual Understanding

1.1.1  Description and Definition

In the experience of a conversation, a common ground constitutes itself between the other one and myself, my thought and his make up a single tissue, my words and his are called out by the phase of the discussion, they insert themselves in a common operation of which neither one of us is the sole creator.


This quote by the French phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty (1945, cited in Bernieri, Gillis, Davis, & Grahe, 1996, p. 114) describes the very distinct experience of conversational harmony: the finding of „common ground”. The current dissertation focuses on this process of mutual understanding (MU) between two persons. MU is defined here as the successful communication of personally relevant thoughts and feelings between interacting individuals. Thus, MU requires both interaction partners to understand each other and this understanding needs to pertain to personally important thoughts and feelings.

The current study focuses on mutual understanding within pairs of individuals (dyads). Such dyadic relationships seem to have a high potential for mutual understanding. In fact, many distinctive, „personal” relationships, such as romantic couples or close friendships, are defined by a dyadic focus. By focusing on dyads, the current approach precludes social support processes in groups or communities (for an analysis of intimacy processes in small groups, see Barker, 1991).

1.1.2 Concepts Related to Mutual Understanding

Despite its intuitive appeal, very little research explicitly focuses on MU as a psychological construct. Partly, this is due to the separateness of the disciplines of psychology and communication research in academic curricula and research. Nevertheless, research addressed several constructs that are related (though not identical) to MU. In the following section, research regarding four such constructs is reviewed: empathy, social support, rapport, and intimacy. This research can serve to clarify the theoretical background and discriminant validity of MU as a psychological variable. Empathy


Empathy is often described as the ability to put oneself into another’s “shoes”. According to Neyer, Banse, & Asendorpf (1999, p. 419-420), this is definedbysuch processes as taking the situational perspective of the other, recognizing what the other is thinking, detecting the intentions and motivations of the other, and intuitively understanding the emotions of the other. Because of this focus on the recognition and understanding of other people’s emotions and feelings, empathy is closely related to MU.

Research on empathy has found that people are not very good at evaluating their own level of empathic skills (Davis & Kraus, 1997; Realo et al. 2003). For this reason, researchers have shifted their emphasis on assessing empathy as an observable phenomenon within the context of social relationships (Neyer et al., 1999). For example, Ickes (1993) has established a paradigm that focuses on people’s ability to predict what their interaction partners are thinking or feeling (i.e., mind reading). When applied to a conversation between two people, this ability should facilitate the understanding of the intentions behind verbal utterances. Accordingly, empathic accuracy should be positively related to MU.

In spite of these communalities, there exists an important difference between MU and empathy. Most studies on empathic accuracy have used individualistic designs. For example, they have looked at the association between participants’ personality traits and their empathic accuracy scores to identify features of “the good judge” (Davis & Kraus, 1997). Alternatively, studies have looked at features of target persons that are associated with a greater ease for others to “read their minds” (e.g., Thomas & Fletcher, 2003). In contrast, MU is a phenomenon that is neither limited to the abilities of the judge, nor to the understanding of the target. Rather, MU is an emergent phenomenon that it requires both members of a dyad to understand each other: It is both about understanding and being understood. As will be elaborated in Chapter 2, this is important because it can be hypothesized that intelligence enhances the ability to understand other people yet at the same time limit the possibility to be understood by others. Social Support


People differ in the quality and quantity of their social relationships. Some individuals have a very large number of acquaintances and friends, whereas others concentrate their energy on a selected few. Moreover, the quality of relationships varies from loving, reciprocal, and caring to envious, disrespectful, and abusive. There exist a number of different definitions of social support. For example, Albrecht and Adelman (1987, p. 19) define social support as:

verbal and nonverbal communication between recipients and providers that reduces uncertainty about the situation, the self, the other, or the relationship, and functions to enhance a perception of personal control in one’s life experience.


When people feel understood by each other, this may act as a validation of their worldviews (Byrne, 1971), reduce their existential uncertainty, and enhance their perceptions of personal control (Mikulincer, Florian, & Hirschberger, 2004). For this reason, MU could be regarded as a specific form of social support (Keeley & Hart, 1994). However, social support is a much broader construct that includes behaviors such as practical advice, financial assistance, and comforting people (for a categorization of social support behaviors, see Cohen, Underwood, & Gottlieb, 2000; Vaux, 1992). In contrast to social support, which can involve broad array of behaviors, MU is more specific since it requires that two individuals are able to accurately communicate their thoughts and feelings. In the words of Duck (1994, p. 5),

[…] understanding (of what is meant) and sharing of meaning […] are essential elements of relating and […] everyday talk is part of the system of communication that creates them both. Rapport

Rapport is described by Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1983, cited in Bernieri et al., 1996) as a relational quality „marked by harmony, conformity, accord, and affinity.” Because rapport does not reside within individuals, it is essentially a dyadic phenomenon (i.e., the product of social interactions). According to Tickle-Degnen and Rosenthal (1990), rapport consists of three qualities: coordination, mutual attentiveness, and positivity. Coordination refers to a responsive pattern of behavioral give and take, which is associated with behavioral synchrony (the coupling of interpersonal behavior patterns). Attentiveness refers to a joint focus of attention; without mutual attention, there can be no meaningful contact. Finally, positivity refers to an interpersonal atmosphere characterized by positive emotions, such as joy and happiness.


Although rapport is a useful construct to describe harmonious interactions, the causal relations between the construct and its constitutive components are far from clear. There are three possibilities. First, coordinated, mutually attentive and positive behavior may automatically lead to rapport. If so, then rapport would also result if an individual engages in slavish yes-nodding to everything his or her interaction partner says. Second, reversing the causal chain, it may be that rapport causes coordinated, mutually attentive and positive behavioral interactions. Third, it might be that rapport is simply a cognitive-representational correlate of a broader sensation of „being in tune”.

Niederhoffer and Pennebaker (2002) recently argued that coordination and mutual attentiveness might not be essential characteristics of rapport, since they also occur in highly negative interactions (e.g., people focusing and reacting to each other during a fight; see Cairns & Cairns, 2000, p. 413, for similar arguments). In addition, people may share negative or sad information but still establish a sense of rapport when there is an atmosphere of acceptance and respect. Because most laboratory studies (for obvious ethical reasons) focus on neutral or positive interactions, the role of coordination and attentiveness in negative interactions is unclear.

Rapport is similar to MU in that both refer to a positive, dyadic quality of social interaction. Indeed, the coordinated and mutually attentive rapport behaviors are likely correlated with the conversational harmony implied in the process of MU. In terms of their causal primacy, however, it seems more plausible that rapport is a result of MU rather than the other way around. Specifically, being understood by another individual likely validates one’s world-view and should lead to positive emotions of rapport (Byrne, 1971). However, the reverse is not necessary the case: Whereas rapport seems to pertain to all positive, coordinated and mutually attentive social interaction, MU refers only to interactions that involve the successful communication of personally significant thoughts and feelings. Intimacy


A fourth possible correlate of MU is intimacy. Reis (1990) defined intimacy as a process that begins when a person expresses personally revealing feelings or thoughts to another person. For the intimacy process to continue, it is required that the listener responds supportively and emphatically. Ideally, this leads the discloser to feel understood, validated and cared for. Intimacy can be an important source of social support (Reis, 1990; Johnson, Hobfoll, & Zalcberg-Linetzy, 1993). It has also been shown to be a highly valued characteristic of friendships. For example, Caldwell and Peplau (1982) asked respondents whether they would prefer having a limited number of very intimate friends over having many good but less intimate friends. Confronted with this dilemma, no less than 73% of the men and 83% of the women preferred having a limited number of intimate friends.

The behaviors that are associated with intimacy vary according to gender and culture. In Western, individualistic societies, self-disclosure seems to be central to intimacy, but in many non-Western, collectivistic societies, caring, intimate relationships with members of the social group may so normative that they do not require the sharing of personal thoughts and feelings (Adams, Anderson, & Adonu, 2004). Furthermore, it has been established that women engage in intimate behaviors more than men do, even though both sexes have similar representations of what constitutes intimacy (Fehr, 2004).

MU and intimacy are conceptually similar. For example, Fehr (2004) asked respondents to rate how prototypical several behaviors are for the construct of intimacy in friendships. Items that received the highest ratings mostly pertained to the sharing of cognitive and emotional content. Indeed, the most prototypical item was: „If I need to talk, my friend will listen.“ This focus on disclosing personally relevant information and its understanding and validation by the interaction partner closely matches the construct of MU.


In spite of much communality, there is also an important difference between MU and intimacy. The concept of intimacy is closely associated with the notion of caring, loving relationships. In contrast, it is possible to experience MU in the absence of such emotions. Indeed, sometimes, very powerful experiences involve meaningful conversations with strangers encountered during a walk through the park, on vacation, etc. At the end of such meetings, one is left with the feeling of „having so much in common”. Although such interactions involve a high degree of MU and validation, they do not necessarily imply a caring for the other person.

A case can be made that MU is a central first step in establishing intimacy. According to this logic, meeting a person who is truly understanding of one’s deepest thoughts suggests the existence of a parallel worldview in the other individual: It affirms the validity of one’s own thoughts and feelings (Byrne, 1971). When both persons share this sense of being understood, a feeling of MU has set in, which may then motivate them to establish more regular contact and continue to explore the compatibility of each other’s worldviews. After some time, amicable feelings and/or romantic emotions might evolve that give rise to the „caring” component of intimacy.

The hypothesized associations between MU, worldview validation, and interpersonal care are supported by empirical research. In a diary study, Reis, Sheldon, Gable, Roscoe, and Ryan (2000) followed 67 participants for 2 weeks. Each day, participants compiled a list of their three most time-consuming social activities. They rated whether these activities involved talking about meaningful matters, a feeling of being understood, and the amount of relatedness experienced in them. As predicted, talking about meaningful matters and feelings of being understood were strongly related to well-being. Similarly, Murray, Bellavia, Dolderman, Holmes, and Griffin (2002) showed that the feeling of being understood in a relationship is closely related to relationship satisfaction, and Snyder (1979) found that measures of communication quality were the best single predictors of global marital satisfaction. Thus, there is some evidence that MU is a crucial element in the establishment of satisfying, caring relationships.

1.2 Communicating Meaning


As stated above, the current dissertation focuses on MU in verbal interactions between two individuals. Recalling the definition given above, this requires the successful communication of personally relevant thoughts and feelings. However, although this definition may be useful for descriptive purposes, it does not specify the mechanisms by which people achieve this successful communication. How are people able to accurately share their thoughts and feelings? Only if this question is answered can theoretical predictions regarding the impact of intelligence and dispositional valuations be derived.

Experience sampling research has found that students spend about 6 hours per day (or about 40%) in conversations with other people (Reis & Wheeler, 1991). Thus, language plays a major role in social life. Surely, individuals can also develop a sense of „wordless” understanding of each others’ thoughts and emotions. For example, nonverbal behavior has been demonstrated to be a rich source of interpersonal information and sometimes outperforms spoken language in its level of directness (Ekman, 2003). However, nonverbal behavior also seems somewhat limited in its potential to communicate more complex thoughts and feelings. Indeed, the impact of verbal and nonverbal behavior on communication effectiveness has been shown to be additive and complementary (Jones & Guerrero, 2001).

In a very general sense, language is a system of signs. For a better understanding of the mechanism by which verbal communication acquires its meaning, it is helpful to investigate some basic features of signs. Semiotics is the philosophical tradition that studies the way in which signs acquire their meaning. According to the semiotician Ferdinand de Saussure (1916), a sign consists of two elements (see Figure 1). The signifier refers to the form of the sign, which in the context of conversations is the acoustic pattern of an utterance (e.g., the sentence „watch out for that dog”). In turn, the signified implies that the sign must refer to some material or conceptual reality. In the dissertation, this referential reality is mainly is mostly thought of as people’s life experiences (e.g., seeing and hearing a barking dog).


These two sign elements are connected by semiotic codes (depicted by a double-headed arrow in Figure 1). Codescan be defined as procedural systems of related conventions for relating signifieds to signifiers. The fact that codes are conventions implies they are socially constructed: In language, there is no „objective meaning” of an utterance. According to Jakobson and Halle (1956, p. 72), „the efficiency of a speech event demands the use of a common code by its participants.” For example, in southern Germany, people greet each other with the words „Grüß Gott”, which literally means „greet God”. By means of a shared code, people from this region know that this is just a common way to say „hello”. The next section tries to elucidate some of the mechanisms used to achieve this agreement.

Figure 1. Schematic Depiction of Sign Elements According to de Saussure (1916).

Note. A sign is constituted of a signified (a reference to some experiential reality) and a signifier (a material form, such as the sound pattern in spoken language). Interpretative codes are conventions that govern the association between these two elements.

1.2.1  A Model of Dyadic Communication

To further clarify the MU process and its different constituents, I created a dyadic communication model based on de Saussure’s (1916) semiotic principles. Figure 2 depicts five crucial steps in the application of this model to the interaction between two persons, Person A and B. The model is based on the assumption that both persons have their own unique experiences. For example, A might have experienced a dangerous situation while driving on the highway, whereas B has not. These differing experiences are associated with differences in the content of thoughts and feelings (the different signifieds in the upper and lower layer of the figure).


In the figure, Person A starts with a thought or feeling X he or she wants to communicate with B (e.g., the opinion that highways are unsafe nowadays). In order to do this, he or she needs to encode X into a verbal utterance (step 1) that is left for B to decode (step 2). For example, A might state „I can’t believe how dangerous highways have become these days”. When both persons share the same linguistic code (S), this process leads to the creation of a comparable thought or feeling (X’)1 in Person B.

Sometimes A and B will use idiosyncratic codes that are not shared between them. Such codes are called idiolects (iA and iB). When communication between A and B involves idiolects, Person B’s interpretation of the message does not match the intentions of Person A (e.g., B might think that Person A does not actually believe the fact that traffic is unsafe). This is referred to by Umberto Eco (1965) as „aberrant decoding”, which may give rise to serious interpretational difficulties, especially when the differences in code use are not made transparent.

Single-utterance interactions are the exception in human communication. In most cases, a decoded meaning (in the current example: X’) will lead to the activation of another thought or feeling (Y). This probably takes place by an associative mechanism (step 3). For example, the construct „highway” might activate a thought or feeling related to the construct „road”. Although this process is dependent on deterministic brain activity, the effect of subtle situational influences and the interaction of numerous neurophysiological parameters make its outcome highly chance-dependent. For example, if B had previously talked to his or her neighbor who drives a Mercedes-Benz, it becomes more likely that a corresponding image is activated.


When B has acquired a sense of what to reply, the cycle of encoding the thought into a sound pattern continues (step 4). For example, Person B might reply: „Some people think the road belongs to them; like my neighbor C.” After this, Person A must decode the message (step 5) and come up with a relevant association to continue the interaction (provided the motivation to continue communicating is still high enough). Such a reaction might consist of questioning aspects of the previous utterance in order to gain a clearer sense of its meaning (e.g., „Did your neighbor ever have an accident?”), leading to a clarification phase of the conversation.

Figure 2. Schematic Depiction of the Dyadic Communication Process

Note. Dyadic communication is seen as a process involving five steps. When Person A wants to communicate a thought or feeling X to Person B, he or she must encode it into a verbal utterance (step 1). Following this, B must interpret this utterance (step 2). When Person A and B use idiolects that are not shared (iA and iB), this process is hampered. Instead, when both persons use the same linguistic code (S), this leads to the creation of a comparable thought or feeling X’ in Person B. When B wants to continue the communication, he or she must produce a related thought or feeling Y through an associative process (step 3). After this, Person B must decode it into a verbal utterance (step 4) that Person A needs to decode (step 5), and so forth.

1.2.2 Social Construction of Shared Codes

Speaking the same language is one prerequisite for effective communication because it provides people with fixed rules for the interpretation of syntactic structures and the meaning of words and proverbs. However, because of the generativity of language, such an a priory, culturally universal code does not exist for the interpretation of more complex utterances. For the interpretation of more complex utterances, interacting individuals often have to actively construct shared codes.


In the following section, four techniques for the social construction of shared codes are discussed: audience design, perspective taking, reference to shared experiences, and metaphors (see Table 1 for a summary and description). It is important to note that these codes are not independent of each other. Rather, they serve as an interrelated whole in which the different elements may facilitate or compensate each other. For example, perspective taking is a necessary requirement for effective audience design.

Table 1 Summary of Four Techniques for the Social Construction of Shared Codes


Working ingredient


Audience design


[A:] „The earthquake measured nine on the Richter scale.”

[B, silence, looking confused]

[A, sensing B doesn’t know the Richter scale:] „It was a very heavy earthquake.”

Perspective taking

Using the presumed mental state of the interaction partner to communicate and infer meaning

[A:] „How are you doing?”

[B, looking sad:] „I’m OK”.

[A:] „Is something the matter?”

Shared experiences

Drawing on past experiences with the interaction partner to communicate and infer meaning

[A:] „Hush, you know how angry dad can get when we wake him up.”

[B:] „You’re right, I’m sorry.”


Using shared concepts to describe nonshared concepts

[A:] „Have you ever tasted Tabasco sauce?”

[B:] „No.”

[A:] „It’s like an extremely hot kind of salsa sauce”. Audience Design


Central to the notion of audience design is the idea that people are different from each other. An utterance such as „The ANOVA did not result in a significant interaction effect” might be perfectly understandable for a research psychologist but completely obscure to the average layperson. Because of this, speakers need to tailor their message to the needs of their audiences (Krauss & Fussell, 1991). If the audience lacks the necessary code to interpret a specific utterance, then the speaker needs to explain a construct in more detail (e.g., by pointing out that an ANOVA is a statistical technique to find out if an effect is meaningful).

Adjusting a message according to the perceived knowledge of the interaction partner is called audience design. According to Clark (1992), audience design depends on an effective „grounding process”: the initial phase of a conversation in which individuals establish a shared set of codes (common ground). Clark and colleagues (Clark, 1992; Wilkes-Gibbs & Clark, 1992) state that the grounding phase is a collaborative process in which both participants work together to understand the meaning of each other’s utterances. According to their collaborative model, common ground is established when an interaction partner presents some information to the other person (presentation phase), and the partner provides some evidence of his or her understanding of this information (acceptance phase). When mutual understanding of the information is thus demonstrated, it becomes part of the interaction partners’ shared knowledge.

Indirect evidence for the notion of audience design comes from research on so-called referential communication tasks, in which people need to describe referential objects to another person. For example, it has been consistently shown that across time, speakers reduce the number of turns and words used to identify these referential targets to others (e.g., Fussell & Krauss, 1992; Wilkes-Gibbs & Clark, 1992). Probably, the establishment of common ground during the conversation reduces the need for additional clarifying information to comprehend its meaning.2 For example, Nohara-LeClair (2001) found that individuals who know the meaning of a set of stimuli share this knowledge with each other and became more accurate at estimating how much their partners knew about the stimuli during the course of an interaction.3 Perspective Taking


An important technique in encoding and decoding verbal communication is perspective taking (Krauss & Fussell, 1991). Consider the sentence „Can you open the door?” This sentence can refer to properties of the door (can it be opened?), properties of the person that is spoken to (is the person physically able to open the door?) or contain a request to that person („please open the door”). The receiver is left with a knowledge gap that poses a hindrance in the interpretation of the message. One of the ways this knowledge gap can be bridged is by taking the intention of the speaker into account.

According to Tomasello (2000), humans differ from other primates by their highly developed understanding of other individuals as intentional beings. After 9-12 months of age, human infants begin to engage in joint attentional schemes with adults, which gradually enable them to take the perspective of others into account. From this understanding of other individuals as intentional agents follows a gradual awareness of others-as-mental-agents, that is, as beings with distinct psychological states and motives (Wellman, 1990).

As stated above, perspective taking can be an important tool in the grounding process of audience design. When individuals know what kind of knowledge their interaction partners probably possess, they can more effectively tailor the content of their utterances. According to Clark and Marshall (1992), people use information from three sources to infer the amount of shared knowledge. First, they can rely on cues that are located in the shared perceptual/physical environment of the conversation partners (e.g., talking about „that car over there“ while pointing at it). Second, they can use linguistic cues derived from the past and present conversations between the interaction partners. Finally, people can infer shared knowledge from community membershipinformation by relying on assumptions about the things known to members of certain social groups (see the example above about the use of the term „ANOVA” and „interaction effect” in a discussion between two psychologists).


Empirical support that people use their assessment of other persons’ perspectives when adjusting their communication comes from multiple experimental studies. For example, Fussell and Krauss (1992, experiments 2 and 4) let participants judge the recognizability of diverse stimuli and then used these stimuli in a referential communication task. Consistent with the idea that people take their interaction partner’s perspective into account, participants used significantly more words and conversation turns when the stimulus in question was less familiar.4 Shared Experiences

A third mechanism that can serve to create a shared communicative code is reliance on shared experiences.5 According to psychologist Steven Duck (1994), human beings generate meaning by „anticipating how things will repeat themselves” (p. 65; also see Kelly, 1955). According to Duck, it is necessary to grasp the nature of these anticipations to really understand another person. However, the communication of meaning is complicated by the fact that persons often see the world in a highly idiosyncratic way. Because individuals’ anticipations are not observable to the interaction partner, the degree to which they are understood depends on the listener’s ability to interpret utterances and fill in knowledge gaps.


In Duck’s theory, people discover similarity in their anticipations of events through everyday talk, in which „the framework of a person’s thought is presented to others symbolically so that the two partners may, if they are able, detect, recognize, create, and respond to similarities of interpretation of the world” (p. 14). Similarity on a particular topic is one way to establish a common ground on which people are more able to comprehend and communicate with each other. Moreover, similarity in the evaluations of these experiences may act as a reassurance that one’s personal worldview is shared by others and thus strengthen the person’s belief in its accuracy and validity.

One way in which shared experiences foster effective communication is that similar persons can effectively use information on their own states and personality to make valid inferences about the other person (Neyer et al., 1999). In a way, such shared experiences may be seen as a specific instance of perspective taking: When people share a large number of experiences, it is easier to take the other person’s perspective.6 An example of the process of meaning sharing is depicted in Figure 3. In phase I, persons A and B have both experienced event X, which has been incorporated in their respective personal construct systems (vertical lines from A and B to X). However, in this first phase, they are not yet aware of this similarity. In the second phase, A and B disclose their mutual experience of X but do not yet talk about the meaning of this particular experience (horizontal arrow between the X of A to the X of B). In the third phase, they start to talk about their evaluation of X and discover that this event has approximately the same meaning for them (shared access of A and B to X’s meaning). This motivates them to further engage in conversation about the meaning complexes associated with X, such as N or Z. In Figure 3, these associated meanings are also shared, which is likely to stimulate their conversation and promote mutual feelings of being understood.

Figure 3. Model of the Serial Construction of Meaning According to Duck (1994)

Note. According to Duck (1994, slight modifications added), individuals relationships between two persons (represented as A and B) are facilitated by shared experiences. In everyday talk, people may become aware of (1) mutuality in experience (2) and equivalence of evaluation of this experience (3). Eventually, this may promote the sharing of related meaning complexes (4).


Duck refers to such recognitions and acknowledgement of experience commonalities (usually in talk) as „relational force”. Thus, the more experiences two persons share, the larger is their potential for a deep and meaningful relationship.7 Empirical evidence for this notion was provided by Fraley and Aron (2004), who found that experimental exposure to a shared humorous experience increased interpersonal closeness in encounters between 96 same-sex strangers. Metaphors

While Duck’s model is highly intuitive and explains the powerful role of shared experiences in human communication, it does not address a fundamental problem in human interaction. That is, because all experience is idiosyncratic to some degree, how are humans ever able to understand nonshared and differentially coded experiences? Especially when confronted with an interaction partner that does not share personally significant thoughts and feelings, the creative use of language becomes necessary.

According to Roman Jakobson (1960), metaphors are a central vehicle in the communication of meaning because they can describe unfamiliar concepts with familiar ones (e.g., by comparing love to a rollercoaster). As Lakoff and Johnson (1980) argue, metaphors are derived from physical, social and cultural experience.8 Because the elements of metaphors are typically unrelated in life, they require an „imaginative leap to recognize the resemblance to which a fresh metaphor alludes” (Chandler, 1994, chapter 8).


In the process of MU, the metaphor is especially important as a potential vehicle to communicate a sense in the absence of shared experiences. In an example from popular culture, Mark Renton, the hero in the film Trainspotting, describes the experience of taking heroin for somebody who has never used it: „Take the best orgasm you ever had, multiply it by a thousand and you’re still nowhere near it.” This quote exemplifies the utilization of shared experiences (sexual experiences) to communicate the sense of a non-shared experience (using drugs).


To sum up Chapter 1, the current dissertation studies the process of mutual understanding of personally relevant thoughts and feelings in verbal communication between dyadic partners. MU is related to empathy, social support, interpersonal rapport, and intimacy, yet it is also more specific and less dependent on the existence of close emotional ties. Instead, MU is conceived as an important first step in the establishment of supporting and intimate relationships. On the process level, MU requires individuals to encode thoughts and feelings into verbal utterances, which are then communicated to the interaction partner. The partner then decodes the message and (through an associative mechanism) produces a subsequent thought or feeling that can be communicated. Communication partners must often take each other’s perspective to grasp the meaning of often idiosyncratic communions. This interpretation process is facilitated by reference to shared experiences. However, language may also enable communication of nonshared experiences through the use of metaphors, which require „imaginary leaps”.

Footnotes and Endnotes

1  Because it is unlikely that every aspect of the interpretative code is identical between the two persons, the signified X of Person B will always differ somewhat from that of Person A (hence the added apostrophe).

2  According to Clark and colleagues’ principle of least collaborative effort, people reduce their language output because they want to minimize „the work both speakers and addressees do from the initiation of the referential process to its completion” (Clark and Wilkes-Gibbs, 1986, p. 26).

3  In spite of this accuracy, there is also a persistent tendency to overestimate the amount of shared knowledge (see Fussell & Krauss, 1992; Nohara-LeClair, 2001).

4  This is not to say that perspective taking was always perfectly successful. When participants themselves were familiar with a certain stimulus, they systematically overestimated the probability that their partners would also be familiar with the stimulus. Such egocentric tendencies likely reduce the effectiveness of interpersonal communication.

5  Indeed, the very meaning of the word communication is derived from the Latin communicare, which means „to make common or shared“.

6  Another source of accurate inferences is relationship-specific „theories”: mental models containing interaction-specific knowledge (Baldwin, 1992). Such mental models are hypothesized to serve as a basis for the interpretation of other persons’ behavior and might be created through mutual self-disclosure (Colvin, Vogt, & Ickes, 1997; Thomas & Fletcher, 2003).

7  According to Duck, even illusory similarities can have such effects because they „promote interest in continuing a relationship with another person in order to diversify and contextualize knowledge of that person” (1994, p. 112).

8  Since all human individuals are familiar with body sensations, many metaphors refer to direct physical experience (e.g., the head of government). In 1744, Renaissance philosopher Giambattista Vico argued: „It is noteworthy that in all languages the greater part of the expressions relating to inanimate things are formed by metaphor from the human body and its parts and from the human senses and passions” (Vico, 1744/1968, cited in Chandler, 1994).

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