Communication about communication is known as metacommunication — a powerful indicator of someone’s thoughts and intentions.
Being able to communicate effectively offers advantages, whether it’s in a relationship or during a casual interaction. Communication can convey your intent and needs and guide others in how they interact with you.
Communication is not just verbal, however. The tone of your voice, stance, facial expressions, and other gestures you make may also send a message.
This subtle relay of information about what you’re saying is known as metacommunication.
Metacommunication is a secondary expression of intent that either supports or conflicts with what you’re saying verbally. In other words, it’s the non-verbal message you send when interacting with someone.
“I work with my clients to understand metacommunication as the character of our communication; our cues and messages we broadcast independently of whatever we are saying,” says Dr. Crystal Shelton, a licensed clinical social worker from Silver Spring, Maryland.
This process of covert messaging or metacommunication may involve:
- body language
- facial expression
- vocalizations (sighing, laughing)
- eye contact
- personal space
- media elements (profile picture, posts, or chosen quotes)
Often, metacommunication is missed unless it conveys the opposite of what someone says, but research suggests metacommunication is always happening.
Metacommunication beyond human interaction
You can see metacommunication in real time by interacting with an unfamiliar animal.
For example, you’re at the dog park, and a dog approaches you. The dog may not be able to understand your words, but the eye contact you make, the posture you hold, and your tonality can indicate to that dog if you’re a friend or foe.
Similarly, you know through the dog’s behaviors if it’s affectionate or guarded. No words are needed.
Being able to “read between the lines” can be an important tool in a therapeutic setting. Not only may it help a mental health professional gain insight into underlying challenges, but it may also help facilitate a relationship between you and your therapist.
“Metacommunication can be used to mask or conceal the real feeling of the person when a person is unable to express their true feelings,” explains Jacqueline Connors, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Napa, California. “Unmasking the underlying expression helps the therapeutic process by getting to the root of the issue.”
For a therapist, guaranteeing personal metacommunication aligns with expressions of empathy can help establish a bond of trust and confidence.
“A skilled therapist works to communicate a client’s value, build their agency, and establish empathy through many cues beyond verbal exchange,” Shelton adds.
Sarcasm and irony in metacommunication
According to Shelton, metacommunication often implies nonverbal processes but can also include how language is used.
Sarcasm and irony are two forms of linguistics that use metacommunication to relay meanings beyond those of the exact words being said.
“If I am trying to tell you that I am happy to be at a party you have thrown, but I am constantly checking my watch, yawning, and looking at the door, my direct communication might be that I am happy, but my metacommunication is suggesting something different,” explains Shelton.
Other examples of metacommunication are:
- What’s said: “I am fine. Everything is OK.”
- What’s metacommunicated: A sigh, accompanied by face rubbing and a slight frown, might suggest it wasn’t as good of a day as said.
- What’s said: “I’m so excited to meet you!”
- What’s metacommunicated: Arriving late to the meeting, appearing unkempt, and looking around distractedly might indicate a lack of interest.
- What’s said: “I would never do that.”
- What’s metacommunicated: Fidgeting movements and avoidant eye contact can convey the presence of guilt or uneasiness.
- What’s said: “I am so glad you were able to come!”
- What’s metacommunicated: A warm embrace, eye contact, and welcoming smile support the verbal assertion of enthusiasm.
Metacommunication, though often subconscious, can take focused, conscious effort to develop. Doing so can help ensure you send the message you intend when interacting with others.
“Intentionality, intentionality, intentionality,” Shelton says of starting the process. “Be aware of what you intend to communicate and craft your behavioral and emotional behaviors around that.”
These tips can help you match verbal messages and metacommunication:
One way to help build your metacommunication is by observing it in others.
For example, what else happens when someone’s metacommunication matches their verbal communication? What happens when you feel as though verbal and meta aren’t aligned?
Reinforcing your direct communication skills
Not all metacommunication with conflicting messages is with the intent to deceive. Sometimes, you might not know how to express yourself appropriately with words or may be trying to be polite or private.
By building your assertive communication skills, you may be able to prevent unintentional mis-metacommunication.
The saying “practice makes perfect” applies to communication skills as much as any other skill set.
“Focus on your state as you are communicating your words,” suggests Connors. “The state you’re in will help you control your body language and the tonality of your delivery. Practice expressing yourself in a very literal way that clearly defines what you are wanting to say.”
Metacommunicative signals are the mannerisms, behaviors, and cues accompanying your verbal form of communication.
But, while these signals can be nonverbal, sometimes words themselves can also deliberately hide intention, such as with irony or sarcasm.
Honing your metacommunication skills can help ensure your communication is effective and conveys only the information you want.