Definition and Etymology

Growing out of the Latin (agreement, symmetry) and influenced by the French, Italian, and Spanish iterations, the English concept of “competence” has a rich history of trying to articulate connection. In the late 16th century the term was represented closely to its verb root of “compete,” which by the 19th century had grown to include the noun form of “competency.” This noun version of compete, represented a comfortable living as seen in the phrase by Austen (1816), “an easy competence – enough to secure the purchase of a small estate” (p. 25). This expanded definition of competence also included a notion of “easy circumstances” as expressed by Wadsworth (1827), “robbed of competence, and her obsequious shadow, peace of mind” (p. 278) and Tennyson (1864) when he writes, “seven happy years of health and competence.” These examples show the positive valance that competence had and the early connection the concept had to success (i.e. a component of, or contributing to, a successful life).

However, in the 20th century the various definitions began to coalesce around the idea of performance or ability. This is largely due to the writings of Chomsky (1964) who represented competence as a cognitive ability when he wrote, “The description of linguistic competence provided by the grammar is not to be confused with an account of actual performance” (p. 915). This is to say that the knowledge of something is separate from its performance. Competence seems to take on a meaning beyond the mere possession of something to the realm of effective use or appropriate action toward the end goal of success.

Communication Competence as a Developing Concept

Growing out the its etymological foundation that presents competence as something related to success or appropriateness, academics have tried for decades to pinpoint a parsimonious definition of competence as it relates to communication. Internalizing this history in different ways lead scholars to generate three separate avenues that focused on different aspects of communication competence and yet all maintained the focus on success and appropriateness:

1. Goffman (1959) introduced the idea that competence was wrapped up in the presentation of self. Communication is inherently performative and mastering the art of impression management (presenting the appropriate self at the appropriate time) leads to successful interaction (p. 208).

2. A human relations approach was developed by Argyris (1962) in Interpersonal competence and organizational effectiveness. This model prized effectiveness in the work place through appropriate (often prescribed) interpersonal interactions. Argyris (1995) even developed this line of thinking about competence into a form of action science where the correct actions / strategies would help mitigate errors and increase effectiveness.

3. Using the appropriate communicative or social skill at the right time was the way Argyle and Kendon (1967) chose to develop this concept. Competence was seen as a tool by which individuals could successfully navigate social situations.

The 50s, 60s, and 70s saw the most adamant attempts to place competence within the realm of communication concepts that could be measured and applied to successful interactions. Wiemann (1977), an interpersonal communication scholar, saw the value in each separate definition offered during this time, but moved the focus from the individual to the interaction between individuals. This made the concept more suited to communication scholars who wanted to explore and understand the constructs involved in successful interactions. He, therefore, offered a definition that attempted to offer more clarity and span the divide:

4. “The ability of an interactant to choose among available communicative behaviors in order that he may successfully accomplish his own interpersonal goals during an encounter while maintaining the face and line of his fellow interactants within the constraints of the situation (p. 198).”

Competence in Interpersonal Communication Research

How to conceptualize and study competence within interpersonal relationships is still a work in progress. There are those that maintain the definition of competence as skill based, yet the focus has remained on the interaction in place of the individual. For example, Arroyo and Segrin (2011) say that communication competence is a “dyadic judgment people have about their own and their partner’s” (p. 549) social comfort and ability to manage the particular situation (Rubin, Rubin, & Martin, 1993, p. 33). This emphasis on both members of the dyad grows out of Wiemann’s (1977) combination and expansion of the previous definitions to focus on success, context, and interpersonal / dyadic goals.

Measurement of communication competence also reflects the emphasis on effectiveness and success. This can be seen in Guerrero’s (1994) Communication Competence Scale where participants (in this case romantic partners were surveyed) are asked to respond to six items (e.g. “My partner is a good listener”) on a 5-point Likert scale. The higher the aggregate score the higher the perception of communication competence one has for his/her partner. However, this measurement tool can also be used in non-romantic relationships. For example, McManus and Donovan (2012) studied the use of ambiguity in divorced families and found that the proper use of communication competence actually increased the effectiveness of particular, contextualized speech acts (p. 271).

The study of communication competence continues to develop. This line of research carries theoretical and practical implications that extend beyond the communication discipline and into sociology, psychology, family studies, and organizational management. Understanding how to best conceptualize communication competence so that it can be applied across disciplines effectively is an important process. When the term is clearly defined and successfully applied there should be less confusion about whether it is an approach to human relations, a social skill, a self-presentation strategy, or some combination of all three.

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Wiemann, J. M. (1977). Explication and test of a model of communicative competence. Human Communication Research, 3(3), 195–213.