All behaviour is communication, right?

The philosopher, Daniel Dennett, has introduced the world to the concept of the ‘deepity’. This is a statement that can be read on two different levels. On the first level, it is trivially true, whereas on the second level, it is false but it would be huge if it was true. You can then use the trivially true level to bamboozle people into accepting the falsehood.

An example that Dennett gives of a deepity is, “love is only a word”. Clearly, ‘love’ definitely is a ‘word’ but that word represents a concept with many implications in the world. So it is true at a trivial level but false in the sense that most people will read it.

I think I’ve discovered an Education deepity: “All behaviour is communication.”

When I first came across this phrase, it struck me as manifestly false. My common understanding of an act of communication is that one person is attempting to pass information to another person or a group of people.

And this is indeed how people interpret ‘all behaviour is communication’. In the comments to a recent TES article, we read that, “All behaviour is communication. If there is a child disrupting the class it’s because the staff etc. are not listening to what the child is attempting to communicate to them.”

And this is why it is false. Poor behaviour can have many causes. For instance, when a thief steals something from a shop, he or she is not trying to communicate anything to anyone. Quite the reverse. A thief wishes to conceal the behaviour in order to not get caught.

Similarly, children who misbehave in class will do so for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, it may indeed be about communicating something to the teacher. But other behaviours may be about establishing peer group positioning or they could be reactions to something that happened outside of class.

When I raise this objection on Twitter, I am usually told that communication is a much broader thing. Even a thief is communicating something about his or her state of mind, whether intentionally or not. In this sense, all behaviour is communication because all behaviour imparts information (provided we observe it).

I’m not sure I even agree on this level. If someone steals something, I can make inferences about their state of mind but I cannot know it. So I’m not even sure there is information there.

But let’s accept this widened definition of communication. What are the implications? Absolutely nothing. Everything anyone ever does can now be labelled as ‘communication’ and so, by applying to everything, it tells us nothing.

No, the power lies in the deepity. The wider definition of ‘communication’, the one that is trivially true, lends authority to a statement that is otherwise false.

That’s why, “All behaviour is communication,” has become a mantra for so many people.


32 thoughts on “All behaviour is communication, right?

  1. David F says:

    This reminds me of a recent Atlantic article on research regarding the “guilty look” dogs get….turns out, they get this look to alleviate conflict with their owners—even if they didn’t commit the offense in the first place (it was the cat!). Instead of the dog attempting to communicate to the owner a (nonexistent) sense of guilt, what’s really the issue is the owner screwed up…

  2. Chester Draws says:

    I would argue that “teaching is all about relationships” is another common deepity.

    True, in the useless sense that all human interactions involve relationships.

    Wrong in detail, because bad teachers can have good relationships, and some good teachers manage with their relationships only at a professional level.

    But if you buy into it you can waste time generating good relationships at the expense of actual teaching. Engagement is prioritised over learning, and fun activities over useful ones.

    And how are you meant to keep a good relationship with some naughty child? That sends a signal that their naughtiness is, on a higher level, unimportant.

    • I’d beg to differ that ‘teaching is all about relationships’ is a deepity. If teaching wasn’t all about relationships, we’d all be replaced by computers. The fact that you talk about the nature of professional relationships kind of makes that point – teaching is all about managing relationships. On a number of levels too – in school/out of school peer relationships (as discussed in this article), teacher/parent relationships and pupil/teacher relationships. The role of a teacher is to professionally mediate and influence those relationships so that learning can happen.

      • Thing is though, saying “teaching is all about relationships” implicitly trivialises the importance of teachers being thoroughly conversant with their own subjects. So much of the windy rhetoric about teaching that’s common currency for the Danny Steeles of this world either cheapens or ignores the one main criterion of competent teaching: subject knowledge.

      • You’ve just described a relationship between a teacher and their subject knowledge. A relationship is ‘the way in which two or more people or things are connected, or the state of being connected’ (OED). Also, a teacher’s subject is only of professional importance to the way it connects pupils with that knowledge. It doesn’t matter how much a teacher knows if it isn’t in some way applied in the classroom. Ergo, teaching on every level is all about relationships. I’d argue that removing subject knowledge from its role in mediating the relationship between pupils and knowledge trivializes subject knowledge. As teachers, we can’t afford to do that – excellent subject knowledge is a cornerstone of our relationship to our pupils and our their relationships to us and that very knowledge.

      • That’s some heroic quibbling. Do you *really* think that when people say “teaching is all about relationships” they mean to include the “relationship” between teachers and their subject knowledge? Come on, let’s be honest here.

      • A deepity is something that sounds profound, but is found out to be wanting when you drill down to the core. All I did was locate a ‘relationship’ definition. Whether it was meant in that fashion or not, the phrase isn’t a deepity because it still stands up under scrutiny. It may be lucky that a throwaway phrase can still stand up to interrogation and still render itself as true, but that’s not the issue here. Dennett also talks about ‘rathering’ which is when a person deflects attention away from the question in hand. The original statement was that ‘teaching is all about relationships’ is a deepity has been challenged, not the original intentions. Heroic it isn’t, but I appreciate the acknowledgement. Let’s be honest, I’ve just provided support that the ‘teaching is all about relationships’ isn’t a deepity, as I originally commented.

      • I think you misunderstand what a ‘deepity’ is. It is true at a rather trivial level. Therefore, if we expand the definition of ‘relationships’ in the way you suggest, then it is true at this meaningless level. You have therefore given support to the claim that it is a deepity.

      • Thanks for all of your replies to my original comment. Let’s all be honest, this blog post was written with a high-level pedantry in mind. We’re all intelligent people, and we’re all trying to get to the truth. So, to deride another’s pedantry as ‘heroic quibbling’ kind of misses the point. The blog and all the replies are indeed heroically pedantic, which is why I’ve enjoyed engaging in the discussion. While not always the case, a high level of pedantry is quite a thing to behold and can often be useful as well as cathartic.

        I haven’t extended the definition of ‘relationship’ in any sense – it’s clear within a variety of definitions that it involves the connections between people or things. At a quick Google search, this can be verified. Thus, it’s really not hard to consider the relevance of the argument that ‘teaching is all about relationships’ as valid, and with no sophistry at all, accommodate the relationships between teachers, pupils and knowledge. The whole study of educational ethics relies on these very relationships and as serving teachers, we’re definitely no strangers to them!

        Your contention that the phrase is a deepity because it is ‘trivial’ is also not valid – if the relationship between teachers, pupils and knowledge is trivial, it wouldn’t be the subject of a huge range of literature. In your book, Ouroborous, you very successfully discuss the changing nature of this relationship and many of your blogs (including the one above) also very eloquently examine these relationships. You perhaps don’t describe your work as such, but you are examining these relationships in one way or another. The statement that ‘teaching is all about relationships’ is a pithy reminder to place relationships between pupils, teachers and knowledge at the heart of any consideration of educational ethics. It’s not considered often enough – if it were, none of us would write about it in one way or another – so the phrase rightly brings it relationships to the fore.

        You’re right to correct my earlier paraphrasing of Dennett’s definition of ‘deepity’ – it was quite sloppy. In my defence, I was on public transport at the time, so couldn’t access my copy of his book, Intuition Pumps. In it, he explains that a deepity has two meanings, one of which is trivial. Alas, what is trivial or otherwise for me might be completely different to you. But on both readings, I can see a whole world of relevance. Our policymakers would do well to consider these relationships – you say as much in your post ‘Why are teachers invisible?’

        To my mind, ‘teaching is all about relationships’ isn’t a deepity. I’m sure my replies won’t convince you in any way, and I respect your opinions that differ. Again, thanks for engaging with my replies.

      • I see what you mean. Perhaps all jobs are about relationships. Accountancy, for instance, is about the relationship between money earned and money spent. So perhaps we could say accountancy is ‘all about relationships’. 😉

      • If that brings salience to an aspect of accountancy that needs to be brought to the fore, you’ve got a good point. Otherwise, we’ve found ourselves a deepity. 😉

  3. Too true! In fact, I think this is how much of the rhetoric around teaching operates – someone coins a wonderfully profound phrase that makes everyone feel worldly, wise and erudite and this gets peddled at every CPD session and on EduTwitter memes before it becomes the new dogma. The problem is that it sells and sells well.

  4. Tom Burkard says:

    There’s also a theory that teachers should avoid relationships with pupils–they can get you into a lot of trouble. Especially if you’re male. Seriously, it’s a teacher’s job to teach, and whatever ‘relationship’ emerges from the process of improving a child’s mind is neither here nor there. I should be very surprised if children didn’t remember the teachers who actually contributed to their intellectual growth for far longer than they remember the chummy ones.

    • Robert says:

      The trivial truth about “teaching is all about relationships” is that teaching is all about developing a teacher-student relationship. What is a teacher-student relationship? It’s a relationship were knowledge passes from the teacher to the student.

      The thing about deepity’s is that usually they involve an ambiguously defined term. “Relationships” does not necessarily imply being chummy. “Communication” does not necessarily imply a message directed to the teacher.

  5. One thing I’ve noticed about those who use this argument to generalise about misbehaviour in the classroom, is that they never seem to consider the fact that most classrooms contain 29 other individuals besides the teacher. If, for the sake of argument, we assume their premise about behaviour and communication is correct, then it’s likely that, as children grow older, quite a lot of the ‘communication’ conveyed by that misbehavior will be intended for those 29 other people.

    The usual claim is that the ‘message’ conveyed by disruptive behaviour is always either “I’m bored” or “I’m distressed”. But anyone who understands adolescent/pre-acolescent psychology will know that there are plenty of other possibilities when the ‘message’ is directed at peers: “I’m showing off because I want to impress you”; “I’m joining in because I want to belong to your clique”; “I’m trying to increase my status in the classroom hierarchy because being higher status makes me feel good”; “I don’t like you so I’m trying to make you feel bad by teasing/hurting you” are only some of the most likely possibilities.

    None of these is indicative of ‘distress’ or ‘boredom’- they are normal behaviours among children who haven’t yet fully developed the ability to think abstractly about their behaviour and to empathise with others. The naive notion that misbehaviour must indicate some kind of distress seems to come from the Romantic idea that all children, no matter what their age, have as their highest priority pleasing the teacher and/or pursuing academic learning. Yet we know that the desire to ‘fit in’ with the peer group is one of the strongest influences on adolescents and pre-adolescents, as well as achieving/maintaining status.

  6. Reading your Twitter exchanges today, I’ve got interested in the origin of this claim.

    Searching Google Books with a date range of 1960-70 brings up the following:

    From this, it would appear that the first person to propose this idea in this form was Paul Watzlawick: “(July 25, 1921 – March 31, 2007) was an Austrian-American family therapist, psychologist, communication theorist, and philosopher. A theoretician in communication theory and radical constructivism, he commented in the fields of family therapy and general psychotherapy.”

    Further searches bring up, evidence that scholars disagree on this claim:

    “WATZLAWICK and BIRDWHISTELL argue that all behaviour is communication may it be intended or not: “no matter how one may try, one cannot not communicate“ (WATZLAWICK:48). In contrast to that for EKMAN and FRIESEN communication is only behaviour that intends to be communicative (BULL:27).”

    It would appear that the more sweeping version of this claim is not regarded by all reputable psychologists as indisputable, despite what some of your interlocutors have argued.

    I will add that I know from observing my daughter’s social work training that there are many schools of family therapy, taking many different views, few of them rooted in any kind of scientific evaluation of their effectiveness in practice.

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  18. Jess Fuller says:

    This is an interesting take. I wonder if we can reframe the example provided: “For instance, when a thief steals something from a shop, he or she is not trying to communicate anything to anyone. Quite the reverse. A thief wishes to conceal the behaviour in order to not get caught.” This interpretation is accurate, in that yes, the thief’s *intention* is to conceal the behavior to avoid punishment for stealing. I don’t like being punished, do you?

    The thief’s *intention* is not their behavior though, which is where this jumps the rails. The thief’s behavior is communicating a need, the need for whatever it is that was stolen. Let’s say it was an apple. Maybe the thief was hungry and needed some food because he hadn’t eaten in 4 days. The underlying need is for food. So if we punish the thief for their action, but we don’t address the need for food, the thief is going to steal again because they still need food. Could be something of value, the reason was because they needed money to buy diapers for the baby or whatever.

    We can continue to spin this round and round until it unravels. Why did they need the money? They couldn’t get a job. Why couldn’t they get a job? They didn’t graduate from school. Why? They got kicked out. Why? Acting out in class. Why? Unmet need. What was the need? If you keep digging, it’s under there somewhere. Maybe they needed glasses. Maybe their parents fought all the time and they were stressed. Maybe their dog died. Who knows? Nobody will know until someone stops to look and figure out what the behavior is communicating, because it’s not as superficial as simply a desire to avoid punishment. If that was the case, it would have worked already.

    Looking at another 2 examples provided, “But other behaviours may be about establishing peer group positioning or they could be reactions to something that happened outside of class.” Yes, but why? Why establish a peer group position? My money is on poor adult modeling, and I’m going to guess issues at home. Applies to the latter as well. Does that excuse the teacher from trying to understand how to best support that student? Well, in the US that apparently depends what color the student is.

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