Verbal communication is patterned by unspoken but broadly understood rules. These are communication rules, which are shared understandings of what communication means and what kinds of communication are appropriate in particular situations. For example, we understand that people take turns speaking, that flaming can get us kicked out of chat rooms, and that we should speak softly in libraries. In the course of interacting with our families and others, we unconsciously absorb rules that guide how we communicate and how we interpret others' communication. According to Judi Miller (1993), children begin to understand and follow communication rules as early as 1 to 2 years of age. 2 different kinds of rules govern communication:
1) Regulative rules: Specify when, where, and with whom to talk about certain things. For instance we understand that we can wear jeans and T-shirts to class, but that different clothes are generally appropriate in our workplaces. Regulative rules vary across cultures and social groups, so what is acceptable in one context may be regarded as inappropriate elsewhere.
2) Constitutive rules: Specify how to interpret and perform different kinds of communication. We learn what counts as respect (paying attention), friendliness (smiles or smiley emoticons in online communication), affection (kisses, hugs), and professionalism (punctuality, competence). Constitutive rules are shaped by cultures as well.
We don’t have to be aware of communication rules to follow them. For the most part, we’re not conscious of the rules that guide how, when, where, and with whom we communicate about various things. We may not realize we have rules until one is broken, and we become aware that we had an expectation. Becoming aware of communication rules empowers you to change those that don’t promote good interaction.