Textbook writers define "interpersonal communication" as "the nonverbal interaction between two or more interdependent people" (see citation below).
The term "interdependent" is important because social scientists want to distinguish interpersonal communication from impersonal communication.
Consider, for example, this scenario: You make a purchase at a supermarket and interact with the clerk in a rote, automatic way -- treating her as an "it" instead of as a "you." Is that interpersonal communication? Not according to scholars like Martin Buber. It's impersonal, so it doesn't count.
Interpersonal communication includes face-to-face communication, but it can also include other forms of communication, like instant messaging, exchanging email messages, and "talking" via online chat rooms. What's important is that each communicator responds to the other as a "you," not as an "it."
Interpersonal communication can serve many advantageous purposes. It allows us to influence the behavior, attitudes, and opinions of others. It allows for more effective, efficient cooperation, and can help us forge or maintain a social bond. It can help us learn, and relate to the problems or situations that other individuals face. Interpersonal information can help us negotiate, ask for help, offer aid, ask forgiveness, apologize, or achieve reconciliation. We may also use interpersonal communication in order to relax and play.
When psychologists and other social scientists talk about the disadvantages of interpersonal communication, they are usually thinking in terms of the harm that can arise from conflict and emotional turmoil.
For instance, in the academic volume, The Dark Side of Interpersonal Communication, researchers talk about the ways that interpersonal communication can lead to negative outcomes. These range from bad moods to actual harm (psychological or physical). Examples include:
- the communication of complaints and criticism
- the communication of threats
- domestic abuse
The definition and clarifications about face-to-face and other forms of interpersonal communication are from:
Beebe et al. 2010. Interpersonal Communication: Relating to Others, Fifth Canadian edition. Pearson. (Chapter 1, p. 4).